Photo by Dave Cross.
Photo by Dave Cross.

Ellen Holloman knew from a very young age that she would be a doctor or a lawyer. Expectations were high in her household, including from her mother, a nurse, and her father, a doctor who was the first black head of New York’s Health & Hospitals Corporation, and for whom the street in front of New York’s legendary Harlem Hospital is named.

She has more than exceeded any hopes they had, crafting a career as a top financial litigation partner at Cadwalader while also taking on some of the most difficult public interest cases, including providing counsel to death-row inmates.

“In the case of an inmate with a capital sentence, the chances you have aren't necessarily always that good, so you go in knowing that you may lose … and that losing is a very difficult outcome to cope with,” says Holloman, who received the New York City Bar Association’s prestigious Thurgood Marshall award for her post-conviction work with death-row inmates in Florida, Georgia and Texas.

The capital cases are “some of the most important work that I've ever done and probably ever will do,” Holloman says. “Knowing that the Thurgood Marshall has been given to lawyers whom I admire tremendously, the thought that I received it as well makes me feel very, very honored.”

Lawdragon: I can't even imagine balancing death-row appeals, representing people who must feel so hopeless sometimes, with your private litigation caseload.

Ellen Holloman: What you're saying is very true, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. In fact, it means you have to do it. You have to. It's very important work. Before my career is over, I will absolutely take on another one of those cases.

LD: Were you always so passionate about pro bono work, or was that something that developed over the course of your career?

EH: My parents placed a very high priority on public service. My father was the first black president of Health & Hospitals Corporation, which operates the public hospitals in New York City. He devoted his life to making healthcare services available to the poor, and I grew up in that tradition with him. One of our family values is that we have an obligation to help those who are in need. In some ways, it's not something I even think much about. I was just raised to believe that it was absolutely necessary; if you can do it, if you are lucky enough to be in a position to do it, then you must do it.

One of the reasons that I have been so happy at Cadwalader is that our values as a firm very much align with my personal values. It is so important to work with people who share your values. Difficult, challenging work is just that much easier when you do. And, the effort you need to make to be helpful isn’t always huge. With the individuals I’ve worked with, sometimes even something as simple as writing a letter can make a huge difference.

LD: Tell me more about that. It’s amazing how much an expression of interest from the right person or organization can accomplish sometimes.

EH: Exactly. I'm very fortunate to sit on the board of the New York Lawyers for Public Interest on behalf of Cadwalader. The very first case that I ran by myself, then as a second-year associate at Sullivan & Cromwell, with only partner oversight, was a case that came from that organization. An elderly client who was living in public housing had not had hot water in her kitchen for almost 20 years. Twenty years! To wash dishes, she had to fill up a bucket in the bathroom and bring it to the kitchen. My client was getting older, she was a grandmother and she had responsibilities, helping to take care of a newborn grandchild, and she couldn't take the situation anymore. She had resigned herself after many phone calls and letters that nothing would ever change, but the arrival of her grandchild motivated her to seek legal help one more time. So I wrote a letter on our law firm letterhead saying that I was going to be representing her, and the next month her hot water was permanently fixed. I didn't even have to file a complaint.

LD: After 20 years.

EH: It was a very humbling moment for me to be able to do something to help this lovely woman and her family.

Another extremely important and humbling pro bono case I worked on was with a Vietnam veteran who had been on the streets for many years. He’d suffered through post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, drug addiction and homelessness, and he was eventually able to get himself clean and into permanent housing, and reconnect with his family, including a daughter and grandchild. He couldn’t find a job, however, because he had a decades-old felony conviction for supposedly “trespassing” in an abandoned building in Connecticut during the winter. He also had a physical limitation that presented an additional challenge: he had been attacked while he was homeless and had limited use of his legs.

Still, he found a job that was going to be suitable – something that he could do to earn money to help support his family – but he couldn't get that job because of this conviction. So we were able to get his conviction expunged, and it was a wonderful moment because it made a difference, not just for him and his pride in being able to support himself, but also for his entire family, as he could now contribute.

