Wall Street lawyer turned stay-at-home mom Tiffani T. Atamas received a frantic call in 2017 from a Japanese mother she had befriended at a playgroup in Tokyo. The mother, her American husband and their son had moved to Tennessee, and six months later the mother was served with an emergency custody order that deprived her of custody of her son. The mother spoke no English and could not even read the order.
The Tokyo-born Atamas found a lawyer in Tennessee to represent the mother and facilitated communications between them. “I flew to Memphis for the mediation, and we got her 50/50 custody of her son,” recalled Atamas. “That was essentially my first introduction to family law, and I fell in love with it.”
Atamas is now a family law attorney with Smith Debnam.
Atamas grew up moving between Japan and New York with her family for her father’s job. She graduated from Brown University with a degree in economics. Although as a teenager she had aspired to be a litigator, fresh out of college, she followed in her father’s footsteps and took a high-pressure finance job at Lehman Brothers in their capital markets department underwriting securities for Japanese multinational corporations.
“After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, I saw this as an opportunity to pursue my childhood dreams and applied to law school,” Atamas said. “When I received my acceptance letter from Harvard Law School, I took it in a heartbeat.”
After earning her Juris Doctor, she returned to Wall Street as a corporate lawyer. “It was an incredible experience; you’re surrounded by exceptionally intelligent and motivated people, and there’s an intense work ethic that gets drilled into you. But to be honest, my heart was never in the corporate work; what I found more rewarding than anything was the pro bono work I was doing for individual clients. I loved connecting with these clients on a one-on-one, personal level, which I couldn’t do in my corporate deals.”
Walking With a Purpose
Atamas moved to Raleigh when her husband, Michael, was hired as corporate counsel for Epic Games. She put her law career on hold to stay home and raise twins Mila and Jacob, now 9. They have a third child, Hadassah, who is 3.
When Atamas returned to the law, “I knew without a doubt that family law was what I wanted to do. I bring the same drive and intensity that I acquired on Wall Street to my practice of family law.”
“When I was at the Lehman Brothers Tokyo office, my co-workers would comment on the way they heard me walk in the hallways of the office. It’s funny, I get the same comments from my colleagues at Smith Debnam. I walk with a purpose, and it’s reflective of the attitude I bring to my work.
“I am 100% committed to my clients and they appreciate that,” she continued. “I still work around the clock. Clients are always texting me or calling me and I’m there for them. In family law, this is imperative because clients are often going through the most vulnerable time in their lives, and they need to feel taken
International Family Law
The flourishing high-tech sector in the Triangle is attracting people from all over the world, which translates into an increased need for family lawyers with an international background, according to Atamas. “In New York, I was one of a million, but in Wake County family court, there’s only a few of us. I stand out.”
With increased diversity comes more international marriages and consequently, international divorces. “I’m Japanese, my husband is from the former Soviet Union, and our children are biracial. There is a growing number of families like that in this area, and yet there aren’t many attorneys in Raleigh with functional knowledge of family law matters across borders,” Atamas said. “Beyond just the complex legal issues that international family law matters bring, I understand firsthand the different cultural values and expectations that international clients have. I’m excited to leverage my unique background and experience to serve the Triangle.”