She Can Do Anything

Local attorney is a passionate advocate for equality
By Julia McHugh
Photography by Susanna Godsey

Janean Acevedo Daniels remembers being on a playground as a young child and having this realization: "Girls can do anything boys can." Her actions as an adult have not only proven that fact, but made serious inroads to ensure women also have the same opportunities and legal rights as men. This passionate advocate for equality is also intensely committed to her family, forms close ties with her clients, and is delighted to call Santa Barbara home, having just completed a dream home in the Goleta hills.

Catapulted into the public eye with last year's discrimination suit resulting in a $3.2 million award for two Santa Barbara policewomen, Daniels is unabashedly "fired up," as she says, in her fight to right the wrongs of discrimination. "This is the same work I have been doing throughout my career," she emphasizes. "This case just truly established me, and now I can do more." (Click Here for an update on this case, tried with co-counsel David Nye.)

Daniels credits strong female role models for shaping her personality and spurring her drive to help others facing challenges of equality. She lovingly recalls her maternal grandmother, a single mother who found a secretarial job with the Los Angeles Board of Education. "She really ran the place," Daniels, said smiling. "In today's world, Gram would have been a CEO."

Her mother, Willowdean "Willie" Wigger, dreamed of being a radio scriptwriter, an option not available to many women at that time. So Willie attended Santa Barbara State Teacher's College at the old Riveria campus of what later became UCSB. She was at the top of her class and women's student body president when she met her future husband, also an educator, fresh out of the service. Janean was born in what was then a "rural" Malibu in the early 1960's, before the influx of Hollywood-types. Her mother stopped teaching full-time after Janean and two older sisters were born.

"Mom did not have the opportunity to pursue her dream, and that has been a source of inspiration and strength for me," Daniels says. "It helps me keep my life and career in balance. Had she lived today, she would have been a lawyer. Reading her letters is just incredible. She was an eloquent advocate for peace, anti-development and the women's movement. Now I know where I get my writing skills."

An older sister attended UCSB during the height of the Vietnam War and the beginnings of the women's movement. She would return home to Malibu to Janean, twelve years younger, amid talk about equality and the strides women were making. There were lively discussions around the dinner table about civil rights, inequities and peace. One day, Daniels caught attorney Gloria Allred on a television news conference and was captivated by the pioneering women's advocate. The seed was planted. Janean decided to go to law school to become an advocate for women's issues.

Tough Fighter

Following law school, Daniels joined a large Los Angeles firm, but her path was leading elsewhere, not to just women's issues, but overall discrimination. Her passion was evident, and a one-year clerkship with 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Justice Harry Pregerson in Pasadena helped cement her future. It was during the first Gulf war as that the judge, a former Marine, jokingly assigned military roles to his three clerks. "[Co-worker] John was a general handling strategy and Mark would be a computer expert. I, however, would be an Apache helicopter pilot." Daniels was delighted. "I guess I showed signs even then of being a tough fighter."

And fought she has. In the past fifteen years, her specialty has grown to encompass not only women's and gender issues, but discrimination, civil rights, sexual harassment, whistle-blowers and employee complaints, and more. As an employment lawyer, Janean not only fights to help the underdog, but also uses her ample people skills. "It was such a natural fit," she says. "Employment law requires people skills not only for the client, but for the employer and even the other counsel. These skills are the ones I enjoy. It all ties into why I wanted to work for women's rights and why I went to law school."

She recently obtained a widely publicized settlement in a sexual harassment suit against the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department. She is now engaged in a wrongful terminations suit involving a Muslim worker of Middle Eastern decent, a "David and Goliath" three-year gender discrimination battle against giant Raytheon, and she represents a family involved in the Santa Barbara High School coaching controversy.

'Brilliant Lawyering'

"She used to be an 'up and coming star," says longtime friend, Superior Court of California Commissioner Deborah Talmage. "And now she has arrived. Early in the police department case, even before a suit was filed, Janean sent a letter outlining some very reasonable, specific steps the police department could take to improve, such as having a diversity officer. The department pretty much refused to do any of them. Two years later at trial, Janean was able to enter this letter into evidence to show the jury how reasonable her clients had been. It was brilliant lawyering of the best style."

Talmage sees Janean as "very much of that style. Her settlement proposal to the police, as I mentioned, was a good example of this style. Mediation is win-win, as opposed to win-lose. How female is that?"

This petite, brown-haired woman develops close relationships with clients. It is the individual, one-on-one contact that Daniels thrives on. "I could 'grow' my business, but then I would lose this personal connection. I live their cases, I believe in them. You can't fake it," she says, leveling a direct gaze. "And the defense knows that."

Her colleagues and clients obviously agree. Santa Barbara Woman Lawyers named Janean "2003 Woman of the Year". Juanita Smith, who with Micki Hause, was represented by Daniels and her co-counsel, David Nye, in the police department case, says: "During the case, I would have my ups and downs - more downs than up actually - and it felt like Janean could almost feel the pain I was going through. That's what makes her special."

"She is incredibly intelligent, and has an amazing work ethic, but her greatest strength is the ability to relate to people, to help you feel that you are worthwhile and your cause is just," adds Hause. "I can say with conviction that she made the process the best it could possibly be. When she puts her support behind you, it is 100% there."

Nye describes her as someone not easily intimidated. He calls her "a ball of fire," and says,
She will not back down."

Family Time

Janean came to Santa Barbara after seeing an ad for an associate for Hollister & Brace. After a few years with the firm, she struck out on her own. She's always felt affection for this area, the site of her parents' romance and her sister's activism. She loves the natural beauty, and there is one more draw, she is married to a surfer.

Husband Jim also grew up in Malibu. They were high school sweethearts and got engaged during Janean's freshman year at UC Berkeley. They married the summer before she entered UCLA Law School. They now have two children, Tynan, aged 10 and Jacey, who is 6. In a true example of gender equality, Jim stays home with the kids and helps her with bookkeeping and office management. He was the owner and builder of their recently - completed hilltop dream home.

Daniels' mother died when she was 21, and that loss has made her avidly committed to "family time," even while engaged in such a demanding profession. Just months ago she passed up a large case because she doesn't work weekends or evenings, except during large trials. At home are Jim and the kids, plus her father Ray, who lives in his own guest house on the property. She is convinced that close contact with the family was instrumental in his recent remission from cancer.

"My family is so much a part of who I am, but I don't want to be 'the lawyer' at home," she says, adding with a smile, "though my husband says I always answer a question with a question, always looking for more clarity, digging……" What would she like her daughter to learn from her as a role model? "She already has it: love and compassion are the essence of life. And she can do anything in life that she wants."


Copyright 2003 Coastal Woman Magazine

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