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The 500 Lawyer Limelight: Nancy Abell

Photo by Dave Lauridsen

Paul Hastings partner Nancy Abell is on the speed dial of many in-house counsel at Fortune 100 companies. Abell is the global chair of Paul Hastings’ 152-lawyer employment law department, considered one of the best labor and employment practices in the country.

In 2010, her group won the prestigious American Lawyer Litigation Department of the Year Award for chalking up a 12-1 record in court trials and a 14-0 record in arbitrations in 2009 and 2010. The same year, The National Law Journal singled her out as one of the 40 most influential lawyers of the decade in the area of labor and employment law.

Lawdragon: The 2011 Walmart v. Dukes U.S. Supreme Court ruling was hailed as great news for employers. What kind of impact did it have on your practice?

Nancy Abell: The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Wal-Mart has helped employers defeat a greater proportion of class cases at the pleading stage and at class certification – particularly discrimination class actions and wage-hour actions that challenge the exempt status of a class of employees. Civil rights lawyers appear to be focusing more of their discrimination class actions on disparate impact claims, rather than intentional discrimination claims. For employers this means greater emphasis on statistics and establishing that employment practices are job-related and consistent with business necessity.

LD: We hear a lot about the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court on labor and employment law. What’s going on in the arbitration area?  How is that shaping the practice?

NA: Each year it appears that more employment disputes proceed to binding arbitration. Some employers have been able to preclude litigation of class and collective actions by moving to compel arbitration of individual claims under arbitration agreements that are silent on class arbitration or prohibit it. Other employers continue to find arbitration unattractive because appellate rights are limited and they believe that arbitrators are more likely to “split” their rulings to make both sides happy.

LD: What is the most pressing legal issue on your clients’ minds right now?

NA: In the employment arena the most pressing litigation issue across industries continues to be the threat of wage-hour class and collective actions.

LD: What’s the most challenging aspect of your job right now as head of the nation’s most recognized labor and employment practice group? How different is that from litigating cases?

NA: The most challenging aspect is attempting to forecast the state of the law and demand for legal services years down the road and making sure that we have developed cutting-edge strategies to address those developments before they are needed.

LD: Can you talk about a recent litigation victory you’ve had?

NA: Most litigation victories come when a motion is granted, class certification is defeated, or a trial or appeal is won. One is prepared for those milestones. Recently I associated in as lead trial counsel for a case with industry-wide ramifications. It sought injunctive relief that would have been cost-prohibitive and would have had severe adverse consequences for our client’s operations. The case had been going on for years. There was no choice other than to win it. Settlement was not an option. We quickly conducted a meticulous up-from-the-ground investigation, designed a motion and trial strategy, used both offensive and defensive discovery effectively, and finally convinced our opponent to throw in the towel and dismiss.

LD: What led you to practice in this area of law?

NA: As the manager of the City of Los Angeles Affirmative Action Program and a member of Mayor Tom Bradley’s Affirmative Action Task Force, I became fascinated with the evolving employment discrimination laws, the onslaught of class action litigation and the realization that management employment lawyers played a significant role in driving change within corporations. This prompted me to leave a job I loved to pursue a legal education and to seek a job at Paul Hastings Janofsky & Walker, the firm whose employment lawyers most impressed me.

LD: There is a lot of talk about women initiatives at law firms and how ineffective they are. What’s your view on that issue? How do you think law firms can promote more women into their partnerships and appoint them in leadership roles?

NA: Initiatives to foster a climate of inclusion attract and help firms retain diverse lawyers. Prominent women in leadership help attract aspiring female stars. But, one earns election to the partnership based upon the skills she develops, the results she obtains, and the business she brings in. Thus, it is critical for firms to look carefully at the staffing of major matters to ensure that women get optimal experience as they come up the ranks, include them early on in pitches and presentations to clients, and openly encourage clients to look to more women as matter leaders and relationship leaders.

LD:  What interests do you have outside of law that you like to pursue when you have time?

NA: My number one priority outside of work is spending time with my precious family, particularly my adorable grandchildren. I am active on several boards and was privileged to co-chair The Exceptional Children’s Foundation’s recent gala that raised $1.25 million to support programs for individuals with developmental disabilities.

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