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Highlights from AccelPro Employment Law - Volume II | Career Development
With Maria Papasevastos, Anthony Panebianco and Nefertari Rigsby | Interviews by Matt Crossman
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Welcome to AccelPro Employment Law, where we provide expert interviews and coaching to accelerate your professional development. Today, we are featuring career development-related excerpts from our conversations with experts in the employment law field.
For the full audio and transcripts:
Seyfarth’s Maria Papasevastos on Pay Transparency
DarrowEverett’s Anthony Panebianco on Worker Classification in the Entertainment World
Kaplan’s Nefertari Rigsby on Non-Compete Clauses
With Maria Papasevastos, Labor & Employment Associate at Seyfarth
Matt Crossman, Host: You joined Seyfarth initially as part of a fellowship program for law students with affinity for employment law.
That sounds to me like you were interested in employment law from very early on. Is that true? And if it is, what attracted you?
Maria Papasevastos: Going into law school, I wasn’t really sure what field I wanted to go into. I think I wanted something where I felt like I made an impact, that was challenging, that was very people focused.
Taking an employment law class at law school interested me in employment law. I enjoyed that the employment relationship is something that impacts everybody, and it’s very people focused. There’s interesting stories, and I really liked the storytelling aspect of employment law. So from there I had a professor at St. John’s who recommended me for the Seyfarth summer fellow program. And it’s all history from there.
MC: Your use of the terms people-focused and storytelling interest me. Now that you’ve been practicing, does that passion for a people-focused storytelling approach continue to drive you?
MP: Absolutely. Any case that comes along alleging things like discrimination based on race or gender or something like that, there’s always a story behind that, not only from the employee perspective but also from the manager perspective.
The people who are the managers or supervisors at the company, they’re all people, too. They’re really trying to do their best in their jobs. And maybe they messed up on something or maybe they were just doing their job and holding someone accountable for the work that they were doing. So I think hearing each side of the story and coming up with a whole picture of the story is really interesting.
MC: What story does the drive to increase our pay transparency tell us about ourselves?
MP: I think it tells us that pay equity and issues affecting women are a big focus for our society. This goes back to things like the Me Too movement and pay equity generally, and wanting to give women an equal playing field on different issues.
MC: In the legal world, do you face challenges? What is the state of women in law?
MP: I think that being a woman in a law firm trying to raise a family is always going to be challenging. There’s no way around that. I have a six-year-old and a two-year-old, and balancing being a good mother with being a good lawyer is always going to have its challenges, and I don’t really have a good answer for how to balance those things. I do see an impact on my kids as well, with seeing me working and being a lawyer. Even my two-year-old son will grab one of our old laptops and type on it and say, “I’m working like mommy.”
To break those gender norms — Mommy’s the one that works and Mommy’s the one on her computer who’s a lawyer — I think helps to make things worth it when you’re in the challenging times of motherhood and law firm life.
MC: I’m going to jump back even farther into your life. One of your undergrad minors was theater, and specifically it was ballet. You were a dancer for how many years?
MP: Oh gosh. My entire life from a child through college.
MC: Now that you’ve been an attorney for a while and been through law school and all the challenges and tribulations we were just talking about, is there any crossover between the skills and abilities necessary to perform ballet and the skills and abilities necessary to be a lawyer?
MP: Having that experience, getting on your feet and performing in front of people and developing a skill and really working on something and then performing it, translates into the law. I mean, obviously I’m not performing per se in front of people, but that confidence and the feeling of stepping up and showing what you’ve been working on, that translates.
MC: A young woman graduates from college. She thinks she wants to go to law school. She says, “Maria, what has your experience been? Should I do this?” What do you tell her?
MP: I tell her it’s going be tough, but it’s rewarding. There is something special about whatever it is, whether it’s standing in front of a courtroom and presenting your arguments or whether it’s counseling a client on an issue that’s really causing them angst and helping them get through an issue and move past it and find the best solution that helps the organization. There’s parts of it that are just really rewarding as well. So it’s a challenging career, but it’s a rewarding career.
With Anthony Panebianco, Senior Associate at DarrowEverett
Matt Crossman, Host: I noticed on your resume that you’re on the board of trustees of the Cape Symphony. How did that happen? And how have you had to apply everything that we just talked about in that role?
Anthony Panebianco: I am a classically trained pianist. I grew up playing piano and music my whole life, and I love the symphony. And they invited me to be on board, and I’ve been on the board for about four years, and now I’m the chair of the symphony.
And what we do relates to what we’re talking about now. We have guest performers, whether it’s a jazz trio coming out of New York to play for the weekend, or it’s guest conductors or guest musicians that we have all the time in each week’s performance.
We do the ABC tests ourselves—how much control and effort we put into it and how we classify them. We’re very cognizant of the laws and the rules that we have to apply on a weekly basis for our musicians, our performers.
MC: How did your work in becoming a classically trained pianist prepare you for your legal career?
AP: Oh, that’s a wonderful question. On a keyboard, you have 88 keys and you’re confined by those black and white keys of what you can and cannot do, and it seems very limited at first. And it’s the same way with the law.
There are laws meant to protect you, and there are guidelines and rules. But it’s the creativity of the performers, creativity of the lawyer, being able to work within that, to create a symphony, to make something beautiful, to work within that system, to be able to understand the scope of everything that’s possible and then be able to perform.
So it’s given me the ability to have form, but also be able to create beauty and think outside the box on these things.
MC: I imagine if you heard a performance from when you were, say, 10, and you listen to that now, you would go, wow, I’ve gotten a lot better. I want you to think about early in your career as a lawyer. In what ways have you gotten better?
