February 2024 Cover Story - Franklin G. West Honoree Nikki Presley Miliband: An Unprecedented Servant Leader

by Joel S. Miliband, Deirdre M. Kelly, and Trudy C. Levindofske

“Honey, have you thought about getting a job?”

With those seven words from her father shortly after passing the Oklahoma bar, Oklahoma native Nikki (then Presley) Miliband came to California in 1991 to take an associate position with the late Paul Copenbarger in Irvine. Several years later, Paul persuaded Nikki to join the OCBA Legislative Resolutions Committee, beginning nearly three decades of extraordinary dedication and service to the bar, the justice system, and the probate litigation and elder abuse clients she has masterfully represented. This year’s Franklin G. West Award honoree epitomizes selfless service to others and is a mentor and inspiration to innumerable attorneys and bar leaders.

Established in 1971 in memory of Judge Franklin G. West, who served on the Orange County bench from 1939 to 1965, the FGW Award is the most prestigious honor bestowed by the OCBA. Judge West embodied the best of the legal profession as an attorney and a judge. The award is presented annually at Judges’ Night to an outstanding attorney or judge whose lifetime achievements have advanced justice and the law.

Nikki Presley Miliband, who joins a remarkable group of legal luminaries made up of twenty-one attorneys and thirty judges, is just the seventh woman to be so honored. Although the FGW Award recognizes lifetime achievement, honorees, such as Andrew Guilford (2003) who was later appointed U.S. District Court Judge, continue to ascend and contribute to the profession and the legal community well after receiving the award.

Nikki’s commitment to the justice system found its home in her extraordinary level of service to the OCBA, the State Bar, and the ABA. Her service spans nearly three decades of active participation, beginning in 1995 when Nikki joined the Legislative Resolutions Committee (and later chaired), through becoming OCBA President (2018), and today as she prepares to chair the Masters Division.

A complete listing of Nikki’s involvement in advancing the system of justice, the lawyers that serve it, and the community served by it would overwhelm this article. What can be said, before highlighting some activities, is that Nikki gives 100% of her heart and soul to all she touches, taking leadership of committees and task forces and tirelessly committing herself to encouraging others to become involved and to be their very best.

Nikki’s work with the OCBA Charitable Fund (2019 President) is legendary. From 2008, Nikki has chaired or co-chaired nearly all the Annual Fundraisers, creating in 2013 the successful Raise Your Glass event, helping to raise over $3 million, providing financial support for Orange County’s law-related charities that assist the county’s most vulnerable residents.

A former Executive Committee member of the State Bar’s Bench-Bar Coalition, Nikki currently serves on the ABA’s National Conference of Bar Presidents Programming Committee, organizing educational programs at ABA conferences throughout the country.

Nikki devotes time, energy, and passion as a board member of the Collaborative Courts Foundation, supporting the Orange County Superior Court’s nationally recognized community courts such as Veterans Court, Homelessness Court, Drug Court, Mental Health Court, DUI Court, and others. Justice Thomas Delaney, previously Supervising Judge of the Collaborative Courts, says of Nikki: “I will always appreciate Nikki’s steadfast and tireless support for the Orange County Superior Court and our system of justice. She has been instrumental in helping expand our Collaborative Courts, so that we may serve more individuals in need and, in turn, make our justice system more efficient.” 2007 OCBA President Joe Chairez and co-Foundation Board member notes: “When I researched my article on OCBA volunteerism, there is no other lawyer volunteer’s name I came across for so many nonprofits and groups, as Nikki. She tirelessly gives of her time and truly leads by example.”

Nikki serves on her law school’s Executive Board (since 2011), is a board member of OC Gang Reduction & Intervention Partnership, OCBA’s Mentoring Committee (former chair), LRIS Committee (spoiler alert: five-time chair), Leadership Development Committee co-chair, former Judiciary Committee member, State Bar Task Force co-chair, and many others too numerous to list, as well as an active member of affiliate bars, including HBA, OCAABA, TMBA, OCJBA, IALOC, and CBA (2023 Attorney of the Year Award recipient).

