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They’ve Got Next: The 40 Under 40 - Lena Konanova of Selendy Gay Elsberg

July 28, 2022, 9:00 AM

Please describe two of your most substantial, recent wins in practice.
I care deeply about access to education and the economic impact of student debt. I was proud to represent public service workers challenging loan servicer Navient’s advising of borrowers concerning eligibility for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. After years of litigation, Navient agreed to enhance its call center practices and contribute $2.25 million to a new, independent nonprofit to counsel public service borrowers.

Similarly, I am thrilled about our landmark settlement for the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, and eight teachers over the government’s mismanagement of PSLF. As of March 2022, $6 billion in loans has been forgiven for more than 100,000 public service borrowers. Helping teachers and others secure life-changing loan forgiveness and address America’s $1.6 trillion student debt crisis has been a highlight of my professional life.

What is the most important lesson you learned as a first-year attorney and how does it inform your practice today?
The value of credibility. Immediately following law school, while clerking for Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw of the Ninth Circuit, I was exposed to a variety of writing and oral advocacy during our busy year. And in every case, I found myself asking: Can I trust the lawyers’ arguments? When I read the case law and look at the trial record, is their characterization of the law and facts supportable? Are they being zealous advocates or have they crossed a line? Are they forthright in matters small and big?

As a practicing lawyer, I orient my teams around this value—we must honestly address adverse precedent and facts, and still tell the best story as to why our client should prevail. That is a mark of an excellent practitioner—never bending the facts or law but instead putting together the puzzle pieces to win your case, earning the respect of the judiciary and your opposing counsel along the way.

How do you define success in your practice?
Success means excellence in client service, investment in junior attorneys, and work that has a real impact. For example, our class settlement on behalf of public servants against the student loan servicer Navient includes a new nonprofit providing essential information borrowers need to understand their individual loan forgiveness opportunities. This is a significant benefit with a profound impact on all public service employees. Also, with my guidance, our associates played key roles in the representation—e.g., drafting briefs, speaking at conferences, and obtaining service awards for the class representatives.

Another success story is our suit against the U.S. Department of Education following the prior administration’s failure to properly implement the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. There, we helped plaintiffs obtain a landmark settlement, including total debt forgiveness and the PSLF system overhaul. Once more, the client is happy, the public is benefited, and our young lawyers get excellent training.

What are you most proud of as a lawyer?
I am particularly proud of my leadership in bringing, litigating, and settling on meaningful terms a lawsuit on behalf of public service workers against the student loan servicer Navient concerning Navient’s advising of student loan borrowers as to qualification for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Judge Denise L. Cote granted final approval of the class settlement that she praised as a creative resolution that will benefit public service workers. Navient agreed not only to enhance its call center practices by providing additional training and guidance to call center representatives but also to contribute $2.25 million to a newly formed independent organization delivering education and student loan counseling to public service borrowers. I am also proud of our work securing a settlement last year for the American Federation of Teachers and President Randi Weingarten and eight individuals in litigation against the U.S. Department of Education regarding the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Helping teachers and other public servants obtain life-changing loan forgiveness in a manner that improves outcomes for all student borrowers, and doing my part in addressing America’s $1.6 trillion student debt crisis, which has impacted an entire generation, has made me even prouder to be a Selendy Gay Elsberg attorney.

Who is your greatest mentor in the law and what have they taught you?
I have been blessed with incredible mentors, including my partners at Selendy Gay Elsberg, Judge Wardlaw, and attorneys at the ACLU. From them, I’ve learned not only substantive trial skills, but also the importance of investing in the next generation, clarity in thought and presentation, and dedication to our clients. To highlight just one, however—Martha Minow, a professor and former dean of Harvard Law, taught me that warmth, a kind curiosity, and compassion are central to our lives as lawyers. That informs how we choose the subjects of our practice and how we work collaboratively. Martha, a renowned scholar with a rich texture of expertise, from Brown v. Board of Education to human rights to media, also taught me that a career worth having cannot be monolithic. Finally, my own leadership style is deeply informed by Martha’s exemplar of maintaining high standards of excellence while lifting every voice and encouraging dissent.

Just for fun, tell us your two favorite songs on your summer music playlist.
“About Damn Time” by Lizzo, when I need an extra bounce in my step and a reminder that change is positive.

“Five Little Monkeys” nursery rhyme [“CoComelon” sings a version], which I love to sing (admittedly off-key) to my 7-month-old daughter.

Lena Konanova has recovered billions of dollars for clients in commercial litigation matters and has secured constitutional rights for her public service clients, she reports. As a child, she fled religious persecution in Ukraine, which fueled her drive for justice. A founding partner at her firm in charge of recruiting, training, and evaluating lawyers, she is also a senior advisory board member at the Health Finance Institute.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com; Kibkabe Araya in Washington at karaya@bloombergindustry.com