Lawyer Limelight: Sabria McElroy

Perhaps the passion Sabria McElroy developed for debating in high school was the first indication of the high-flying legal career she would eventually develop.

Painfully shy as a teenager, McElroy realized during debates that she loved performing. Even now, as a partner specializing in antitrust law at Boies Schiller Flexner in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she thrives on oral arguments.

These days, they’re made in courtrooms rather than school auditoriums, helping shape the futures of clients from credit-card giant American Express to overseas au pairs who traveled to the U.S. for a chance to broaden their horizons.

In the latter instance, “there was a mismatch, in terms of what the au pairs were being told and what the host families were being told,” McElroy explains. “The au pairs were being told that it would be a cultural experience, and the families were sold cheap childcare.”

Her efforts to resolve the dispute helped win the workers one of the largest class and fair-pay settlements in many years, underscoring the wisdom in her decision to go to law school after a post-undergraduate detour into education.

“There were some good changes for the au pairs, so that was very meaningful,” McElroy says.

Even thornier challenges lie ahead. Among her current clients is Genius – the web-based lyric library engaged in a proposed class-action antitrust suit against a company that has become a cornerstone of American life, powering everything from web searches to GPS maps and videos: Google.

With companies ranging from news outlet The Nation to Surefreight Global, Genius claims that Mountain View, Calif.-based Google – which has a market value of $1.8T – has artificially inflated prices by misusing its role as overseer of search tools as well as its status as dominant participant in the ad-auction process to develop and maintain a monopoly in the $130B online-advertising market.

The case, originally filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, was consolidated with an array of related matters in the summer of 2021, retitled In re: Google Antitrust Litigation and moved to U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Lawdragon: I think we’re entering a new era of antitrust enforcement, and that’s an area of law you have quite a bit of experience in. Can you talk about some cases that stand out for you?

Sabria McElroy: One of the very first cases I worked on at Boies Schiller, largely with the New York office, was the American Express antitrust case. We defended American Express in an antitrust suit that had been brought by the Department of Justice, as well as a class of merchants, based on their anti-steering provisions in the merchant contract, which don’t allow merchants to discriminate against the AmEx card.

LD: What about the case appealed to you?

SM: I hadn't handled any antitrust cases at my prior firm, and I found the area of law very interesting, particularly being on the defense side. Participating in some of the depositions, finding out about the everyday practices of the company and the reasons for them, was enlightening. I was able to witness the passion of the employees for the service that they provide, why it’s so important to the brand, and how those facts influenced the case narrative. It was a really enjoyable and educational experience overall.

Lost in translation

In another case that comes to mind, we were on the plaintiffs' side. We represented a class of au pairs in an antitrust and Fair Labor Standards Act suit against the agencies that sponsored them and matched them with families.

I had the opportunity to get to know some of the plaintiffs, and their stories, quite well, in part by talking to them on the phone for discovery. I defended the deposition in Colorado of a named plaintiff from Colombia who had a really tough experience as an au pair. She was very nervous coming in, we had some translation issues, and I worked with her for a whole day on prep.

I was feeling good about it, and then we got into the deposition and I was the only lawyer on our side. There were about 15 more senior lawyers on the defendants’ side of the table. There were a lot of attempts at bullying her, bullying me, and a lot of translation issues. The official translator did not speak Colombian Spanish, so at some point in the deposition, I had to ask my office to find another translator who did, but the defense wouldn't agree to a formal replacement. So I had my translator sitting next to me and I would just object to translation. There was a tremendous amount of thinking on the fly, and adapting. There was also a protective order in place that precluded defendants from asking the plaintiffs about certain very personal areas, and some of the defense lawyers pushed the boundaries of that order. But at the end of the day, my client killed it. She was excellent, she stood her ground, and it went really well.

LD: Can you tell me a little more about the Colombian client’s story, some of the situations the au pairs were facing and the legal claims they had?

