6 inspiring women lead a new generation of lawyers


Aug. 20, 2018​

Every year, the Ohio State Bar Association extends a valuable opportunity for newer lawyers to hone their leadership skills through the OSBA's dynamic Leadership Academy. Throughout the course of six interactive sessions, participants are given opportunities to raise their level of awareness regarding the broad range of issues facing the legal profession and to build relationships among legal leaders across the state and experience levels. By graduation, participants become better problem solvers and effective lawyer leaders.​​

Meet Sunni DiNicola (Columbus), Keri Lynne Collin (Lancaster), Josephine Begin (Willoughby), Madison Lisotto Whalen (Columbus), Marley Nelson (Columbus), and Rachel Lyons (Cleveland), six women who graduated from the Leadership Academy Class of 2018.


Q: What are you most passionate about?​


DiNicola is eager to help her clients navigate the court system. She feels good when she can alleviate her clients' concerns and anxieties. She is also very passionate about helping new women lawyers. She mentors two law clerks in her office and is on several mentorship committees where she meets and talks with new lawyers about practicing law.

Collin is enthusiastic about positively impacting others' lives. Through her work as a juvenile prosecutor, she sought justice by protecting the community from violent offenders, ensuring victims were heard and made whole, and working to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. She is currently transitioning into a new role in private practice.


Begin's passions include many things outside of her career: art, film, and classic literature. She is adamant about never missing a family get-together, spoiling her pets, watering her houseplants on time, and making the time to talk to coworkers about something other than work each week. She fervently pursues her full potential, and when the time comes for any chapter to close, having no regrets about how it unfolded.

Whalen has a heartfelt desire to make meaningful, positive and systemic changes in the world around her. She has the privilege to represent clients who are making positive changes to individuals' lives every day and she is passionate about being a part of that change.


Nelson is invested in litigation and representing people, especially when they could not otherwise afford to have an attorney.


Lyons has a fervid commitment to serving others. She believes that centering one's life around service to others is a worthwhile focus and makes life worth living because it allows one to make a difference in others' lives.​

Q: Why did you become a lawyer?

DiNicola always had the desire to become a lawyer. After undergrad, she worked in marketing for a couple of large corporations and realized that most of the executives of the corporations had some sort of advanced degree. She had always considered becoming a lawyer, so when the opportunity arose for her to go back to school, law school was the perfect fit.

Collin became interested in the practice of law after her high school AP Government teacher told her she should become a judge. The teacher's comment made her think and it made her step outside of her comfort zone of science and math into a field she never thought she could enter. 

While working at a corporation after college, Begin felt replaceable and wanted to be more significant. She was attracted to the idea of "a case" — an important matter in another's life that she could make the best of and be an ally for her clients. She tries to fulfill that goal every day by interacting with clients as if she was on the other end. 

Whalen's father inspired her. Growing up, her father was a common pleas court judge in Mahoning County. She saw first-hand the impact he had on the community, the respect he garnered and the influence he had on the lives of many people. She became enamored with the idea of following his footsteps into the legal profession. Today, she is proud to carry on his legacy.

Nelson realized she wanted to be an attorney when she participated in Mock Trial during high school and college. She really loved it and wanted to be in the courtroom. However, she put off law school for a few years because she feared student debt. Eventually, she earned her law degree and began her career in the courtroom.

Lyons came from a family of lawyers and growing up, she saw lawyers as an "honorable sort" — people who helped others through their most challenging times. She felt called to help people in this way, followed in her family's footsteps, and became an attorney.​

Q: What path did you to take to get to where you are now?

DiNicola worked in marketing for several years after undergrad and loved it but realized that to achieve the goals she had set for herself, she would also need an advanced degree. She went to law school and hasn't looked back.

Michael Dukakis, Collin's professor at Northeastern University in Boston, pushed her toward public service rather than law. However, after graduation, she ended up working in finance and business for a few years. She eventually enrolled at Capital University Law School where she got an itch for public service that Dukakis instilled in her and took a position with a criminal defense firm. However, personal issues and a lack of authentic community service left her feeling unsatisfied. So, she joined the Fairfield County Prosecutor's Office. Her extensive experience at the Prosecutor's Office recently led her to the perfect position at Dinsmore & Shohl LLP where she feels at home.

Begin constantly stayed busy with clerking in at least one firm at a time through law school, and full-time afterward. Within months, she met the owner of her current firm through a social contact, and after a single conversation felt she found a terrific mentor, boss, and friend. He felt he found a hard worker, and that part has proven true through her continued dedication and tenacity.

As a senior at Kent State University, Whalen participated in a program where she moved to Columbus for a semester, took classes at the Ohio Statehouse taught by a current and former legislator, and interned at the law firm of Roetzel & Andress (where she currently works). She loved the experience, so she moved to Columbus after graduating and worked as a legislative aide in the Ohio House of Representatives while beginning her night law school studies at Capital University Law School. After taking the bar exam, she returned to Roetzel & Andress to start her legal career.