AP: Experience and relying on other people and having cases and considerations that I wouldn’t have thought of. Every new experience is like every new note, every new chord that you haven’t thought of. It’s the same concept. You hear someone else play, you collaborate and have wonderful performers, wonderful colleagues.
It’s the same consideration that you say, this is how I grow. This is how I become better. We’re still all operating under the same confines, but we have just a bigger depth of knowledge and it makes us all better at our jobs.
MC: Let’s imagine a judge says, Anthony, I’m going to decide this case based on how well you perform whatever your favorite piece to play is. It’s like that old song about the devil coming down to Georgia, except instead of playing a violin, you’re going to play the piano. What song do you play?
AP: I would play an original, if it’s up to me. Never rest on somebody else’s laurels, rest on your own.
MC: Oh, I love that. Tell me some of the names of the pieces you’ve written.
AP: I’ve had a number of very awful bands and performances over the years. My most favorite song has a very deep meaning to me. It deals with the last time that I saw my grandmother. She was a classical pianist as well.
It is called Easter’s Day, and that’s probably my favorite piece. It has a lot of family meaning to me.
MC: So the last time you saw your grandmother was Easter Day. How do you express emotion in music?
AP: Myself? Or how did we together?
AP: My grandmother was also a classically trained pianist. That’s where we got it from. And she was a performer more so than I ever was. She would always sit down at the piano with us and play along with us and tell stories. She was born in Italy and would tell stories about growing up. She told wonderful stories while she was playing chords and keys and running up and down the keyboard. It was wonderful. It was magical. And I do the same thing now.
MC: How has performing in front of people prepared you to argue in court?
AP: All eyes are on you. You have to be comfortable in your own skin, and you have to be confident in what you’re doing, and you also have to be able to be creative because when you’re performing, sometimes the crowd’s not into it. Sometimes the judge isn’t into what you’re saying. You have to be able to pivot pretty quickly. That’s taken a long time to learn. But it’s a great lesson to have.
With Nefertari Rigsby, Executive Director, Human Resources and Employment Law Partner for Kaplan North America
Matt Crossman, Host: You are the Executive Director, Human Resources and Employment Law Partner and you also run Kaplan’s DEI initiatives. You worked in private practice for a while too, before going in-house. Walk me through your decision to go from private practice to in-house.
Nefertari Rigsby: In private practice, I did employment law. I was generally representing employers and handling your garden variety discrimination or employment-related cases. And oftentimes as outside counsel, I would find myself saying, “If you had just called me earlier, you wouldn’t have this EEOC charge or we wouldn’t have this complaint that we’re now having to respond to in court.”
One of the things that I did while I was in private practice was think about what I could do to provide better service and also educate myself in helping clients more internally as opposed to external, such as dealing with an agency or the court.
One of the things that I did is I received my certification as a professional in human resources while I was in private practice. It helped bolster my ability to service clients internally. And then with that, I was able to receive a position with the first company that I went to as essentially in-house counsel. And with this type of role, I tend to split time between HR work and legal work. And most of the time I actually sit with the human resources department as opposed to the legal department.
But I always have a dotted line or a matrix-level manager in the legal department. So even with my current role, I have a dotted line to Kaplan’s general counsel as well as to the chief administrative officer of Kaplan. So that’s pretty much the norm for this type of role.
Transitioning to in-house from employment law and private practice wasn’t very difficult, but you do have to set yourself up to get those types of certifications to show you’re not just an asset as an attorney but also as a business partner as well.
MC: You were an employment law attorney and you thought, I can help these companies in-house, but in order to get there, I have to take this other step of getting this certification. If you’re talking to an employment law attorney who has similar aspirations, walk me through those steps, how you identified where it was you wanted to go and the steps necessary to get there.
NR: About how many years of private practice should you have before it makes sense? I’ve typically said you should have at least three to five years prior to going in-house, primarily because one, you have really good war stories to share during interviews or talking to internal clients. But two, you also see how things play out in litigation, and you learn how to avoid that.
And that’s the guidance and the counseling internally that a lot of the employers will definitely benefit from. Because when you’re going in-house, your goal is to prevent the legal issues from going outside. You want to handle them internally, and if you know how bad things can get and how things have ended up in court or before an agency, you can help in creating policies and practices internally to help a client, or your current employer if you’re in-house, avoid those situations.
So definitely having a good mentor, having the right amount of private practice experience to help direct your guidance in counseling are both important.
In addition to that, if you go to conferences, interact with different attorneys and HR professionals and learn the certifications that they have and the areas where they need help.
Oftentimes your HR professionals will be great with benefits and things of that nature, but they don’t handle the legal issues. So tracking things like, OK, this non-compete stuff, they need assistance with that. Figuring out where you plug in those holes will help you a great deal.
MC: A different line of questioning: You are going to run a 5K this weekend, and probably the next weekend, and probably the next weekend after that. Why and how did you get into running?
NR: I got into running initially with my move to South Florida. You can’t beat the weather. It’s a great place where if you want to be outside, you can do it every single day as long as it’s not raining.
So I got into running basically as a way to get outside. I love to be by the water. It started out just as walking. I would see other runners, and that’s when the love of running started for me.
MC: How important is that physical activity to helping you manage the stress of work?
NR: I definitely need it, and when I don’t run, I feel like I am not ready for the day. When I’m running early in the morning, I don’t have to think about work emails. Most people are not up, so I’m able to concentrate and focus on what I’m doing in that moment.
And then I always love the scenery. I tend to run by the water, so that helps a great deal. Whenever I’m able to do that, when I get back to my workstation, I’m ready to start my day.
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