LWI Lives - February 2021
Nelia Robbi: From Goat Farm and Harlequin Romance to Law Firm and Law Teaching DOWNLOAD PDFFebruary 1, 2021
Nelia Robbi: From Goat Farm and Harlequin Romance to Law Firm and Law Teaching
You can’t judge a book by its cover. The same goes for a Harlequin romance novel, which tends to provoke strong assumptions in most people while few seek to understand much beyond those initial assumptions. Nelia Robbi’s story is much the same.
From growing up on a goat farm in rural New Jersey, to working as an editorial assistant at Harlequin in New York City, to raising her green-eyed son Patrik with her Swedish husband Markus in Austin while teaching legal writing at the University of Texas Law School, Nelia Robbi’s story is deeper than the assumptions others have made based solely on her appearance.
Nelia grew up on a goat farm in rural New Jersey. Her white parents have a biological daughter, and they adopted her and her brother. Her mom was the first female mayor of the small township where they lived. So, through grade school, Nelia was the “mayor’s daughter.” It wasn’t any big city mayoral position, to be sure, but having mom as the mayor meant that Nelia always knew that women like her and her mom could be and do anything they wanted to. She spent her child-hood going to school, helping to raise goats, and doing other chores on the farm. She was part of a pony club, and she loved riding horses and writing. Being around animals fueled her desire to become a vet, but her love of reading made her also want to be a writer. In the end, her distaste of math and her love of literature meant that she majored in English.
Growing up, her mom taught her to always speak up. As a feminist living through the civil rights movement, her mother marched in Alabama and heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak. She has been Nelia’s role model in terms of speaking up for what’s right and speaking out against injustice. When her mom did speak up, she always made it look easy. Nelia remembers going to Carnegie Mellon for a college admissions interview with her mom during the Clarence Thomas hearings. While they were sitting next to each other in the waiting room, a man in the room started talking about the confirmation hearings, dismissing Anita Hill and her claims as ridiculous. As he went on, Nelia could feel her Mom start shaking in her chair. Eventually, she stood up, confronted him, and told him off as Nelia shrank further and further down into her chair. When Nelia was called for her interview, the man in the waiting room turned out to be her interviewer.
While she was accepted at Carnegie Mellon, she ended up attending Wesleyan, completing a creative writing program there and writing a semi-autobiographical account of her childhood. As part of that project, she learned more about her parents’ experience going through the adoption process to adopt her and her brother. Everyone has their own unique lived experiences and she’s seen how you can grow up next to someone who’s the same color but have different lived experiences. She has seen how her brother has had a much harder time as a Black male than she has as a lighter skinned Black woman, or her sister as a white woman. She has seen firsthand the different shades of colorism in society.
One thing Nelia has struggled with is feeling like she fits in to different groups. “There’s always been an expectation that I’ve had certain experiences because of how I look,” Nelia said. She grew up with white parents and a white sister in rural New Jersey, where most of her friends were white. She says with a laugh that her son Patrik has blond hair and green eyes, and he loves baseball and Minecraft. This is different than what others have assumed about her based on her skin color. At every school she’s attended, she’s been a member of the Black student’s association, but she has sometimes felt like an outsider because others have had shared experiences growing up that she never had. She’s also faced biased assumptions based on how she looks, having experienced her fair share of racism throughout her life. “I’ve been called horrible things and, when you look and speak a certain way, then you’re often ‘acceptable’ or ‘well spoken,’ and that doesn’t feel good either.”
After graduating from Wesleyan, she went to work in publishing in New York City after graduating. One of her good friends in college had a mother who was a romance writer, and she helped Nelia get an interview at Harlequin, one of the largest publishers of romance novels. When Nelia got the job, she moved to New York to work as an editorial assistant.
Moving and adjusting to living in New York City went fairly smoothly. In many ways, moving to New York didn’t feel all that strange or overwhelming since she grew up so close to it. Her home and high school were in New Jersey about an hour away, and Wesleyan was about two hours away. Many of her high school and college friends had also moved to New York, so she had a solid support system in place. Her husband, Markus, who she met while at Wesleyan, moved with her to New York where they lived together. Like her, Markus doesn’t fit into most assumptions people tend to make about him. Although he’s white, he’s an immigrant from Sweden, having moved to the United States when he was 8 years old. He did not learn to speak English until after he arrived.
He worked in consulting, so he was always travel-ling across the country, while Nelia’s work as an editorial assistant had her making flight and hotel reservations. The job at Harlequin was the first time she worked in an environment with a lot of oversight and where her work product was expected to be perfect. For example, she would have to submit requests for time off in writing to her supervisor, and that supervisor returned one of her requests redlined. She laughs and remembers wondering, “What am I supposed to do with this now? Does this mean I get the time off?” This is the same attention to detail and care that she instills in her students, many of whom, like her, are entering her class fresh out of college.
