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Member Spotlight: Elizabeth Balfour

By Michelle Ganotis*


A portrait of Elizabeth Balfour, partner at Sheppard Mullin.
Elizabeth Balfour

Introduction

Elizabeth Balfour is a litigator and partner at Sheppard Mullin’s Del Mar office. Elizabeth represents clients in complex litigation and specializes in franchise law and healthcare regulatory compliance and investigations.

 

Elizabeth’s 24-year career at Sheppard Mullin has been marked by service to her clients and her community. Elizabeth is a staunch supporter of the local San Diego community, the federal bar, and young women leaders. The San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association is pleased to feature her in this month’s member spotlight.


Early Life & College

Elizabeth is a native Manhattanite who took full advantage of all New York City had to offer growing up. A lover of the performing arts, Elizabeth filled her childhood with violin lessons, dance classes, and trips to the theater. A trip down memory lane for Elizabeth is not complete, however, without memories of her many visits to her father’s law office.

 

Elizabeth’s father has practiced trusts and estates as a partner at the New York law firm Moses & Singer for almost 50 years. A second generation American whose parents immigrated from Poland, her father was the first in his family to go to college. He pursued a career in law after graduating from Harvard Law School, and later received his LLM in tax. “He’s a huge inspiration to me as a lawyer,” Elizabeth remarked. But even more inspirational to Elizabeth than her father’s academic pursuits and decades-long legal career are the close relationships she’s watched him form with his colleagues and clients. “My experience seeing the fulfillment he got from his career and the closeness that he had with his clients was very meaningful to me growing up."

 

Elizabeth stayed on the East Coast for college and graduated from Yale University with a degree in history. “I’ve just always loved school, and I’m a curious person,” Elizabeth explained. “History to me felt like a way to bring in lots of interesting disciplines. To be able to study about how literature and language affect societies, or how economics impacts decisions that countries have made over the years, it was really exciting.” Inspired by her father, Elizabeth applied to law school her senior year of college and decided to attend Harvard Law School. Though Elizabeth was drawn to Harvard for its world-renowned faculty and resources, even more meaningful to her was the opportunity to attend her father’s alma mater.


Law School and Judicial Clerkship

The summer before law school, Elizabeth interned at her father’s law firm. “I had the not-so-fascinating job of manually updating codicils to wills in preparation for the firm’s new online system. After that experience, I told my father I was certain that I did not want to be a trusts and estates attorney,” Elizabeth joked. Torts and evidence were classes that resonated with Elizabeth early on in law school (and not just because her professor of both subjects, Charles Nesson, had been known to use class time to show the 1998 John Travolta legal drama A Civil Action, which was based on a case he had served on as an expert witness).

 

By the end of law school, Elizabeth knew she wanted to be a litigator and was interested in clerking after graduation. “My college sweetheart and now husband, David Balfour, is a native San Diegan, and it was pretty clear that he wanted to land in San Diego after we graduated from law school.” David was attending Hastings College of Law in San Francisco at the time, and Elizabeth set her sights on securing a judicial clerkship in California or, as a backup, her home state of New York. Elizabeth’s first interview was with the Honorable Marilyn L. Huff, then Chief District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. “I flew out to California to interview with Judge Huff and was very fortunate to receive an offer. It was easy decision.” 

 

Half-way through her clerkship with Judge Huff, Elizabeth interviewed with San Diego attorney Pamela (Pam) Naughton for a post-clerkship position with Baker McKenzie. “I was fascinated by Pam’s practice, which was primarily in federal court. She had had an amazing career as an assistant U.S. attorney,” Elizabeth recalled. Elizabeth accepted an offer from Baker McKenzie but found herself pivoting just a few months later. “Before my clerkship ended, Pam contacted me and said, ‘I’ve decided to join Sheppard Mullin, and there’s an opportunity for you there, too, if you would like.’” Part of Baker McKenzie’s draw for Elizabeth was its presence in both San Diego and New York—uncommon among law firms in 2000, including Sheppard Mullin. But a position at Sheppard Mullin meant the opportunity to be mentored by Pam, so Elizabeth accepted the offer.

 

In the end, it was Sheppard Mullin where Elizabeth belonged all along. Soon after Elizabeth joined, the firm opened offices in Washington, D.C., and New York. “I feel so blessed by how everything worked out,” Elizabeth professed, noting that this year will mark her 24th anniversary with Sheppard Mullin.  


Career at Sheppard Mullin

As a young attorney at Sheppard Mullin, Elizabeth worked primarily with Pam Naughton handling white-collar defense and securities litigation. The complex nature of her cases and Pam’s mentorship molded Elizabeth’s practice into what it is today, which she describes as a mix of high-stakes business litigation, franchise law, healthcare litigation, and healthcare investigation and regulatory matters. “Around the time that I was moving into a partnership level position, Sheppard Mullin’s health care practice was taking off. Because I had experience in SEC enforcement actions, I was very comfortable handling investigations and dealing with government agents to pull together evidence in healthcare matters. I also found that, in healthcare in particular, many of the decision-makers are women. The synergy and opportunities to really develop a deep, personal, and trusting relationship with in-house counsel in the healthcare setting came naturally for me. It was the perfect opportunity to really build productive and extensive relationships with healthcare clients.” 