Nelson knew that she wanted to be in the courtroom, so she started her career at the district attorney's office for two years. She also served as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Illinois College of Law and worked in mediation. For a couple years after her husband graduated from library science school, she moved with him to different states and didn't actively practice law. Eventually, Marley's family ended up in Ohio where she passed the bar. Marley currently loves her work, as an Assistant Public Defender for the Ohio Public Defender's Office.

After law school, Lyons practiced in Cincinnati for a few years before returning to her hometown of Cleveland to join her family at the firm where she still works today.​

Q: What challenges have you faced on your journey?

DiNicola feels fortunate that she hasn't faced many challenges. She is lucky to have a very strong support system and her law firm is equally as supportive. However, she has talked to many other lawyers who cannot say the same. Like many of her colleagues, one challenge that she has is student debt and the burden of making those payments. 

Collin has faced some serious and life-altering challenges on her journey. Before obtaining her law degree, she was the victim of sexual assault. As she overcame feelings of shame and repression, she translated her experience into a job where she interacts with victims, specifically helping them by encouraging them to come forward, which she had the opportunity to do in prosecution. Though she still struggles when cases trigger repressed memories and feelings, her work has also forced her to face them. Relaying her personal struggle to victims makes them feel more comfortable to do the same.

Begin is often deeply immersed in her work for the sake of her clients. However, she strives to live a healthy, balanced life but has found that it takes more discipline than she could have ever imagined.

The four years Whalen spent working at the Statehouse and for the Governor while attending law school were extremely challenging, but she considers the experience one of the most rewarding accomplishments of her life. She learned to manage her time and be independent and truly believes it afforded her career opportunities and advancements she certainly would not have been able to achieve if she were a traditional day student.

Nelson's biggest challenge was relocating to Ohio. She had to take a second bar exam and had no connections, so she had to build a network from scratch.

After her first year of law school, Lyons' husband was accepted into medical school in Cincinnati while she was in Cleveland. She had to decide whether to transfer to Cincinnati and forfeit her scholarship at Case Western Reserve University School of Law or stay and try to make a long-distance marriage work. She decided to stay and meet her fiancé on the weekends and while it was difficult, it was ultimately a good decision because it taught her independence and made good financial sense.​

Q: How has student debt affected your journey? Have you taken steps to manage student loan debt?

Though DiNicola has the burden of paying down her student debt, it hasn't affected her journey in any real way but recognizes that it affects many attorneys significantly. She stays on top of re-certifying her income to the student loan processors every year and is adept at making room in her budget for the debt. 

Collin has worked to consolidate her loans and enrolled in the "Pay As You Earn" Repayment Plan. As a public employee, she has registered for the Federal Student Loan Forgiveness Program. While she hopes to continue her public service work, she is concerned that the program will be eliminated before her loans are eligible for forgiveness.

Even with a partial scholarship to law school and working full-time all four years, Whalen still accumulated significant school loan debt. She reached out to multiple loan consolidation providers (with little success) and now works closely with her current loan servicing company on a repayment plan. Unfortunately, there is not much flexibility and not many options.

Both Nelson and her husband are counting on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to pay off their student debt. While she hasn't allowed student loan debt to stop her career, it has limited her opportunities and delayed some of her personal and career goals.

Thanks to her decision to stay at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, Lyons kept her scholarship and graduated with little debt from law school.

Q: Why did you decide to embark on leadership training at the OSBA? What expectations did you have? How has the Academy shaped you?

DiNicola chose to embark on the leadership training after she was made a partner of her law firm. She had high expectations as some of her good friends have been past participants in the Academy and had wonderful things to say about it.  She feels it has been a great experience and has already encouraged many of her peers to apply for next year.  She has learned some valuable insights and lessons from the outstanding speakers and enjoyed getting to know the other members of the 2018 class.

Collin applied for the OSBA Leadership Academy when her law school classmate and personal idol, Mindy Yocum, nominated her to be in the 2018 class. Her interest in leadership came from working with Fairfield County Juvenile Judge Terre Vandervoort. Collin did not know what to expect out of the Leadership Academy but the participants' diversity and commitment to excellence have shaped her. And those she found to be different from herself have opened her eyes to other viewpoints. 

Begin was referred to this program by a seasoned attorney in her community and she never passes up an opportunity to network, learn, travel, and grow. She also looked forward to being in a classroom atmosphere and having likeminded individuals with whom to talk in a non-competitive context. The Academy has given her a new circle of friends to draw on for inspiration and conversation that she would otherwise be without. 

Whalen embarked on leadership training because she was eager to gain skills that will help her as a young attorney and aspiring community leader. She expected to benefit from connecting and building strong relationships with her peers, as well as learning from more experienced members of the bar and other community leaders. The Academy has shaped her by exposing her to leaders and members of the Ohio State Bar Association that she would not have otherwise met.

Nelson applied for the Leadership Academy when she was working at The Ohio State University because she didn't know many people in Ohio and wanted to build a network. She had no expectations other than meeting other people interested in personal growth or public service, but she has grown her network exponentially by going through the program and it has really helped her establish herself within the Ohio legal community.

