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Lisa Helem, ’09: Living Her Dream Job at The NLJ

By Lori Atherton
October 23, 2017

If you’ve read The National Law Journal, chances are you’ve seen Lisa Helem’s byline. Since 2015, the Michigan Law grad has been living out her dreams at The NLJ, which allows her to combine her love of the law with her passion for journalism. “As a lawyer and journalist, it’s the perfect marriage for me. I’m able to keep my finger on the pulse of the legal community and guide The NLJ’s national news coverage,” says Helem, ’09, The NLJ’s newly appointed editor-in-chief.

Lisa Helem, '09Helem, based in Washington, D.C., assumed the role on September 1 after serving as managing editor, and prior to that, assistant managing editor. She joined The NLJ from Bloomberg BNA, where she served as a legal editor, covering products liability litigation and class actions. The NLJ, now housed at www.law.com/nationallawjournal, produces daily online content, as well as a monthly print magazine that launched in April. Helem works with reporters and editors across the country “to provide incisive news content that appeals to readers,” including coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Department of Justice, federal courts and regulatory agencies, Washington law firms, national legal figures, and emerging trends affecting legal practitioners.

Helem typically begins her day around 5:45 or 6 a.m. by reading news stories on Twitter, watching the news, and mapping out her schedule. When she gets to the office, she has a daily call in which editors across The NLJ’s parent company, ALM Media, discuss the news of the day and coverage approaches. Throughout the day, Helem reviews incoming article pitches; assigns stories for the magazine; and edits features, op-eds and columns, special sections, and other content. “It’s a great job in the sense that I’m wearing lots of different hats every day, and I’m always juggling multiple priorities,” Helem says. “There’s never any shortage of legal news these days, so it makes for an exciting time to be a lawyer, and it makes for an exciting time to be a journalist. To have one foot in both worlds and make it all come together is a dream.”

One of Helem’s goals is to increase outreach with law firm partners and senior associates to learn more about what’s top of mind for them. “I’m making it a priority to get out there and hear from practitioners,” she says. “That means asking questions, like: What are the issues that are affecting their practices the most? How are they finding new and innovative ways to address client needs? And how are they grooming the next generation for success? A lot of my law school classmates have recently made partner or are up for partner now, so I’m especially interested in the issues impacting this next generation. For instance, how is artificial intelligence going to impact their practices in a different way from that of previous generations? How will they build on the strides firms have made in fostering diversity? How are they navigating self-care and work-life balance? These and other questions make for a really robust and interesting pool of stories that we can draw from in our coverage of law firms.”

Helem also builds on outreach by including more attorneys’ voices in magazine Q&As. “I really like asking the lawyers we feature to go behind their winning trial and appellate arguments and tell the stories of how they have achieved those wins. I think other lawyers enjoy these conversations because they can draw insight from their peers.”

Leading a thriving legal publication means no day for Helem is typical. Her day might end at 9 p.m. or much later, depending on when the monthly magazine goes to print. How does she manage to get it all done without getting burnt out? “I’m still learning how to do that,” Helem laughs. “The first thing is, I really love this work, so everything else flows from that. I think you just adapt, and you balance your down times with your busier times. During a busier week, you just know that this is what it takes to get the job done well, and so you buckle down as you would with anything else.”

It helps that Helem has a journalism background and is used to working under deadline. After graduating with a BA in English from Duke University in 2001, Helem wrote for Newsweek, People, and the Washington bureau of Cox Newspapers. A long-held desire to go to law school—she was a leader of her high school debate and mock trial teams—drew Helem to Michigan Law, where she “was struck by how genuine and nice everyone was.” Michigan’s reputation for collegiality revealed itself to be especially true in Helem’s 1L year, when her father, Dr. Percy C. Helem Jr., passed away. “I ended up missing the last week and a half of class my first semester so that I could go home, be with my family, and prepare for his funeral,” Helem says. “I remember how my classmates, some of whom I didn’t even know very well, rallied around me. There were two in particular in my section who, with our professors’ permission, shared notes or recorded classes. There were others, 2Ls and 3Ls in the Black Law Students Association, who helped me send out letters for summer jobs that next semester. Though it was a difficult time—my father and I were close and he was a big inspiration for me wanting to attend law school—I was able to press through, in no small part, because of the Michigan community. I saw that great tradition of collegiality firsthand. And these same people are good friends to this day.”

After graduating from Michigan Law, Helem practiced at Vinson & Elkins in Texas as a litigation associate before returning to journalism and the East Coast. “I believe journalism had chosen me early on—I had been writing since my college newspaper days at Duke—and I realized that I ultimately wanted to find a way to combine my interests in media and the law.” Helem says she values the legal experience she gained at the firm and the colleagues she met, and believes that experience and her law degree helped prepared her for her current role as editor-in-chief. “Lawyers, as we know, have to be very precise with language, which is also an essential skill to have as an editor,” Helem says. “I strive to be meticulous and fair. All of this flows out of a great respect that I have for this profession.”

A self-described news junkie and nerd, Helem says what she loves most about her job is “being in the midst of national legal news that is percolating and evolving all the time” and “working with a team of smart and creative colleagues.”

What’s up next? Helem says The NLJ’s forthcoming November issue features its annual Appellate Hotlist, which highlights law firms that handled some of the biggest U.S. Supreme Court cases in the past year.

“It’s intellectually exciting work. I’m elated that I have the chance to do it.”

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