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June 8, 2020In the News

Rifelj featured in In Business Madison to reflect on her achievements since being selected for 40 Under 40 in 2015

In Business Madison

What have you accomplished in your professional life/career since your 40 Under 40 selection?

Since the honor of my 40 Under 40 selection in 2015, I have continued working at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP as a partner in the Labor and Employment Law Practice Group and recently hit a milestone of 16 fantastic years with the firm. In 2018, I was also selected by the Wisconsin Law Journal as a Women in the Law recipient. I consider myself incredibly lucky to be engaged in a challenging and changing profession and to be surrounded by intelligent and hardworking colleagues and friends on a daily basis.

I have also had the pleasure of serving the firm in various leadership capacities, first as the Madison chair of Michael Best’s Women’s Development Group (WDG) and a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I also served as the firm’s deputy general counsel (advising the firm on employment-related matters) from 2016–18. In 2018, I was nominated and selected to the firm’s Management Committee, and most recently, I was named the co-chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. In some of these roles, I have had the opportunity to serve the firm in a similar way I serve my external clients, by advising on legal matters. But I am also able to focus on making MBF a great place to work and paving a great future for the next generation. For example, I have been involved in the identification, creation, and/or expansion of policies aimed at the recruiting and retention of diverse attorneys, including policies of gender identity inclusion and nondiscrimination, and partnering with a vendor to allow traveling attorneys who are nursing send breastmilk home to their babies. Having had three children over the course of my career at Michael Best, I know the challenges (but also the rewards!) this delicate balance can bring. While I have had an incredibly positive experience over my 16 years, I am focused on making sure those new attorneys can say the same. One of my female colleagues who had spent 35 years with the firm recently retired and gave me a glass brick (in her words, for shattering the glass ceiling) on her departure. It meant a lot. I want to be able to do that for someone else. Most of my professional life is occupied by the external clients I serve, and some of those relationships have spanned my entire 16-year career. While I could provide a long list of cases won since 2015, and those are important, my biggest accomplishment is recognizing that these clients are my partners, building relationships with them, and helping them navigate the ever changing legal landscape in the way that makes the most practical sense.

What accomplishments, milestones, or endeavors have you attained in your personal life since your 40 Under 40 selection?

There is a singular accomplishment that overshadows anything else — continuing to be the wife of my amazing husband, Nicholas, and the mom to my three children, Joshua (14), Dominic (11), and Violet (6). They are my everything. Balancing a full-time career and family is hard but it is worth it. When I am not working, I spend most of my time watching basketball, forensics, football, taekwondo, swimming, dance, gymnastics, or choir concerts. I’m occasionally called upon to help with homework, as well (for which my Spanish-speaking skills are currently more useful than my legal ones). In addition to attending and graduating law school together, my husband and I have played on the same Friday night MSCR softball team since law school, which over time has turned into a weekly summer family event.

When I have had time to focus on myself, I have poured it into my love for running. I started running marathons in law school (2000–03) as a break from the books. I ran my first marathon in 2000, the Chicago Marathon, and ran a Boston Marathon qualifying time (but didn’t realize it). I ran it again in 2001 hitting my fastest time ever (3 hours 18 minutes), again qualifying for Boston. I squeezed in two Boston Marathons in 2002 and 2003 before graduating from law school, starting work, and shortly thereafter starting a family. After happily making a 15-plus-year detour into the life of full-time work and having three kiddos, in 2018 I was finally able to begin pounding the pavement again with the full support of my family. For nostalgic purposes, I registered for Chicago in 2018 on the Ronald McDonald Charity Team. I didn’t even get close to my old time, but I finished satisfactorily for my age and with the best cheering squad a mom could imagine. In true Wisconsinite fashion, I had a beer to go along with the hugs at the finish line to celebrate the occasion. In 2019, I hit Milwaukee’s Lake Front Marathon, and am looking forward to setting my 2020 destination soon.

If you were to “do it all over again,” what (if anything) would you do differently throughout your career?

I am content with how I have lived my life and pursued my career. I would change very little. Like anyone else, I never have time to fit in everything I would like to see, do, or accomplish. It would have been beneficial to have had more time and opportunities to network with others early in my career. But making choices and prioritizing is an important and necessary skill and accepting those choices (and sometimes learning from them) is just as important.

I took one year “off” between college and law school and worked in Madrid, Spain. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. It gave me perspective on life and work, and an appreciation for other cultures in a way that only immersion can. If I could do it all over again (but still keep the rest of my life the same), I might have lived and worked in some other country for one more year.

How did your 40 Under 40 selection help your career?

Without question, the article had a positive impact on my reputation as an attorney in the community. I received numerous calls, emails, letters, and social media shout-outs from friends, neighbors, clients, law school classmates, colleagues, and family about the article. It is difficult to measure but I received tremendous feedback. I unfortunately was not able to attend the celebration because I had the flu, so I missed an important opportunity to connect in person with my peers that year. I am looking forward to an alumni reunion to further those connections.

What is something that you have a new passion for since the time of your induction — either professionally or personally?

In addition to re-entering the world of marathon running as I described above, I have developed a passion for gardening. My gardening attempts, however, have not been as grand. They are limited to growing tomatoes and numerous types of herbs (basil, thyme, rosemary, and mint being some of my favorites) to compliment all the amazing food I can purchase with much less effort then growing at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Our family loves to cook and bake. Two of my specialties, stemming from my time in Spain, are paella and tortilla espanola, which I served this past New Year’s Eve.

Based on your experience, do you have any advice for today’s young professionals (under 40)?

My strongest piece of advice is to be honest with yourself about what you want in life, to align your actions accordingly, and to be truly content with the priorities you have chosen. It is easy to get wrapped up in another person’s or society’s portrayal of success. You make your own success. Your happiness is what matters.

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