Elisabeth Steele - Public Speaking Specialist and Lawyer

Kyla Denanyoh (KD), host of You Are A Lawyer:

You are listening to the You Are A Lawyer Podcast. I am the podcast host, Kyla Denanyoh, a 2015 law school graduate. This podcast was created to share the experiences and successes of law school graduates who created their own paths to career success. 

In episode 41, I am speaking with a public speaking specialist and lawyer. This guest teaches educators and lawyer-types to communicate online. Based in Honolulu, Hawaii, today's guest is Elisabeth Steele.

KD: So Elisabeth, welcome to the podcast.

Elisabeth Steele (ES), Owner of Elisabeth Steele LLC:  Thank you so much for having me, Kyla. And I wanted to say, I was so glad that I found you.

KD:  Aww.

ES:  I was like, "I think she's talking about me. I never took the bar. I'm not ... I'm convinced she's speaking to me."

KD:  I am. And I have to say this. I never knew this, but you are in Hawai'i, and I think that is the coolest thing ever.

ES: Well, thank you. I have been in Hawai'i for about, oh, 16, 17 years. I've lost count to this point. But I'm from suburban Washington, D.C. College Park in Prince George's County, Maryland. Both my husband and I grew up in PG County and found our way out here. And we love our life and our friends and our family. So some days I-

KD:  Yeah. So 16 years. Can you even imagine coming back to the Mainland?

ES:  Yes, actually.

KD:  Okay.

ES:  So we have a four-year-old daughter, and I will say that I've been thinking more and more about it. One set of the grandparents is here, which is amazing. She gets to see them every day. Yeah. I would love it if she were closer to both her paternal grandparents and aunts and uncles. And so we do think about it, the cost of living, and all the things, that I must say that this is a great place to ride out a global pandemic.

KD:  Absolutely. I'm sure. Side note, my husband and I have been looking at places to vacation, and I was like, "Why don't we go to Hawai'i?" We're like, "Because it's expensive to eat there and all the rest," but Hawai'i would be a great place.

ES:  Oh my gosh. Well, please look me up when you're here. I'll run out to the airport to bring you a malasada and tall cup of coffee and welcome you.

KD: Yeah. I need to get out. I hadn't been anywhere since May, 2019. So I needed to have one trip to be like, "Okay, I remember traveling." Because I wanted them to come with me to Atlanta, because I stayed with my law school roommate and we just were hanging out.

All we did was eat and go to museums. But we were just so overwhelmed with, do we travel with the stroller? Do we hope Uber has a stroller? Do we do? And I was like, "It's just getting to be too much. Just let me go and come back." But of course, once I was there, like one day in to the trip I'm like, "Oh, she would love it here. She would love to do this and that and this and that."

ES:  And there's time. And there's time. I miss traveling for all the reasons that you just stated, this idea of kind of, I remember what it was like to travel. But also I remember what I'm like when I'm traveling. Right? There really is something kind of magical that happens when you're in a place where no one knows you and you can just explore the city, explore yourself exploring the city. It's lovely.

KD:  Let me tell you, the first hour when I got off the plane, I almost was like, I felt like I was 19. I was like, "I can just go to any restaurant. I can just Uber wherever I want to go." I ended up getting an Uber to the museum and then I just walked two miles to a restaurant and was just hanging out. And I was like, "No one's looking for me. No one's expecting stuff." I was like, "I don't have to feed anyone while I'm eating breakfast." I was like, "Oh my gosh, this feels great." She's great though.

ES: I'm making little hearts, little hand hearts for those of you who are listening because that's just-

KD: I know. So you're in Hawaii now, originally from suburban D.C. And your resume is quite impressive, very impressive. You actually worked for The White House before attending law school. And you were in the role of special assistant to Thurgood Marshall Jr. Did that inspire you to attend law school?

ES: I think I always knew that I wanted to go to law school. I didn't know what that meant, but I think as a first generation law student, I didn't have a lot of understanding of what was going to be like. But knew this is something that smart people did, people who had good grades, you either went to medical school or law school.

