The past few years have taken a significant toll on us all. Collectively speaking, our lives have changed, our sense of normal has been flipped upside down and the fallout from three stolen years in a global pandemic is perhaps only now starting to show itself. For Bibi Fell, the word “challenging” doesn’t begin to describe all that she endured while the pandemic eclipsed our lives. Her youngest child fell ill with cancer, her husband began his transition to a wife and her marriage subsequently ended. But instead of shrinking from life’s unthinkable curveballs, Fell has expanded in an inspirational fashion.

One could argue that being a woman in the traditionally hyper-patriarchal culture of law has helped to condition Fell for hard times – she’s used to being out of her comfort zone. The founder of Fell Law and a proud member of Athea Trial Lawyers, Fell’s primary focus is wrongful death and catastrophic personal injury cases.

Fell is a fourth-generation trial lawyer with an astounding track record, and she is equally passionate about her teaching work. She knows how important it is to inspire the next generation. “One of the things about having successful women you can look up to is that it gives you a vision of what a woman is supposed to look like in a courtroom,” says Fell. She explains that in her generation, “We didn't have that. You had a lot of women who were trying to emulate men.” Fell has been empowered by taking the opposite approach. She has learned not to shy away from her femininity but rather, to treat it like the superpower that it is. And leaning into her distinctly gentle, feminine nature has made her stronger than ever as an advocate.

Fell is a member of the Lawdragon 500 Leading Lawyers in America.

Lawdragon: How did you decide to become a lawyer?

Bibi Fell: My father is a lawyer, my two uncles are lawyers, my grandfather and great grandfather are lawyers. I knew since I was four years old that I wanted to be a trial lawyer. All I really knew is that my dad was super passionate about it. He was well respected and whatever he was doing was important. So that's what I wanted – to be like him. He was doing personal injury on the defense side. He worked at the Attorney General's office for the state of Hawaii, which is where I was born and raised.

LD: And you went to University of San Diego for law school?

BF: Yes. USD was great. I never really set my expectations all that high. I just thought, as long as I pass, I get to be a lawyer. But I found that I just really enjoyed law school, more than I enjoyed any other type of class I had taken. I liked the way of thinking. It made sense to me. It was interesting putting puzzle pieces together. I really thrived in law school.

LD: How did you decide that plaintiff injury law was for you?

BF: When I started law school my dad said, "Whatever you decide to do with your degree, just make sure you're fighting for the little guy." He felt that was very important, even though he wasn't really doing that in his career. That always sat in the back of my head.

When I graduated, I took a Big Law job and I worked there for six years or so. I was doing a lot of really interesting, thought provoking, cutting edge complex commercial litigation work. It was really fun, but I didn't come home at the end of the day and think, oh, I did something good for society. I improved somebody's life. I was fighting about money and it seemed a little empty.

I sued the guy that they called the father of the alkaline diet. He was running a ranch and basically duping cancer victims into believing that he could cure them without medicine.

Then I left and started a firm with a partner and that gave me the freedom to try a couple of plaintiffs’ cases. After my first one or two, I realized that changing one person's life in a big way was more in line with how I wanted to spend my time.

LD: Growing up with all these male lawyers around, was there ever an energy of, “that's not for you because you're a girl?”

BF: My dad raised me to believe I could be whatever I wanted. I grew up believing if I wanted to, I could become president of the United States. I didn't even think about gender until I started practicing when I saw the way that some men treated me because I was a woman, and also super young looking. I got it from opposing counsel, clients. Even comments from the bench every now and then. I felt like I ran into a brick wall and all of a sudden realized, oh my gosh, my gender is a factor.

My very first deposition, I was getting my bag out of the trunk of my car and a man walked up to me and said, "Oh, let me help you with your bag." Which was very nice. "Where are you going?" I told him where I was going and he said, "Oh, are you there for a deposition? That's my office." I said, "Yeah, I am." So he is helping me with my bag and he said, "So how long have you been a court reporter? I said, "Oh, actually, I'm your opposing counsel." I'm not kidding – he dropped my bag and kept walking.

LD: Wow. Is there a case that stands out as particularly meaningful or memorable from those early days?

BF: Kali v. Young was a big verdict that I got back in October of 2018. I sued the guy that they called the father of the alkaline diet. He was running a ranch and basically duping cancer victims into believing that he could cure them without medicine. He was putting baking soda into people's bloodstreams and they were dying. Almost everybody he “treated” died.

I represented a young woman who went from stage 1, curable, breast cancer to stage 4 fatal breast cancer. We got a good verdict on that one. I would say that's sort of what put my name out there.

LD: That’s great. Not only are you helping one person, you're stopping a serial predator.

BF: Right. All the attention that case got put him on people's radar so that he wasn't able to get as many victims. I was able to play some role in getting him prosecuted again, because even after our case, he continued to harm people. He's actually going to be on trial this year for additional crimes and hopefully they put him away for a long time – but that was very satisfying.

LD: I know you’re very focused on educating the next generation of lawyers. Why is that important to you?

