How I Got My Job: Gina Occhipinti Borasi on redefining what it means to be a lawyer
Gina Occhipinti Borasi almost quit her pursuit of a career in law after feeling unable to be the shark lawyer she thought it was necessary to be to succeed as an attorney. After finding inspiration with a compassionate mentor, Occhipinti Borasi went on to become a successful personal-injury lawyer who leads with a person-first attitude.
When most people think of personal-injury lawyers, they think of billboards scattered along the interstate boasting aggressive nicknames like “The Tiger” with big, pop-out lettering and stone-faced men in suits.
When Lookout spoke with Gina Occhipinti Borasi, a Santa Cruz-based personal injury lawyer, it was clear she was anything but that.
Since she was a teenager, Occhipinti Borasi knew she had the persuasive and argumentative potential to pursue a career in law, but doubted her ability to be a good lawyer because she lacked the aggressive personality that she thought essential to being an attorney.
In fact, Occhipinti Borasi says that is one of the biggest misconceptions about lawyers — that they’re overly antagonistic and argumentative. Now, Occhipinti Borasi’s personal philosophy is to be a good listener and a good critical thinker, which has taken her far.
Her turning point was during her time as a paralegal, or a legal assistant, when she met a new attorney in the office, Lesley Harris. Occhipinti Borasi says Harris was “really intelligent, professional, and kind. And after watching her and listening to her talk on the phone with clients and other attorneys, I realized that I can have the kind of personality that I have and still be a successful lawyer — so I applied to law school.”
Occhipinti Borasi’s path to law began during her middle school years, when a teacher read through her persuasive paper and knew that Occhipinti Borasi was destined to be a lawyer.
Originally from Morgan Hill, Occhipinti Borasi left her hometown at 18 for the wooded hills of UC Santa Cruz to pursue a legal studies degree. In addition to her legal studies, she took courses in women’s studies and politics — interests that would shape her future career.
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While in college, she interned at California Rural Legal Assistance where she got experience in tenant law, working with underrepresented communities within Santa Cruz County. Occhipinti Borasi also volunteered with Monarch Services, doing tasks like client intake, accompanying women to court, and walking women to their cars to ensure their safety for the Santa Cruz County-based organization, which offers bilingual crisis intervention and prevention services for domestic violence survivors.
After her time at UCSC, Occhipinti Borasi moved to San Francisco to attend San Francisco State University for a graduate program in women’s studies.
Occhipinti Borasi left her master’s program to go to Monterey College of Law before completing her thesis. Although she was unable to return to SFSU and receive her degree due to her already-excessive student debt, she says she still took a lot of knowledge and training from the program.
Occhipinti Borasi’s first job as a paralegal was for a personal-injury attorney, with whom she worked for seven years, throughout her time in graduate and law school.
After she passed the bar exam in 2008, Occhipinti Borasi struggled to find a job amid the recession. Taking all of the knowledge she learned from her paralegal job, she decided to open up her own personal-injury practice. While Occhipinti Borasi got her business up and running, she waited tables at the Crow’s Nest at night and practiced law during the day.
Occhipinti Borasi explained that having her own practice means that she is not only a lawyer, but she also is in charge of running a business. She said she has to search for office space, acquire malpractice insurance, open a business bank account, buy office supplies and, of course, find clients, whom she found via referrals from other attorneys. If she were working for a larger firm, Occhipinti Borasi would do only legal work, not any of the extra duties that come with running her own business.
Being her own boss, Occhipinti Borasi has more flexibility with her hours. With a firefighter husband and two young daughters, Occhipinti Borasi emphasized the importance of being able to do things like picking up her daughters from school, which she says she would not be able to do working for a big firm.
Occhipinti Borasi also said that with her own practice, she is able to keep 100% of the legal fees from settled cases, whereas she would get only a percentage of it in a firm — although she does have to use some of that profit toward things like rent to keep her business running.