ES: And I didn't have any facility in math and science. And so off to law school I went. And I was a political science major. I was a White House intern. And I looked back at myself and I almost don't recognize her, but she was very ambitious and she was like, "I'm going to do this and this and this." And she did some of those things.

ES: And working for Thurgood Marshall, Jr was absolutely the highlight of my young career. He's an extraordinary person. I learned so much from him. We're very different. He's very laid-back and funny and I am like the Energizer Bunny. And so we were quite the team, and I was really a Girl Friday to him.

ES: His position was Assistant to the President and Secretary to the Cabinet. And it was really, it was a magical, magical time. Our offices were in the West Wing and we had pagers, which at the time was amazing. Because no one had pagers yet. This was like the before times.

ES: And it was walking into the West Wing to go to work, eating at the White House mess, and sharing hallways with famous people. It was like a dream. It was also a thousand bazillion years ago. So when I looked back at pictures, I'm like, "Oh wow." It does feel like it's in a galaxy far, far away from my present situation.

KD: Yeah. So were you working on legal matters as the special assistant?

ES: No. I was pretty much working on his schedule, so I'm keeping my boss on schedule. Literally, it's a little bit like being somebody's secretary. But I think that, it's like, they call it a special assistant, but you're just really the person who manages the details, where he needed to be, what time. It was, it was a magical time. And so if you're listening, Thurgood, I missed you terribly and hope you're well. We actually just got in touch after many years. We emailed back and forth our key memories from those days.

KD: Yeah. So I'm going to fan girl here right now. Did you go into the Oval Office? Have you been in there ever?

ES: Yes. Yes. I have. I have. Yeah. It's like the chicken skin. It's like "West Wing," but a lot smaller, like the "West Wing" television tour. Which is way, way smaller.

KD: Okay. Smaller.

ES: It's very teeny place, and you'll be there. So when you go, you'll be like, "Oh yeah, Elisabeth said it's really small." Think of like a tiny house.

KD: I'm picturing you knocking on the door and like, "Mr. Marshall, you have a meeting in 10 minutes."

ES: I did a lot that.

KD: Okay. Very cool. Well, that's exciting. And so not to downplay what you did next, you then went to Yale Law School. What was Connecticut like for you?

ES: I was actually born in New Haven. My father was a graduate student at Yale. He has a PhD in psychology. And I went back to Connecticut as an adult. I think I started law school at 26, 27. And I have to say, New Haven at the time, it's a city with lots of challenges, was a bit gray, rainy and not particularly beautiful place.

ES: And I really found law school to be kind of not my jam. So it was difficult three years. I will say that my friendships that I made in law school. Wow. I mean, it sounds like you just had a wonderful visit with your law school roommate. My best friends from law school, they are very much present in my life now 20, 25 years later.

KD: So law school's typically a tough time for people. Did you ever get to a time were you enjoyed law school or were you like, "Wow, when can this be over?"

ES: I was like, "Wow, when can this be over?" Pretty much from the jump. And it was a really long three years. I felt like a fish out of water. I think was much more about me and what I was kind of going through personally at the time. And then there's just like all the pressures of law school. And then of that law school, it was really challenging. And I talk to young people all the time about whether to go to law school under my current role.

ES: And I always suggest to them, "Go and reach out and talk to some lawyers, find some lawyers." And I just didn't have any of my immediate network. The people that I worked with at The White House who were attorneys, were not practicing. And I kind of didn't put that together. Like, "Oh, all these people went to law school and they're super smart and they're doing all these exciting things. I want to do those things." Right.

ES: I didn't realize that those things are not what many of their law school classmates ended up doing. Yeah. And so I chose exemplars who they themselves had made unusual choices. So it was hard for me. I didn't get the whole clerkship thing, and I think I was too shy. I'm not shy, but in that way I was very shy about kind of saying to people like, "Wait, what is this thing again?"

ES: And like, "Why is everyone freaking out about clerkships and feeder classes and professors in the star system?" And I was just kind of turned off by all of it. And so I holed up with a couple other students who also had been out a couple years, and we just kind of rode it out together, ate a lot of pizza, watched a lot of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and waited for it to be over.

KD: So those really good friends that you made, were they out-of-state students as well?

ES: Yes. Yup.

