Lawyer Limelight: Regina Calcaterra

Last year, in early March, Regina Calcaterra gave notice at her firm and prepared to launch her own boutique with a meaningful dedication to social justice.

Like the rest of us, she didn’t anticipate a global pandemic locking down the population and bringing normal business operations to a halt.

Luckily, Calcaterra is no stranger to perseverance through hard times. Her public service work includes managing Suffolk County’s fiscal crisis and fallout from Hurricane Sandy, and investigating public corruption throughout New York in a statewide commission led by Governor Andrew Cuomo. She represented the largest transportation authority in New York State in an opt-out from the sprawling, closely-watched interchange fee antitrust case against Visa and MasterCard, and helped recover $250M from Merrill Lynch over its mortgage-backed securities practices that contributed to the 2008 credit crisis.

On a personal note, Calcaterra grew up in the foster care system in Long Island, NY, bouncing between temporary homes and homelessness with her four siblings, a story she tells in her New York Times best-selling memoir, "Etched in Sand.

This personal and professional experience gives Calcaterra a wealth of knowledge and skills to draw from, and the type of heart-centered advocacy that, in our opinion, represents the best future of the legal profession.

Regina teamed up with leading consumer class action lawyer Janine Pollack, and the fully women-owned firm, Calcaterra Pollack, was launched in Spring 2020, specializing in class actions, government investigations, commercial litigation and civil rights matters including child abuse. In addition to their practices, and in another forward-thinking move, the leaders of the firm are dedicated to inclusion and the well-being of their own workers.

Thank goodness she persisted.

Lawdragon: Regina, tell us about the firm you recently started. What practices are you focusing on? What work has come in so far?

Regina Calcaterra: Calcaterra Pollack represents states, municipalities and labor health and welfare benefit funds in complex federal and state litigation on both the plaintiff and defense sides. Based upon my prior government investigation experience, we were recently retained to conduct a complex investigation that taps into the firm’s various practice areas.

One of our firm’s hallmarks is its diversity – seven of our eight team members are women and/or professionals of color and/or openly LGBTQ and/or a DACA recipient.

Our practice areas include plaintiff side securities, antitrust and consumer protection; municipal and public pension plan representation; internal investigations; and social justice matters.

Our pending litigation includes representing New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority in various securities and antitrust matters; New York City labor health and welfare benefit funds in federal multi-district litigation against opioid manufacturers seeking recoveries arising from the role of pharmaceutical companies in the opiate crisis; the County of Suffolk in an antitrust matter against over 40 drug companies who, since 2011, colluded to rig generic drug prices resulting in cost increases up to 900%; defending the County of Nassau in a federal class action; serving as co-lead counsel representing eight families who lost their infants in the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper against Mattel, Inc. and Fisher-Price, Inc. before the inclined sleeper was recalled; and representing childhood sexual assault survivors pursuing justice via the Child Victims Act adopted in various states.

LD: Sounds like you’re doing some incredible work so far, and a wide spectrum. The Child Victims Act work in particular must be incredibly difficult but is so vital.

RC: Our representation of childhood sexual assault survivors is personal to me as a survivor of both childhood physical and sexual abuse, and the U.S. foster care system. Being a trauma-informed attorney who speaks nationally to raise awareness about the plight of older foster youth, childhood poverty, homelessness and abuse, I believe that my personal experience brings a heightened level of sensitivity and compassion to our clients, including those who have suffered significant losses, such as our clients whose infants died in the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper, or those who have suffered physical and sexual abuse.

LD: They're lucky to have you. Can you tell us more about your government service background?

RC: I have spent my career serving either in executive or management positions in state and local government, or as a partner in mid-sized law firms. My government executive roles include serving as executive director of two of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statewide investigations and as Chief Deputy to Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone, where I managed a county of over 1.5 million residents, 9,500 employees, and a $2.7B budget. Serving as the Chief Deputy, I also managed Suffolk County’s immediate response in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy. These positions required me to organize chaos, manage in a time of crisis, implement strict disciplines to meet end goals and maintain perspective on what was important.