Helping people who are coming home from incarceration or who have prison records get back to work, to me, is job one. I'm also involved with the Center for Employment Opportunities, and that's our mission: to make sure that people who are coming home from incarceration can get employment. It's a complete privilege to be able to serve as a trustee and to work with an organization that is so effective in getting people back to work. Most people who are coming out of prison have families. So, to be able to support their families financially, it's a huge social benefit and I'm so proud of the people at the Center who do that work every day, as their regular job. They have my unending admiration.

LD: That attitude fits in so well at Cadwalader, which I know values pro bono work and community involvement.

EH: There are a lot of firms that talk about things like pro bono and diversity, but if you don't have genuine support for these missions from the highest levels of management, it does not work. That’s what makes this firm stand out. What our Center for Diversity and Inclusion is doing is cutting-edge. It's incredibly unique, it's incredibly ambitious, and I am proud of it beyond words.

LD: Tell me a little more about that.

EH: For one thing, it includes affinity groups that partner with pro bono organizations to an absolutely unique effect. I’m the partner sponsor of Cadwalader's Black and Latino Association, along with my fellow partner Cheryl Barnes, and CBLA manages an immigration asylum clinic. It was founded by an amazing associate, Osvaldo Garcia, who came to this country as a very young boy seeking asylum with his family. He has made it his cause to help other people have the same wonderful American journey. The clinic prepares asylum applications, visa applications, and we work closely with clients to do that. A lot of in-house attorneys have the desire, but just don't have the opportunity, unfortunately, in their day-to-day work to take on a pro bono case, so our clinic – in partnership with Goldman Sachs - provides them with that opportunity. It's been received so enthusiastically. People are very, very appreciative.

LD: That's fantastic. So you’re pairing diversity and inclusion with pro bono efforts.

EH: Exactly. And it makes coming to work exciting; when the alarm goes off in the morning, I’m happy. I enjoy serving our clients, I enjoy working with my partners and the excellent associates here, and I really take pride in the social good that we're able to achieve through our Center for Diversity and Inclusion. It rings all my bells.

What’s special about the way that we work on diversity and inclusion at Cadwalader is that we put our values into action. The affinity groups themselves are very active. We have a nationally renowned Civil Rights speaker series; we recently had the Senior Counsel from Human Rights Watch come in to talk about the situation at the southern border and how attorneys can be helpful in response. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion, our support of pro bono work, that’s not just words on a website, it's not something that we say because we think that we have to check a box. The commitment is genuine, and it comes from the highest levels of our management. If you don't have that kind of buy-in, you're not going to be successful with diversity and inclusion. It is much more than just a warm and fuzzy feeling; it is the right thing to do, it's a values-driven proposition and it certainly reflects the values of the clients we are privileged to serve.

The commitment here is a substantive one, and the approach is a substantive one. It goes far beyond headcount. The way that some people misguidedly approach diversity is that they have a little policy or a statement they pay lip service to, and use in marketing materials, and where they go wrong is that their stated values do not reflect the norms, the actual lived experiences, within the organization because they are not genuinely held beliefs, so they have not put in the work to make it real in practice. That's not diversity. That's tokenism, and it’s offensive. I have actively avoided situations that were cloaked as diversity initiatives but where, in fact, my opinions and my perspectives weren't welcome at all. All that was wanted was the fact that I'm a diverse woman. No thanks.

LD: The way you’re combining your diversity efforts and pro bono work with your practice, where you’ve handled some very high-profile cases, is impressive. I know you’ve handled a tremendous amount of securities litigation; tell me more about what your practice looks like.