KD: And I asked that, I know you're probably like, what? And audience, bear with me. So I was looking back at law school and I had five people that we were just thick as thieves. And we were all out-of-state students studying in Louisiana. And I think there was just something, we could just look at each other and know that you weren't from Louisiana, and it just like bonded us all.

ES: Yeah. That's hilarious. So I love that. I think that happens at the University of Hawai'i Law School. I think there's a certain bond that emerge and are developed between our out-of-state students for our... Very few students at the Yale Law School who are also from Connecticut. I found.

ES: It's really much more of a kind of a national school, so people are coming from all over. So my besties, one was from Austin, Texas, and the other actually grew up in Texas and was living in Massachusetts beforehand. So I think we looked across the sea of faces and connected in other ways, because we were just enough older that the rest of it just kind of seemed a little high school-y.

KD: I was going to say, my mind is saying frivolous, but I'm like-

ES: Yeah. It was like all these eager beavers ready to take on the world, and they all wanted to work at the White House, and I felt like I just came from the White House. But I do feel like my crew, the things we really just enjoyed about each other is that we have this little, little sliver of real, real life that we could kind of bring into our friendship. Yeah,

KD: Yeah. Absolutely. That's a really good perspective. And that's interesting because me and my bestie, the one I was just with, we were older when we went to school as well. So there might have been just overall something just about each other that drew us in. So I find it so fascinating that law school was like this, oh my God, terrible place. Because I would've thought the White House would be like that, maybe in some departments.

ES: That's interesting. I think it probably was. I think there are lots of... I remember a lot of people who I worked with had known each other previously, had worked in the campaign and then jumped from campaign work to work at the White House. And I didn't do that. I was a college student and was an intern and then a staffer.

ES: And so I remember definitely feeling, even in that situation, that my creation story didn't match theirs. And felt like they would talk about, "Oh, remember the time when we were in Arkansas? I'd be like, "Yeah, no, I don't. I wasn't. No." So I think maybe that's a theme that I've actually seen in my life. I'm 47. And I feel like only recently have I started to kind of feel like, "Wait, no, actually this is just who I am. And I take up a lot of space and that's who I am." I'm late to that game. Very late.

KD: But as long as you find it, that's all that matters. So okay.

ES: Thank you. Thank you.

KD: So speaking of, this is just who you are. Currently, you're working as the director of admissions with the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. What are most days like as the director of admissions?

ES: The University of Hawai'i Law School is a really special place and our students are extraordinary. They come typically from the Hawaiian islands and all over the Pacific. And I find kind of watching them on that journey to be incredibly exciting. My days, I think in the last five or six years have not been personally as interesting to me as they were in the beginning when I was kind of figuring this whole job out.

ES: I'm one of those folks who gets really excited about new projects and enthusiasms. In the beginning, it was like, "Oh, we're going to innovate. We're going to do these great things." And then it's like, "Okay. We figured out a system that works pretty well, and now it's just kind of running itself." And that's when I started kind of feeling like, "Oh wait, is there other things I can be doing that are kind of outside this?"

KD: What else is there?

ES: Yeah, exactly. And then we had a global pandemic and lots of time to kind of examine what made us happy, where we wanted to be and I chose to leave. So I will be leaving the law school after 12, 13 years.

KD: Oh wow.

ES: Yes. I'm pretty pumped.

KD: Breaking news. You guys heard it here first.

ES: That's right. That's right. She's out. She's out.

KD: Okay.

ES: I have a background in online teaching, undergraduate teaching, which I did before I came to the Law School. And so I'm going to be working for the Centre for Teaching Excellence, which is the place that kind of supports and trains our TAs and our new faculty. It helps our faculty move on to promotion and tenure. And then in addition to that, I'll continue to do what brings me great joy, which is helping people feel more comfortable on camera.

KD: I don't know what it is, like you can do Instagram Live and Facebook Lives and it still is not the same as being on Zoom with your camera. It's just not. I don't know what it is. So is teaching online and having that background, is that what prompted you to start ES, LLC where you work as a virtual stylist?