Yet Nikki’s efforts continue, dedicating time to pro bono work, serving early in her career with Volunteers in Parole, as a member of the OCBA Pro Bono Committee, and currently president-elect of Community Legal Aid SoCal.

Trudy Levindofske, OCBA Executive Director since 2007 (and co-author of this article), has seen firsthand the benefit to the OCBA of Nikki’s involvement. “Nikki is one of the most genuinely kind persons I have had the good fortune to meet. Match that kindness with her integrity, work-ethic, and energy and you have an idea of the secret to her success.” Over the years, Nikki has nurtured hundreds of connections and friendships, not only for her personal benefit, but to the mutual benefit of those who are lucky enough to know her and to the benefit of the OCBA and the legal community. You know that when you receive a call from Nikki, you are receiving the very personal touch that will encourage and support you to become involved.

Nikki had to be encouraged to offer her name to run for Secretary in 2014, waiting until the last minute to place her name into consideration. Trudy explains, “Waiting until the last minute is not a trait she often displays, but thank goodness she ultimately decided in favor of running. During her time on the Executive Committee, the OCBA faced numerous challenges where Nikki’s perspective and keen sense of the importance of relationships worked to keep the bar on track.”

But it is Nikki’s open and sharing personality that makes her sparkle. Trudy fondly observes: “Nikki is such a likeable person, often sharing goofy stories about herself and her adventures. She is a world traveler, an accomplished attorney, and a true friend to many. She has had a lasting and positive impact on the OCBA and the legal community and is a worthy addition to the list of West Award honorees. She has set the bar high for future honorees.”

Co-author Deirdre Kelly followed Nikki as OCBA President in 2019 and recalls that “when I was President-Elect, she would call me almost every day to make sure I was involved in the decisions she was making, the reasons behind them, and the issues that were arising, so that I would be better prepared when I became President. This led to a smooth and informed transition for me and the OCBA the next year.” Nikki is a natural-born relationship-builder and mentor ensuring that the leaders of the past stay connected to the bar and help the next generation of lawyers and bar leaders. Nikki’s outreach has strengthened the OCBA, nourishing the invaluable personal and professional connections amongst its members.

Working together on Raise Your Glass, Deirdre says this event “had not existed before Nikki created it” and, as always, “Nikki wholeheartedly dove into the logistics, including finding our current location at the Newport Beach Country Club, emailing hundreds of potential sponsors, going personally to Fashion Island and South Coast Plaza to ask for silent auction donations, planning the very successful live auction trips to exotic locations, and, of course, planning the co-chairs’ now annual (self-funded) Napa trip to conduct ‘due diligence’ on potential wineries and sample some of the prospects.”

Deirdre has also observed Nikki’s soft spot for those in need. “Growing up rescuing puppies and volunteering with her sorority, she later used her time, effort, and skills as a lawyer to assist others as is so evident from everything Nikki has done for the bar and the community.”

Nikki’s warmth and kindness is evident in how she treats others, including animals. Emmanuel Kant once said, “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” In a nod to her childhood days saving puppies, Deirdre recalls, “Nikki and I became puppy ‘mommies’ at the same time by getting sibling/cousin white Labradors during Covid. It suffices to say, we all wish we could live the life she has given Savannah!”

Summing up, Deirdre says, “Nikki exemplifies the words ‘servant leader’ and her impact on the legal and local community is unprecedented.”

Others who know her have similar praise for Nikki. Dean Zipser, 2005 OCBA President and 2016 FGW Award recipient has known Nikki since she was relatively new to OCBA and, since that time, “has admired her and how she developed into one of the leaders of our Bar. Whatever we asked her to do, she gladly did. Whatever challenge presented itself, she overcame. She has taken on and devoted her time and energy to task after task, and cause after cause, and we all are the beneficiaries of her efforts. I have had the privilege of co-chairing committees and task forces with Nikki. To say she is on top of everything and gets it all done is a gross understatement.”

