When a 20-year-old recovering addict approached San Diego's Zalkin Law Firm in February with sexual abuse allegations against the man who ran her rehabilitation program, Lisa Gary hesitated.
Gary said she felt reluctant to get closely involved in a case that already felt so personal. She herself is a recovering addict — and survivor of sexual abuse.
But the reluctance passed, she said. Two weeks ago, six women Gary now represents filed a civil complaint against David Powers, the alleged abuser and owner of a number of rehabilitation centers around San Diego. The suit also names The Rock Church, an evangelical megachurch with close ties to Powers' programs.
"These girls got into my heart," Gary said. "It's tough working with them. Especially if they're relapsing — seeing that and knowing I can't do anything about it, and knowing that there are lines as an attorney I can't cross: 'No you can't come live in my home,' and 'No, I can't bail you out of jail.'"
Gary is a 30-year-old native Californian who chooses oxfords over heels and wears her short hair pinned tightly to her head. She smiles more often than not, yet thrives on combat. She describes herself, aptly, as both sensitive and gritty. Her demeanor is more reminiscent of a rough-around-the-edges television cop with a heart of gold than its crisp lawyer counterpart.
Gary joined the Zalkin Law Firm in August 2013, after spending two years in personal injury law. When she was hired, the firm's founding partner, Irwin Zalkin, was looking for someone with five years of experience — Gary had two-and-a-half and still got the job.
Zalkin later said her confidence convinced him, but her resume was hard to ignore too; Gary had graduated summa cum laude from University of California at Santa Barbara and cum laude from Fordham University School of Law. She'd clerked for a chief judge in the Eastern District of New York and landed her pre-graduation summer associate gig at a prestigious global corporate law firm.
Not on that resume: The part of Gary's life that would distinguish her from many other attorneys who specialize in sexual abuse cases.
From about ages 5 to 9, as she grew up in a mobile home park in Poway, Calif., Gary was drugged and abused by her grandparents, she said. Her parents knew, "or should have known — lawyer speak," Gary said. They divorced when she was 10. At 10, she said, Gary also started secretly smoking cigarettes. At 11, she started drinking and was assaulted by a boy she knew. At 12, she dropped acid — the first drug she remembers doing — and got arrested at Disneyland for shoplifting a pencil on Mother's Day.
Gary was put in remedial classes, "where they just give up on you and let you watch movies instead of do work." She switched schools after being expelled in the ninth grade for smoking weed. She didn't have career ambitions; her parents were drug addicts, and she thought she'd join the family business.
When she was 17, Gary was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning and held at a mental health facility for 72 hours. There, a doctor ordered two IQ tests, she said. He told her that she scored in the top .8%. After that, she decided to start reading through a list offered by one of her school's English teachers. She fell in love with books — Jane Eyre, The Alchemist, novels by Thomas Hardy.
After graduating with a 1.8 GPA, Gary enrolled at Mira Costa Community College but failed out. She worked instead as an advertising representative for a trade magazine. Her girlfriend, who was a few years behind Gary in school, brought Gary into her family. And that's when everything changed, she said.
"For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people telling me that I wasn't bad, like, at my core. That I was sweet and gentle, and that I had a big heart, and I was a good person," Gary said.
When her girlfriend graduated high school and decided to go to UCSB, Gary followed her, enrolling at Santa Barbara City College while working nights as a parking lot attendant. This time, she finished her first semester with a 4.0.
After two years at the community college, she said, Gary applied to all of the UC schools and got into every one. She chose UCSB and majored in English. Her girlfriend wanted to be a lawyer, so when the time came, Gary decided to take the LSAT with her. After she scored higher than her girlfriend, Gary began going to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse to watch lawyers work. After graduating, she went to Fordham Law in New York.
But during her second year at Fordham, Gary began struggling with her sobriety, she said. By then, she had broken up with her girlfriend and would drink to deal with the stress. Between her second and third year, she was partying and doing drugs with the $3,200/week she made as a summer associate.
She eventually got help through an outpatient program. This time, it was her law school friends and sister — who's six years younger and grew up watching Gary "passed out on the couch and in hospitals" — encouraging her to get clean again. But it was the passion for her burgeoning career that kept her sober.
"I wanted it," she said "I wanted to be a lawyer. I had tasted it. I liked it. I was good at it. And I didn't want to lose it. I was about to, and that scared the shit out of me. Because I knew what the alternative was. I wanted this life. I wanted to be a lawyer and be my own woman and change the cycle."
After finishing law school, Gary moved back to San Diego. Today she still works to maintain her sobriety with the SMART Recovery program, a nationally recognized alternative to 12-step programs. Gary doesn't know if her sexual abuse made her an addict, but she knows it made it harder for her to escape her "wild phases."
"And, I think, mostly just interpersonally, it's harder for me to make friends," she said. "I have a hard time following rules."
Gary has been triggered twice at work; the first time was while talking to a victim (who was drugged and abused too) about the drugging.
"Every day I'm inundated with awful, graphic, horrible things happening to children. Every single day. And 9.9 times out of 10, I'm fine." That first moment she felt a flashback to her own trauma, no one would have known, she said. Gary is experienced in keeping her composure; if anything, she said, "I go a little cold."
This well-practiced composure has benefited Gary as a primary deposition attorney. During one recent deposition in Oregon, while questioning a Jehovah's Witness member accused of abuse, Gary said she had to stay cool while a woman unintelligibly shrieked at her.
"A deposition is like a game I get to play," she said, before laughing. "I sound like a sharky lawyer. But getting someone to say something that you know they know and know they don't want to tell you is the most satisfying experience in the world. It's deeply gratifying. I like the back-and-forth with the other attorneys. I like keeping my cool when they get riled up."
The secret to keeping cool?
"I don't know," she said, laughing again. "Having PTSD! Just get PTSD and you can do that."
Gary said she never gets nervous before the depositions themselves, though sometimes she thinks of her abilities as "magic" — capable of disappearing.
"Like when I'm fully engaged, I'll come up with something to ask and get at the information in a way that I couldn't have planned and didn't plan … When I get nervous is when I think, 'Oh god, what if that magic goes away?' I think people who know me would probably tell you that is me not recognizing my skill and thinking that it's fake."
Gary also doesn't regularly worry about staying sober, but the degree to which she's turned her life around can feel unreal at times — especially when she's sitting with a reporter in her favorite Mexican restaurant, a few miles away from that old trailer, talking about her grim past.
"There's a part of me that's always looking up at the other shoe circling above my head. Because it feels unreal, some of this. Telling you all of this, I realize how insane and unlikely it is. Then I go, 'Shit, it's gonna fall apart. It has to. It's too good to be true. There must be a catch.' And there doesn't have to be. I get to be in control of that …
"This is it," Gary said, "And now that I'm doing it, you would have to rip me away."
Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Jessica Testa at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.