April 2, 2020
Michelle H. Wong-Halabi ’03 didn’t set out to represent high-profile professional athletes and coaches — but University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law prepared her for the unexpected career twist.
For the surprising turn that made sports law into a substantial part of her law practice, Wong-Halabi credited McGeorge and its professors with making her ready for anything.
A partner in Columbus, Ohio-based Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, she focused on estate and tax law in California prior to moving with her husband to the Buckeye State 13 years ago.
“I’ve always been an estate planning attorney and it was what I wanted to do when I graduated law school,” she said. “I spent most of my career becoming proficient at it.”
It wasn’t until a colleague needed someone to assist in representing a high-profile sports figure with his estate planning that she took the first steps toward practicing sports law.
“It’s fun, interesting, cutting-edge stuff,” Wong-Halabi said, and she has become “a trusted adviser for any legal matters they have. There are quite unusual legal issues and questions involved and each person has his own set of circumstances and goals. I see a lot of unique situations.”
Growing up in Northern California, Wong-Halabi said she was expected to inherit and operate her mother’s insurance agency. She worked in the business from the time she was quite young and the years she spent listening to customers about their most pressing needs provided her with valuable people skills she uses to this day.
“It was a lot of outward-facing interaction with clients,” she said. “I was really shy as a kid but being thrust into that position, to be the go-to person for solving problems – those skills apply in my work every day.
“When I’m responsible for someone’s financial and legal situation, being thorough and resolving their greatest concerns is my primary goal.”
Intending to remain in California as a practicing attorney, she chose to attend McGeorge because of its stellar reputation among the state’s government and legal communities. Yet she discovered that her education has been transferrable to her work in Ohio, where she occasionally runs into McGeorge alumni.
Tax law fascinated her in law school, she recalled, and propelled her to seek a tax concentration.
“I sat in classes hearing about estate and gift taxes (including the wills and trusts class taught by emeritus professor Raymond Coletta and the federal income tax class taught by professor Christine Manolakas, who directs the tax certificate of concentration) and others and thinking, ‘this is exactly what I want to do,”’ she said.
“Studying tax law launched me into estate planning and because of that I’ve had the opportunity to work with professional athletes and coaches in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, as well as families with high net worth,” she explained. “Having the initial class and then the exposure and experience from McGeorge’s on-campus clinics and off-campus externships at the probate court and Internal Revenue Service made all the difference.”
If she were to advise law school students on preparing for their future careers, Wong-Halabi said, she would tell them that there is an area of law suitable for every personality.
“Try to gain exposure to as many practice areas as you can,” she said. “That’s how you learn what area you really want to practice. Take advantage of internships and externships; talk to people you know and pick their brains about what they do.”
A member of the Women Lawyers of Franklin County and a board member of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Columbus, and an inaugural member of the Young Professionals Roundtable, Wong-Halabi was honored with the Women WELDing the Way Award from WELD, Women for Economics and Leadership Development, earlier this year.
Wong-Halabi and her husband, a practicing attorney she met while they were studying for the California bar exam at the McGeorge Law Library, have two young children and live in Columbus.