Dean concludes by noting, “It’s no surprise that Nikki has become and remains the go-to individual when we need the best. Although I’m confident that she is by no means done with contributing, her achievements to date have immeasurably advanced justice and the law.

Robert W. Dyess, who has been practicing law with Nikki for more than twenty-five years at Good Wildman, shares: “Our practices have overlapped between my tax planning practice and Nikki’s probate litigation expertise. We have worked together on numerous interesting cases and matters. Nikki’s commitment to professionalism is infectious, both as a practicing lawyer and as a committed member of the bar association. We have also had our share of laughs, largely due to Nikki’s recurrent tendency to lose or misplace personal items, such as car keys, mobile phones, office keys, elevator keys, and other items that require her to call for assistance. I am blessed to have known Nikki as a law partner and a friend.”

Recently retired Superior Court Judge and 2004 OCBA President Kim Hubbard offers, “If Nikki were not such a good friend, I would probably be jealous of her. Smart, beautiful, and a ‘doer’—meaning that, if Nikki says she’ll do something, it’s done promptly, efficiently, and perfectly. Oh my . . . it appears I am jealous!”

Close friend and early colleague, attorney Elaine Alston remembers Nikki’s dedication to the practice, recalling the time a fire alarm went off while they were working overnight for a trial in the morning. The lights in the office went out and they could smell smoke in the hallway. Nikki, “instead of immediately leaving, packed up the trial documents in elephant bags practically as big as she was and carried them down four flights of stairs and over to the hotel next door so she could finish her trial prep.”

There were, of course, lighter moments. While Nikki was completing the bar application shortly after arriving in California from Oklahoma, she called out from her office, “What color is my hair?” Her secretary, without skipping a beat responded, “What does it say on the box?” to which Nikki cheerfully responded, “Platinum Blonde.” And in those early days “our secretarial staff had to figure out that ‘y’all’ was singular, not plural.”

So, there you have it: Nikki took her father’s question to heart, but she didn’t just “get a job”; she found a career and a way through advancing the system of justice and dedication to the law to nurture her natural tendencies to decency, kindness, selflessness, and commitment.

As said on the old late-night television commercials, “but that’s not all!” As co-author, adoring husband, 2000 OCBA President, and 2021 FGW Award recipient Joel S. Miliband knows well, what makes Nikki an incredible attorney and justice system champion translates to her personal life. Nikki’s love and caring shines through everywhere, as a treasured spouse who is the light of Joel’s life, wonderful daughter who speaks with her father (and before her mother passed, her mother) every day, often more than once, who maintains a close and loving relationship with her brother and sister-in-law in Oklahoma, with whom she also speaks regularly, and the love she has shown Joel’s family, especially the three children she “inherited” when she married Joel in 2005 (having first met at the bar event Paul made her attend in 1996). How Nikki finds the time to dedicate herself, as she does, to the bar and her career, as well as her personal life where she could easily double (or triple) as a travel agent and an interior designer, is one of the great mysteries of life.

But it is no mystery why Nikki is this year’s Franklin G. West Award honoree!

Joel S. Miliband is a Partner and General Counsel at Brown Rudnick LLP where he concentrates his practice in the areas of complex civil and business litigation and corporate restructuring. He is a past president of the OCBA (2000), Franklin G. West Award honoree (2021), and the proud husband of this year’s Franklin G. West Award recipient. Deirdre M. Kelly was 2019 OCBA President, is Assistant Dean for Career Services and Externship Director at Western State College of Law, and is proud to be a close friend and travel partner of this year’s Franklin G. West Award recipient. Trudy C. Levindofske is CEO and Executive Director at the Orange County Bar Association, and has had the good fortune of knowing this year’s recipient for many years.