Although I never imagined launching my own firm prior to this past year, I believe that the skills I perfected in these previous roles provided me with significant guidance in launching the firm, despite the ensuing pandemic.

LD: You started this firm in the midst of the pandemic, then? That must have come with some challenges, to put it lightly.

RC: For sure. At the height of the pandemic, I launched a 100% women-owned, boutique law firm with co-founder Janine Pollack to ensure that our clients continued to receive superior representation.

In early March, I gave a month’s notice of resignation to my prior firm, but what I did not anticipate is that, less than two weeks later, obstacles presented by the global shutdown would come barreling toward me.

I focused on three objectives: ensuring that there was no interruption in my clients’ representation; ensuring that my team members would receive their paychecks; and, most importantly, making certain that my team would not experience any interruptions in their healthcare benefits, especially in light of the Covid-19 crisis.

Normally, this would be a somewhat seamless process; however, some of the challenges we faced included a shutdown of the Secretary of State’s office, which slowed down the legal formation of the law firm; potential lending opportunities drying up due to the extreme market fluctuation; and closure of bank locations, which required businesses to open company accounts in person. In addition to these administrative hurdles, I found myself addressing all the complexities of launching a firm virtually, including the promotion of efficient collaboration between some colleagues who were just beginning to work with one another for the first time, as well as leveraging technology resources to ensure that team members were able to succeed in their ‘work from home’ environments.

LD: You were up against so much. What kept you going?

RC: Discipline, maintaining perspective and imagining the goal line kept moving me forward to identify solutions, and Janine and I ultimately soft-launched the firm in spring 2020.

Looking back, I am grateful that we were able to launch the way that we did. It defined us as tenacious advocates, both for our clients and for ourselves. Although we’ve only been in business for less than a year, we have achieved litigation successes for our anchor clients, brought on significant new clients and cases, and anticipate growing our team to meet our clients’ needs. Further, it has enabled Janine and me to operate a firm based upon principles of wellness and diversity and inclusion, while continuing our fierce advocacy for our clients.

LD: That’s incredible. Great lesson in perseverance. What originally motivated you to start your own firm? And what would you say differentiates Calcaterra Pollack?

RC: We are committed to inclusion, contributing to the diversity pipeline, and making sure that each of our team members is engaged in the operations of our firm.

We believe every voice should be heard, from attorneys to staff members. Gaining from the varied experiences and insights of others is what makes a strong law firm. My partner Janine and I are also mindful that when you increase visibility of others at the firm, we all benefit. For example, we have had the opportunity to have two articles published since July and named in the bylines were all those who contributed, including an intern, paralegal and associate. By placing their names on the byline alongside that of a partner, we reinforce to our team that their contributions matter. We also apply these principles to our case management and client contact opportunities.

We also contribute to promoting diversity in the bar through our Pre-Law Diversity Pipeline Internship, which I began in 2016. This summer internship is done in coordination with the SUNY New Paltz and the City University of New York at Hunter College. Many former interns have been admitted into law schools or are presently applying to law school, including our paralegal – a DACA recipient who was one of the 2018 pre-law diversity interns and who co-managed our virtual internship with me this year.

Team members are engaged with the business of operating a law firm in various capacities including client development, client maintenance and marketing. By exposing each team member to the business of the law, we are increasing both their professional value and in turn, the firm’s value.

LD: A smart way to do business, which also happens to nudge the profession to a more equitable place. You’re setting a strong example. Does your practice have a social justice focus, as well?

RC: Since I spent a significant part of my career in the public sector, I see our representation of state and municipal entities through the prism of its impact upon public policy, taxpayers and residents. Obtaining a significant settlement for a government entity or getting a suit dismissed that could have adversely impacted its budget isn’t just about prevailing in litigation – there are other positive ripple effects. When a government entity has been defrauded, that means that the taxpayers have been too, because it is their money that is being lost as well. If a government entity cannot recover their loss, they will have to look elsewhere to meet their budget. Sometimes this will result in higher income, real estate, or sales taxes or increases in fees for small businesses. Most elected officials do not want to raise taxes or fees, so as an alternative, they will reduce funding in other areas to balance the budget.

