Alumna Spotlight: Linda Severin, '78
An interview with Robby Griswold
Linda Severin, RC and LSA '78, Social Science and Philosophy majors
She was a student who hardly spoke up in her RC courses but she expressed her ideas clearly and artfully in her writing. She funneled that grasp of language into a successful career in multiple kinds of law on both US continental coasts. She's also a dedicated athlete and played for the first three intercollegiate women's basketball teams at University of Michigan. She now calls Newton, Massachusetts home and her son, Greg, is a current Residential College student.
Tell us about your career path.
I went straight to law school at University of Virginia after graduating from the RC. Since law school, I’ve practiced law in a variety of settings and in three different cities. In New York, I first worked for a law firm doing litigation. One of the partners I worked with – John Sprizzo – became a federal judge and asked me to become his law clerk. That job was an amazing opportunity for a young attorney, exposing me to the wide range of civil and criminal cases handled in federal court while being mentored by a brilliant jurist. After leaving my clerkship, I became an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, where I handled criminal investigations, trials, and appeals. Fun fact: While at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I tried two major cases with the woman I later married.
After leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office, we moved to Seattle, where I practiced law at a big firm doing white-collar criminal defense work, which involved conducting internal investigations to figure out whether a company had violated the law, responding to investigations by the government, and negotiating with the government to resolve legal problems. I also helped companies beef up their internal compliance processes so they could avoid problems in the future. I then started a two-person firm with a colleague and friend. After he became a federal appellate judge, I went to work in-house at Boeing, then at a medium-sized firm. By that time, I’d had two children, and we decided to move to Boston to be closer to my in-laws.
After taking several years off when our children were young, I began working as a whistleblower attorney at a small firm in Boston. This work is, in many ways, like being a prosecutor. We learn about fraud from whistleblowers and bring actions on their behalf to recover money for the taxpayers. When we’re successful, our clients get a share of whatever the government recovers in the case. Our clients have received millions of dollars for speaking out against fraud. Since we work on a contingency basis (not charging clients unless we win), when we lose, we get zero.
I’ve also taught trial advocacy at New York Law School and the University of Washington Law School.
Could you share any cases or other experiences that stand out from your long legal career?
As a young attorney in New York, I was part of a trial team representing plaintiffs who were harmed by the Amoco Cadiz oil spill off of the cost of France in the English Channel. At the time, it was the largest oil spill in history and caused enormous damage to the northern coast of France. We prevailed after a seven-month trial.
As an Assistant U.S. Attorney, I was responsible for investigating and prosecuting violations of federal law. I handled many cases over the course of almost 8 years, including the trial of a man who was the leader of a gang responsible for numerous murders in New York City. When I was growing up, I imagined myself as a defense attorney representing accused persons, so it was somewhat surprising to end up as a prosecutor. In that role, I came to realize how critical it is to have people committed to equal justice handling these cases and making ethical, fair-minded decisions about how and whether to prosecute someone.
Shortly after we moved to Seattle in the early 1990s, there were a number of anti-LGBTQ initiatives that people were trying to get before voters. These initiatives sought to enshrine discrimination and included very extreme provisions, including prohibiting LGBTQ people from adopting and from teaching in public schools. My wife and I were part of a group of pro bono attorneys who fought successfully to keep those initiatives off the ballot.
Navigating the legal profession as a lesbian has been an interesting journey. When I began my career as an attorney in New York City in 1981, I didn’t know a single attorney who was “out” at work and I certainly wasn’t. In fact, I may not have been hired to be an Assistant U.S. Attorney a few years later if the FBI background check had picked up that I was a lesbian. I would have lost the job of a lifetime, and the Department of Justice would have lost a fine public servant. By the time I left the government and moved to Seattle in 1992, things weren’t much better. We moved because my partner (now wife) was hired to teach law at University of Washington. I didn’t feel that I could be open about the reason I was moving to Seattle without harming my chances to be hired, so I didn’t mention it, which was awkward to say the least. It turns out that my instinct was correct – I learned a few months after joining a firm that one of the key partners who interviewed me had criticized an associate for including a gay law student for on-campus interviews, saying “Why did you put him on the schedule, we’d never hire him!” without even considering the candidate’s credentials.
