Lawyer Limelight: Joanna Wright

Last September, 26 Olympians, 73 professional athletes, and 276 intercollegiate athletes came together to file an unprecedented amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued that their careers depended on bodily autonomy, which abortion restrictions at issue in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization deny them.

The novel argument behind the brief epitomizes the approach of Boies Schiller Flexner partner Joanna Wright, the lead lawyer behind the effort. Already a veteran trial lawyer, Wright’s practice primarily involves plaintiff and defense roles for corporations in major business disputes. However, she always carves out an important role for public interest.

Raised by a firefighter father turned lawyer who fought for women’s rights and a corporate executive mother who taught her to laugh off outdated views of women in the workplace, Wright was elevated to partner a year early and voted on to the executive committee the next year.

She learned to join courage with equality early on, at least by July 3, 1988, in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I spent my 5th birthday on a picket line striking against requirements that the firefighters union believed discriminated against women applying to become firefighters,” Wright recalls. Her father had earned his law degree while serving as president of the firefighters’ union, despite having not graduated from college. “I would join my dad frequently at the collective bargaining table and saw in real time the power that the law has to help everyday people and to achieve social justice goals.”

As for her mother, Wright said her mom’s propensity to laugh off the challenges of being a female executive in the 1980s was initially frustrating but has provided her with a mentality to always take action while keeping perspective. “I now see genius in my mother’s approach: We're not going to let them bother us, we've got important things to do. Keep it moving and keep the focus on what is important.”

Wright initially enrolled in a PhD program for philosophy, earning a master’s degree with a focus on social justice. Frustrated by the lack of practical application of the philosophical concepts, however, she enrolled at Columbia Law School, where she had zero doubts about the type of law she wanted to practice.

“I was 100% thinking litigation,” says Wright. She was firmly set on public interest and a career with the American Civil Liberties Union rather than a high-powered, headline-making law firm. However, a quick six-week stint at Boies Schiller between her two federal clerkships opened her eyes to an ability to advocate for many of the causes important to her while tackling complex cases that proved intellectually challenging.

Since joining Boies Schiller, Wright has served as first- or second-chair in the majority of cases she has handled that have proceeded to trial or arbitration. A member of the executive committee, she also sits on the firm’s diversity council, partnership council, and serves as the New York City hiring partner.

LD: You mentioned you were planning to work for the ACLU. How did you end up at Boies Schiller instead?

JW: Between my second and third year of law school, when most people who are thinking of going into the private sector summer at a law firm, I worked at the ACLU National Prison Project, and my full intent was to clerk for two years and then go back there.

What I thought at the time was a detour to Boies Schiller happened accidentally at best. I clerked on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and in the Southern District of New York, and the time between my clerkships was expanded from three weeks to six weeks.

I thought, "Six weeks is too long to do nothing, so I'll throw some private-sector experience on my resume just so I can say I did it." The only law firm I would have considered was Boies Schiller, because of its commitment to social justice, the high-profile pro bono cases, and also the fact that we practiced plaintiff-side class actions in the service of good, in addition to our elite defense-side corporate practice.

So I emailed Boies Schiller and said, "Can I come work for you?" They said, "Sure." I said, "OK, but I'm only going to be there five weeks," which in typical Boies Schiller fashion, they were fine with.

LD: I have to assume you managed to work on something important and interesting despite it being a short stint.

JW: I did! I showed up, and I spent those five weeks working on a fascinating case. We sued the federal government on behalf of Hank Greenberg, AIG's largest shareholder, on the theory that the financial bailout of AIG in 2008 was an unjust compensation, and therefore a violation of the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause, because the federal government didn't pay the shareholders enough for their shares when they bailed out AIG.

At that point in the case, the claims had not yet been tried in court, and they were not received very well publicly. By the time I returned to Boies Schiller full-time, we had won in the trial court. Seeing that evolution and seeing what novel constitutional theories, when paired with superb elite litigators, can do was addictive. But I still planned to be here no more than 18 months. That was, I think, between seven and eight years ago.

'Can't be matched'

LD: So going back to the clerkships, I’m sure those really helped you accelerate your skills. Seeing how courtrooms work from the perspective of judges and clerks.

JW: Oh, without a doubt. Clerks know best how the legal system works. I saw this both on the appellate level and then at the district level. I first had the privilege to clerk for Judge David Hamilton on the 7th Circuit. All appellate advocates know that the best oral arguments are really just a conversation with the panel. As Judge Hamilton’s clerk, I was in conversation with him every day. I left the 7th Circuit with a year's worth of oral argument experience by being in dialog with him. That can't be matched.

