By Shirley Palumbo, Greenspoon Marder, LLP
Recently, we conducted a virtual interview of the Honorable Lori V. Vaughan. She was dressed casually, without the usual robe of justice, and sat in chambers at the George C. Young United States Federal Building and Courthouse. As a newly appointed bankruptcy judge, she has already captured the attention of many with her charming and unassuming personality. She has presided over bankruptcy court in the Orlando Division for just a year and allowed us to interview her in commemoration and observance of Women’s History Month, which is celebrated in March.
What can you tell us about your journey as an attorney and your career path?
At 12 years old, I decided to be an attorney. I was fascinated with the television show, “L.A. Law” and held lawyers in high regard. I never wavered from this goal and went on to be the first in my family to attend college. I held various jobs while working my way through college. One of these jobs was as a collections agent for a used automobile financing company, and this was my first introduction to bankruptcy and creditors’ rights. There I frequently dealt with customers who were delinquent and at risk of having their cars repossessed. Bankruptcy was a new concept to me, and I was fascinated at how it impacted the debtor-creditor relationship.
During law school, I took a bankruptcy class and various courses on creditor rights. Fortunately, I met Judge Jennemann when she spoke at my Advanced Bankruptcy class and I discovered she needed a law clerk. I applied, but never thought I would get the position. My experience as a law clerk further fueled my fascination with bankruptcy law.
After my clerkship, I went to work at Foley & Lardner in Tampa, representing debtors and creditors in chapter 11 cases around the country. I gained a lot of experience very quickly. I handled my first trial on my own, a valuation dispute before Judge Paskay, as a third-year associate. The firm opened a New York office, and in 2005, I started flying to New York every week to represent a group of airlines in the Delta and Northwest Airlines bankruptcies. After a year of traveling to New York, I was admitted to the New York Bar and moved to Manhattan. Eventually, I changed firms and moved back to Florida. I worked at Trenam Law for 13 years. Judge Colton, my former partner at Trenam, likes to say she rescued me from New York, and I was grateful for the opportunity to work with her. At Trenam, my practice changed a little, but I still focused on chapter 11 cases and bankruptcy litigation.
I think I always wanted to be a bankruptcy judge, but it’s such a “pie-in-the-sky” goal when you are an associate just trying to keep up with your caseload. At some point though, I realized I needed to focus on putting myself in the right position to apply. I worked on that and after a few years, I applied for a bankruptcy judgeship. Even though I wasn’t selected right away, I continued to apply. Now, I am absolutely thrilled to have been selected for the position in Orlando and given the opportunity to work again with Judge Jennemann.
Could you share an example of a hurdle or obstacle you experienced as an attorney and how you overcame it?
I always felt that I came from a different background than the rest of my law school classmates. The social aspects of the legal profession were new to me, such as how to dress and act during interviews or in professional settings. I had to rely on my new friends and employees at department stores to guide me until I was able to develop my own style. I know Judge Jennemann still remembers that horrible green suit I wore to the interview. I am thankful that she still hired me!
What has been your biggest career and/or personal achievement prior to being appointed?
I am proud of In re Harwell. 1 This was a fraudulent transfer case where I asserted that good faith was required for the initial transferee to be a mere conduit. I represented the chapter 7 trustee against a law firm in a case that many thought I could not win. I lost the case at summary judgment and again on appeal to the district court, but the 11th Circuit reversed. It was a tremendous experience to argue on appeal and win.
On a personal level, my greatest achievement was donating a kidney to the father of my best friend. I cannot think of any greater impact I have had on someone’s life and I would easily do it again.
What advice would you give to your 21 year-old-self?
Be open and adventurous. Don’t be afraid to take risks and go beyond your comfort zone. Take control of your career and don’t let others dictate your path. Get as much experience as you can. Ditch the green suit.
Who have been your allies and how have they supported you?
I have had many allies through the years – too many to name. Judge Jennemann, for one. She has always been there to provide advice or an ear and has always been a supporter of my career. Mark Wolfson, my first boss in private practice, is also a great ally. He always encouraged me to gain the experience and supported my efforts to venture beyond Tampa. He encouraged me to go to New York.
What are you most excited for with the next generation of women leaders?
I am excited about the opportunities available to them, within the legal practice and other areas. Women are being welcomed and trusted to handle more aspects of the business and legal world. I remember many times feeling odd to be the only woman in a room full of men. Nowadays, with the support of various organizations like IWIRC, I see many more opportunities at the highest levels. Plus, they don’t need to always wear stockings in the Florida heat!
If you could take any woman to lunch – from the past or present – who would that be and why?
Justice Sandra O’Connor. I would love to have lunch with O’Connor and understand how she handled the weight on her shoulders.
How do you manage work/life balance?
There is no balance. We all have two masters; one calls on you while you are caught with the other. We juggle and must decide what is more important at the time. My advice is don’t procrastinate, but recognize when something can wait.
What changes do you hope to see towards gender equality in the upcoming year?
I think we have done a good job promoting women in our practice in Florida. In the Middle District of Florida, six of the eight bankruptcy judges are women and the Northern District is 100% female (of course there is only one judge currently in the Northern District). Still, there is more that can be done. I would like to see more women in trusted positions of prominence in the Florida bankruptcy community and nationwide. I do not have the answers on how we get there.
I feel like I struggled with the business of law, but not with the practice of law. As an attorney, the business of law is about making money, but don’t lose sight of what it means to be a professional of the community you serve – both the legal community and the broader community. We should all strive to be an active and contributing part of both.
- In re Harwell, 628 F.3d 1312 (11th Cir. 2010).