Practicing Civility

Texas Young Lawyers Association President Jeanine Novosad Rispoli on treating people with respect.

Interview by Adam Faderewski


ABOVE: Jeanine Novosad Rispoli with her husband, Stephen, and their dog, Khaleesi, in Valley Mills. Photo courtesy of Jeanine Novosad Rispoli.

From the day Jeanine Novosad Rispoli learned that she had been adopted with the help of attorneys, she aspired to be a lawyer to help people achieve the same level of happiness she found with her parents. Being an attorney wasn’t her only aspiration though, as she had dreams of glitz and glamour in New York as a Radio City Rockette, but those dreams were dashed by circumstances outside of her control—her height and a dance injury in high school.

It was in high school that Rispoli got her first experience working in the legal profession at a law office—Bates stamping discovery documents, answering phones, and filing motions—and it planted the seed for her love of family law. Rispoli graduated from Baylor University and carried over time there to Baylor Law School. She returned to home to Houston, but it wasn’t long before she and her husband, Stephen—who also graduated from Baylor and is now assistant dean of student affairs and pro bono programs at Baylor Law School—were together again in Waco.

Rispoli hung her shingle as a family law practitioner in Waco in 2018, and this year, she started a new firm with her friend Mark Altman. While trials are contentious environments, Rispoli learned from her mentor, Judge Vikram Deivanayagam, and one of her favorite bosses, Lauren Waddell, that the competitive nature need not carry into interactions with opposing counsel before and after the trial. She hopes to promote civility as her platform as Texas Young Lawyers Association president, noting that the profession is already a trying one and that attorneys can practice civility to alleviate that tension for one another.

Rispoli, who was sworn in June 18, 2021, spoke with the Texas Bar Journal about the biggest influence in her career, being a young attorney, and why civility is so important.

 

Do you have any other lawyers in your family?
No one in my family was a lawyer, but I was determined to start working for lawyers as soon as possible. Working for family lawyers in high school and college gave me some insight into how the career could look, what the expectations would be, and some of the ups and downs I might experience. No one tried to glamorize family law or tell me it would be easy. Many of the lawyers I worked for are still my mentors today, and they continue to remind me that you can make such a difference in the lives of your clients.

 

Who is the biggest influence in your career?
My mom is my biggest influence. I was born around Mother’s Day so I always say she is the best birthday gift I could ever receive. She taught me to be strong but compassionate, independent but empathetic, and brave. She’s an amazing math teacher, not a lawyer, and yet I’ve learned so much about being a good lawyer from her because she’s always prioritized helping others and being kind.

 

What made you choose Baylor Law School?
I was fortunate enough to attend several trials and hearings while I was working in college, and I quickly realized that family lawyers went to court a lot. I heard that Baylor Law School was the litigation school, so it felt like a natural fit. I also don’t like to back down from a challenge and the 3L Practice Court training was worth every sleepless night and more. As my 10-year law school reunion approaches, I’ve reconnected with so many classmates who are genuinely wonderful people and I’m so thankful for the classmates and professors who have become family to Stephen and me.

 

What led to your move from Houston back to Waco?
I spent seven years in Waco as a Baylor student, and I thought my time in the Heart of Texas was over. After practicing in Houston for four wonderful years, it was time for Stephen, my husband, and me to finally live in the same city—and the career opportunities in Waco were too good for us to ignore. As a city girl, I knew I could be happy here because, while Waco may be considered a small city, it still has that magical “anything is possible” feel to me. Do you want to feel and hear a SpaceX rocket engine test? You can probably feel it from your own house and may even need to readjust the pictures on your walls afterward. Do you want to see a local couple grow a business from a startup to a multimillion dollar and internationally recognized brand? Follow the signs downtown to the Magnolia Silos. Do you want to open your own firm and build a law practice that actually makes you happy and proud? I started my own practice in 2018 and recently opened a new firm with a friend, Mark Altman, who I’m proud to call my law partner.

 

TYLA Pres Profile Rispoli
ABOVE: Jeanine Novosad Rispoli with her mom and grandparents on the day her parents adopted her. Photo courtesy of Jeanine Novosad Rispoli.



What’s the toughest part about being a young attorney?
When I was dancing in high school, I was continually reminded that an athlete’s career won’t last very long before he or she is considered too old. It’s been interesting to me to experience the opposite treatment as a young lawyer. So many lawyers have told me in the past 10 years that I’m too young to really be successful or respected. People have even gone so far as to say that I won’t be credible until I have gray hair or children of my own. Say what you want about millennials, but I’ve seen colleagues my age and younger who put in the hard work and do it with incredible integrity and compassion. I’ve realized that you’ll never be enough to some people, so you have to build your own self-worth and confidence. Some of the best antidotes to self-doubt are working hard and surrounding yourself with people who support and inspire you. It helps me to remember that Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Tina Fey, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor have all experienced impostor syndrome and self-doubt. I’ve often been told I need to wear higher heels because I’m too short to be intimidating. That used to bother me until I won a hearing against an opposing counsel well over a foot taller than me and I wore tasteful flats the whole time. Now we have the first woman vice president and she made pearls and Converse Chuck Taylors a fashion trend.

 

What’s the key to balancing an amicable approach with aggressive-when-necessary litigation?
To me, civility is an integral part of lawyer wellness. This profession is stressful enough, and I’ve felt just how powerful and necessary it is to treat people with basic respect. My husband and I have read dozens of books on resilience and perseverance, and we know that those skillsets and mindsets are important. I also know that I’ve never lost sleep over being too respectful. My advice to young lawyers and law students is to think about who you want to be as a lawyer. When you are listing words that you want people to associate you with, make sure that respectful and civil are at the top of the list. It is possible to be a zealous advocate for your client and to be civil to the other side. In fact, I believe that you are more likely to be effective for your client when you do so. As the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

 

What will be your focus going into your year as president?
I’m sure no one is surprised at this point that civility, civil discourse, and relationship wellness are going to be major focuses for TYLA this year. The TYLA board and local affiliates are families because the members come together to support each other and serve the public. As Texas lawyers, we have diverse needs and interests, but I think we all have more in common than we think. I may not agree with my opposing counsel, but I can still ask them how they’re doing or congratulate them for a recent accolade. It sounds trite and yet so many lawyers are shocked when I say something kind to them right before walking into a hearing.

 

What else do you want people to know about you or the work you do with TYLA?
I was two weeks into the travel phase of the TYLA campaign on March 13, 2020. I went from traveling all over Texas and shaking hands with so many young lawyers to waking up on Friday the 13th to a different reality. Not surprisingly, Texas lawyers adapted quickly, and we rescheduled office visits to virtual meetings. Britney and the TYLA board rolled with all the punches and created amazing projects this year. As Britney says, this year wasn’t canceled. Stephen and I spent more time outdoors this past year. We’ve enjoyed more sunsets and beautiful days outside, and we know we don’t want that to change. When everyone is talking about returning to normal, remember that you don’t have to return to how things were before March 2020. Take that walk, FaceTime that friend or family member, keep baking bread or whatever hobby you started, stay involved with the virtual book club you joined, keep going to therapy virtually or in person, and remember to be kind to yourself and others.TBJ


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