I learned a very different skillset on the district court, which is equally important: the value of triage.

District court judges are inundated with very important problems on an hourly basis, not even a daily basis. Seeing the reaction - the reasonable reaction - in chambers when litigants had not practiced good judgment and instead bothered a judge with an issue they should have resolved between themselves left a mark and is something I take with me in daily practice. I ask, “How is this is going to be received in a very, very busy chambers?”

Seeing the flip side, seeing litigators succeed in front of the judges, is valuable, too, because you start to understand what does work. It's why, when clerks show up to join us on day one, we trust them with huge substantive responsibility immediately, because we know that they have a skillset and a mindset that can't be replicated anywhere else, and we can trust them with some of the most important pieces of our cases.

LD: You’ve said that, in a sense, working for David Boies early in your career was your third clerkship. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like for you?

JW: Early on, I earned the ability to work with him one-on-one on multiple cases, both building cases from the ground up and prepping him for oral arguments. While David’s ability to focus immediately on the single most important issue in the case and filter out the noise is unmatched, it can be learned. Working one-on-one with him early in my career allowed me to learn that skill and to take it with me in my own cases, now, in the service of my own clients.

LD: Speaking of your career, tell me about some of the cases you’re working on.

JW: In the past 15 months, I was involved in a very, very hard-fought arbitration between two financial investment firms in which we were defending against claims valued at between $80 million and $100 million alleging tortious interference with contract, among other things. We beat those claims back and got a full defense verdict.

Taking Google to Court

I pivoted almost immediately to an around-the-clock multiple-issue matter involving a public company that needed advice and counsel on corporate governance issues and derivative shareholder issues. That called not only on my legal expertise, but also on crisis management. It was all consuming. I am also working a case in which we're suing YouTube and Google on behalf of a putative class of copyright holders for copyright infringement that puts YouTube's business model on the line and tests the fairness of their business model. We're in active discovery right now and if we prevail, it will be billions of dollars of damages.

LD: You are also involved in the fight for reproductive rights in Mississippi.

JW: That case is very important to me. I was asked to mobilize collegiate, professional and Olympic women athletes to come out in support for the first time of reproductive rights and the right to abortion care. We filed an amicus in Dobbs v. Jackson, which is the case that was already before the U.S. Supreme Court involving a ban on abortion after 15 weeks, in direct contravention of Roe v. Wade, which guarantees the right to abortion pre-viability, and the viability line is well beyond 15 weeks.

From the stories that the athletes shared with us, we were able to develop a thesis that women’s athletics would not have been able to explode and become what it has today absent the right to abortion care, guaranteed through Roe.

LD: Developing a theory about the role of abortion and reproductive choice in women advancing themselves in a number of ways – in this case, athletics – is so quintessentially what smart lawyers do, right? It's alchemy, it's using your skills as a lawyer and an advocate, but also being aware of things going on in the world and caring about things, and finding a way to make that into a voice.

JW: Alchemy is the perfect word. I think our training as Boies Schiller attorneys also comes into play because remember, we are plaintiffs’ as well as defense attorneys. That makes a very unique kind of lawyer, because when you're on the plaintiff side, you're always listening to the client's story, partnering with the client to understand what the claims are, what the issues are, what the harms are in a very intimate way and that teaches you early on to listen more than talk. Then when you take it to the defense side, you're utilizing a different set of tools concerning how to tell a different story, how to slow a story down, how to change the narrative.

When you're constantly pivoting between both sides, you stop thinking about which side you're on and just bring both of those toolboxes to work every day, which allows you to send out, in our case, a Google Doc to college, professional and Olympic athletes that all of our collective networks knew and say, "Would you like to join? If you'd like to tell your story, click here."

We had some athletes click there and then my team, our incredible associates Lindsey Ruff and Lauren Goldman, called those people and listened to their stories. That's how we formed our thesis. That’s the kind of real-time grassroots lawyering that we bring to every case and every matter across the board.

LD: That is really a hallmark of Boies Schiller. The firm consistently takes a position on social justice issues and then is extraordinarily creative in reverse-engineering a strategy to achieve its goals.

JW: One of the things that has kept me here for so long is that we don't just do that in our pro bono practice; we're currently pretty well known for the award we achieved in the Blue Cross/Blue Shield litigation. And what is that case ultimately about? It's about the cost of health insurance for everyday people across the country and the fact that Blue Cross/Blue Shield was fixing those costs to be higher than they would otherwise be. Again, we are bringing real change to people on an everyday level, and that's not even part of our pro bono practice. The ability to do that on so many different levels and tell a story that results in systemic change is second to none at Boies Schiller.

