The Lucky Ones

Five attorneys under 40 discuss student debt, the Great Recession, and the good fortune that got them here

Published in 2020 Oklahoma Super Lawyers Magazine

By the time they were in undergrad, each of the five millennial Super Lawyers listees we spoke with knew they wanted to be attorneys. But barriers, like rising tuition costs and the Great Recession, remained. “In college it still felt like a distant dream,” recalls family lawyer Alexandra Masters.

Even in law school, these attorneys weren’t considering specific practice areas or firms. “I interned at any firm that I could, just to get exposure to as many areas as possible,” says personal injury lawyer Dan Aizenman. “The hope was to land somewhere by leveraging that exposure … with the goal of getting a job.”

Each achieved that goal, and more, though finding their footing required a little flexibility and a healthy dose of luck.

WHY THE LAW

Alexandra Masters, 37; Henry + Dow; family law; Tulsa: I wanted to be a lawyer since I was a kid. I could think fast on my feet, I love people, love to showboat.  

Miguel Armando Garcia, 35; Miguel Garcia PLLC; criminal defense; Oklahoma City: I was born in Mexico, but grew up in Texas. We got our green card in 1993 or ’94, and because a lawyer helped us out, I decided, “This may be a good way to help people.” When I was 9 or 10, I became legal in the United States, and that's when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.

Daniel Aizenman, 36; Aizenman Law Group; personal injury; Tulsa: I think back at the reasons why I thought I would be interested, and it doesn't match the reality of it at all. I guess you could say I stumbled into it. But I found it to be much more exciting, and rewarding, than I expected.

Barrett Bowers, 35; Ward & Glass; employment litigation; Norman: Number one, I'm kind of an intellectual, so I wanted the challenge. Also, I knew it was an area where you can really help people: You get an opportunity to sit down with people and help them at a time when they've just lost a job or are being treated unfairly at work.

Michelle Nabors, 39; Harrison & Mecklenburg; energy & natural resources; Stillwater: I was interested in being a lawyer since high school, but when I got to college I changed my mind and was actually thinking of being a poli-sci professor, or sitting for the foreign service exam. After college, my husband and I were Peace Corps volunteers … and somewhere in that process I felt compelled to go back and look at law school again. I wanted to stay in Oklahoma, and in academia you have to move around a lot. I love to write and research, and being able to make a living doing those things was really attractive to me.

SCHOOL DAZE

Garcia: My experience in law school was a bit of a shock. I'm an immigrant, and even though I grew up in the States, English was my second language—which made law school a bit harder for me. I struggled that first year.

Nabors: Law school did a great job of preparing me to learn how to learn. Even though I didn't take very many oil and gas classes, I was able to use the skills I learned to read cases, identify issues, figure out how to do the analysis. 

Masters: Kind of like the military, they break you down and they build you up. You don't learn semantics, how you file something, how you argue in court ... there isn't a clear way to teach that. You learn the sink-or-swim avenue. I tried four or five jury trials by myself before I was two years in, so I was swimming with those sharks.

Bowers: Law school teaches you one skill over three years that you probably need one year, max, to learn: how to read a case. I don't have any complaints about OU’s law school—I thought it was a great place—but the system itself I did not find successful in teaching you how to be a practicing lawyer.

Garcia: In terms of running a business or knowing the economics of law, I was very, very naive when I came out of law school. They always talked about billing, but they never talk about what that means. You think, "I'm going to go save the world.” But there's an economic side to it.

DEBT

Nabors: I was really, really fortunate: I was a National Merit Scholar, so I had scholarships through undergrad and graduated without any student debt. In law school, I was married and had two little children, so I interned and had a bit of income. By the time I got out, I did have some student loans, but I had them paid off in maybe two years.

