Photo by Molly Pan.
“But you don’t look like a lawyer.”
Randi McGinn still gets that reaction more than 40 years into her career as a trailblazing plaintiffs’ lawyer in New Mexico.
McGinn has tried to verdict more than 130 cases in federal and state court, including a $67M win for a plaintiff who had undergone surgery to receive a pacemaker that wasn’t medically necessary — and whose doctor was receiving kickbacks from the manufacturer.
Her work for injured plaintiffs has inarguably made New Mexico a safer place, with warnings on dangerous products, better training in hospitals, signage for hazardous roadways, and regulations to protect overnight convenience store workers all part of her astounding legal legacy.
Still, some stuffy members of the old legal guard may even today balk at her style — as if starched linen and pocket squares are what makes for effective legal representation.
What they may not understand is that she has deliberately chosen to be herself, rather than squeeze herself into a stereotype.
“I don’t want to look like a lawyer in the courtroom,” says McGinn, who favors flowing dresses topped with a sweater and chunky boots over tailored power suits.
Graduating law school in 1980, McGinn experienced her share of gender discrimination as a young lawyer. Lacking female mentors, she started out trying to mimic the male style, both in terms of dress and demeanor. But a couple years in, she was horrified to see herself on camera exiting a courtroom, in a dark blue suit, a rosette tie and “a very severe bun,” she says.
“I thought, oh my God, I look like my great grandfather.”
Shortly after, she adopted a maxim that has since inspired a new generation of female lawyers, and indeed anyone else who ever felt that lawyers are people who don’t look like them: “Being different in the courtroom is always an advantage.”
The way a superhero uses her invisibility cloak to pass undetected through perilous areas, McGinn eschews the look of a traditional lawyer in order to forge a real connection with the jurors. She points to studies that ask people about their idea of a lawyer (basically a ruthless white man in a suit) and what they wish lawyers would be like: a teacher, and a caring one at that. “I want to be the person the jurors can listen to, who they look to for guidance.”
The philosophy is working for her, to say the least. The last trial she handled before the pandemic was against a semitrailer manufacturer, on behalf the family of a young man whose car got caught underneath a semi and was drug for 1,000 feet until his vehicle caught fire and he burned to death inside. The industry has lobbied against adding side guard rails which would have prevented the tragedy, because they think, as McGinn succinctly says: “Safety doesn’t sell.” Through her trademark mix of creative storytelling, impassioned advocacy, and a calm and empathetic recitation of the facts, McGinn secured a $42M verdict for the young man’s family.
Taking on entrenched power systems has always been an area of pride for McGinn, be it deep-pocketed corporations with strong industry lobbyists or police departments using excessive force against citizens.
She compares her law degree to holding a black belt in karate. “Law school teaches you about how the big power machine works, government and courts,” she says. “It teaches you where to take the wrenches, throw it into the machine and slow it down or how to make it work properly to achieve justice..”
And achieve justice she has. Dating back to 1990, McGinn won a large settlement against the Albuquerque Police Department for the shooting of an unarmed Black man. Six years later, she won another case against APD over the fatal shooting of a suicidal man named Larry Harper; in addition to the monetary settlement for the family, McGinn secured policy changes in the department to help prevent similar acts of force against mentally ill citizens moving forward.
That last one made her a target, with the police department placing her picture on a piñata and taking turns whacking at it.
Swing away, boys: that’s not going to stop McGinn – who continues the work, recently handling a case on behalf of James Boyd, a homeless man in Albuquerque who was shot and killed by police officers in 2014. The shooting was caught on film, and District Attorney Kari Brandenburg decided to prosecute the officers, a first in the city’s history. The police department responded by investigating Bradenburg and pushing to have her recused; she asked McGinn to take on the case as a special prosecutor.
McGinn originally declined, thinking the case called for a “real” prosecutor. She also doubted the case’s likelihood of success, figuring, “they’d probably be found not guilty in 15 minutes, which is what was happening all over the country.”