LD: One thing that seems fairly unique is the ability of Boies Schiller lawyers – many of them very esteemed and accomplished – to look at the battlefield as multilayered, and including public opinion as well as courtrooms, and to create strategies that address all of those layers.

'Why isn't your name on the brief?'

JW: Litigation is a tool, it's not a tool that every business wants to employ, and knowing when and how to employ litigation, when and how to pump the brakes or accelerate in the service of your client is something that we do, I think, especially well. And the fact that we are known first and foremost as attorneys who are willing to go to trial, and frequently go to trial, and have a very good track record of winning those trials, makes it an even more effective tool than it would otherwise be.

Ultimately, we are problem-solvers, we are negotiators, we are advocates, and we are confidants. We question together and reason together, along with our clients, to get to the right answer. My clients often know the answer better than I ever could, because it is their industry and their problem, they have lived through it. When you don't think of litigation as this one hammer to just bang on every nail, but instead think of it as the tool that you're going to partner with your client to use effectively, that opens up all kinds of other creative solutions that may not emerge otherwise. Often, it's less expensive for the client than just full-blown litigation that you march through in an unthinking manner.

LD: As somebody who started out wanting to work at the ACLU but is now very happy at a private firm, and still doing a lot of social justice work, you’ve accomplished a tremendous amount very quickly. Tell me more about how you did that and what it means to you?

JW: I like to be as transparent as possible about making partner, because I think that piece transfers to any law firm. I worked very, very hard to accrue as many on-my-feet experiences as possible so that midway through my seventh year I could make my case. The willingness to raise my hand for things I had never done before to get the experience, then the ability to tee-up my portfolio in a persuasive way to demonstrate that I was prepared and ready to become a partner, were key to that move.

Now, being elected to the Executive Committee was a very different experience. It's fair to say that I was more than a little surprised to be selected for that role at the beginning of my second year of being a partner. But, having now served in that capacity for over a year, it has turned out to be a very natural fit. I had developed a reputation early on within the firm as a truth teller, someone who stood up for issues that mattered to the firm and could serve as an honest broker. I like to think that I bring that 5-year-old who stood at the picket line and saw the power of speaking truth with me in all that I do, both in advocating for my clients and also in advocating for the firm and its future success. I think it’s fair to say the legal world lags behind on some important issues and all law firms could stand to have a little more truth telling, and it says a lot about Boies Schiller – its leadership and the partnership – that it selected someone like me to serve on the Executive Committee.

LD: You’ve mentioned how meaningful your mentoring work is. Tell me more about that.

JW: I think about diversity, equity and inclusion issues and driving change on a macro level, but also a micro level. On the macro level, I use my roles as the hiring partner for New York City and with the Executive Committee, the firm's Diversity Council and the Firm Partnership Council, to make sure that these issues are given voice, heard, considered and drive change. But the micro level is equally, if not more, rewarding, to be honest. It's one of the most rewarding pieces of my practice, and I have been doing it long enough to see it pay itself forward.

For example, I tasked a woman associate once with writing a brief, and she did an excellent job, emailed me the brief and her name wasn't on it. I called her and I said, "Why isn't your name on the brief?" She said, "Well, I thought if you wanted it on there, you would put it on." I said, "No, you always put your name on the brief and let the partner take it off if they don’t want it on for some reason." Moments like that happen all the time. What doesn't happen all the time is that several years later I got a text from her that said, "An associate just came to me very upset because she wrote a brief and her name wasn't on it. I told her, 'Next time, put your name on the brief and let the partner take it off.'"

Getting texts like that gives me all the more energy and optimism about the future. It's a great privilege to be in a position to be able to do that and pay it forward. Of course, circling back to the beginning of our conversation, I benefited hugely from the mentorship of my own mother, watching her go to work every day, and I'm thrilled to pay that forward as well.

LD: What is your view of where Boies Schiller is now and where it will be in five years?

JW: It’s no secret that we've gone through a very public leadership transition at the same time that we are right-sizing the firm, but interestingly, as someone on the inside, the work and the types of cases have not changed: We remain at core a group of business generators who are able to build teams, to litigate some of the most complex and sometimes high-profile cases across the country. That's who we are.

We are now at a stage where we can focus on strategic growth, which I find very exciting. That doesn't just mean lateral hires, though we have exciting momentum on that front. One of the things I'm most proud of is the very, very strong pipeline of women associates we have, particularly in the New York City office. I know without a doubt in a short time many of my mentees will be my partners. So to my mind, the future is very bright.