Unfortunately, cost reductions often affect services provided to the most vulnerable populations – a truth my siblings and I know all too well from our experience interacting with government agencies operating in and around the foster care system.

LD: Are you involved in any advocacy related to the foster care system currently? 

RC: Yes, raising awareness about the plight of older foster youth is particularly important to me.

I am on the Board of Believers of You Gotta Believe, a nonprofit that for over 20 years has worked to find older foster youth forever families so they don’t ‘age out’ of the foster care system on their own.

This is exactly what happened to me. When a youth turns 18 or 21, depending upon what state they reside in, their foster parents will no longer receive government funding for them.

Most often, this results in foster youth being kicked out of their foster homes and left to fend for themselves, without a safety net or a caring adult to guide them. The majority of youth who age out of foster care end up homeless, incarcerated, or worse.

Unfortunately, less than 3% of aged-out youth actually graduate from college, because it is almost impossible to do so without a support system.

I have written about the impact of You Gotta Believe’s mission and the plight of aged-out foster youth in my New York Times best-selling memoir, Etched in Sand, A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island (HarperCollins Publishing, 2013) and in national and local publications.

I also speak publicly about the issues confronting foster youth and their trauma to audiences throughout the U.S., including family law judges, educators, social workers and high school and college students, as well as countless not-for-profit organizations working to impact the lives of children in need.

I am also co-chair of an annual event called Case’s for Cases that focuses on providing over 600 teens in homeless shelters and foster group homes on Long Island with essential and comfort items, and acceptable cases to carry them in, since many of the teenagers in homeless shelters only have a garbage bag to carry their belongings. We held a Covid-compliant event this past November and it was tremendously heartwarming to see that the pandemic did not prevent those who could give from giving.

My other public interest activities include serving as first vice chair to the SUNY New Paltz Foundation Board which provides scholarships to eligible college students, most of whom are first generation and/or low-income enrollees. I am also on the advisory committees of The Felix Organization, which provides opportunities to foster youth in the New York City area, and the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

LD: To bring it back to the early days, what made you first want to be a lawyer?

RC: While an undergraduate at SUNY New Paltz, I initially declared an education major. During the second semester of my sophomore year, I took a class on international politics taught by Professor Lew Brownstein, to fulfill a history requirement for my major. In this class, I not only learned about global policy and politics, different forms of government and their leaders, but also how impoverished so many countries and their people were under poor governmental leadership. I learned about sex trafficking, child warriors, and how little girls had to walk miles to gather water for their families and sometimes never returned. It was this class that taught me that despite growing up the way my siblings and I did, we were lucky that we were born into our circumstances in the U.S. Otherwise, our fate could have been far worse.

I became so enthralled with public policy and the role that government plays in our daily lives that I changed my major to political science. Upon graduation at the age of 21, I began my career in public policy working as an advocate for people with disabilities for the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association (“EPVA”). All of my bosses were veterans who used wheelchairs for mobility, and most were injured during the Vietnam and Korean Wars. It was 1988. The EPVA was at the forefront of the national effort to pass a federal civil rights law for people with disabilities. For the next two years, my job focused on raising awareness about the needs of people with disabilities in public accommodations and public transportation. After the Americans with Disabilities Rights Act of 1990 was passed, I began lecturing and providing guidance to various government entities on the provisions of the ADA.

I was then hired by New Jersey Transit to assist in drafting their plan to comply with the ADA which included making their commuter and light rail, buses and paratransit systems compliant with the new federal law. It was during this time, while working alongside many attorneys, that I began to consider a career in the law. I could not afford to quit my job, so I applied to all evening law programs in New York and New Jersey, and was accepted into Seton Hall University, which was a few blocks away from my job.

For four very long years, I worked full-time and attended law-school in the evenings.

LD: No small feat. Do you have any advice now for current law school students?

RC: Network, network, network. Value as an attorney is not just based upon your legal skills, but it is also based upon your ability to develop and maintain clients. Cultivate the professional relationships you make at a young age, as there is a strong chance they will turn into business opportunities in the future.