Many top lawyers develop a sense early in life that they are headed for a career in the law, but few do so as early as Maria Rodriguez, who remembers the decision as “a no-brainer.”
“Becoming a lawyer was something I said I would do when I authored my autobiography in 4th grade,” says the Los Angeles-based McDermott, Will & Emery partner.
Rodriguez concluded during her studies at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, that she would be most satisfied representing companies in employment law matters. She counsels businesses across a wide range of industries and defends clients in employment litigation. Rodriguez also credits her enjoyment of the work to the environment established by her firm.
“The culture at McDermott is based on strong values, including respect and integrity,” Rodriguez says. “It is the most positive law firm culture I’ve experienced, and it is top-down, thanks to Chairman Ira Coleman, who really drives that and makes it an overt priority every day.”
Lawdragon: What is your mix of work like?
Maria Rodriguez: We counsel C-suite, management, in-house counsel, and human resources professionals of large corporations. We defend employment litigation – both class action and single plaintiff – and litigate employment contract disputes, trade secrets, and restrictive covenant cases. We also train and coach C-suite, executives, producers, and showrunners one-on-one related to leadership, management, and employment laws; and train managers and employees with regard to management, employment laws, the prevention of harassment, discrimination, and other workplace rules.
LD: How did you first become interested in representing employers?
MR: From conducting career diligence during law school to determine which practice area would be most suitable. Working with companies as management counsel enables us to work with people directly every day in an area of life that is critical to all of us – work.
It is incredibly rewarding to work with our clients to help them positively impact their company culture, and ultimately the lives of others. This work is particularly rewarding right now as we go through the challenges of 2020. Additionally, the litigation aspect is equally rewarding to the extent we help curb employment litigation abuse, and help shape law that affects employers.
LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?
MR: This is a very difficult question to answer because so much is so interesting and challenging in different ways. Certainly helping clients through Covid-19 has been incredibly challenging and interesting in that in order to advise clients we have had to work very collaboratively across legal disciplines – health care, privacy, tax, and others – to advise clients in an effective holistic fashion.
And our work currently with our clients related to social justice and equality is important and feels incredibly profound. We are dedicating great thoughtfulness to it, and working collaboratively with clients and diversity equity inclusion experts to help clients really move the needle, which they desire to do.
LD: What about some of your cases?
MR: From a litigation perspective, I can name three favorite cases. One is defeating class certification for a national QSR (quick service restaurant) chain in a $30M dollar wage-hour class action that was a long, hard-fought case. A second is defeating a competitor of an international sports and talent agency client in an NFL agent contract dispute related to fee tails, which are industry standard provisions and were being challenged as unenforceable restraints on trade. A third is defeating a national background check class action in California federal court on behalf of an international convenience store and fuel station company.
LD: Are there any trends you’re noticing in your practice in terms of the types of matters you’re seeing?
MR: FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) and related state law background check class actions are a very new trend. It is a tricky area of law because case law is underdeveloped, and although the statute is a technical one, issues of injury, standing, and jurisdiction are often at play, and the interplay between the various legal issues can become complicated. Additionally, case law is developing and we are hopeful that the development of case law and precedent, to which we are contributing, brings more clarity to this area of law.
LD: Can you describe a recent example and some of the challenges involved?
MR: The FCRA background check class action involving an international convenience store that I mentioned has been fascinating and stressful. Because the area of law is somewhat novel, we knew we had risk, but, in close collaboration with the client, we forged ahead with the defense of the case.
Part of what has been fascinating about that case is that the plaintiff experienced no injury from the background check process – as he admitted at deposition, and the federal court recognized when it ruled in our favor – and when we asked him at deposition why he sued, he answered that he did it because he had felt mistreated by his supervisor at work one day. In other words, the reason he was upset at the company had nothing to do with the entire lawsuit he had filed, which was purported to be a national background check class action. Hence, the entire case was made up by his lawyers, in what we believe was bad faith – for the purpose of lining the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ pockets.
Despite the novel issues involved and the lack of precedent in the area, the client allowed us to forge ahead, and we prevailed. The case has been refiled as a smaller case in state court, and we are in the process of challenging that filing on the same grounds – that plaintiff has no injury.
