Lisa Boero, U.W. 2007, Security Health Plan of Wisconsin Inc.
Photo: Shutterbug Photography by Rhonda
You have been open about the fact that you have prosopagnosia, or face blindness. How has that affected your life?
To keep my colleagues straight at work, I have to focus on other details because I can’t recognize their faces. I am like a detective of walks, mannerisms, voices, habits, clothes, you name it. I can fake normal and have done so for most of my career – although I will admit that working as an associate at a big firm did give me anxiety attacks at times. Partners generally feel that you should know who they are, particularly if they have assigned you a project. I had to be on guard so that I didn’t mistake them for someone else, or worse, ignore them completely when I passed them in the hall.
However, when you write a book, give your protagonist face blindness as an integral part of the plot, and then talk about it at book signings, the cat is out of the bag. My colleagues and fellow lawyers have been very supportive of the book and my condition, so my anxiety attacks are now mostly related to all of the other craziness in my life. Everybody has some issue that they struggle with, and mine just happens to be a little stranger than most. You do your best and then move on to more important things. And prosopagnosia does have its benefits – I have to pay close attention at meetings, although not always to the topic at hand.
Tell me about the onset of the condition. Did any of your experiences with it influence your education and career choices?
My face blindness is likely a result of a brain tumor that was diagnosed when I was 12. That experience was a very difficult one for me – think about attending middle school in a wig – and so the tumor itself probably affected me more than the subsequent face blindness. In fact, I spent many years thinking I was just stupid or ditzy because I couldn’t figure out why I sometimes didn’t recognize people I knew and did not want to see one more neurologist to find out.
I have always been a driven person. However, my medical experiences only pushed me forward faster. If I was stuck being the weird kid with no hair, at least I could be successful.
The protagonist in your novel Murderers and Nerdy Girls Work Late has face blindness. How did you decide to write this as a murder mystery?
I was thinking about my face blindness one day, and it dawned on me that I actually function a lot like Sherlock Holmes. I pay attention to the details normal people sometimes miss because I have to use them to tell people apart. Then I thought, why not write a story about an amateur detective who does the same thing? That was when the character of Liz Howe was born. Of course, I still had the problem of actually writing the book. I decided to use my own experiences, including my life here in Marshfield, to create a lighthearted mystery with a serious message – your greatest deficit can sometimes be your greatest asset.
You have a young family. How do you tell your children apart? Do they understand about the condition? Do they fear developing it themselves?
I did not talk with my kids about my condition until I started working on the book. In part, they were too young to really understand, and in part, I wasn’t sure how to explain it in a way that wouldn’t seem scary. I didn’t want them to think that my inability to pick them out of a crowd meant that I didn’t love them. (Basically, I tell them apart like I do everyone else – by voice, posture, hair, and so on.) Now they are 8 and 11, and so I can have adult-type conversations with them about my condition. They think it is strange, but don’t seem to be bothered by it otherwise. Besides, I try to talk to them about it in a way that will encourage them to overcome their own challenges. That is also one of the things I would like readers to take away from the struggles of my protagonist, Liz Howe. The measure of who we are is what we make of our circumstances.
You are the legal counsel for a large regional health plan. How has your creative writing affected your work as a corporate attorney?
I think that creative writing has made me more productive as an attorney. Legal writing, particularly contract drafting, is highly nuanced but very very rigid. You have to work within defined conventions. I mean, where else are you going to see “heretofore” used in a sentence? Creative writing gives me a chance to work with language in new ways, which helps me to look at words, even “heretofore,” in a different light. One type of writing feeds the other.
Another benefit for me is that writing a novel, particularly a complicated murder mystery, requires a lot of problem solving. Not only do you need to create a world and all of the characters in it, but you also have to establish a mystery, solve it, and then give readers just enough information to keep them turning the pages. It is like Sudoku for the verbally inclined. As counsel for a health plan, I never know what problem is going to walk through my door and require an immediate solution. I can apply the same problem-solving techniques to corporate law as I do to plot a murder mystery.