Lyons met someone through the OSBA who went through the Leadership Academy program and encouraged her to apply. She believes that leadership is important for attorneys and wants to be more of a leader in her community. The Academy programming has enriched her perspective on leadership and afforded her an important opportunity to take a step back and evaluate herself as an attorney. ​

Q: What goals do you have for your career and practice?

DiNicola's number one goal for her career and practice is to have a well-respected domestic relations law sector of her firm. She is excited that after this year she can apply to be an OSBA Certified Family Law Specialist, which will make her firm even more valuable to her clients.

Collin's goal is to continue to enrich herself and others. She hopes that she can share what she has learned with other attorneys and individuals throughout her career to help implement change, whether it is for one person or a greater purpose. 

It has so far worked very well for Begin to not even ponder such things and to just keep working as hard as she can. The steps that lay beyond, she expects will become apparent in the process, and she can only hope that the skills she develops today will build her up to meet those future challenges. When she finally has it all figured out, her single and most certain goal is to pass her knowledge and experience down to young attorneys as the partners of her firm have done for her.

Whalen's goal for her career and practice is the same as her passion. She wants to have a meaningful and significant impact on the world. As a young attorney just starting out in her career, she doesn't know what that looks like just yet, but it is her motivating and driving force. 

Nelson lives moment-to-moment but plans to stay with the Office of the Ohio Public Defender. She enjoys working there and would like to teach on the side if the opportunity arises.

Lyons wants to always be learning and improving as an attorney. She doesn't want to get too comfortable with whatever she's doing and likes to take on new challenges. Being a benefit to the other attorneys at her firm is important to her and she is always thinking about how to achieve the firm's goals moving forward. Because she works with her family members, these are personal as well as professional goals.​

Q: Who or what has inspired you throughout your career?

DiNicola's law partner, Darren McNair has been her biggest mentor. She has learned a tremendous amount from him in the past five years and she feels fortunate to get to work with him every day. Her two good law school friends, Rachel Sabo and Kelly Jasin, also inspire her every day. They are both up-and-coming women lawyers and future leaders in the Columbus area. She looks to them for advice, as role models, and as friends. 

Collin has been inspired by Judge Terre Vandervoort of the Fairfield County Juvenile Court and her progressive and evidence-based programs that have proven successful for the juveniles in her county.  But she also has been inspired by John Moore, her grandmother's partner, and her grandfather figure. He knew that she always wanted to go to law school and when she was accepted, he could not have been prouder. Every day that she practices, she thinks of him, and hopes her actions continue to make him proud.

It would be enough for Begin to just know that her family and friends are proud of her. Beyond that, when it comes to herself, she finds that she doesn't think twice about working late into the night despite reviewing some devastatingly sad cases. Then she is back at the office early and ready to go at it again. Even in her free time, she reads articles about law. She believes, "that's what loving something really means." Every day she shows up for something bigger than herself, and therefore finds no room to question it.

Whalen's mother is her true inspiration. She has always had a very active and successful career, while also managing to be a tremendous role model for her and her siblings. When Whalen was young her mother taught her that she could do whatever she wanted, without limitations. Her mother empowered her to be a hard-working and self-confident woman which really shaped the person she has become.

Nelson was inspired by her high school Mock Trial coach and her trial team coach during law school. Her Mock Trial coach introduced her to law through Mock Trial and Government class and inspired her to go to law school. Her trial team coach in law school led an amazing career as a trial attorney; he always assigned her to be defense counsel even though she (at the time) wanted to be a prosecutor. She suspected he thought she would be a good defense attorney, which she is now!

Lyons was inspired by her father, Peter A. Hessler. Growing up, she always looked up to her dad and was impressed with how he handled himself and his career. He made (and still makes) being an attorney seem like something worth accomplishing.

Q: What, if any, advice do you have for other up-and-coming women attorneys?

DiNicola's advice is that if a practicing lawyer tells you to reach out to them and gives you their card, then CALL them! Any attorney who has ever reached out to her and asked her to go to lunch or to pick her brain about something, she has always made time to meet.

Collin's advice is to strive to be your own biggest advocate. She found that, in her years in criminal defense, she was often referred to as her boss' secretary or paralegal despite sitting at counsel table representing that same client at court. She decided when she moved into the Prosecutor's Office that she would be her own person from the start.

Begin encourages other women to be unapologetically brilliant, speak when they have something to say, look as plain or sharp as they please, call out every injustice they observe, and to simply make this experience about being human.

Whalen's advice is to not be intimidated, especially if or when you experience skepticism or others doubt your abilities. If you demonstrate respect, have a strong work ethic and generally operate with self-confidence and poise, you will set the tone for how others will treat and perceive you.

Nelson encourages young women attorneys to reach out to everyone they can. Everyone loves to talk about themselves and it is important to learn from other people's paths.

Lyons urges young women attorneys to surround themselves with other women attorneys who they trust and can serve as mentors and role models. She is intentional about helping the other women at her firm and she says that most women are more than willing to help those who reach out.


Click here​ to meet the entire 2018 Leadership Academy Class!

Nominate a candidate for the Leadership Academy, and the OSBA staff will reach out to the nominee to complete an application. The deadline for nominations is Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.


Interview by: Spencer Lutz, OSBA Marketing and Communications Intern



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