Emilia Arutunian: Hungry for Life

Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with Emilia Arutunian of Gomez Trial Attorneys. Raised as a refugee from the fallen Soviet Union, Arutunian shares how her mother’s influence and the allure of the U.S. legal system motivated her to pursue a career in law.

AALM: What inspired you to pursue a career in law, and how did you get started in the field?

EA: When my family came to the United States as refugees from the fallen Soviet Union, my mom told me I have three choices—to be a lawyer, a doctor, or a failure. Well… she really said lawyer or doctor, but I understood what she meant. When I started, I wanted to become an attorney to please my family, and make money, but as time went on, and I realized how well the U.S. system of justice worked, I fell head over heels in love with democracy and capitalism, and began developing a genuine interest in and appreciation of the U.S. legal system. I became enthralled with constitutional law at an early age and was fascinated with how the U.S. legal system protects human rights. I quickly realized, the systems in place in this country protect human rights like no other country in the world. As soon as I became of conscious age, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I graduated college at 21 with a major and two minors, and USD School of Law school at 24. I can’t imagine being part of any other profession.

AALM: How has your personal background as a refugee and your experience with ethnic and religious persecution influenced your approach to your legal career?

EA: I can wholeheartedly say, my personal background and experience has made me perpetually hungry in all aspects of life. When we came to the United States, no one in my family spoke English. My mom could not help me with my homework, let alone my college or law school applications. I did not know any attorneys, locally or otherwise. I had no family members in the legal profession, and I was the first person in my immediate family to finish college in the United States and get a higher education.

It was incredibly difficult to succeed in a system that no one I knew really understood. I had to figure every step out on my own, with the assistance of some high school programs that helped low-income students. With that said, thankfully, I met my husband right before I started law school, (and married him a few months later, two days before starting law school) he was my rock throughout the process.

I do not believe hardship is a negative aspect of life. We are conditioned to avoid it, but many times and for many people, the depth of our struggles determines the heights of our success. Struggle breeds hunger.

AALM: Review some of the challenges employees face in the modern workplace and how that led you to focus on helping.

EA: My personal opinion is, that life is short, and every single person deserves to live a happy meaningful life, however they find that meaning. Most people spend a huge part of their lives at work. Every single person deserves a work environment free of harassment, retaliation, and hostility. I want to protect employees from bad work environments, discrimination, harassment and retaliation. I don’t do this because it’s fun—in fact, every day of my professional life has been a literal battle in one way or another. But, the feeling of helping a person who has been defeated makes it worth it. And, I do love a righteous fight.

AALM: Could you share a memorable case or experience that reinforced your passion for defending the rights of employees?

EA: Every single day, I work with people who have been wronged, and who are hesitant to stand up for themselves. For most people, it is uncomfortable, and incredibly difficult to stand up for your rights. Often times, people are hesitant, no matter how defeated they feel. My main job is to help victims find their power, and remember they deserve kind and respectful treatment. So many clients come to me with a look of defeat on their face and exhaustion on their souls.  My favorite memories, and they are slowly piling up, are when my clients look me in the eye and thank me for fighting for them, whether it’s in the midst of litigation, or after a matter resolves.

AALM: What motivated you to become a board member of the San Diego Branch of the Society for Armenian Orphaned Relief? How does this organization contribute to humanitarian relief efforts?

EA: Generally, and I hate to say this but it’s true, in many traditional cultures, orphans and people who are disabled are considered “taboo,” and often turned away from, or kept hidden and ignored. I joined SOAR because I was determined to help the organization receive attention and raise funds to help build structures and processes to help orphans and disabled adults in Armenia.

AALM: How are you involved in the local community?

EA: Currently, I am the chair of San Diego County Bar Association Employment Law Division, the co-chair of Lawyer’s Club of San Diego Parenting Committee, and on the executive committee of the Women Leaders of Gomez Trial Attorneys. I am also an active member of the San Diego Lawyer’s Club and am always looking for methods to empower women lawyers and help them in achieving their goals.

Moreover, our firm actively participates in a number of local charities and organizations. One of our core values is “We improve our communities.” Gomez Trial Attorneys CEO John Gomez encourages all of us to participate in hands-on events. We have an office full of individuals eager to volunteer their time – no matter what the opportunity may be.