Garcia: I came out of school with six digits of debt. Because I grew up in Texas, it was out-of-state tuition. It sounds bad but, like everything else, you learn to live with a majority of your paycheck going to student debt. Most of it is paid off now—my wife works in the medical field, and we were able to, for the first four years of our marriage, live on one income and use the other to pay off our debt. But I wouldn't be able to do that if I didn’t have a financially responsible spouse.

Aizenman: I was fortunate. I got a substantial scholarship—one of the reasons I went to Oklahoma City University. And I worked all through law school, so my debt was pretty minimal. I had some pressure to bill early on, but I think it was more self-inflicted.

Masters: Oh my gosh, did I have a lot of student debt. But I didn’t let money sway me one way or the other in terms of billing. 

FINDING A FIRM

Aizenman: I interned at any firm that I could, just to get exposure to as many areas as possible. I did bankruptcy on both sides, I was at the U.S. Attorney's Office, I did some criminal. If you go to a school like OCU, there's maybe five or so people, if you're lucky, that year that will get the big-firm jobs. I graduated with 170 people, which left 160-plus people without those jobs. Everyone else was kind of scrambling.

Garcia: I graduated in 2010, towards the end of the recession. My old boss [Michael Brooks-Jimenez] is now a state senator, but I worked for him for almost five years. After the first year [of law school], I interned at his firm in the immigration department. So I just kind of lucked into the job.

Masters: I would go where I could get an interview, because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't know who I wanted to be in this world.

Aizenman: I interviewed with this attorney, Christin Mugg, and she called me up the following week. She said, “I was impressed by you, but I don't think your calling is estates and probate. I’ve got a firm down the street that I refer a lot of cases to. They do litigation and that's where you need to be. I’ll put in a recommendation for you if you're interested.” It was very touching. Long story short, I ended up getting a job at that firm.

Bowers: I knew I wanted someplace small because there’s more opportunity and you don’t have so many levels of bureaucracy above you. I connected with a friend who had interned here, and it was a really good fit. I've tried multiple cases on my own, and have now argued before the Oklahoma Supreme Court, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, the Tenth Circuit.

PICKING A P.A.

Masters: I never wanted to be a family law attorney. I'm Native American—a minority female attorney in Oklahoma, which is bizarre in its own right. I had people that kind of recruited me, and I ended up at a little, primarily African American, firm. And I loved it. But the main attorney practiced, almost exclusively, family law. 

Aizenman: My goal was to work at the biggest, baddest place I could in Oklahoma. Once I realized I could leverage my opportunities, I went from that first firm to another that did bigger, more catastrophic injuries. … I eventually reached my goal and got a job at McAfee & Taft, the largest firm in the state. For my first five years in practice I worked, primarily, defense. I really enjoy litigation, but I didn’t like representing corporations against the little guy. It didn’t feel good. Before, the goal was to end up at a place like McAfee, and if that didn't feel right, flip to the other side—which is what I'm doing now. 

Nabors: I wanted to help regular people, but I didn't know what I wanted to do other than move back to Stillwater, where we had started our family. I happened to get a job with a firm that does a lot of oil and gas law, something I never saw myself doing. But we represent people who had minerals in their families for generations, and I help them through their negotiations.

Aizenman: Sometimes it's not the job you think you want. I had a business background, so I thought I would do more transactional work—negotiations and mergers and acquisitions. Once I saw what that really entails in practice, I didn’t think it was for me. 

BEING GREEN

Bowers: I definitely noticed the way you get treated in court. Judges are less inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt. They give older attorneys a lot more leeway and treat them with a little bit more professional courtesy.

Garcia: I had a judge once get mad at me—he wouldn't let me talk. Then he got mad because I didn't tell him anything that was coming up on a plea. That judge is no longer working in Oklahoma County, but there were certain judges or prosecutors that treated the young attorneys like, "Hey, you don't know what you're doing." You just took it with a grain of salt, and kept moving on. The older attorneys in the Oklahoma County Bar will look out for the young attorneys. 

Aizenman: People definitely try to take advantage when they see your bar number. It's just kind of a rite of passage. But all is fair in love and war, right? 

