By Malcolm Maclachlan
When Brian J. Panish stood before an audience at the Consumer Attorneys of California Convention in 2014, he referred to Deborah S. Chang by a nickname she had earned around the office: Changzilla.
“It was just a combination of her energy and passion,” Panish told The Daily Journal recently. “She’s just a separate being, like a superhero. She was smart and tough and never gave up. She was just such a force.”
Panish was receiving a Consumer Attorneys of the Year Award on behalf of himself and his team at Panish Shea & Boyle LLP, where Chang is of counsel. But on Saturday, Chang will receive an even greater honor from the consumer attorneys: a one-year term as the group’s president.
The backdrop will be a global pandemic and the organization’s first virtual convention. But the famously intense Changzilla is taking it in stride.
“At first I was so devastated, like I don’t get my moment,” Chang said about the virtual convention as she succeeds Micha Star Liberty of Liberty Law Office in Oakland.
But Chang said the virtual convention has allowed organizers to schedule speakers from around the state and the nation who wouldn’t be able to attend otherwise. These include actor Jamie Lee Curtis leading a tribute to late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The agenda for the year ahead is clear but difficult. The organization regularly fights for labor and sexual harassment protections, and laws limiting forced arbitration. But she said another cause will take precedence: fighting for court funding and getting the civil courts operating again.
Chang also noted that being stuck at home can have advantages for workaholics.
“One day I remember I had a hearing in the morning, three depositions, two board meetings and then a CAOC meeting at night,” she said. “No problem because I never left my house or took off my slippers. … Did you ever think you’d be living in LA and the last time you got gas was a month ago?”
And yes, she said, people still call her Changzilla.
“Yes, all the time,” Chang said. “They say, ‘Let’s put Changzilla on it…’ We went into a string of cases where we were winning eight-figure cases all in a row. We’d say we can sleep when the case is done.”
She even remembers Changzilla’s origin story. Opposing counsel told her a witness in a case was flying back to Florida the next day and would not come back. So Chang called three shifts of court reporters. By 2 a.m., she said, the other side offered to bring the witness back. Instead, the deposition wrapped up eight hours later.
“I said ‘We are now under a discovery referee’s order to continue this until it’s done. You shouldn’t have started this because I was willing to be reasonable.’ I would look up at times and my opposing counsel we’re sleeping.”
It wasn’t always this way. Chang remembers being a “black sheep” middle child in a family of “superstars.” Both her parents were doctors. Some of her siblings went to Harvard University or Stanford Medical School. For years she rebelled against being so studious. But then something happened.
“I fell in love with the law,” Chang said.
She quickly made up for lost time, clerking for Chief Judge Antoinette L. Dupont of the Connecticut Appellate Court and rising quickly through a series of firms.
Big verdicts followed: $17 million for the family of a blind man who fell through a gap at a Los Angeles train station, $37.5 million for the victim in a truck accident in Beverly Hills, and $160.5 million for a man who suffered a brain injury in a nightclub.
She might be best known for her roles in two cases. Chang, was part of the trail team in the wrongful death case of singer Michael Jackson. She, Panish and a colleague also represented a UCLA student slashed in the throat by a schizophrenic classmate. After an eight-year battle, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that universities have a duty of care to protect their students. Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, 2018 DJDAR 2629.
For her “pandemic project” earlier this year, she joined with five other prominent female plaintiffs’ attorneys to create a “super firm” called Athea Trial Lawyers LLP. It also includes Bibi Fell of Fell Law in San Diego; Lisa Blue from Baron & Blue PLLC in Dallas; Randi McGinn of McGinn, Montoya, Love & Curry PA in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Zoe B. Littlepage of Littlepage Booth Leckman in Houston; and Charla Aldous of Aldous Walker LLP in Dallas.
While Chang says she missed being in court, she said even over Zoom her craft remains the same, helping clients turn their personal tragedies into a compelling narrative that a jury can connect with.
“Every case I work on people say, ‘This should be a movie,’” Chang said. “You’re the star of the show and the whole world stops to hear your story. It never gets old.”