EH: I've spent my career focusing on complex commercial litigation. I’ve handled matters in state and federal courts, including bankruptcy court, dealing with complex contractual disputes, acquisition and transactional disagreements, and breach of fiduciary duty and fraud claims, for individuals, institutions and estates. I also have deep experience in securities matters, including class actions, for U.S. and foreign clients, and as a part of that, I'm also always involved in internal or regulatory investigations: whether the investigations grow out of civil litigation or expand into litigation, they always seem to accompany it. So I often work with my colleagues in our white-collar and regulatory practices. And that’s great because I learn every day, I do new things every day, I get to strategize every day and I get to closely collaborate with my partners in other practice groups, another feature of practicing law here that gives our work an edge.

Proceeding with civil litigation and handling a government or regulatory element at the same time requires you to be very forward-thinking. You can’t think, “OK, what is this going to look like a week from now?” You're thinking two years out, “How will this play out in court?” or “How will this play out if this has to be disclosed to the government, or when we disclose this to the government?”

I enjoy the strategy part of what I do very much. A few years ago, I worked on a matter in which, primarily with the help of a fantastic associate I worked with at the time, we uncovered a serious financial fraud committed by a publicly-held company. It all came down to a few e-mails and other documents, out of the millions of pages and files we handled in discovery, as well as the testimony at trial. Still, it was a complex chain of events and set of facts, and understanding the big picture and identifying the correct governing law required careful and sustained attention to detail.  In fact, not even the attorneys handling the transaction at issue at the outset realized that they had been completely duped, so piecing together the chronology and supporting it with evidence was a lengthy, painstaking process.

It takes patience and perseverance to define and manage the strategy, and hard work to build a case and craft a narrative. You have to sweat the small stuff and put in the time and do the work – that’s when great things happen. It was incredibly gratifying to see the judge adopt my presentation of the facts and the supporting legal reasoning. Big kudos to those fantastic associates, special counsel and legal assistants I worked with on that matter – these things are always a team effort, and I appreciate and thank them for stepping up on a tough case. It was a complete success for the client and I was so proud of the outcome and the effort to get there.

LD: So how did you get into this practice? What led you to think about becoming a lawyer?

EH: I had wonderful examples in my family. There are several attorneys in my family, both men and women, and I watched them from as long ago as I can remember being very effective in a variety of ways that they practiced law and lived their lives. I had very good examples growing up of people living distinguished, powerful lives with strength and grace.

LD: A family of lawyers?

EH: Yes. The joke is, you can be a doctor or a lawyer. That's actually true; it's not just a joke. In addition to my parents, a nurse and a doctor, most of my brothers and sisters are doctors and lawyers. The same with cousins. That's really what led me to law, to answer your question. It's almost like a family tradition. Children in my family were treated almost equally to the adults, who never really talked down to us. With respect to their careers, the adults in my life spoke very frankly with me about what they did and why they liked it. Those conversations really stuck with me.

LD: As you went through law school, did you know you wanted to be a litigator, or was that something that evolved after you graduated and started practicing?

EH: I always knew that I wanted to be a litigator. When I was a summer associate, I never took a corporate assignment. It was always litigation. When I was in law school, I had a different vision of where I thought my career would go. I thought a lot about being a government prosecutor. One of my uncles was a federal judge – my cousin, his son, is a federal judge as well, coincidentally, and I have an indelible childhood memory of being in his courtroom and hearing “all rise” and seeing everyone stand as he walked in. I thought, “Ok, so that was cool.” But it's one thing to say, "OK, I want to practice law," and it's another thing to do it and to see people doing it every day. That’s how you get a better sense of what your life is going to be like.

LD: That’s so true. People don’t always think about that when they’re starting undergraduate school, or even starting law school. What were the experiences that guided your career choices?

EH: When I was looking for work as a summer associate, it was a very difficult time to get internships. There were so many young lawyers coming out of law school, and I was very fortunate that my first job was at an excellent firm like Sullivan & Cromwell. I wasn't sure that I wanted to do what Sullivan & Cromwell did, because I really didn't know very much about it. I wasn't sure if I would fit in in a corporate environment, but I was so happily surprised. It was wonderful to find out that I had so much in common with the people in the litigation department in terms of having very similar values, being interested in similar things, and being very dedicated to doing the best job that we could for clients.

