Written by Hailey Pooler
Athena Roussos is currently a sole practitioner, owning her own appellate law firm in Elk Grove, California. After graduating law school, Athena worked for Snell & Wilmer in Orange County, California. There, she worked on a variety of projects in labor and employment, commercial litigation, and appeals. Upon a geographic relocation to northern California with her husband, Athena worked for a large firm and then transitioned to work for a small firm. It was at this point that she realized that she could be successful as a sole practitioner. Her experience with a small firm and the recent expansion of the virtual world has opened multiple doors.
Athena was born and raised in Long Beach, California. She attended California State University in Long Beach and graduated Cum Laude with a B.A. in political science. Athena didn’t really begin to contemplate the possibility of law school until about her third year of college. After some encouragement from professors and hearing some of her friends, who were also political science majors, discuss law school, she began to consider it. She also had taken a seminar class where she had read Supreme Court cases and really enjoyed it. On top of that, Athena had grown up an activist and realized that lawyers are often people who can make a difference in the world. Specifically, Ralph Nader in his fight against General Motors had an impact on her.
As someone who had never really left the Long Beach area, Athena was looking for an adventure and a new experience for law school. She was nervous about going to a big city and did not have any lawyers or law students to look up to regarding her law school decision. She came to visit Syracuse with her sister and left knowing that Syracuse Law was the school for her. She liked Syracuse because it was a nice size city with a vibrant campus and the college-town feel. She was excited for a college experience as she had worked full time pretty much all through college and never lived in the dorms. On top of Syracuse being the sweet spot for academic credentials, Athena was also a sports fan and had never lived anywhere with snow. Ultimately, Syracuse seemed like the exact type of adventure that Athena was looking for in law school.
While at Syracuse Law, Athena was a member of the Syracuse Law Review and the Women’s Law Student Association. She served as a notes and comments editor on Law Review during her 3L year. Athena credits Law Review for helping her obtain job opportunities and expressed that “the grunt work of Law Review” really helped improve her writing. As an appellate attorney, her number one recommendation to aspiring appellate lawyers is to develop good writing skills. She stated that “90% of the case is decided based on the briefs” and that “generally the court has made up their mind before the hearing.” She also recommends for aspiring appellate attorneys to read a lot of non-legal books written by good authors.
Athena gives credit to a few experiences for helping shape her career path. Specifically, she had an externship with the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York that allowed her to work on real cases and draft memos and decisions for judges. A colleague during the externship also showed her that lawyers can have a good quality of life while being a nice person, instead of the stereotyped power-hungry workaholics you see on television. In addition, she states that getting on Law Review has helped shape her career path.
Two professors who had an impact on Athena while she was at Syracuse Law are Professor Kanter and Professor Goldsmith. Professor Kanter was always supportive and caring, no matter whether the discussion related to law school or not. Professor Goldsmith showed Athena that she could enjoy administrative law, as it was the only class in law school that she got the high-grade in. Along similar lines, if Athena could go back to law school and take one more class, she would take a class that would help her gain more practical skills about the business side of being a lawyer, such as commercial transactions or another business-like class.
Athena expressed that as an appellate attorney, she had multiple cases that are important to her, especially since she is able to argue in some precedent-setting cases. However, one case that stands out was a case she terms the “Pookie case” (Auburn Woods I Homeowners Assn. v. Fair Employment & Housing Com., 121 Cal.App.4th 1578 (Cal. App. 2004)). The case involved a reasonable accommodation for a couple who was trying to keep their dog in their apartment complex for their disability even though the dog was not a trained service dog. The court ended up holding that the complex had to make a reasonable accommodation and allow the dog to stay. Athena’s election into the California Academy of Appellate Attorneys is also something that she is extremely proud of. The Academy is an elite group that has high standards. Athena states that she thinks of it as being similar to making partner at a law firm, even though she didn’t choose to take her career in that direction.
All in all, Athena wishes that she would have taken more initiative during her first legal job and that she would have advocated for herself and what she wanted more. She believes that this is especially important for women entering the legal field going forward, as the opportunities for women are broadening in today’s society. Athena encourages current members of Syracuse Law Review to keep an open mind and keep your options open. She wants to remind members that even if you don’t get your dream job immediately after graduation, you don’t have to keep the same job forever and there is always time to change the trajectory of your career. It is never too late to make a change.