To hear private practice attorney Lisa Kouzoujian of Stamford, Connecticut talk about growing up in a tight-knit multigenerational Armenian family that was immersed in a vibrant ethnic community, it becomes all too clear why she has spent the better part of her career advocating for children deprived of that same sense of security, unconditional love, and consistent nurturing that, as a child, she embraced each day.
Kouzoujian fondly recounts growing up with her brothers, parents, and her grandmother, an Armenian Genocide survivor and model of strength and dignity. They would drive to St. Gregory’s in Manhattan and then St. Vartan’s Cathedral each week to worship and to serve their Armenian Apostolic Church. It was a childhood that very much set the foundation for who she is today.
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, she was exposed to a vibrant Armenian community that had an influential presence in her life. That community expanded when she taught a generation of kids how to swim at AGBU Camp Nubar, located in upstate New York. “Camp Nubar is where my heart remains,” says Kouzoujian.
It was there that she created lifelong friendships with both her peers and younger generations of Armenians, as she climbed the ranks as a counselor, senior counselor, and, eventually, the first female waterfront director. “Creating a team environment with my staff and providing opportunities for kids to develop their skills and confidence in the water were really rewarding experiences for me. I think, looking back on those summer months, my interest in helping children began at Lake Arax.”
Helping others as an attorney is so much more than drafting arguments and appearing in court. So much of my time is spent mediating and offering advice. I guess in some ways I’m forever the camp counselor looking out for others and guiding them through a process.
Kouzoujian attended Colgate University as an English major with no intention of going to law school, but rather pursue teaching. But, while working for a law firm in New York City after graduation, she realized that she could use the law to impact people in a meaningful way. It was a step in her professional career that reflected on those years of inspiration from her parents and grandmother, who taught her to always look beyond herself and step in to advocate for those in need.
“As a grandchild of a genocide survivor, I was always acutely aware of recognizing suffering or injustice, being compassionate to the plight of others, and above all, acting in a way to help those who cannot help themselves,” she says. “My grandmother’s analogy for life was quite simple: you should always bring something to the dinner table, whether it is cooking the meal, setting the table or providing the food. If you do not do something to contribute to the whole, your food won’t have any flavor. Without putting good out into the world, our lives lack meaning.”
She attended Western New England Law School, taking elective courses in education and family law. During one semester, she interned at an institution for the cognitively disabled, where she represented elderly people who needed their rights protected in hearings. “It appealed to me and everything was finally starting to make sense. I was looking for a purpose and this seemed like a good use of my skills.” For her third-year law school project, Kouzoujian focused on child custody, but didn’t realize this would be her eventual path until 10 years later.
After graduating, she was a judicial clerk and then worked for a small law firm that focused on business and real estate matters.Her personality and work ethic were appreciated and she was recognized for her ability to connect with both the judges and the other attorneys.
“Early in my career in Stamford, I was one of a few women who represented defendants in criminal matters. It was important to be all the more diligent.” Regardless of her heavy case load, she always made pro bono work a priority, whether serving as council for organizations or individuals, or volunteering at the local homeless shelter. She was heeding the life philosophy of her grandmother, bringing something to the table to enrich the world around her. “I always did some pro bono work for those in need of legal assistance. It was my way of giving back and feeding my soul.”
When her firm dissolved in the late 1990s, Kouzoujian decided to branch out on her own. At the heart of her private practice, she advocates for families and children without a voice. Certified by the National Association of Counsel for Children as a Child Welfare Law Specialist, a majority of her work is dedicated to child protection, representing neglected or abused children. In some circumstances, she also represents parents in high conflict custody disputes.
She’s also worked with juveniles in delinquency matters, parties in termination of parental rights, divorce work, custody matters, child endangerment and criminal defense work—and dog rescue on the side. “Helping others as an attorney is so much more than drafting arguments and appearing in court. So much of my time is spent mediating and offering advice. I guess in some ways I’m forever the camp counselor looking out for others and guiding them through a process.”
Known fondly as “Lisa K.” in the courthouse, in the local legal community and by the children she works with, Kouzoujian goes above and beyond the job description. Perhaps it’s her motherly instinct or connection to genocide survivors that pushes her to go the extra mile. She’s taken young clients under her wing, offering them her office as a safe study space to do homework while making sure they always had someone to talk to, even on speed-dial.
For Kouzoujian, the work does not stop at the rendering of a judgement by the court. Making sure kids are supported and on the right path is the ultimate goal. She works with local community contacts to set up mentorship possibilities and after-school programs. “I look to those around me with the experience and capability to help positively impact the youth I encounter. We very much work together. I am one piece of the village it takes to make the lives a bit better for some of these kids.” She notes that not all those whom she encounters will end up on “the right path” but works toward that goal no matter what. “In my world, it's all about trying our best to positively impact the child. Kids are our future and their rights must be furthered and protected.”
If I’m helping a child or family heal, or if I’m helping a family get to the place where they need to be, then I have succeeded.
Of course the stories and situations she encounters can be distressing and take their toll. Kouzoujian had many opportunities to choose a less emotionally taxing focus for her private practice, but she chose to follow her heart to work in this important field. “With children and families in distress we seek the best interest of the child above all else which can be easily muddled by emotion. When a child looks at you and says ‘please keep me safe’, or ‘please help my mom’, I know that I have to continue my work and use my voice no matter how difficult the situation is, or how emotionally exhausted I become.”
“Children being able to live peaceful lives with their parents is more than justice, it's life as it should be,” she adds. “I support the ideal of justice, and for me the word ‘justice’ means we go beyond reasonable efforts for children. We must advocate to give all children the chance to feel secure and just be kids.”
She remains an exemplary role model for her daughter Lenna, is fully committed to the Armenian Church as a member of the Diocesan Council of The Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church, and has served on the AGBU Camp Nubar Committee for many years, all while making the needs of her clients top priority at all times.
Looking at her caseload, she is equal parts compassionate listener, fierce advocate and creative problem solver, always thinking out of the box to help those who seek her aid. And while not every circumstance results in a happy ending, being a positive influence in a negative situation is her ultimate goal.
“If I’m helping a child or family heal, or if I’m helping a family get to the place where they need to be, then I have succeeded.”
Banner photo by Andrew Henderson.