SM: We had claims for price-fixing, alleging that the sponsoring agencies illegally agreed to set the au pair wages below market and told the au pairs that they couldn’t negotiate. There were also claims for violations of federal and state minimum wage laws, which defendants argued didn’t apply to the au pair program.

In addition to being underpaid, many of the au pairs were very isolated. They didn't have other groups or au pairs around. In some cases, their host families took advantage of them and asked or forced them to work more than the maximum 45 hours a week or didn't provide them with an opportunity to get out of the house and socialize. They felt like there was very little they could do. In the case of the young woman from Colombia, that was her experience. She would be asked, "Well, can you just watch the baby this extra time? You're part of the family, so it's not really work." And she would feel compelled to do that, even though it was above 45 hours and even though she didn’t feel like she was part of the family.

LD: Wow. That sounds like a tremendously powerful experience. Your own background as a teacher might have given you some additional insight, too. What drew you into the education field?

SM: I didn't really have a clear idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up. My father passed away when I was young, and I was raised by a single mother who held a variety of jobs that would give her time with us while allowing her to make ends meet. She sold Avon, she sold Amway and even had a catering business at one point. The year I started college, she ended up becoming a middle school teacher.

So I had her example at that point, and an inside look at teaching in a high-needs school, and it all appealed to me, though it wasn’t something that I seriously considered doing until later in college. I actually had planned to go to graduate school in social psychology. But when my senior year arrived, I wasn’t ready to commit to five more years of school, and I felt a pull to work in what I viewed as the real world, as opposed to staying in a university setting. In addition to talking to my mom about teaching and to a close friend that who graduated the year before and was teaching in New York, I had taken a number of education classes, and I knew that I loved working with kids. I had tutored St. Louis elementary school students throughout college. So, I started applying to Teach for America and similar programs. Eventually, Teach for America placed me in Philadelphia, but in seventh grade rather than third or fourth grade, which was what I had hoped for.

Teaching teen-agers

LD: That’s a big difference.

SM: It made me very nervous, but I had a wonderful and supportive cohort of other Teach for America Teachers and teaching middle school turned out to be an amazing experience overall, though the first year was really, really tough. I had a difficult placement, in a school that had been kindergarten through fourth grade but had been reconfigured over the summer as a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade facility. That forced middle-schoolers – who had gone away to their middle school and had their lockers and separate classes – to come back to this elementary school. The kids were very upset, plus they were too big, physically, for that school and those facilities. The principal didn't want it, the lower school teachers didn't want it, nobody wanted it.. And I ended up having to teach a self-contained seventh-grade class because the school was so ill-equipped to handle the older kids and the transitions between classes. When I was hired, I was only supposed to teach social studies and English, but I had to teach, social studies, English, and math to my self-contained class, which required hours upon hours, as a first-year teacher, of lesson-planning at night, while also working to get my masters at the University of Pennsylvania as part of the Teach for America program.

I felt burnt out by the end of the first year. In the beginning, I’d been thinking, “I’m going to do this for a while. Maybe I'll even try to become a principal at some point.” But by the time summer arrived, I had begun reconsidering for a number of reasons and thinking about next steps. I talked to some of my friends who were in law school at the time, and although it wasn't something I had ever considered before, I started to think, “Hey, this is actually something that could be a good fit for me. I like learning about these cases and issues.”

I started the law school application process, still not 100 percent sold. Meanwhile, my second year of teaching was a lot better. I didn't have a self-contained seventh-grade class. Instead, I taught English and social studies to the full seventh grade, both of which I had taught before, so I had my lesson plans. I also led an after-school program with a professional playwright in which we helped some of the students write their own plays, which were performed by professional actors. That was a really cool and rewarding experience for them and me.

Overall, the second year went really well and I really enjoyed it. Teaching has some really low lows, but also some really high highs and I had a lot more of those highs in the second year. By the end of the year, when I had been accepted at Yale Law School, I was torn between thinking ‘Wow, how can I pass this up? This is an opportunity that I never even dreamed would happen to me” and wondering what teaching might be like long-term after improving so much from just the first to the second year. My principal asked me to think about staying and it was difficult decision, but ultimately, I couldn’t pass up law school.