LD: Did you have mentors at Sullivan who helped you understand what your style would be as a lawyer?

EH: Oh, very much. Penny Shane was very much my role model at S&C. She's an excellent litigator who's also very motivated toward mentoring women and seeing that women are promoted in the profession. Working with Penny was a wonderful experience in terms of learning how to write and learning how to present ideas and get organized. In addition, Bill Snipes jumps out as an excellent practitioner and someone who has worked tirelessly to promote diversity in the profession and equity in our society. He has a great sense of humor. He's a no-nonsense kind of person, and he would always just say it as he saw it.

LD: What have been some of your favorite cases?

EH: One that has to be in the top three was a bankruptcy restructuring we handled recently. I was the litigation partner on the matter with a team of about a dozen associates in our New York and London offices, and it was a very fast-track matter that involved multiple jurisdictions, multiple languages, multiple legal regimes, dozens of witnesses, millions of pages of documents and a very tight deadline with the bankruptcy court. Every time we had a challenge, everyone on our team really pulled together to find a solution. The level of support and camaraderie made what could have been an exhausting experience actually exciting and fun. It's gratifying to see that kind of cooperation and that kind of support across groups for our clients.

LD: Absolutely. Are there trends you see in the cases you’re working on now?

EH: One trend is the #MeToo movement. While the law hasn't changed, I think the way that we're approaching our matters has been sensitized to these issues, the way that we're approaching diversity is different and some of the cases I’ve been handling include making sure that there are no #MeToo issues that we have to be concerned about.

Four or five years ago, these questions weren't being asked in quite the same way, or at all. Now, people are focusing on it, and we're developing new ways to deal with this.  It’s an exciting time.

LD: Absolutely. Can we take just a minute to talk about what you do when you're not working? Do you spend time with your family? It sounds like they’re so close-knit and amazing.

EH: I have a fabulous family. I love spending time with them. That's definitely the most important thing that I do when I'm not working. I have a wonderful husband who is very supportive. He's the Head of the Writing Department at Eugene Lang College at the New School University in Greenwich Village. He is my dearest friend, and we live in the best city in the world. New York is endless. Somebody said that if you get bored in New York, you're bored with life.

It's really true. We love to go to the movies, we read lots and lots of books, we love to go to art galleries. I have a modest but growing art collection, so I enjoy going to galleries and looking at pieces that I might add. I could spend all day going to museums. All you need is comfortable shoes.

LD: Any particular type of art that you like to collect?

EH: Right now, I'm collecting psychedelic pop art.

LD: Oh, cool.

EH: It’s really interesting. Alex Gross is a painter who I really, really like and I've collected a few of his pieces. He takes cabinet cards, which are old-fashioned photographs mounted on hard card-stock, they're made with silver and other valuable ingredients. He'll take those and he'll paint over them and he'll make some of the most interesting additions. You can find these cards if you go to a garage sale; people don't really value them anymore so they'll throw stuff like that out by the boxful. They're usually pictures of ordinary people who had their pictures taken 100 years ago, and then he'll doodle on them. They're brilliant. I love collecting his art. It's a lot of fun. I am also loving Afrofuturism right now. Wangechi Mutu at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is going to be outstanding.

LD: So let me get this right. A high-pressure litigation practice for market-leading financial institutions and corporations. A full docket of pro bono and public interest initiatives. A commitment to legal industry diversity and inclusion. An active family life and a growing interest in art collection. Ellen, there are only 24 hours in a day?

EH: I am so fortunate. I really enjoy what I do: I get to read and write for a living, what a privilege. I have such respect for the people I work with, we serve such excellent clients. Having the support of my firm for the things that matter to me – providing the highest levels of client service, giving back to our communities, prioritizing a fair and equitable workplace – means the world to me. I am grateful for every hour!