One example is the Christmas Day Foster Youth Breakfast and Toy Drive, where our employees volunteered their time to shop, wrap gifts, shovel snow, set up and serve the youth in order to provide a positive holiday to those who may not have that otherwise. We also recently did a professional clothing drive for veterans who are applying for jobs and trying to re-establish their place in the civilian workforce.

AALM: How do you balance your demanding legal career with your love for fitness? Could you share any tips or routines that help you maintain a healthy lifestyle?

EA: Honestly, my “big secret” is planning and preparation. I keep a strict routine which a lot of people find is borderline insane, but it works for me. I am usually up by 3:30 a.m., and answer emails and plan my day until about 4:45 a.m. I follow it with a workout from 5-7 a.m., every morning. My workouts incorporate some high intensity interval training, weight training and yoga, Mondays through Fridays. I am home by 7:15 a.m. to help my husband get the kids ready for school and send them out the door, and I’m back online by 8:30 a.m. if I am working remotely, and around 9:00 a.m. if I am in office. I currently work a hybrid schedule and am in-office three days a week and work from home home two days a week—saving the drive time to the office twice a week immensely helps me with time management as well. I schedule all of my in-person meetings for the three days I am in office and handle substantive work and team management on the days I am home.

I work for a few hours in the mornings while the kids sleep every weekend, but I try to avoid working evenings at all costs to ensure I spend as much time with them as possible. Again, many people find this schedule crazy, but I couldn’t imagine it any other way. When you choose to have a family and a career, there are certain sacrifices every person has to make. For me, that voluntary sacrifice is “free-time” and “me-time.” I don’t watch tv or do much for myself aside from my daily workouts and a mani/pedi every few weeks, but I make it a priority to spend time with my children, as I recognize, the day will come, when they’ll choose time with their friends over me! I try to make the best of every day. Sometimes I burn out, and I let myself hit rock bottom, but I always pick myself back up and keep going. I try to live by the motto—Live Full, Die Empty.

Regarding a healthy lifestyle—I cook, a lot. We almost never eat out. I make this work by taking time out of my day twice a week to meal prep. On Sundays, I usually meal prep meals to last us Sunday through Wednesday. I make a couple of hours while my two year old naps. I try to find time on Wednesday or Thursday after dinner to do another hour for a couple of more days of meals. My cooking is completely from scratch, because that is how I grew up, with an incorporation of Slavic, Mediterranean and American meals.

AALM: How has being a mother influenced your approach to work-life balance and your perspective on advocating for family rights in your legal practice?

EA: Being a mother has softened me in many ways. It has made me more efficient and incredibly cognizant of where I spend my limited time, more empathetic, more patient and more diplomatic when it comes to problem solving and negotiations. I must admit, if I was not a mom, I would likely be a workaholic. I already struggle with balance, because I try to put 110% every day into everything I do. However, I know I would do so even more if I didn’t have incentive to split my time between all of the important aspects of my life.

Further, and probably most importantly, becoming a mom has given me a level of purpose I did not know existed. I remember passing the bar and feeling on top of the world. At that time, I thought I had reached the peak of accomplishments, and nothing could be better. When I had kids, I realized that while drive for success is certainly important, there are deeper meanings to life. Meanings I did not fathom existed. I always say, my family is my greatest accomplishment.

AALM: What is something your colleagues would be surprised to learn about you?

EA: I can’t think of much of anything. There is not a lot I hide, I wear my story on my sleeve, in part because my humble beginnings always remind me why I stay hungry for life. I believe wholeheartedly, no matter what you achieve, no matter how any person grows or develops, the foundation will always be the same. The roots that cultivated the human I became will always be a part of me, and to forget or undervalue them, would be a colossal misrepresentation, and a miscarriage of justice to the positive side of adversities.

AALM: Anything else to add?

EA: To me success, is finding and utilizing the best version of yourself, and always, ALWAYS, being the hardest worker in the room. My life motto is a quote by Will Smith ““You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me… But if we get on the treadmill together, one of two things will happen: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die on that treadmill. I will not be outworked.”

I try to instill in my children every day—every single person you see who is good at anything, has worked their behind off to get there.  Excellence is never an accident.

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