An advocate by nature, she leaves defense law to go it on her own for sexual abuse and tenants’ rights victims
Adapting to change has its share of challenges, especially when those changes shift the landscape of one’s livelihood. Mikayla Kellogg has endured such career swings without flaw and with plenty of success along the way.
Kellogg, co-founder of Kellogg & Van Aken LLP in San Francisco, went from defending big utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric for a big law office to starting her own plaintiffs’ firm specializing in tenants’ rights to then becoming an advocate for victims of sexual abuse and misconduct – all in a relatively short span. Her law partner Kelly Van Aken was with her every step of the way.
“When we first went out on our own, we didn’t know what area of law to do. We figured personal injury because that’s what we were doing on the other side of things,” Kellogg recalled. “Then we kind of found some niche work in the landlord-tenant space. It seemed like there was a void that needed to be filled in the litigation that’s very accessible for someone who is looking for cases because there’s such high demand, and the litigation is fairly straightforward.
“Then, about five years ago, we got a sexual abuse case, and it started off with one person who came forward alleging that he had been sexually abused by a male doctor at USC,” she continued. “After we filed our lawsuit, we had 57 clients. … It completely changed our practice. We litigated the case for four years, just settled this year. It really made us passionate about sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual misconduct cases. So, that really is the focus of our practice now.”
Translating harm from sexual abuse to tangible damages
Kellogg still does her share of tenants’ rights and personal injury cases, but she has found her own personality and skill set seem ideal for being a genuine advocate for victims of sexual abuse and misconduct. The biggest difference in such cases is the imperceptible harm brought upon her clients and how difficult it is to translate that to tangible damages.
The first obvious difference in sexual abuse and misconduct cases from typical personal injury cases is that most of the time, there’s no physical injury, Kellogg said. And for the most part, all of the damages involve emotional injury and long-lasting emotional harm.
“Another thing about these sorts of cases is that it stems usually from intentional conduct,” she said. “So, you have someone who was doing something intentionally to hurt somebody else. It can be challenging to hold institutions accountable, whether it’s an institution employing an individual or maybe a school district that has a teacher or a coach. The institution has to have had knowledge of what’s been going on in order to be held responsible, and so liability in these cases can be really tricky and really challenging.
“Personally, another difference between the normal personal injury cases and these sorts of cases is that a lot of times you’re dealing with minors, a lot of times you’re dealing with topics that are extremely triggering and sensitive and difficult,” she continued. “The emotional stakes are very high, as they tend to be in personal injury cases. You have to be really empathetic, really care about your clients and let them go at their own pace in order for them to feel comfortable. That can be challenging. But it can be super rewarding to get them the help they deserve.”
Making the move to the plaintiff bar
Helping clients who have been sexually abused or harassed is a far cry from where she was less than 10 years ago when she was still defending PG&E in the aftermath of the September 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno.
Standing up for institutions had its rewards, Kellogg said, but after four years her heart was no longer in it.
“When we were defending these institutions, it was hard because even when you get a great result for your defendant, that means the result is to the detriment of somebody on the other side who was injured or hurt or in real need of compensation and help,” she said. “That in addition to the culture of big law, I just thought I can’t do any more after four years. So, we decided to take a chance and start our own firm. … And it turned out to be the best decision I could ever make on a personal and professional level.”
Born and raised in the small Northern California city of Ukiah, a young Kellogg loved to solve problems, challenge rules and persuade others to go her way, she said. Naturally, that translated well to law school and thoughts of possibly entering politics.
Her parents, both teachers, were a wealth of knowledge and support when it came to higher education, and Kellogg was on board. She attended UC Santa Barbara for her undergrad studies in political science then went on to UC Davis Law School.
Having small-town roots wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, she said, but it did isolate her a bit from larger social issues of the times as well as the political and legal decision makers who were driving those issues. And that gave her bigger things to aim for.
“I initially wanted to get involved in politics, I think a little bit more than being a lawyer,” Kellogg recalled. “I was very interested in making a difference and making change, doing something to really influence the world, as all young people, kind of starry-eyed, have that idea to do. Then when I started really studying politics, I realized that no, what I really want to do is be a lawyer and be an advocate. … I always had the support of my family in my small-town upbringing, but nobody was really in that kind of lawyer position. That was something I wanted to trail blaze for myself.