BF: I started teaching when I was only like a fifth-year lawyer because I wanted that adrenaline rush of being in the courtroom and it's really hard to come by. It was hard to get cases and hard to get trials when I was younger, and so I sort of filled that need by teaching. I started doing it just because it was fun, but then I found the relationships I develop with my students really satisfying – they continue on for years and I get to follow their careers.

For the first time, there's this big presence in the community of strong women lawyers who know how to try cases.

LD: Is that how you met the other women of Athea Trial Lawyers, in the teaching circuit?

BF: Yes, we would get invited to speak at a lot of the same conferences. I had been kind of following them, speaking with them at different conferences for several years really before we all connected. I mean, these are the women that I looked at when I was a baby lawyer and I thought, oh my gosh, I'll never get there. You know, it just seemed so unattainable and now they're my partners.

LD: What does it mean to you to be part of this firm?

BF: For me, it's a dream come true. I still pinch myself. And I think the women in our profession needed this. They needed to see women standing up, rising to the top and saying, "Hey, we're great damn lawyers." You know?

I think especially people of my generation and older than me, we grew up learning how to try cases from men and having a hard time finding female mentors. Frankly, a lot of us had a hard time even finding male mentors. When I was growing up, I would look ahead in my life and think, okay, what do I want to be when I grow up? What's this going to look like? And I had to take the image of a man and kind of tweak it. When I graduated from law school, I got that warning. Hey, if you go and practice on the east coast where it's a little more formal, you have to wear a skirt suit and panty hose.

LD: Law is one of those institutions that has been especially patriarchal.

BF: Yep, and so for the first time, there's this big presence in the community of strong women lawyers who know how to try cases. And one of the things about having successful women you can look up to is that it gives you that vision of what a woman is supposed to look like in a courtroom. My generation and generations before me, we didn’t have that. You had a lot of women who were trying to be men, trying to emulate the way that men would try cases, speak to judges and juries, because that's the example that we had. But the reality is that it wasn't really working.

LD: So you sort of had to find your own identity as a woman in the courtroom?

BF: Yes. I figured out that I can be feminine and an advocate, and in fact, it's more authentic. It's more believable. It taps into an area of jurors' brains that make them more willing to listen. If we think about how we're all conditioned as young children, most of us, when we think about our favorite teacher, that favorite teacher was a woman. And so we go into a courtroom and we're not trying to be the male lawyer you see on TV, but we get up in front of a jury and we teach them. Now we're tapping into a way that people are used to learning from somebody in a position of endeared authority.

LD: That's really interesting. It’s been noted that the legal profession still loses a lot of female talent when family issues become more pressing or important. Can you talk about finding that balance for yourself?

BF: It’s absolutely a challenge. My 4-year old had cancer. And then within months after her cancer, well, what they don't tell you is that when a child gets sick, the entire family gets sick. My daughter’s cancer was life threatening. We moved to Cincinnati with my older kids and of course they had their own struggles as they tried to process a very dire situation. Then shortly after my younger daughter's cancer journey was when my husband came out. He’s now transitioned to being a woman and we’re separating. So I've been hit by a lot of things in 18 months.

We're scared to admit we have a family because, what are people going to think of us? ... It's scary to admit that you're human.

LD: All while a global pandemic was raging.

BF: Yeah. I could not have continued to practice law, but for the pandemic, I was literally taking depositions from hospital rooms. And we had just started Athea Trial Lawyers. I would not have made it through that time without the support of my Athea partners. I was absolutely ready to quit so I could focus on my family. But they were there, encouraging me through it and saying, "You can do this. Get continuances. Take care of your daughter. Send cases out to other people if you can't take it, but don't give up on practicing law. Let things settle and then decide." They took over some of the work during the worst parts of it. They're a huge reason why I'm even still in the field because it felt very overwhelming.

LD: And how is your daughter doing?

BF: She's now more than two years cancer free. At the two-year mark is when they say you can relax a little. She is not considered cured until five years, but it is unlikely to come back at this point.

The big silver lining of my daughter's journey and my husband transitioning and all this stuff is that, it kind of gave me space to decide what I want my life to look like and what I want my future to look like, what I want my future partner to be like.

I think a lot of women buy into this idea that we're competing with men and men don't have to worry about the family – that we always have to show up in a position of strength. I mean, and it's decades and decades of discrimination. Right? We're scared to admit we have a family because, what are people going to think of us? Oh, they're going to think that we're not prioritizing work. They're going to think that we're not going to be available because we have childcare obligations. They're going to think that we're going to be less focused. It's scary to admit that you're human.

LD: It’s so encouraging to see women reshaping the industry together in a sustainable way. So how do you think people would describe your style in the courtroom these days?

BF: People have told me, "You're the most reasonable person in the room." Somebody else said that it feels like I'm a teacher, not a lawyer. That I exude credibility. I know for me, I'm not thinking about how I come across anymore because I'm just so hyper focused on what I'm doing. I'm not worrying about what I look like, it's just authentic. Like, I am in my femininity. My femininity comes out. My knowledge, my expertise in the subject matter comes out and people say they can't see stress on me. I do feel the stress, but I'm very calm and welcoming. I'm not high strung. I'm not big, loud, putting on a show. It’s just me.