Family law attorney: 'I was born for this'

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

For better or for worse, the annual Washtenaw County Bar Association's annual Bar Revue Show has become legendary in these parts. And tongue-in-cheek interviews by correspondents Greg Dodd and Lana Panagoulia are a big part of the fun.

But sometimes there's a blip in the blueprint.

Dodd recalls the time he forgot to bring the microphone Panagoulia was to use during an interview. He handed her the first thing he could find.

Panagoulia didn't blink as she kept firing questions - with a stapler.

Nobody was surprised she handled it like a pro. In fact, the Ann Arbor family law attorney has experience working in television, most notably in the Foreign Acquisitions and Sales Department of Antenna TV Greece.

She lived and worked there for three years before pursuing a master's degree in early childhood education and French, and then going on to law school.

"Where better to spend your early 20s than in Greece?" she said. "Anywhere you are, there are beaches within a less than 3-hour radius, and the music, entertainment and club scene is unmatched and heaven to a young music- and fun-loving American."

Panagoulia's parents came to Ann Arbor from Greece in 1969 raising Panagoulia and her brother George, who is also an attorney in Chicago, and her sister, Olympia. She enjoyed going to Greek school and learning about her heritage two nights a week for eight years. The fact that she loves it puts her in the minority of Greek-American children, she says.

And the fact that she voluntarily conducted independent studies for two years after she graduated?

"I am a nerd. What can I say?" she said.

After graduating from Pioneer High School, she went on to earn a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Michigan and studied foreign languages as a hobby and played on the women's rugby team - which resulted in bruised shins that mortified her mother, who begged her to quit. (She didn't.)

After graduating, Panagoulia went to Europe with the intention of finding work on a French newspaper. That changed when she got to Greece and started teaching before landing a career in the television station.

After three years in Greece, Panagoulia returned to Ann Arbor to obtain a degree in teaching so that ultimately, she could open a language school in Greece.

By this time, she was married, and pregnant with daughter Christina, now a sophomore at Greenhills School and an avid tennis player.

Panagoulia enrolled at Wayne State University to earn a master's degree of art in teaching with a French teaching major and early childhood education endorsement.

While there, she attended her brother's law school graduation at DePaul University in Chicago.

That's when her father, intending to provoke a healthy sense of Greek competition amongst siblings, said: "You're smarter than your brother. You should go to law school."

She decided to take that challenge, applied to the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, and was admitted in 2001, with the help of three scholarships, including one from the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan and a substantial one from the Ford Motor Company.

"In my mind, Ford stands for a very successful organization that's been through a lot and survived," she said. "I am very proud of that."

She spent one summer interning in the Wayne County Prosecutors Office. Then she interned for her role model, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly, clerked for a large law firm in Farmington Hills where she went on to work as an associate attorney in insurance defense, and then returned to Ann Arbor to intern for Washtenaw County Trial Court Judges Darlene O'Brien, Nancy Francis (now Wheeler) and briefly for Judge Donald Shelton.

Panagoulia also served as the assistant founding director and chief operating officer of the Institute for the Study of the African American Child (ISAAC) at Wayne State University College of Education under her teaching mentor, Janice Hale.

"Dr. Hale, like Justice Kelly, has been an influential role model in my life," she said. "I loved hearing of all the stories Dr. Hale recanted growing up being a close family friend of Dr. Martin Luther King and how life was in the south for African Americans before the civil rights movement."

In the spring of 2011, Panagoulia decided to set up her own shingle in downtown Ann Arbor in the Goodyear Building.

The law by that point had become second nature.

"But I needed to learn how to run a law firm," said Panagoulia, who soon mastered business accounting and marketing.

Panagoulia is an active member of many bar associations and community organizations. She's president of the Michigan Hellenic Bar Association, treasurer of the Washtenaw Association for Justice, a barrister in the Washtenaw Inn of Court, and former co-chair of the Family Law Section of the WCBA. She is involved in the Greenhills' School community and at her local church, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.

"I'm pretty involved," she said. "I really think I'm a shy person, but people see me as outgoing and extroverted."

Ann Arbor attorney Chad Engelhardt met Panagoulia through her work with the Michigan Association for Justice, and then at various court and community events. When he moved his practice here five years ago, she was one of the first to welcome him with open arms and "the Lana hug."

He says Panagoulia has quickly become a leader in the local legal community and in the field of family law.

"Every time I have seen her in court, she has demonstrated true care and compassion for her clients and their families," said Engelhardt.

Pangoulia thinks she was born to be a family law attorney, and says she finds great satisfaction helping others get through difficult domestic situations.

The fact that she's been through a divorce means she can relate to the pain, she said, adding that she's proof that one can go on to be happy and fulfilled.

"Every client's needs are different, and that makes it so interesting," she said. "I love family law because it's very fact-based, and fact-dependent. Every case is so different from the next, and the outcome of any given case heavily depends on the facts."

Family law can be trying at times, she said, and it's important to find a way to unwind.

"You have to have a very well-balanced life in order to do family law in a successful manner," she said. "I believe in nourishing your mind, spirit and body, and taking care of yourself so you can be strong and help your client. "

In her spare time, she can be found at the gym, lifting weights or reading cases on the elliptical.

"I like to save time and hence, I like to multi-task," said Panagoulia, who loves to cook Greek dishes in her home on Ann Arbor's old west side. "I do that a lot."

She said she's known for baking her mother's famous Galaktoboureko for the annual Women Lawyers' holiday party at Nora Wright's home.

She's also become known for her mostly black wardrobe, as well as her signature Angel perfume.

"My daughter threatens to contact Clinton Kelly and Stacy London to put me on `What Not to Wear,'" she said with a laugh, referring to the TV show featuring makeovers of the unfortunately dressed.

Calling herself "a work in progress," Panagoulia said that if she's remembered for anything, she hopes it's for being kind, compassionate, and a seeker of truth, justice and equal treatment of all.

"Life is short and you have to enjoy your time here, enjoy your loved ones around you while they're still around," she said, "and seek to leave a positive mark on humanity that inspires and is infectiously replicated."

Published: Thu, Nov 8, 2012

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