Finally, my books reflect my sometimes twisted sense of humor. They give me a chance to poke fun at otherwise serious topics. The law can be so intense, and I find I have a clearer head when I can step back and see the big picture. Crafting my experiences into fiction helps me to do that. Plus, working as a lawyer gives you such a wealth of material! We lawyers get to see our clients, colleagues, and friends at their best and their worst. That is why all of my books have a legal connection. Write what you know.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work as counsel for Security Health Plan? What is the best part of your work?
Health care is changing faster than the speed of light, and so I think that the most challenging part of my job is keeping up with all of the new regulation on the federal and state levels. Our industry is going through cataclysmic shifts right now and trying to help the health plan navigate those shifts is a full-time job in itself. That said, I work with a great business team and so I have confidence that Security Health Plan will be able to come out the other side a stronger and more powerful advocate for our members.
The best part of my work? From the perspective of someone who was formerly in private practice, I can say that I love not having to track billable hours. I also love being able to design programs to prevent problems instead of solving them once they get big. Plus, I get a chance to work with some really great people who are not lawyers. I learn from their opinions even if we choose to disagree. So I guess I am not doing a good job of picking just one part.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
I was too scared to spend seven years on a Ph.D. in history and then not have a job. My interest was Francoist Spain – not the most popular topic on college campuses today. A mentor suggested I take the LSAT and “see how it goes.” She was totally right. The law was a good place for me because it tapped into my analytical and verbal strengths and allowed me to assist clients to accomplish lots of positive change along the way. I started out at a big firm in St. Louis and then moved to a smaller boutique firm. Firm work in a number of corporate and litigation areas gave me a wide range of skills and experiences that were critical to my development as an in-house attorney.
I came to Wisconsin in 2007 to work at the Marshfield Clinic, where I focused on corporate contracts, employment issues, and immigration. I moved to Security Health Plan in 2010 and added the management of subrogation litigation to my list of duties. Security Health Plan has a wonderful collaborative environment that has allowed me to effectively work to solve legal problems, while at the same time helping the organization continue to provide exceptional service to our members.
Looking back, it seems like I took a very tortuous path to get where I am now, but I wouldn’t trade any of my experience. I think I am a happier and more productive person as a harried in-house counsel than I would have been as a frustrated under-appreciated scholar of Spanish fascism.
What was the most important advice (good or bad) anyone has ever given you?
When I was preparing to enter law school, I went to a party with a friend. I didn’t know anyone at the party and by chance I happened to run into a third-year law student. I asked her if she had any advice for me before starting law school, and she told me that I had to “hit the ground running.” I asked her what she meant by that, and she told me that every decision I would make would be based on my first-semester grades. When I probed further, she explained that those grades would impact where I ranked after the first year and that that ranking would affect what sort of summer internship I could do, which in turn would prepare me for my second year, and so on.
I took her advice then and have taken it ever since. If you want to do something, you must put your whole heart into it and hold nothing back. There is no room for hesitation or second chances. Life does not wait for you to get your act together. You have to be prepared and then go for it.
What advice would you give other lawyers who want to write a novel?
Just do it. Although I know that we do not have this reputation, lawyers are creative people. The law is an art, not a science. However, the day-to-day practice of law requires us to channel that creativity in a very narrow way. Let that creativity out. What is the worst that can happen?
How do you find time to write novels as a full-time lawyer, wife, and mother? Do you have other books in the pipeline?
I don’t sleep. Seriously though, I decided that I wasn’t going to make lack of time an excuse not to do what I love, so I write whenever I have even five minutes between activities. At first, that meant carrying a pad of paper with me wherever I went. The first Nerdy Girls book was entirely written by hand, in between my kids’ ice skating practice, catching up on work emails, and laundry. Now, I work on my iPad, which is the digital equivalent.
The sequel to Murderers and Nerdy Girls Work Late, entitled Bombers and Nerdy Girls Do Brunch (you see the theme), will be coming out shortly. I also have the first book in a new series about lawyers, misplaced souls, and tricky contracts with the devil, called Hell Made Easy, that should be out later this year.