“I didn’t take any breaks between high school and college and law school,” Kellogg continued. “So, when I got to law school, I really didn’t understand what it meant to be a defense lawyer or a plaintiffs’ lawyer or even civil versus criminal. I had a very basic understanding, but practically speaking, I didn’t know what it meant. All I knew was that I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I just wanted to be in court, to advocate and be up there in front of a jury.”
Kellogg said some of her fellow law students convinced her going to a big firm is what all prospective lawyers should aspire to, and that’s what fueled her decision to start off her career working for Sedgwick in defense work. Going from there to starting her own firm – and with it an entirely new type of practice – was a huge leap. But she wasn’t doing it alone.
“My current law partner, Kelly Van Aken, we both worked at Sedgwick, we both were doing defense work. She was representing automobile manufacturers in tort and product liability litigation,” Kellogg said. “We just said, ‘Let’s do this.’ We left Sedgwick and started our own practice – and on the plaintiffs’ side, which is wild. I couldn’t have done it without her. She really is the person who gave me the courage to do it. And this is our ninth year on our own now. It was a great decision.”
Deciding to take such a leap was one thing. Actually doing it was something else entirely. Kellogg and Van Aken at that point knew how to be lawyers, but running a firm involved much more than running a law practice under someone else’s shingle. Kellogg now had to not only litigate cases but she also had to manage cases and manage a clientele. She and Van Aken had to figure out how to run a business, which was something neither of them had ever done before.
Kellogg said reaching out to the plaintiffs’ legal community helped tremendously and was “such a pleasure” because on the defense side, the community stops with the firm.
“When we decided to go out on our own, (the plaintiffs’ bar) was so welcoming and so willing to mentor us,” she recalled. “It made our jobs much easier. It was really something else to have the plaintiffs’ community link us up and answer questions and have lunch with us. We just picked everybody’s brains about how do we do this, and I don’t think we could have done it without everybody else.”
A new realm
As to her most memorable cases, Kellogg pointed again to the case against University of Southern California and the school’s former men’s health physician Dr. Dennis Kelly. Kellogg & Van Aken in February 2019 filed the original lawsuit for six LGBTQ+ male students alleging sexual harassment and misconduct during appointments with Kelly. Over the next several months, the list of clients grew exponentially, with 74 more victims coming forward to join the lawsuit, 57 of whom Kellogg & Van Aken represented.
More than three years later, in April 2022, Kellogg and Van Aken got a settlement for those students for an undisclosed amount, with Kellogg stating at the conclusion it had been a long three years “for our courageous clients who have persevered through intense scrutiny to ensure their voices have been heard.”
“From the very beginning, we were told there’s nothing here, there’s no liability here, you guys are barking up the wrong tree,” Kellogg said about USC’s response to the initial claims. “USC is a big institution with a lot of lawyers, and it was just myself and my law partner, Kelly. And we fought really hard for four years and ended up proving them wrong. That was memorable. There was something there, and we pursued it, and we’re glad we did.”
When she’s not in the office or the courtroom, Kellogg loves spending time with her two daughters, ages 6 and 3, and preferably doing something outdoors, whether it’s the beach or camping.
“They keep me very busy. They’re so fun,” she said. “Kids really do change your life in the best way. It’s great to own my own practice because as far as work, I can also set my own schedule so that I can spend time with my family. And then also work whenever there’s time to do it.”
For young lawyers or law students, Kellogg advised they shouldn’t allow themselves to get stuck in one area of law or one place of work. Instead, come to understand all the options available before choosing a path, and don’t be afraid to ask others for help.
“I think that was one thing I didn’t understand and take advantage of – the people around you who want to help you learn about your options and about being a lawyer,” she said. “Because you can really find your passion in doing this job, and once you do, it just becomes the best job in the world.”
Getaway Spot: The Redwoods!
Go-To Music or Artist: ’90s Hip Hop
Recommended Reading: Anything by Kristin Hannah or David Sedaris
Dream Job: I’ve got it.
Words to Live By: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela
2023 by the author.
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