Brandenburg tried all the other DAs in the different judicial districts in the area, and one after another, they declined. “‘Don’t even send us the file,’” McGinn recalls them saying to the DA, “‘because we don’t want the cops coming after us like they came after you.’”
She went back to McGinn: “If you don’t take this, it’s not going to get done.” McGinn took the case, all the way to trial.
The officers weren’t convicted in the end, but the trial itself – which ended in a hung jury – was still a victory in the long game. “We moved the goal line towards justice,” says McGinn, who noted that the trial had a positive effect on the police department, which had been notoriously trigger-happy.
“At the time, the APD was number one per capita in terms of killing citizens,” says McGinn. “They were shooting someone dead once every five-and-a-half weeks.”
When asked about the high kill rate during depositions, the officers responded: “‘Well, we’re better shots than the other police department,’” recalls McGinn. “‘When we shoot them, they stay down.’”
After trial, with police officers on the stand for charges of second-degree murder for the first time in the state’s history, the department’s kill rates fell dramatically. “They realized, ‘we’re not going to get away with this without somebody trying to hold us to account,’ ” says McGinn. “That’s the real victory.”
McGinn’s aplomb in the face of institutionalized wrongdoing comes back to a genuine hunger to make the world a better place. She realized early on that lawyering is the best recourse to affect real change.
“It’s the greatest job on the planet. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says.
It’s clear from McGinn’s varied and impressive career that she has a pure love of the law. Forever interested in expanding her own limits and diving into unexplored areas, McGinn famously took on the case of the Old West gunslinger Billy the Kid.
“Our governor [Bill Richardson] had been asked to pardon Billy the Kid,” recalls McGinn. “And he said to me, ‘There’s no lawyer who will represent him,’” not the least because there was no money in it, his crimes are a century-and-a-half old, and, well, he’s one of the most notorious criminals in American history.
So why did McGinn take it on?
“It was just so much fun.” She spent months researching his case, and decided he deserved a pardon because he had been promised one for testifying in a murder trial, but never received it. Richardson considered her facts but decided not to issue the pardon; although he has since said privately to McGinn that he regrets it. The decision was probably more political than anything else.
“It was really Billy the Kid versus law enforcement,” says McGinn. “He’s been dead for 144 years and you’re still fighting the Lincoln County ward.”
If the case sounds personal to McGinn, it’s because she genuinely believes in the inherent right to justice in this nation and views the legal profession as one of the most profound ways to affect change. She talks about lawyers as “verbal alchemists,” meaning: “You take someone’s story, and if you tell it truly and well, you turn it into justice.”
Despite her clear and lasting impact on the lives of citizens through her verdicts and often closely-watched trials, McGinn is of the mindset these days that, “the only thing that lasts is the knowledge that you pass on to other people.” Influenced, no doubt, by her own experience early on as a young litigator devoid of female role models, McGinn is passionate about teaching and giving talks, mentoring and encouraging young women to thrive in the field.
“I think women have the advantage in the courtroom,” she says. “All of the stereotypes are in our favor,” including the antiquated notion that a woman, by nature, needs protection. That notion can make any self-respecting feminist bristle, but rather than fight the rain, McGinn dances in it, exploiting the tired old prejudice to her advantage – and encouraging others to do the same.
In her experience, being the sole female litigator in a courtroom puts her in the perceived position of the underdog, so that others in the room start rooting for her. She has stories of jury members cheering her on, standing up for her when opposing counsel was bullying her, even buying her gifts in the middle of trial.
Then there’s the element of surprise. If McGinn wins hearts with her cozy-chic fashion and gentle guidance walking a juror through the facts, her ferocity, wielded purposefully, can have astounding results: She famously made a witness throw up on the stand during cross-examination.
The key to it all, she says, is simple (at least in theory): “You have to be true to yourself.”
