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Confronting Our No. 1 Fear (And It’s Not Death)

Trial lawyer Brenda Sunby once dreaded public speaking

Published in 2008 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine

As a first-semester law student, Brenda Sunby was so afraid of public speaking that by the time she left class, her hands were bleeding. She would dig her fingernails into her skin out of anxiety.

“I had terrible, terrible panic attacks,” says Sunby, who grew up on a farm in Manitowoc County, and is now a shareholder in Habush Habush & Rottier’s Stevens Point, Wausau and Rhinelander offices. “I had a fear of getting called on in class. If you’ve read the book One L, you know how terrible law school can be.”

Her goal was to become a trial lawyer—”deathly inconsistent when you have a fear of public speaking,” she acknowledges—but despite her struggles, the weight of $120,000 in student loans kept her at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. “I had so much money invested,” she says, “quitting never even crossed my mind.”

By the time graduation rolled around, she was warming to the idea of public speaking. “I got into trial practice classes and was in courtrooms doing mock trials,” she says. “It was just [a matter of] overcoming.”

She joined Habush in 2000, and has since handled hundreds of cases—16 of which went to trial. As a personal injury lawyer, she represents clients in the aftermath of motor vehicle, motorcycle, ATV, boating and bike accidents. Even dog bites. “The training that [Habush] provided was incredible,” she says. “You can start a new job, and they push you into the pool and into the deep end.” Sunby’s clients were awarded money damages in 12 of those 16 trials.

Last January, she spoke at her firm’s annual meeting. “In the audience were 40 personal injury attorneys from Habush Habush & Rottier, many of whom are very experienced trial lawyers,” she says. “After I finished that presentation, I knew that I had overcome my fear of public speaking.”

Now she’s helping others. “One of my clients had terrible, terrible anxiety and panic attacks stemming from a car accident,” she says. “I was able to set him up with a psychologist. Once you’ve been there, you can recognize that in others. Anxiety and panic attacks occur in five percent of the population. I try to help people through my own story.”

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