Deirdre Mochel: Home Again
Deirdre Mochel grew up thinking she might become a social worker or go into the medical field, but there were some early indications that the law would prove to be her true calling. One was in middle school when she won a “best persuasive speech” award in her speech class. Notably, her topic was “the need for education,” a matter she would be taking to heart later in finishing seven years of higher education on the way to her law degree.
The second took place even earlier, in a doctor’s office when she was in third grade. Faced with the unpleasant prospect of getting stitches for a gash across an eyebrow, she began intensely lobbying the doctor to relent, arguing that she would heal just fine, thank you, without any needles and thread.
Perhaps surprisingly, the doctor proclaimed, “You’re right!” Which pleased his patient no end, though Mochel says she can still see the faint outlines of the scar the doctor had been concerned about preventing. Small price to pay, she figures.
Decades later, she works tirelessly to have the same influence on judges and opposing attorneys when she represents injured workers for Boxer & Gerson.
Mochel spent most all her childhood in Sonoma County. She remembers a tight knit neighborhood on the edge of a greenbelt where the adults knew all the children’s names, the local schools were an eclectic mix of races and nationalities, and children roamed mostly free.
“I think we were the last generation told to just go play outside,” she muses. “It was a very active street life.”
Once indoors with family, her parents encouraged her to engage the issues of the day at the dinner table. “They would invite me to share my opinions on current events, and challenge me to think about things in different ways,” she remembers. “I always felt like my opinions mattered.”
In college at UC Davis, she interned with the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program, helping educate seniors on their Medicare options. An attorney in the program asked her one day, “Have you ever thought about being an attorney?”
When Mochel answered no, the woman responded, “Well, you should. I don’t think you’re going to be content just hearing about problems. Attorneys can do something about them.”
Out of such seemingly fleeting encounters, the trajectory of entire lives can be altered—and that is exactly what happened to Mochel. So it was off to law school at USF for her, and when she came out, she interviewed with Boxer & Gerson co-founder Stewart Boxer, got the job, and settled into what she figured would be a long career representing injured workers.
We were doing CEO compensation, mergers and acquisitions, security and tax filings with Fortune 500 companies. Very elite firm, great pay. And I hated it.
Four years later, opportunity knocked in the form of recruitment by a large international attorney firm in San Francisco with a presence in 80 countries. It was a heady offer, with the kind of salary and perks for a young attorney still in the early stages of building a career that caused her to think, and more than one person to tell her, “You’d have to be an idiot to say no.”
Among the well-wishers at her going away party, Boxer & Gerson co-founder Michael Gerson took a moment to tell her, with a smile on his face: “Mark my words: you’ll be back.”
“It was completely different,” she says of the firm she joined. “We were doing CEO compensation, mergers and acquisitions, security and tax filings with Fortune 500 companies. Very elite firm, great pay. And I hated it.”
Then, in the kind of joking manner that always carries more than a whiff of truth: “If Mike hadn’t told me that at the party, I’d have come back that first week.”
As it turned out, she stayed six years. “I had my children while at that firm, bought a house with my husband, and my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer at that time. And as my kids started to get older, I was realizing that life goes so fast, and to be doing something that you don’t love just seems wrong.
“So I told my husband one day, ‘I think I want to go back to Boxer & Gerson.’ And he said to me: ‘I thought it was taking you way too long to come to this.’ “It was the best decision I ever made,” Mochel says. “It felt like coming home to a family I had left. I love my job. I like being here every day. I know what I’m doing matters. That’s why I became an attorney in the first place; that’s why most attorneys go to law school. We really do want to change the world.”
Then she adds, laughingly: “So Mike Gerson was right. Mike Gerson is always right! You can quote me on that.”
Like every working mother and father, Mochel and her husband David Mitchell have had to figure out the delicate dance of career-tending and child-rearing. She admits good fortune has smiled upon her with David, who owns a lighting design business and can thus manage his schedule with enough flexibility to do the heavy lifting of school drop-offs, doctor’s appointments, play date scheduling and dinner preparation.
“I tell the kids (9-year-old twins Hugh and Eva) we’re all a team. What I do at work allows Dad to do what he does at school and in the community. And what he does at home allows me to help other people who need me. We try to show our kids in our daily lives how important it is to help their community.”
David currently serves as vice-president of the kids’ elementary school PTA and just wrapped up a four-year term on the local planning board.
Mochel and her husband have been together for over 25 years, having met on their high school swim team.
“He was two years older and I was only in 10th grade,” she says. “He had a Jeep and started driving me to practice.”
Two years later, Mochel was heading off to UC Davis while Mitchell was continuing his education back home. “Everyone was telling me we should break up since I was going away and we were too young. But one night we were watching TV and decided we didn’t want to break up just because people told us we should. So we decided just to take it one day at a time.”
The couple was married in 2002, five weeks after Mochel had taken (and passed) the California Bar Exam.
Like most all her firm’s attorneys, Mochel usually has several hundred cases in her purview at any given time. Justice might move slowly, but the days never do with that kind of load.
She credits the firm’s other co-founder, the now retired Stewart Boxer, with helping inform much of her approach to the law when he mentored her in the early stage of her career.
“He could be really tough, but always supportive,” she remembers. “They had never hired an attorney right out of law school when I interviewed with him. He was firing questions at me, left and right, poking and prodding. I thought, ‘This guy is not going to hire me.’
“Right about then, he asked me, ‘Why should we hire you?’
“I said, ‘Because someday I’m going to be a really good attorney, and you’ll be sorry you didn’t.’
“He just smiled and asked, ‘When can you come meet the other partners?’ He just wanted to know how far he could push me and still have me hold my ground.
“He was never easy on me, but he prepared me to go out there and have confidence in what I was doing because he had confidence in me. He let me handle trials and appellate work as a young attorney. It was really empowering. He also let me know he’d always be there to back me up, if I ever felt over my head and he wasn’t there, here’s who to talk to, here’s opposing counsel you can trust, here’s who you can’t trust. I learned a lot from him about being an attorney.”
Mochel now spends between half and two-thirds of her days in court, the rest of her time devoted to reviewing files, keeping her clients abreast of their cases, and reviewing materials from potential new clients.
“I’ve done everything from cuts and scrapes to death cases,” she says. “And they’re all important. It’s one of the great things about being in a firm like this. We don’t have to decide which cases are most important, because they all are. A huge part of my job is reminding doctors and judges and defense attorneys that my clients are more than just a file, they’re people, and they matter.”