ES: Yes. It is. It's so funny, virtual stylist. I'm like, "Am I a virtual stylist? She's talking about me. I am, I-am a virtual stylist." I taught online and I found that it was possible to really make connections, authentic real connections with people over video, which really surprised me because everyone's like, "Oh, online, this and the other." And I was like, "Oh, well, just wasn't my experience."

ES: And then fast forward when COVID happened, our Dean asked me to chair the faculty committee for online readiness. And it was a fascinating summer, the summer before COVID Spring. And I realized, oh my goodness, I have lots of skills and experiences that I can bring to this that can help my colleagues and help our students.

ES: And so watching, being a part of that change, I found really invigorating. And one of the things I kept returning to was this kind of about the ability to make connections. Right. And how we did that and why it works and when does it not work? All right. A lot of us are like, "Death by Zoom. Death by PowerPoint."

ES: And so it just became super interested in figuring out how do you mitigate for that? How do we kind of claw back to some semblance of reality when we're limited just to kind of video conferencing? And so it's been a ton, a ton of fun. And I've met great people like you and others who are lawyers who are kind of marching to their own drums. And I love it.

KD: Okay. So do you only teach lawyers and train lawyers, or will you train anyone?

ES: That's a great question. I started with lawyers and law students and law professors. And I would say, maybe three quarters of my clients continue to be kind of law firms, law schools, professional associations. And then I'm a teacher at heart. I actually have a big contract with the Prince George's County Maryland Public Schools, of which I am a graduate.

ES: And so that's been really pulling me back to the classroom. So I love it. I love working with public school teachers. I think what they do is incredibly important, especially during these strange times. And yeah, I have to say, if anyone's doing it well, our teachers are finding ways to connect online. So then yeah, when's the gamut? So I wouldn't say it's limited to it.

ES: I think it's just kind of where I got my start. And all of my clients are people who have seen me somewhere and then hired me to do what I've done again. And that's been incredibly affirming. Some people are like, "Wait, you want me?" You know what I mean? They're like, "Yes, I saw you at so and so. You're exactly what we want." And that feels great. So I'm not going to say I'm viral sensation, but I will say that word of mouth referrals, they just make you feel all warm and gooey inside.

KD: Absolutely. You're very close to being a viral sensation. Your videos are so colorful and it's just like, I can't stop watching. You're you're happy, but it's genuine. Your smile reaches your eyes and you're rocking it. So the creation of own company, was it started because of everything that was happening in 2020 plus you were looking for something else?

ES: I think I was definitely getting antsy. There was no question about that. Then 2020 in so many, so many different ways. And it was actually a woman who I met who was at Stetson Law School. And she said, "You really should be doing this. You should like start a company and I'll hire you." And I was like, "Oh, whatevers." I was like, "Just call me. I'll do it for anytime." Right.

ES: And Joanne was like, "No, really, this is what you should be doing." And so it was a pivotal little moment. I think there are times that someone kind of speaks to you or connects with you in a way. And she's still kind of my touchstone. I'm always out there like, "Joanne, look at me, I'm over here. I'm doing it. I'm doing that thing." I'm absolutely grateful to her for kind of seeing how much I loved it and speaking it into reality.

ES: I could do this. And so it was literally after that conversation, I was like, "Well, why not?" I had earned tenure at the University of Hawai'i as a faculty specialist, is what we call it here. And so I had kind of gotten used to thinking, oh, I'm just going to retire here. I've got like a good 20 years in me. I'm like, "I can't do this for 20." You know what I mean? Like, "I can't. I can't. I need more."

ES: And it's been women at every point. And I've always worked for men in male environments, but I feel like ES, LLC it's coming to a fruition because of lots of support from amazing women who supported me and said, "Oh my gosh. No, really like hire this woman." Wow. It's like, this is exciting. If you started thinking about smiles reaching my eyes, so can I go back to that? Because one of the things I had gotten my whole life, Kyla, is like, "She's so fake." Do you know what I mean?

KD: Really?

ES: Yeah. And I'm like, I don't know what to do with that. Because I was like, "Wait, no, this is just who I am." Right. And every once in a while, someone will be like, "Oh, you're just too much." And it's just like, "Wow, like that hurts," because that's not like a show. This is actually me all of the time. And so it's been a wild ride, but I feel like it's been a wild ride to return to my true self.