 

A career highlight for Elizabeth includes serving as outside general counsel for El Centro Regional Medical Center for about five years. “It was a wonderful opportunity that really helped me understand from the inside out what it’s like to operate in the healthcare system. It also provided me with amazing insights into how to best serve my healthcare clients.”   

 

Elizabeth enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of her practice and the opportunities it provides to collaborate with Sheppard Mullin attorneys in other offices around the country. Most recently, Elizabeth assisted her Dallas colleagues on a case that called for both healthcare and franchise expertise. “A large dispute had erupted with one of our clients, a franchisee in the home health and hospice industry.  We had a two-week trial in state court in Lubbock, Texas. It was such an interesting experience and so rewarding to be able to use both skill sets.” 


Community Involvement & Pro Bono Work

Elizabeth is an active member of the San Diego legal community. “It’s part of our professional obligation,” she said, describing herself as a liaison between the many local legal organizations she is a part of and the attorneys at her firm. “I want to inspire my colleagues to get involved in the community. If it’s important to you, you can make time to do it.”


Elizabeth, her family, and other volunteers at Center for Employment Opportunities' toy drive in 2023.

Notably, Elizabeth served on both the Board of Legal Aid Society of San Diego and the Board of Directors of the San Diego County Bar Association from 2008 to 2010. She was drawn to the SDCBA in particular for its work with at-risk children in the community and served as co-chair of the SDCBA’s Children at Risk Committee, which involved collaborating with retired Magistrate Judge Leo Papas to develop programming about the judicial system for elementary school students. Elizabeth’s involvement in the SDCBA provided her with “wonderful insight into the enormous diversity and range of terrific lawyering happening in San Diego.”

 

Elizabeth is an active member of the San Diego Federal Bar Association and a board member for the chapter’s charitable arm, the San Diego Federal Bar Foundation. Elizabeth helped plan this year’s annual charitable golf and pickleball tournament, which will be held on September 30 at the Lomas Santa Fe Country Club. The event benefits great causes such as the National Conflict Resolution Center’s Thrive Program, which helps post-criminal diversion program juveniles succeed. “The foundation is doing wonderful work, and I’m very proud to support it.”

 

Another cause dear to Elizabeth is her pro bono Afghan asylum work, done in partnership with Casa Cornelia Law Center. A recent focus has been on responding to the need arising out of Afghanistan being taken over the Taliban in August 2021, which put Afghans who had cooperated with the U.S. military in grave danger. Those fortunate enough to be evacuated to the U.S. faced navigating the complex U.S. immigration system in order to stay permanently in the country. That’s where Elizabeth and teams of volunteer attorneys at Sheppard Mullin came in. “These are people who put their lives at risk to support our country’s interests in their home country,” Elizabeth said.  “They all had compelling stories. It was a wonderful opportunity to bring into the fold a lot of Sheppard Mullin attorneys, many of whom had not done asylum work before.”

 

Elizabeth Balfour accepting her award for Distinguished Pro Bono Attorney of the Year from Casa Cornelia Law Center in 2023.
In 2023, Casa Cornelia Law Center recognized Elizabeth as Distinguished Pro Bono Attorney of the Year.

In 2023, Casa Cornelia recognized Sheppard Mullin as Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year and recognized Elizabeth as Distinguished Pro Bono Attorney of the Year. “There’s so much good that lawyers can do,” Elizabeth said. “You never have enough time for everything you want to do, but you have to try.”

 

In addition to doing pro bono work, Elizabeth and her family volunteer with Genesis International Orphanage Foundation, a nonprofit that provides services to orphanages throughout Mexico. And, for 14 years, Elizabeth has served on the Board of Directors for the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), the largest nonprofit in the country assisting individuals returning home from prison with obtaining and keeping jobs. CEO operates 31 offices in 12 states and Elizabeth’s engagement with the local San Diego office includes coordinating a toy drive at the holidays for the children of program participants.  Sheppard Mullin attorneys and staff raise funds for and purchase toys and then team-up with CEO staff to deliver them.


Federal Court & Advice

Elizabeth regularly finds herself in federal court because of the federal laws and regulations that govern her healthcare matters. “It’s a joy for me to be in federal court. And in the Southern District of California, the magistrate judges provide such a huge benefit with the Early Neutral Evaluation Conferences.”

 

Elizabeth credits her judicial clerkship with helping her connect with the federal bar and bench in San Diego early in her career. “It’s also really helpful to have good mentors and ask for advice,” Elizabeth advised, recalling the mentorship she received from people like Judge Huff and Pam Naughton. “Reach out to people whose practices you’re interested in, or lawyers you admire, and ask for their time. I never say no.”

 

* Michelle Ganotis is a Public Relations Committee Member of the Federal Bar Association’s San Diego Chapter. She is an associate in Sheppard Mullin’s Real Estate, Energy, Land Use, and Environmental Practice Group. Prior to joining Sheppard Mullin, Michelle clerked in the Southern District of California.

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