As time went on, society advanced, things got better overall, and – most importantly – we had children. Becoming a parent led me to overcome my reticence and get comfortable with being 100% out 100% of the time. The world was still sending out plenty of anti-LBGTQ messages, but I was not going to let my children pick up anything but pride in myself and our family from me. By the time we moved to Boston in 2004 (with battles over same-sex marriage still raging), we were out and proud. To our delight (and amazement), when we got married that fall, our son’s kindergarten teacher in our local public school even had the class create a congratulatory banner for us.
Back to other big case wins - as a whistleblower attorney, I was part of a team of attorneys who brought an action against a major pharmaceutical company, Amgen, for kickbacks in violation of the False Claims Act. Amgen paid hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties on our case and other related cases. I’m currently working on a number of other cases I’m excited about, which you may end up reading about in the newspapers if we are successful. It’s very inspiring to represent persons who have the courage to step forward as whistleblowers to expose wrongdoing.
Tell us about your experience playing basketball at U-M.
The year I came to U-M, Title IX had become the law of the land, and the Michigan Athletic Department finally established women’s intercollegiate sports in the 1973-74 academic year. I was a member of the first three women’s basketball teams there. We didn’t have much support from the University, but we worked extremely hard and were proud to represent Michigan. I’m still in touch with many of my teammates, and the University has done a lot in recent years to recognize the contributions of early women athletes.
What as your experience like as a student in the RC, and at U-M?
My experience in the RC taught me how important it is to “lean in” and engage with ideas. I was a first-generation college student who came to college after just three years of high school. I was young, shy, and very uncomfortable speaking up in class. It wasn’t until I was out in the professional world that I truly found my voice and confidence, but the small classes and teaching approach in the RC forced me out of my comfort zone and began that process.
One of my most fun memories was freshman year, when a group of women decided to start an intramural football team. A few male classmates took us seriously as athletes and coached us, and we ended up being pretty good. We played mostly against sororities (and a few other residence hall teams) and won the championship. Someone on the team managed to get the announcer at Michigan Stadium to announce our victory during one of Michigan’s games that fall.
My most memorable experience turned out to be meeting a fellow RC freshman at orientation, Robert Bianco. We’ve remained friends ever since, through career changes, cross-country moves, and various other major life events. We had different interests and friend groups in college, but the connection we made serendipitously at RC orientation lasted a lifetime.
As for the larger University as a whole, it truly is wonderful to be part of the largest alumni base in the world. Wherever I go, if I’m wearing anything Michigan-related or someone sees a Michigan bumper sticker on my car, I get a “Go Blue.” I happens in the grocery store, on the street, driving along in the car, everywhere! My wife, who did not attend Michigan, has a bumper sticker on her car and it constantly happens to her as well. Michigan seems to be especially popular in the Boston area, due in part to Tom Brady I suspect.
What advice would you give to a current RC student?
The advice I would give to my younger self (and to current and incoming RC students) is be unafraid to speak up and speak out in class. I was constantly getting feedback from professors that I had good ideas but that they never knew that until reading my papers because I was so quiet. The discourse and exchange of ideas that occur in college and, especially, in the small classes in the RC are a wonderful way to learn about the world, challenge and hone one’s own thinking, and acquire the intellectual and interpersonal skills for success after graduation. I also would encourage students to take full advantage – as I did not – of the accessibility of professors. They truly care and look forward to student visits and questions.
As for preparing for life, I would simply say to get comfortable getting out of your comfort zone if you want to be successful. My particular journey was from a shy, immature, closeted, first-generation student to a confident, successful attorney with a wonderful family. When I look back from where I am now to the person I was when I came to the RC, I’m amazed and grateful for the life I’ve had. I learned and grew the most when I was willing to take risks and face failure.
Congratulations, Linda, on your varied career in law, and here's to your continued success. We are proud to call you an RC graduate!
If you'd like to learn more about Linda and her firm, click these links:
Whistleblower Law Collaborative website // Linda Severin's firm profile page