Interview: Kara Diabiasio
Kara Diabiasio
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Posted Thursday, April 22, 2021

Kara DiBiasio is a partner at Burke, Williams and Sorensen, LLP. She handles all manners of real estate litigation, including lease disputes, foreclosure, quiet title, easement disputes, eminent domain, and partnership and contract disputes. Earlier in her career she worked as an associate at Sedgwick LLP and as a Summer Extern at the California Department of Justice. During her time at King Hall she was involved in Moot Court Board and the King Hall Negotiations Team.

 

 

What made you want to be a litigator vs., say, a transactional attorney?

I don't think I had a clear path going into law school that was set in stone. I wasn’t set on pursuing one thing or another. I actually decided to go to law school because I realized that there were a lot of opportunities available when you have a JD. For me that was one of the attractive parts of going to law school. I didn’t want to be tied to one path. If I tried something and it didn’t fit, I could try something else.

So then when I had the opportunity to start doing things outside the classroom.. Some people found their passion in the classroom, for me that wasn’t the case. I really enjoyed everything outside of the classroom. Negotiations was one of those things. I love the problem solving aspect of it, and it was combined with advocacy because you need to represent the client’s position. That appealed to me. I never really went far down the road of transactional law. I ended up in a firm that did primarily litigation so my first exposure as a 2L was to a law firm that did primarily litigation and I just kind of fell into that path. Before that when I was a 1L I had done criminal law, but still litigation. So I dove right into litigation and never really looked back, but it ended up being a good fit for me because I love problem-solving, advocating for one position, and advancing my client’s interests.


How did you end up practicing real estate law?

Right, so first I worked at the attorney general’s office in Sacramento. After doing that for a while I realized I wanted to explore more the commercial aspects of litigation. So I took an internship during my 2L summer at a civil litigation firm and went from there. I think it's all about finding what resonates with you, and there are aspects of criminal law that were fascinating, but I found even more fascinating aspects to some of the civil and commercial work I was doing, so I sought out opportunities to do more in those practice areas. Ultimately I found a real estate litigation practice that really combined the human element of my experience with criminal law with the business perspective that I loved. I love hearing peoples’ stories and helping them with their business objectives. That kind of work also allows you to build personal relationships with your clients- I think a lot of the work is about developing relationships.


How has your role at Burke, Williams & Sorensen changed from when you were a senior associate to now, as a partner?

I think it varies depending on the firm that you’re at. For me, when I was an associate, I didn’t manage many people. I didn’t step into a management role until I was a senior associate, and then partner. As you progress, you do more management, but the work can also become more independent. Now, as a partner, I have more autonomy in handling matters independently and working with anyone in the firm.

I will say that as a partner you have to do more of the administrative work, including building your own practice. So more of your time ends up being non-billable, which is always a struggle in civil litigation. There’s always kind of a struggle in finding a balance between billable and non-billable work. So as you progress you also need to be mindful that you’ll be doing more administrative work. With greater autonomy comes greater responsibility.

There’s definitely more pressure as you move up the ranks to bring more clients in. Thankfully my firm is really great at guiding new partners through that process until they have their own book of business.

Also, if you’re interested in being a partner, I think it's good to be open and vocal about your long term plans. If you see yourself staying at the firm in the long run, I think it's good for your immediate supervisors to know that you’re trying to learn how to build a business and be a good contributor to the firm. It’s also really important to build relationships with the people you’re working with. It’s easier for people to want to be your colleague if they have a good relationship with you. When you’re being considered for promotions, people are asking themselves: do I want to work with this person? Do I want to own the firm with this person? Do they represent the firm well? So I think showing that you’re a team player and that you’re willing to work hard for the team is critical. Remember that there’s a personal element to all the work you’re doing. Be honest, sincere, and, in general, a good person to work with. And that’s something I learned when I was at King Hall. You can work hard and still be a good classmate and teammate for the people around you.


What does daily practice look like for you now?

What my day looks depends on the phase my cases are in. The initial stages of a case are pretty interesting to me because you’re in “investigation” mode. You get whatever documents your client has and you come up with an initial discovery plan.

If I’m in discovery, it’s a lot of requesting, receiving, and reviewing the information that you’re exchanging with the other side. Some people think discovery is tedious, but that’s ultimately where you get a lot of the information that you use to build your case. Discovery is essentially the building blocks of your case. If you look at it that way, it makes it a lot more interesting.

Other than that, my day could include talking to clients, co-counsel, working on written motions or requests to the opposition.. So, a lot of reading, writing, and talking on a wide range of things.

In between all of that you have to find time to build your network and do administrative work as well.


What are the most common problems/sources of disputes that you see in real estate litigation?