Her fearless determination to be authentic, to forge a path for the feminine in a stubbornly male arena, is only growing stronger over time: This year, amidst a global pandemic that is having an outsized negative impact on working women, she helped launch the revolutionary Athea Trial Lawyers.
Athea, named after the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare, is an all-female legal association that includes some of the most accomplished trial lawyers in the nation. The group includes Deborah Chang in Los Angeles, Bibi Fell in San Diego, and Zoe Littlepage, Lisa Blue, and Charla Aldous in Texas. Each one of these women’s track records is individually impressive (Chang, Fell, Littlepage, and Aldous all appear alongside McGinn in our 500 Leading Plaintiff Lawyers guide). Together, they represent a powerhouse with potential to upend the industry.
The group is refreshingly deliberate about cultivating feminine traits for use in the courtroom. As their website declares: “Athea supports those fighting for a just cause – as well as those who use cunning and intelligence rather than brute strength.”
Athea’s members are dedicated, primarily, to winning cases for their clients. But they also have a keen focus on boosting female representation in the courtroom: They provide support to other litigation teams, including funding and access to their trademark trial graphics, so long as there is one active female trial lawyer on the team.
One of McGinn’s current cases, which she’s handling with others from Athea, is over an urban cliff collapse in San Diego County that happened last summer. A family was in the midst of celebrating the recovery of one of their matriarchs from breast cancer, when the cliffside above their heads crumbled away.
“They build all these houses on top of these cliffs, and they don’t do anything to stabilize them,” says McGinn, pointing to a persistent and unchecked problem with erosion on bluffs along the California coast. “In fact, the water from the houses running off it destabilizes it. But then they keep the beaches open.” The family members in the case who were left standing tried to dig out and save those who had fallen off the eroded cliff, but the cancer survivor died, along with her sister and niece. The heartbreaking case was filed in state court his summer.
McGinn’s caseload these days seems to follow a theme of extraordinary women who have suffered preventable tragedy: Another matter currently in her hands is justice for a 25-year-old woman from Uganda who was decapitated in front of her husband when a loose, improperly installed metal gate swung into her car as they were leaving a visit from Arches National Monument earlier this year. The young woman, Esther “Essie” Nakajjigo, had founded a nonprofit community health center in Kampala when she was still a teenager, and hosted a reality television show popular in Africa that focused on empowering young mothers. She had raised $10M for charitable causes over her lifetime before her untimely, and entirely avoidable, death.
“She was going to be just extraordinary,” says McGinn, who is pursuing a $270M wrongful death claim against the National Park Service on behalf of Nakajjigo’s family, alongside Athea member Chang.
Forever a champion of women being women in the courtroom, McGinn has just one rule for her female mentees that might otherwise seem like fair ground: No crying in the courtroom. Men can get away with it, she says, but if a woman does it, the jury is suspicious, feeling like they’re being manipulated. So on the more emotional aspects of a case, McGinn bites her cheek and saves the crying for when she gets home.
Her ingrained professionalism buffeted her during perhaps the most challenging arguments of her long career. McGinn was in trial in Santa Fe last year, advocating for the young man who burned alive after being dragged by the semi-trailer, when her husband, former New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels, was diagnosed with ALS and told he had about a year to live. She gave her closing arguments – without shedding a tear – and drove home, leaving her associate to take the verdict.
Her husband passed less than two weeks later. He was 76.
Her grief has been profound and immeasurable. But, ever empathetic, Randi talks about how the experience connected her with others, particularly anyone who has lost a close family member, as so many of her clients have. She has come to see death as the great equalizer. “The mortality rate is 100% for human beings. That’s the thing that connects us all,” she says.
Randi turned 65 this year and is looking forward to another decade or so of taking on interesting cases that make a difference in the world.
What advice would she give herself if she were to do it all over again?
“Don’t wear those stupid pants, first of all,” she quips. Then continues: “You really have to find your own voice in the courtroom. Try your own things. But find your own voice and be true to yourself.
“I’ve had the best time just taking cases that I find interesting.”