ES: I think I often tried to be what other people expected or wanted me to be. And then I was just miserable. Right. And so I feel like you saw me, then you know that I'm really having fun.

KD: So there's a couple things to that. So for everyone listening, after you look at the show notes and you go and follow Elisabeth on social media, she puts out video content. Not the only thing she does, but a lot of the video content it's her explaining something or diagramming something or showing how to make something better.

KD: And as a new person on TikTok, I try to do just a small video where I'm like mouthing the words to a movie. Oh my goodness. Like you have to overact to get it. What you're do in your normal life does not portray on a camera. Does that make sense?

ES: It totally does. I was just talking to some teachers at the University about this. I feel like TikTok has so improved my teaching. I always prided myself as someone who really cared about teaching and wanting to engage students. But TikTok, I liken it to folks who said they've done improv and how that comedy stand-up has helped them become better speakers, better performers. And I'm like, TikTok is a humbling experience.

ES: There's no wiggle room. Like it either works or it totally doesn't work. And there's still reasons... I'm not sure why something took off and another thing didn't. And people are like, "Oh, it's the algorithm." But I don't think it's that. I think it's actually sometimes you hit onto a truth or a moment that people connect with.

ES: And they're making content for free and sharing it. And I'm going to pee my pants laughing so hard. And laughing that hard. And I may have also talked to several lawyers about how they might benefit from actually understanding and learning kind of the rhythm of this new medium. It's exciting. It's exciting. I can't wait to see what you're doing out there.

KD: It is. It's very exciting. And what I love about listening to your story, I don't even think I... I think I may have overlooked the part that you were a professor. I mean, you've done all of these highly organized, very structural things, right? White House, law school, professor, director of admissions. You can't just say, "Oh, today we're going to paint the offices pink." You know what I mean? You can't do what you want in any of these roles and now you are pivoting into something where you can. So that's a really big deal

ES: At the Law School, I've worked for two amazing deans. One with whom I've worked for 11 years, Dean Avi Soifer. Who is just a prince among men, and who really me a lot of latitude. "You've got an idea, just do it." And I could deliver. Very much appreciated the last year or so with Dean Camille Nelson, she's the real deal.

ES: And we were friendly before, but seeing her in this role, it's just like wow. She said to me, when I said, "I think I want to leave." And she said, that she admired the choice. And she said something, which I hadn't realized at the time, which is very similar to what you said. She's like, "It's really quite powerful to decide how you want to spend your time and who you want to spend it with."

ES: And that's something, maybe because I didn't know businesspeople, I didn't have entrepreneurs in our family. So this was like, "Whoa, wait, really? I'm just out here and people are..." I'm creating my content. I'm connecting with people who I feel get me, and it's building on itself. And it's like, "Whoa, I could have been doing this all a along." And so I love it. And it really is the people along the journey with me, that's been all the better.

KD: And it may not have picked up if you did it five years ago. This might be just the perfect time for it.

ES: I don't know that this existed five years ago.

KD: Yeah. There's that too.

ES: And so it really is exciting to look out now and see lots of other people who are entering this field and bringing so much energy to it from all different walks of life. Right. And so so people who are former actors, former radio talk show host, right. Everybody kind of brings their own angle into it. It's a lot of fun.

KD: Yeah. One of my, she's my mentor in my head, someone that I follow online Malik Teele, and her quote is "Create the things you wish existed." And I'm like, "I love that."

ES: I do love that. Feel like I have to find something to write with, I love that. And I feel like, I don't know whether it's because I'm looking for them, but I just feel like I keep getting these signals from the universe of other strong women who have said, "Oh no, I can go my own way." Right.

ES: "I can make my own path." That I'm like, "Yes. And me, and me too. Me too." And so I love it that people are using podcasts, for example, right. To spotlight unusual stories. And I think it can be so empowering to hear stories and to think about choices you've made in your own life and what you might do differently.

KD: Yeah. Absolutely.

ES: Inspiration.

KD: Yeah. So I just have a couple of things here. So in addition to ES, LLC, you also volunteer with a number of different organizations. Do you have any details about the work that you did with a law school admission's Minority Network?