By nature, Occhipinti Borasi said, the legal profession is adversarial — there is always conflict. This coupled with the constant deadlines can make the job considerably stressful, which is a downside.
Throughout her day, Occhipinti Borasi investigates cases — the majority of which involve automobile accidents — and looks at documents like medical records, police reports and wage loss to present claims to insurance companies.
The process of a case usually begins by meeting with the insurance adjuster for the at-fault driver. If the two parties cannot resolve the bodily injuries claims, a lawsuit is then filed and Occhipinti Borasi works with the attorney who represents the insurance company of the at-fault driver.
Before she can even begin a new case, though, Occhipinti Borasi must go through her client-intake process. It is important to Occhipinti Borasi that she gets to know her clients so she understands not only their legal situation, but who they are as a person first.
Because Occhipinti Borasi specializes in personal injury, she investigates how a client’s injury affects their daily life. Some of the questions she typically asks clients include: How is your sleep? Can you play with your kids? Can you still walk your dog? Can you do things around the house?
“It’s a really stressful situation, getting into an accident,” Occhipinti Borasi said, “especially when they have insurance adjusters calling them and they’re hurt and they don’t feel good. It feels really good to me to take that burden off of them and let them take care of themselves.”
For Occhipinti Borasi, this process of intake questioning is crucial to humanizing her clients to insurance companies. She says that because insurance companies see so many cases, it’s easy for them to forget that there is an actual person behind the case, so she tries to use things like photos or personal anecdotes to tell the story of the client’s life.
One of the unique aspects of Occhipinti Borasi’s job is that she has the opportunity to volunteer for the Elementary Law Program, or “Cookie Court.” Put on every year for Santa Cruz County fifth graders, Cookie Court lets students act out a fake criminal trial at the Santa Cruz courthouse, where they represent “Danny Defendant” and play all of the roles involved in a criminal trial.
Occhipinti Borasi also participates in student mentorship programs through Your Future is Our Business, where she goes to classrooms and teaches them about what it’s like being a lawyer. She loves getting to meet with and inspire young students who express interest in law.
Something Occhipinti Borasi emphasizes is that there is no one type of person who can go into law. “I really think that there are so many different types of law that you can practice that really any personality can pursue this profession,” Occhipinti Borasi said. “I know attorneys who are on the shy side and they don’t want to go to court so they do more transactional work like estate planning or contract review. There are other attorneys who like being in court, they have that type of personality. They’re more extroverted and quick on their feet and love that intensity.”
The financial realm of Occhipinti Borasi’s career varies just as much as the personalities within it. Occhipinti Borasi says in the nonprofit sector, an attorney could make around $100,000 a year, whereas she says some of the top district attorneys can be in the $200,000s. For business owners such as Occhipinti Borasi, income may start around $50,000 and rise from there.
According to Occipinti Borasi, no one sector of law is more financially competitive than another.
Occhipinti Borasi says she hopes the legal profession will diversify in the future. “We need more attorneys who are fluent in other languages and who have unique backgrounds,” she said. “This will allow more individuals in the community to access legal services and may take legal representation to a greater level. Attorneys of varied backgrounds can bring more empathy, understanding, and creativity to a case.”
A great way that future lawyers can begin, Occhipinti Borasi says, is by getting out into the community working with legal nonprofit organizations that advocate for things like housing assistance, domestic violence survivors or worker’s rights. “Volunteering allows you to help underserved individuals in the community while also exploring your passions,” she said. “If you feel fulfilled by the work, consider law school. There are several part-time evening programs for working students.”
Additionally, it is more important than ever for new lawyers to be well-versed in technology. From digital courtroom presentations to online research and even artificial intelligence, the legal field is no exception for the 21st century’s rapidly changing technological world.
“If you have the passion, don’t hold back because you think you don’t fit the mold,” said Occhipinti Borasi. “In order for our community to have access to justice, we need diversity, so I encourage students to take the leap.”
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