LD: Did you have any jobs between undergrad and law school that confirmed for you that you wanted a law career?
MR: Both during college and before law school, I worked in a large law firm’s recruiting office for a year, to make sure I liked working around lawyers. For two years, I worked cold-calling with stock brokers, and that was wonderful for sales experience. And for one year, I worked with a solo practitioner from whom I learned a lot about law practice management, and life. In all of these jobs, I was lucky to have great bosses and mentors, with whom I am still connected today 26 years later.
LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?
MR: Get work experience to make sure you enjoy it before taking on student loans, because as rewarding as a career in law is, you have to really enjoy it to be in it for the long run.
LD: What else would you say has helped you reach a high position in your practice?
MR: I worked my tail off, and immediately focused on the client and the client relationship. I’m always honing technical and strategic skills; always listening and learning from everyone – our assistants, clients, colleagues, partners; always looking for ways to be better and be improving. I also work to develop our team and those coming up the ranks; to support and genuinely connect with clients – my clients are some of my favorite people. They have become close friends over the years, and they are such interesting, smart, lovely people that I feel privileged to have them in my life. Same with our colleagues – such smart, wonderful, team- and client-oriented people. I’m grateful to the practice of law for these relationships.
LD: Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?
MR: Perry Silver. Perry was my first boss and managing partner for nearly 10 years, and a dear friend to this day. Perry taught me so much – negotiations, proper contract drafting, strategic analysis, you name it. He is a lawyer’s lawyer and I am honored to be his protégé.
LD: How has your practice changed since the early part of your career?
MR: The substance has evolved. How clients prefer service – more down to earth and practical, no long analysis memos (thank goodness) – has changed. Technology has changed everything – no more letters in the mail, all business is by email, phone, and thankfully still (sans Covid) in-person. Also, things move much faster, and the courts and brief writing has moved from long literary prose to a more business style of legal writing that gets to the point more immediately and sets forth the reasons for why the court should rule a certain way in a much more pragmatic manner – I’m also thankful for this. All in all, everything is more competitive than ever, but the evolution has been fun, and it is an exciting practice that is never boring.
LD: Can you share a lawyer you have come up against in a negotiation or case that you admire, and why?
MR: Chaya Mandelbaum. I met Chaya when we were opposite one another on a class action that was transferred by a client to us from another firm. Our predecessor had engaged very little, if at all, with Chaya and the plaintiffs’ counsel over the four years they’d had the case. Our job was to change the momentum and get results in the way of negotiating a competitive class action settlement. He was the lead lawyer on the plaintiffs’ side, which had eight or nine lawyers. We spent days and weeks negotiating, including over a long weekend where we talked every day. We negotiated every detail of every law and issue in the case. He was a smart negotiator and our discussions were so substantive and interesting, that despite the negotiations being grueling, I enjoyed them, respected him, and actually made a new professional friend in the process. We ultimately got the deal our client was looking for, but it was not easy.
LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer? Or, how do you think others see you?
MR: Strategic, pragmatic, client-oriented, organized, and effective. I hope this is how others, namely clients and colleagues, see me.
LD: What do you like about where you currently practice in terms of culture or other characteristics?
MR: We have developed an amazing team of incredibly high-performing, intelligent, strategically-thinking, client-oriented, wonderful people, with great values of high integrity, work ethic, client service, and team spirit.
LD: What are some of the challenges you face in your practice?
MR: The increasing complexity of the world as technology continues to drive the intersection of cybersecurity, health care, privacy, and other areas of law, along with global geographies and international laws that continue to collide and overlap with labor and employment and the management counseling we provide. Continuing to work collaboratively with our colleagues and bring guidance to our clients from a global, multi-disciplinary perspective will become more and more important, so we will need to continue to be highly organized in our efforts.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
MR: We have three dogs who we love to spend time with and hike or walk with. Boating and time near or on the ocean, SCUBA diving, gardening – these bring me joy and peace.
LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities?
MR: I’m on the board of, and heavily involved with, the Natasha Watley Foundation, which works with kids in Los Angeles to provide a softball league that teaches sport, life, and leadership skills. We serve over 1200 kids every year.
LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?
MR: Coaching and developing talent.