After a few years in New York, she and her family moved to Austin, Texas where her husband got a job at a startup technology company. His parents had also moved there. She continued freelancing for Harlequin and began volunteering at SafePlace, a non-profit dedicated to serving women, children, and men affected by sexual and domestic violence. She eventually worked there as a legal advocate, rep-resenting survivors in the judicial system as a social worker. That experience led her to apply to law school to work in public interest. Her family members also all have advanced degrees—her dad has a Ph.D. and her mom, sister, and brother all have master’s degrees. So, although there was never any pressure to get an advanced degree, they led by example, and she followed suit.
She attended the University of Texas School of Law, which was her first experience in a large state school. Growing up, she had always attended small schools. Her elementary school was a Kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school. Then, she attended the day program at a small private high school with an enrollment of around 800 students, and then went to Wesleyan, a university with around 3,000 full-time undergraduate students. Even so, she loved law school and the sense of community in her class of around 300. This sense of community was something she had never felt in her previous schools. She joined a book club as a student with her friends, and that club is still going strong even now, although she says with a laugh that the book club is usually a wine club also.
Having worked as an assistant and as a legal advocate, she treated law school the same way she treated her full-time job. She continued to freelance for Harlequin in her first year, writing jacket copy for books. She started law school a little later than the average law student, so she focused on doing things that would help her become a better advocate, such as enrolling in a domestic violence clinic, an environmental law clinic, and a children’s rights clinic. She also did volunteer legal services and walk-in legal clinics as part of her membership of the Lloyd Lochridge American Inn of Court.
She loved these experiences because she was doing legal work and representing clients as a law student. She wanted to go to law school to advocate for others, and clinics gave her the chance to do so in a real-life setting. Another highlight was her summer spent in a prosecution internship in Austin. When she went to court as an intern, she already knew all of the judges and courtroom personnel because she went to court as part of her work at SafePlace. As a prosecutor, she saw the courtroom from a different viewpoint, and she witnessed the different impact her power as a prosecutor had in that role.
In her second year, people on campus were registering for on-campus interviews for law firms, so she joined in. Up to that point, she had experience in public interest and government, but not in private practice, so the interview process gave her a glimpse into law firm life. She remembers that almost every single interviewer asked about her experience at Harlequin. She says, with a laugh, that Harlequin is probably one reason why she was successful in her interviews. Out of her offers, she picked the law firm where it seemed like people had more longevity, and ended up loving the people and the practice, eventually being promoted to the partnership there.
Nelia enjoyed practicing as a litigator. As a part of a mid-sized firm, she got a lot of experience quickly. In her first year, she went to court hearings by herself, defended and took depositions, and worked with partners and mentors who trusted her, believed in her, and appreciated her hard work. She also had the unique experience of handling appeals for cases that she tried. One case that she first-chaired ended up being appealed, and she got to present oral arguments on appeal, also, giving her the chance to see the whole life cycle of that case. With many firms focusing on specializing in certain areas of litigation, she had a unique generalist practice that was half-and-half plaintiff and defense work, with cases ranging from animal law to trade secret misappropriation and pharmaceuticals.
After becoming partner at the firm, she had the chance to teach legal research, writing, and appellate advocacy as a visitor at Texas. Having had solid mentors throughout her practice, and having mentored young associates herself, she thought teaching would be a natural fit. She was right, and what started as a one-year visit became a full-time position. Her firm let her transition to an of-counsel position, and she is still connected with the firm. “Serving on committees is now fun!” Nelia said, and just as she’s appreciated staying involved with the firm, the people at the firm have also appreciated her continued connection with the firm.
Like many of the other communities she’s been a part of, she loves being a part of the faculty at Texas because of the people. “They put so much into what they do,” she said. Besides her col-leagues, one of the other things Nelia loves about teaching is mentoring and helping students how-ever she can. Just as she liked helping clients solve legal problems, she also likes helping students navigate the challenges of law school. She does this in her teaching and in her contributions to the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society, Texas’s affiliate of the National Black Law Students Association. She shares her lived experiences, and her sense of optimism that, like her, they can also succeed and thrive in law school and beyond.
Nelia has found her place as an integral part of several different communities for many years now. She’s been with the firm for 13 years, and she now serves as chair of the board of directors for the non-profit where she first started as a volunteer 20 years ago. She has also returned to her law school to teach. Just a year ago, the Austin Bar Foundation recognized Nelia for her work with the 2020 Joseph C. Parker Diversity Award. For her, it’s nice to be acknowledged, not because she’s ever had any sort of agenda, but because she’s done “the right thing.”
You can contact Nelia at email@example.com and visit her faculty page at law.utexas.edu/faculty/nelia-j-robbi/.