They can run the gamut. There’s private clients who have any number of issues with neighbors or nuisance claims; really any claim that can arise from owning a home or a piece of property. But a lot of my work is commercial, so we work with developers, retailers, corporate clients, disputes over leases, cases in the hospitality industry.. Really anything that touches on issues with real property. But a lot of times we have, I would say, contracts that form the basis of our civil litigation disputes. Contracts involve real estate all of the time. It could be a contract to sell real property, to jointly own real property, to enter into a business arrangement that involves real property. Any time any of those things go south, that’s when litigators get involved. A lot of times the best intentions and best relationships can, for any number of reasons, just start to deteriorate. There can be disagreements over management, how a property is run.. When any of those things happen, we step in and take it to trial if it has to go that far. 


How often do you find yourself mediating a solution that doesn’t involve trial? Has the demand for mediation increased over time since you’ve been at your firm?

Well, it’s important to understand that any mediation can be unsuccessful. It’s always important to remember that if someone filed a lawsuit, there’s a possibility that this case is going to trial. You always have to keep that possibility in the back of your mind as a litigator. You have to ask yourself how to position your case for a successful resolution for your client. If resolution can be achieved through settlement discussions, great. But many cases do not resolve after one mediation, or even two or more, so you always have to think ahead and be sure you are prepared for trial, if it comes to that.  It’s important to think ahead and adapt as needed. The longest resolution is going to trial, but it’s important to be forward looking and set yourself up to go all the way to trial if necessary. Especially if your client has been sued by someone else, you have to make sure your client is protected, and that could mean either settling or going to trial, so you have to be prepared for both.

So it’s really just about what’s best in a particular case and for that client.


When a resolution is mediated as opposed to achieved through trial, do you think the parties are generally more amicable after the ordeal?

I think that really depends on the case. Sometimes there’s a positive resolution and everyone is happy, other times nobody is happy. It’s really hard to predict how it’s going to turn out. So mediation can be a good tool, but it’s not the savior of any dispute.


What are some skills that you had to acquire that law school didn’t prepare you for?

Nothing in particular. A lot being a lawyer is doing things through experience. That’s just the nature of the job, though. It’s a lot of learning through doing.


What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome? Is work-life balance an issue?

Well, with work-life balance in particular, I’ve actually been pretty fortunate in my ability to balance my life with my work. I do think that that can be one of the good things about litigation. Every practice has something unpredictable that can come up at some point. But for litigation, a lot of your timelines are set by the court: when someone files a motion, there’s x number of days you can respond to it, for example. You know when certain things need to happen and you can plan around them. I also work with great people that are willing to cover for each other, so I’ve been able to fit in time off and vacations.

Aside from work-life balance, I think any new lawyer has to overcome their own confidence in themselves. You learn that you can trust your own judgement and experience, and you learn to trust yourself to do well at things you haven’t done before. But I think building that confidence takes some time. It’s important to remind yourself that you can do it. It can be overwhelming at first, but if you surround yourself with good people who are supportive of your career, they can really help you build that confidence in yourself. But I also think taking opportunities to exercise your skills is very important, and it can start in school. Whether it be trial practice or any other extracurricular.. The skills you build from those activities are super important. When you get to be an associate after you graduate, that translates into taking valuable opportunities at your firm: going to court, taking the lead on a call, or anything else that helps you build that confidence.


Is there a particular aspect of litigation that you enjoy the most?

In litigation, it's when you’re at the stage of “piecing the puzzle together” right before trial. Sometimes going to trial isn’t the right solution for a particular client, and it's important not to just rush into trial without considering all of the consequences.. But as a trial lawyer, if a client needs to go all the way through to litigation, that’s what we do. And I find the strategic phase very interesting. After you’ve done the discovery, looked at the documents, taken the depositions, heard what everyone has to say.. Now you have to put it all together and create a cohesive and persuasive narrative to tell the jury or judge. You have to create a story that pieces everything together in a way that they can understand, and present it to them concisely.. Which means you have to understand the story, yourself. I find that whole process very interesting.

Also, since you mentioned you want to want to do transactional law- I think the best transactional lawyers are the ones who understand litigation. If they’ve seen the pitfalls businesses get into as litigators, it only makes them better transaction attorneys, so the experience can never hurt.


What were the most valuable experiences you had in law school that prepared you for your career?

Definitely KHNT and Moot Court. But also just learning to build relationships with your colleagues. Those are the people you’re going to be in contact with throughout the rest of your career. You also never know who you’re going to keep crossing paths with in the future, and I think that’s a really valuable lesson. The people you know now are the people you’re going to know for the rest of your career in some way, shape or form, and being able to treat those people with respect and appreciation is so valuable. So, get to know your classmates and spend time with them outside of the classroom. 


How have you seen courts respond to COVID?

It’s definitely very different across the board. A number of courts have been pushing trials out, but I also know that some courts are still bringing juries in and going forward with cases. None of my cases have been pushed forward, personally. At the beginning of COVID there was a lot more consistency in courts shutting things down, at least temporarily, but now i think there’s more variation in how courts are handling things. Some have opened up more than others, so it’s not uniform. I see that some judges are allowing hearings to take place on zoom. I think everyone is trying to get back on track and adjust to this. But trials are definitely the biggest challenge right now: how to safely have juries, witnesses, etc. 

More generally, I hope there will be good changes that come from everyone having to learn to work remotely. But we’ll see!