Nabors: I’m thinking back to when I first started appearing in court by myself, and how scary that was. One time, I was in court and I'd never been in this courthouse. I argued my motion, won, and said, "Thank you, your honor. Can I be excused?" There was a door there, and I opened it up and found myself in this hallway with brooms and mops and things. I didn't want to go back into the courtroom, obviously, because everyone in there knew that wasn't a door you were supposed to walk out of. So I went down the stairs and out of a back-alley door, then had to go around and through security in order to get to the court clerk's office and get my order filed. That was pretty embarrassing.

Masters: The first couple of years, you start thinking you know what you're doing; you get a little cocky, a little pep in your step. Then you get in this new phase where you realize you don't know anything, and you're just an idiot. Once you get into that phase, you actually start being more of an expert than when you thought you knew what you were doing. Every day something new comes up. You're always green … because the law is always changing.

SURPRISES

Bowers: I learned, right away, how critical it is to have a good assistant. I was told at the outset that the value of a brand-new lawyer is much less than the value of a good assistant. And that's proven to be pretty true.

Masters: I didn't realize how much of me would be poured into these people. They take a little piece of my soul every time. When you practice family law, it's terrible, it's hard. But you're also dealing with a really personal endeavor. I was surprised that I carried everything with me. Now it's my normal, but when I was young it was very taxing.

Aizenman: I didn't really know what the real world of litigation was. There's a lot less actual litigating than one would hope for. I've seen this somewhat on the plaintiff side, but I saw it a lot on the defense side. You have to give reports to adjusters; your clients, you've got to keep them apprised of everything that’s going on. You spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with those issues. 

ADVANTAGES 

Masters: I am a medium at technology, because I am a millennial. I speak in code. I text faster than anybody I know. I can figure out what's wrong with the computer, for the most part. … I know people who have been attorneys for a really long time that are completely dysfunctional on computers.

Garcia: Anytime an attorney needed a translator to talk to the clients, I would go help. It helped me see how different attorneys go about their business, and go about lawyering and adapt.

Aizenman: We're not as technology averse as the older generations, and you can create incredible efficiencies in your practice. We can do a lot more with a lot less because of the ability and willingness to adopt the technologies.

HOPE AND CHANGE

Nabors: For women, the legal profession has come a really long way. But I do think the profession as a whole is still largely dominated by men—especially being in oil and gas. Walking into some courtrooms, they've got a wall of pictures of all the district judges going back to statehood and it's one man after the other. You walk into that courtroom and it’s full of men, and you're the only woman there. That’s going to be different a generation ahead. The next generation will have more opportunity for both women and people of color.

Masters: Big law firms are dying out. The small-but-sincere firms survive because they give genuine service; you can't push numbers all the time and get a good product. I've had two clients within the last two days text me, "I love you. Thank you so much for being there." 

Bowers: The two biggest things we come across are the lack of jury trials and forced arbitration agreements, which I think will have a much wider-ranging impact on the law than people think. It’s a huge problem, from my standpoint, because it takes the law out of the courthouse. What's going to be the biggest issue in my lifetime is … the development of the law through forced arbitration. Unless there's a political tide change, that's going to be the future. And it’s going to have some pretty bad consequences.

Aizenman: I see a lot of unethical things: I see people that want to win at all costs. I don't know if this is generational, but I hope people realize our ethics and the integrity of the profession shouldn't be put aside just for a single case or for a single client; we should uphold those throughout. 

Garcia: I hope my generation can find a way to see a defendant as a defendant, and we don't look at the race of the person or their socioeconomic position. Sometimes a person who has a better socioeconomic situation can go get that mental health evaluation ahead of time or go to rehab, while somebody who's not of that same status cannot. I hope that our generation can make every defendant equal. My generation has been really fighting for that equality. I don't know if it will ever be accomplished in my lifetime, but I hope we can at least lead the charge and start that conversation. 

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