DEB TONELLI, ATTORNEY & COUNSELOR
Deb, who has 30+ years of experience as an attorney, plays a key role at Christensen Law, heading up our presuit department. All incoming cases start with pre-litigation and involve several steps prior to settlement or litigation, starting with a thorough investigation of all aspects of a case. While 2021 marks the 5th anniversary of Deb joining the firm, she has worked with Dave for 14 years.
“As a woman,” Deb advises, “you have to be even more prepared.” The law began and continued for centuries as a patriarchal industry, and although female attorneys are ever increasing in number, in many ways – including at senior levels – it is still male-dominated. “Attitudes can be slow to change,” Deb states, recalling a time when she would arrive for a deposition or conference and would be directed to “go set up” in a meeting room, as she had been mistaken for the court reporter rather than opposing counsel.
Deb first’s job as a lawyer was for a small plaintiff personal injury firm, after which she transitioned to the complete opposite – a multi-billion-dollar insurance company where she was of counsel defending the insurer. It was a heavy schedule, and Deb was the only female litigator in the group. “I was trying a lot of cases,” she recalls of her time there. “I wanted to advance in my career from an associate position, but they weren’t promoting women to partner roles.”
Deb found herself frustrated with the status quo. That, coupled with family demands, gave her pause to reconsider her path. “It was probably a crazy, bold move at the time,” she says of her decision to quit the grind and set herself up as a contract attorney for plaintiff firms. During this period, she worked for a few Detroit area companies, including a high-volume plaintiff practice where she headed up intake, preparing cases for settlement. The caseload was so overwhelming that there was little time for quality contact with her clients. Despite the pressure to expedite, she remained committed to making a worthwhile contribution and truly helping people. It was then she met Dave Christensen, who had a similar focus. She continued to work with him as a contractor for nearly 9 years, and when Dave eventually set out on his own, he called Deb to offer her a new role at his firm as an employee. Accepting the offer, she never looked back.
On Joining CL
“I wish I had found this type of environment earlier” she recalls. “I would have been happier, more content, and had more time to balance family and career.” Christensen Law, she says, is a unique place where everyone is treated exceptionally well. Firms that treat employees with kindness, and value them not only for their contribution but as individuals, she says, are rewarded with loyalty, productivity, and longevity.
“I feel incredibly lucky to be here, at this time in my career,” says Deb.
“We’re all in this together,” she says of the team dynamic at CL, where the attorneys collaborate on case strategy. Deb often stays in a case even after it has been handed off to a litigator, as she has a thorough understanding of the details and has established trust with the client. And while she sometimes misses being a litigator herself, she takes pride in serving the client well, and providing the personal experience that is not only a hallmark of the firm, but that also makes a significant difference to the client.
“Clients appreciate the fact that we take the time to explain the process to them, every step of the way. Sometimes we must gently convey the facts, the reality of the timeline, and manage clients’ expectations so they are fully aware of what the likely result will be. And we always keep them up-to-speed with what is happening on their case, at all times.”
Before the Bar
Near the end of her undergraduate degree in Urban & Metropolitan Studies at Michigan State, Deb met a number of influential women who would shape not just her career, but also her ideals and her character. A favorite professor, Eudora Pettigrew, was one of the first black female professors in higher education. Prof. Pettigrew ended up profoundly influencing Deb’s life when she introduced her to Althea Simmons, a well-known civil rights activist and leading voice of the people during the 70s and 80s. Ms. Simmons was also an attorney, the chief lobbyist for and head of the NAACP’s Washington DC office. When the professor referred Deb to her activist friend, Ms. Simmons offered her a job in NYC assisting with a major study on the effects of segregation and desegregation in the southern US, an opportunity that spoke to Deb’s liberal heart and founded her love of the city. She spent a semester working alongside Ms. Simmons, who gave her a book on the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown vs. the Board of Education, a ruling which determined educational segregation to be unconstitutional. Deb then remained in New York, taking a job as a receptionist at book publisher Simon and Schuster, where she answered the phones surrounded by veritable stacks of books, which she eagerly consumed between calls. She eventually came to the realization that she had to return home to Michigan and choose a career path. Not surprisingly, Deb chose the law, obtaining her Juris Doctor from what was then the Detroit College of Law – the first law school in metropolitan Detroit, now a part of Michigan State University.
Deb is a true animal lover, having grown up with many animals (including a terrorist mallard). She has owned and rescued several pets prior to her current fur baby, Zoe, a 7-year-old Golden Retriever. “Zoe was abandoned and abused as a young pup, so I’ve had to gently introduce the concept that human hands can be loving, and not weapons,” Deb recounts.
A travel enthusiast, Deb has explored many countries and much of the USA. Her usual traveling companion is a life-long friend first met in college, and the two typically plan bi-annual adventures to celebrate their birthdays, one in summer and one in winter. Favorite places include Venice, Italy, and Lyon, France. “The combination of art, history, and culture beckons,” says Deb, who has wandered through hidden mews and artisan shops in Europe, sailed the Caribbean in a tall ship, and spent introspective time in the high desert of New Mexico. Art, in all its forms – from watercolor painting to edgy indie films – is also a passion, as is street biking in good weather.
Family has always played a big role in her life. Having lost both parents, her extended family is now comprised of her brother and sister and their families, which includes many nieces and nephews. Deb cherishes their regular gatherings, which were, of course, hampered by the pandemic. “We just recently got together for the first time for a joint birthday celebration – that was lovely.”
In her spare time, Deb gives back by volunteering in the community at animal shelters and rescue organizations and participating in the firm’s charitable efforts whenever possible. Pictured below is Deb with her beloved first Golden, who was passed over multiple times for adoption due to his “smudged,” half-black facial coloring. She opened her heart and home to him, renaming him Santos, which means saint in Spanish.