LD: And how was Yale Law? Did you enjoy it?

SM: I loved it. If I could go back to law school, I would. The classes were just fascinating, and, in some ways, it did feel like a break compared to teaching. The level of talent at Yale was amazing, and the professors were so willing to give their time and engage students. I was also in an education clinic that I loved: We were suing the state of Connecticut for underfunding education and trying to establish that there was a right to an adequate education under the state Constitution.

LD: Impressive. So as you were thinking about what you were going to do with your law degree, what were your considerations? Did you ever think about going back to your home state of Kansas?

SM: No, I didn’t. At that point, I wanted to be a litigator. I had tried a couple of non-litigation assignments as a summer associate and decided they weren’t for me, so I wanted to end up at a firm that handled a lot of complex litigation and had a good reputation. Since I didn't know what type of litigation I wanted to practice, I was also looking for a firm with a wide variety of practice areas, and I really wanted to be in Washington, D.C. I landed at a large firm there, Covington & Burling, and had a wonderful experience.

LD: How did you make the transition to Florida?

SM: My husband – my fiancé at the time – wanted to be in Florida for personal reasons and I decided to move to be with him. I didn’t know a lot about the Florida legal market, had never considered it, so I started looking into and applying to firms. My husband was actually already working as a first year associate at Boies Schiller at the time and I knew that he liked the office and was doing substantive work as a first year on interesting cases. And, of course, Boies Schiller had a stellar reputation for high-stakes litigation. I interviewed with a couple of other firms but Boies stood out and I knew I wanted to work there. Fortunately I received an offer. It was a very different environment, coming from a 400-person D.C. firm to a much smaller office in Fort Lauderdale. But despite the small size, I had the opportunity to handle large, complex, and interesting cases, like the ones I'd been handling at Covington.

Three Key Facts

LD: Fascinating. Tell me a little about some of the mentors you’ve had – in law, primarily, and in life. What lessons have you learned?

SM: Stuart Singer, a partner in our office and a member of the executive committee, is probably my most influential mentor in the law. I've learned a great deal of what I know about good lawyering from watching him and working with him. He's always demonstrated the importance of listening carefully and being flexible. A lot of lawyers are very boisterous and blustery and that's not his style at all. By listening carefully, he’s able to ask the right questions.

I've also learned how to distill complex cases to their most essential aspects from watching him.

Whenever we were taking over a case after other counsel had been involved, he'd always ask, "What are the three most important points or most important facts about this case?" And he would use that as an anchor to guide that transition discussion, for example.

The other more senior partners in my office have also been mentors. We're a very tight-knit office. Sigrid McCawley, who’s now a managing partner, has been a a wonderful role model and mentor. I've had the pleasure of watching her, through the years, work hard to build relationships and fight for causes that she believed in and then see all that hard work pay off.

She took me to pitches as an associate and has always been really generous with her time and advice. As a mother herself, she’s also been a personal mentor, even recommending a school for my children.

LD: And what about mentors outside the law?

SM: This is going way back, but I probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for my sophomore English teacher, because I was painfully, painfully shy. She was also my forensics and debate coach, and she taught me to think critically and broaden my horizons, to consider that, “Oh, I can go away to some fancy college,” for instance. I hadn't been pushed and challenged that way before.

LD: So you just jumped into debating as a high-school sophomore?

SM: Actually, we called it Debate & Forensics, and the forensics part was mostly acting and speaking. I did these 10-minute dramatic-interpretation skits, and I competed in short-story and speech.

LD: Learning to perform must have been transformative, especially since you were shy.

SM: It was. I realized there was a part of me that, even though I was shy, loved the performance aspect. I still thrive on making arguments in court, the performance aspect of all of that.