ES: So The Minority Network, which we now call The Network, literally a group of people of color in law school admissions and who get together to really reconnect, to commiserate, to strategize together. I've been on the executive board, just stepping down now for, oh, it's been years, many years. And I will say that the experiences I've with my colleagues, I look to them. It's like having your, like your aunties or your big sisters. You know what I mean?

ES: And some big brothers too, it's been a place where I found so much comfort and inspiration from other folks who do this kind of work. And so I mean, my role was just to kind of facilitate our listserv and keep everybody kind of welcome new people. But I had a mentor, Chloe Reid who was previously the admissions Dean at USC law school. And she and I become lifelong friends. And it's been a great network. Thank you for asking about that.

KD: Of course.

ES: It's the time anyone's done that. So thank you.

KD: Yeah. I thought it was fascinating. I was looking at it. For everyone who doesn't know when I prepare for the podcast, I always look at a guest's LinkedIn page and I ask them for a biography and about 11 questions where they talk about themselves. And so I have a little bit of background information. And unfortunately I can't talk about everything, but there are a number of things that I'm like, "Ooh, that, that, that," so that one jumped out at me.

ES: Oh well, thanks.

KD: And then lastly, Elisabeth, before we started recording, you mentioned that you were so happy to be here and you were like, 'Oh, this podcast is for me." What was it about the podcast that made you want to share your story?

ES: Oh, thank you. Someone had shared an interview that you had done. I went and I was like, "Oh, that's interesting." And so then I went and clicked and I found you. And then I went and found the website. And I loved how you spoke so candidly about your experience taking the bar exam.

ES: And I just thought, wow, like I never took a bar (exam) for a bunch of reasons. Not because I didn't think I could do it, but because I knew I want to practice. I didn't know where I wanted to practice. And I was just kind of over it and done. I was like, "Look, I got the degree. I'm out of here."

KD: What else do you want?

ES: But I do remember, and actually I think it's Thurgood who said, "If you don't take the bar, the rest of life, you're going to be answering this question, which is like, why didn't you take it? Are you not smart enough?"

ES: And I haven't had that experience. And that was one thing I was like, "Oh, I love this idea, that there just need to be shame in this." Right. That you can walk away from something that kind of isn't serving you. Whoa. You can go to Yale Law School and, think I'm going to be a miserable attorney, and think it's okay to say that and to share it. And just because I'm good at something doesn't mean you have to do it.

KD: Absolutely. Yeah. And what I love, and it sounds weird to brag on my show, but I talk to so many diverse lawyers. I mean, people that loved practicing and just opened a business on the side, people who never took the bar, people who hate practicing. And I was really intentional about not making this "I hate the bar exam" show.

KD: It's just, if you've graduated from law school, you're a lawyer. Come talk to us. And I'm actually shocked at all the diverse job roles and businesses that people have. I'm like, wow, we are really out here doing everything.

ES: We are. And your show actually gave me permission to kind of lead with that. If someone made the assumption, I was licensed, I would always correct them, ethics and all that. I would say, "Oh no, I'm not licensed to practice. I can't give you advice." Right. But I never thought of it as a strength. Right? Like the choice to not do something is actually the choice that's valuable. So thank you.

KD: Absolutely.

ES: Thanks for telling our stories. Thanks for making it okay to talk about it.

KD: It is. It absolutely is. You can go to Yale Law School. You can work at the White House, and you cannot want to practice. Who would've thought? Who?

ES: I don't think I would have. My younger self wouldn't have thought this was an option.

KD: See, so it is. So thank you so much, Elisabeth.

ES: You are very welcome. Bye.

KD: Bye. 

KD: Thank you for listening to You Are A Lawyer. While you are here, subscribe to the show, leave a rating and tell a friend about this episode. New episodes are released every other Thursday. Thanks again for listening. I hope you enjoyed the conversation. Bye.

Click here to listen to the You Are A Lawyer episode with Elisabeth Steele. 

NOTE: This transcript was created from the You Are A Lawyer podcast episode with Kyla Denanyoh and Elisabeth Steele. This transcript was not edited to correct grammar and follow writing rules.

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