Phoebe Liu

Cornell Women’s Advocacy Network: Women in Law

Phoebe P. Liu ’95 has been a civil litigator for more than twenty years. She is a senior attorney at the California Labor Commissioner’s Office, the state agency tasked with enforcing the state’s labor laws. On behalf of the people of California, she civilly prosecutes cases involving retaliation, whistleblowing, unequal pay, unfair immigration practices, and other labor violations before state, federal, and administrative courts. Liu also serves as a legal advisor to the Labor Commissioner, senior managers, and investigative staff, works with other government agencies and stakeholders on agency initiatives, and provides input on proposed legislation impacting the state workforce. She is certified to be a mediator through the University of California Law San Francisco’s Center for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution.

Prior to joining the Labor Commissioner’s Office, Liu worked for nearly a decade as a civil rights attorney for the California Civil Rights Department. There, she litigated cases involving discrimination and retaliation in employment, housing, public accommodations, and hate violence. She served on the California Pay Equity Taskforce and founded and taught a civil rights clinic as an adjunct professor for Southwestern Law School.

Before entering government service, Liu was a litigation associate at two global law firms and worked as a discrimination attorney at a legal services non-profit. She holds a Bachelor of Science from Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and a Juris Doctor degree from The George Washington University Law School. In her free time, Liu enjoys working in the garden, painting, drawing, and practicing yoga.

What drew you to the legal profession?

After attending Cornell as an undergraduate, I did not know specifically what I wanted to do. But having grown up in the Washington, DC area with attorneys pursuing all sorts of interesting careers, I thought that it would be worthwhile to have a law degree because of its versatile applications. This idea has largely borne out in that I have been able to build a successful career as a litigator in diverse settings. I have ultimately developed a fulfilling practice in government service that aligns my skills and experiences with my interests and personal philosophy.

What most excites you about your work?

I love my job for the way that it makes a difference in people’s lives. I mainly work as a civil prosecutor against employers who have violated California’s labor laws, and I frequently work on behalf of low-income workers who are unrepresented because their monetary damages are insufficient for the private bar. Being able to resolve a case successfully and provide wronged workers with money that will make a deep impact on their lives is truly a gratifying experience. I find it personally satisfying to work for a government agency dedicated to economic justice and to work in a supported environment with talented, hard-working colleagues committed to furthering this honorable mission.

I also enjoy my work for the many intellectual challenges that it brings. No two cases are ever the same with respect to the facts, the people involved, and the laws we apply and enforce. I litigate multiple cases simultaneously, so it often feels like I am playing many games of chess all at once, but with much higher stakes. With my civil cases and non-litigation duties, I can honestly say that I am never bored at work, and appreciate the way I can apply my knowledge, skills, and experience in the law to solve problems and reach favorable outcomes.

In your career, how have you found mentors and made connections along the way?

I have found mentors and made connections with great people I have met at work or through work-related initiatives. I have made wonderful friendships through my various workplaces. It’s great to keep in touch with former colleagues and to share challenges and victories with each other. I have also found that being involved in professional groups, such as local bar associations, is a good way to meet others in the field. Working on projects together provides a good basis for building friendships and a professional network.

Do you have any advice for Cornellians starting out in the legal field?

It can be intimidating to just be starting out since there can be a steep learning curve. Please don’t be afraid to ask questions since, trust me, we have all been there, and don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel that you have something valuable to add. Be on the lookout for new challenges and opportunities in areas that interest you. Take a chance and stretch yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised by where things take you! Also, be patient with yourself. I think they call it “the practice of law” for a reason. Over time, you will figure out what style of practice works for you, and where you want to go in your career. It’s a process. Lastly, legal work can be physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding. It’s good to do things outside of work that bring you joy, ease your mind, and bring balance to your life. It may seem counter-intuitive, but these outside interests will help you to be a better lawyer, especially when things get tough workwise.

What role has the Cornell network played in your career?

In addition to receiving a top-notch education in a beautiful setting, I have been fortunate to have made lifelong friends during my time at Cornell. For me professionally, it is always a thrill to meet someone and learn they are a fellow Cornellian, and to get to know them better since we share a bond as alumni of this great school. I believe other Cornellians feel the same way which stands to reason why Cornell’s professional network is so wonderfully diverse, widespread, and generous with its time.

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