With so many recent awards in international chocolate competitions, Syovata Edari is known around Madison as a “super chocolatier.” Not everybody knows that Edari is also a longtime attorney, and just recently she was selected as one of the 2020 Wisconsin “Super Lawyers.”
“I was very proud when I found out,” Edari tells Madison365. “I have practiced all over the country and I feel like I have accomplished a lot and have done some remarkable things as an attorney that many people don’t know about. So it was great to be recognized after all of these years.”
Super Lawyers is a rating service of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained a high-degree of peer recognition and professional achievement. The patented selection process is multi-phased and includes independent research, peer nominations and peer evaluations.
“It was surprising because I haven’t been practicing as much lately because of this other endeavor I’ve been involved in,” Edari says.
That “other endeavor” has been her CocoVaa Chocolatier, the award-winning chocolate company on Madison’s east side. While Edari, the master chocolatier and founder of CocoVaa Chocolatier, has won over 29 awards in international competitions in London over the last few years, she still takes on an occasional client as an attorney.
Thomson Reuters, publishers of Super Lawyers magazine, designate “Super Lawyers” and “Rising Stars” based on a point-scored selection process. Risings Stars are 40 years and younger. Edari was named a “Super Lawyer” for criminal defense.
“I think I’ve done some pretty remarkable things in my career as a lawyer back when I was in full swing years ago,” she says. “It is good to be recognized.”
For two decades, Edari has demonstrated a deep commitment to finding justice for her clients as one of only a handful of Wisconsin attorneys of color practicing criminal defense in federal courts. For many years she has had her own practice, at the Law Office of Syovata Edari, but she has also been a federal defender for Eastern Washington and Idaho and assistant federal public defender for the District of Kansas.
Edari says that she has defended members of drug cartels, people accused of murder, armed robbery, sex trafficking, and high stakes complex fraud cases such as a 2010 case in Kansas prosecuted under the rarely invoked Contraband Cigarette Trafficking Act. In Madison, she is well known for her representation in high-profile cases involving Anthony Limon and Genele Laird.
Edari, who goes by “Vata,” describes her lawyering style as “client-centered.” She says that’s important.
“Every lawyer has their own style and ultimately our cases are about our clients and their stories. One of the things that I enjoy about being a criminal defense attorney is being able to tell somebody’s real story,” Edari says. “A criminal prosecution is just a snapshot of somebody’s life and it’s often when that person is at their lowest stretch in life. The process itself can impact a person’s behavior.
“I have clients who remember what a judge said to them at sentencing or what a prosecutor said about them at a hearing,” she continues. “So sometimes just an act or a show of faith in somebody itself can be rehabilitative and actually impact the rate of which people recidivate and go back into the system.”
Edari says that she feels her job as a lawyer is not to chastize her clients.
“There is a lot of that in the culture of the practice … just like the medical profession. I think lawyers do that as a form of stress release. It’s a high-pressure job because you have somebody’s liberties in your hands. My approach is to really bond with my client and when you do that, that can make a huge difference in an outcome of a case when you get someone’s trust because we rely on our clients to give us the information we need to present to the court or to challenge the state’s case,” Edari says. “I’ve had clients where one small piece of information that they’ve told me — because they trusted me — changed the entire direction of the case and cut them huge breaks. That’s why I think being client-centered is super important.”
When she is able, Edari spends time mentoring new lawyers and pro-Bono consulting for activists and youth in the Madison area, educating them and training them to know their rights.
“Most of what I do right now in my capacity as a lawyer is mentoring youth, especially with all of the protest activity going on,” Edari says. “There are youths who have sought me out to consult about what are their rights and what they can and can do within the scope of the First Amendment, what the police can and cannot do them, how to respond to the police.
“I really do still love the law and understanding and knowing how to engage the rule of law to make things better,” she continues. “That’s one of the reasons, as a lawyer, I love constitutional challenges to statutes and laws because a lot of things were written a really long time ago.
“Laws should be written so my 13-year-old son can understand what he can and can’t do,” Edari adds. “If a law isn’t clear and doesn’t tell us the prescribed rules that we should all be living by, then it should be changed. Unfortunately, the only way to change it is to wait for something bad to happen and then challenge it.”
A few years back, Edari successfully represented herself and CocoVaa in federal court in Virginia as the defendant in a trademark lawsuit filed by Mars, Inc. It was a unique opportunity that intertwined her two life passions. Cocovaa has since won 29 international awards at the Academy of Chocolate Awards in London. Just recently, she found out that she won the silver award for her Passionfruit Mango Caramel Sauce.
“I had gone to London back in February to judge and they invited me to be on the grand jury. I brought my caramel sauce with me to be in the ‘spreads’ category but they had shut down judging. This was pre-pandemic. So my caramel sauce had been sitting in a fridge somewhere in London for 10 months,” she remembers. “And I didn’t know that they had resumed judging so I got an email about a week ago that they were announcing winners and I got a silver medal for mango caramel sauce that’s been there for 10 months. I know how hard it is to get any award, let alone a silver… so I was very happy with that.”
It’s hard to get a Wisconsin “Super Lawyers” award, too. No more than five percent of the lawyers in the state each year are selected by the research team at Super Lawyers to receive this honor.
“I’ve always had to make my own way. I don’t have the referral sources that other attorneys have. I just don’t have those networks and a lot of Black attorneys don’t have that social capital that our white counterparts have, so when we do get accolades like this, it’s a big deal,” Edari says.
“I’m not sure how I even got on the radar for this,” she adds. “But I”m very proud and happy to be recognized with this honor.”