Lawyer Limelight: Jennifer Ostertag

Years ago, Jennifer Ostertag tried a case on behalf of a young woman who had been abused in the workplace. She’s tried many such cases before and since, but this one is her favorite.

She lost. In the courtroom, anyway.

But for her client, the case was about so much more than a verdict or any amount of settlement money. It was about standing up and telling her story. “She felt vindicated,” explains Ostertag. “At the end of the case she said, ‘Thank you so much for believing in me all the way.’” That was all she needed to help rebuild her life – to win personally. “That case has always impacted me because I knew that, no matter what, we did what was right for her,” remembers Ostertag.

Ostertag is a senior attorney at the Genie Harrison Law Firm, where she represents victims of workplace harassment and discrimination, as well as those whose equal pay and wage rights have been violated. She’s worked in employment law and personal injury cases for her entire career. She began by serving as associate general counsel for a top internet company in the 90s, then tried employment and personal injury cases for other firms before finding her place at the all-female attorney Genie Harrison Law Firm. In her years in the courtroom, she has won tens of millions of dollars in verdicts, awards, and settlements for her clients. Her largest verdicts include a $3.3M verdict against a Mexican hotel chain.

The majority of Ostertag’s clients are those who wouldn’t be able to tell their stories on their own; many of her clients come from marginalized groups, including women who have been abused and immigrants who are not fluent in English. Ostertag’s practice operates on a contingency basis, ensuring that everyone has equal access to justice. That access is especially vital in a field like plaintiffs’ employment law, where so many of her clients have been stripped of fair wages and the ability to work.

Outside of the courtroom, Ostertag is active as the chair of the Employment Section for the Beverly Hills Bar Association, and she holds a key role in the Committee on Empowering Women. She is a member of the Consumer Attorneys of California and the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles and is a member of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles’ Board of Governors. Originally from France, she is also a member of the American Association for Justice’s International Relations Committee.

Lawdragon: Tell me a bit about your practice. What brought you to the Genie Harrison Law Firm?

Jennifer Ostertag: Well, I met Genie Harrison many, many years ago. I used to work for another female lawyer, and we shared our suite with Genie. So, we literally shared walls before we began working together.

Genie is amazing and so passionate. Over the years I've seen many lawyers, and Genie’s passion is so infectious and inspirational. She's not doing it for the money. That said, I don't think any of us really do it because it's a business. We do what's right for our client and because we love what we are doing. If we wanted to make a bunch of money, we'd probably be in a different field.

LD: What do you enjoy about the firm’s environment?

JO: It's a different kind of work culture because it’s such a supportive group.

LD:  It's incredible that it's almost an all-female practice. How does that change the dynamic compared to other firms, in your experience?

JO: I think women cooperate with each other more. I think, when I've worked with men, sometimes there's more competition and you have to watch your back. Here, everybody rises together, or we fall together. It’s not an “every man for himself” mentality.

LD: What do you enjoy most about employment law and your practice specifically? What keeps you going every day?

JO: Because I'm on the plaintiffs’ side, I get to fight for employees, which I love. Many of my clients are women who have been abused for years. Sometimes they don't get a huge settlement, but the process helps them feel heard and empowered. Once they are done with the case, they not only have the financial component of a win, but it has also been a journey for them to prove to themselves that they are not going to be the victim.

I always tell my clients, don't be afraid. Your employer already fired you. They cannot do anything to you anymore. Now it’s your time to take your control.

LD: That's such an important message to give them.

I saw one case you tried was on behalf of a generator technician who sustained a brain injury as a result of discrimination based on his nationality. Can you tell me about that case?

JO: There are certain industries, like the construction industry, that have discriminatory practices in place against Black and Latino employees. In those situations, they often fail to give them proper safety equipment. I did two or three of those cases at the same time, and in all the cases, it was the same story: they would give them the more dangerous job and they would not give them the proper safety equipment.

LD: How did you go about proving that it was a case of racial discrimination?

JO: When we took the depositions, it became very clear why the supervisor was not giving the equipment to that employee. The supervisor and owners were using terms to refer to this Latino worker that were very explicit. I won’t repeat them, but they were directed at Mexican workers.

LD: Right. So you can put two and two together.

JO: Right. For a plaintiffs’ case, it's about building a wall. When you put all these bricks together, it built a pretty good wall.

LD: So many of your clients have been abused and gone through horrible trauma. How do you support them and also take care of your own mental health, as well? I'm sure these are very trying cases to work on.

JO: For my clients, I tell them that I cannot change the past. All I can do is try to show a path to help you tell your story and get you compensation. But if you've been sexually assaulted, I'm not taking that away. That's going to stay with you for life. I really encourage them to go to therapy and talk about it.

For me, I know I'm making a difference by what I'm doing, so that’s helpful. And, at the end of the day, except when I'm getting ready for trial, when I leave, I say, "Okay, I'm done with my day." I'm going to watch a silly movie or talk to my friend and talk about something completely different. People I’m close to say I'm very lucky because I'm able to compartmentalize things easily. I like to sleep well at night.

LD: That is important. Over the course of your career, have you noticed any changes in the legal field overall, but particularly in your practice area?

JO: I find it much more litigious. I think 20 years ago you were able to resolve cases more easily.

When I started 22 years ago, I also used to be the only woman on a case. Particularly when working on personal injury cases, it used to be 30 men and me. Now I work with a lot of female attorneys, which is wonderful. It doesn't mean that they're easier to deal with. They’re still fierce adversaries, but it's very different.

LD: Did you have any female mentors when you were entering the field?

JO: There were no female mentors in the firms in which I first worked, but there were certain lawyers I would look up to. I admired Genie from afar when we didn't work together. Then there's a woman I always go to – Gretchen Nelson. She's fantastic. When I was a much younger lawyer, she was one of those people where I’d look at her and say, “I want to be like her.”

LD: Do you have any advice for early-career lawyers, particularly those who are women?

JO: First, I think you have to follow your instincts. Second, don't be afraid to speak up, but also stay respectful to opposing counsel. I'm not the kind of lawyer who's going to get in your face. I believe in civility. We’re all professionals.

I’ve had lawyers send me nasty emails and speak to me inappropriately. Once another lawyer was reprimanded by the judge for his conduct toward me, but when we walked out of court he was fuming, and he continued to act rudely toward me. I just laughed.

LD: Other than remaining civil, how would you describe your style in court?

JO: I'm not an extravagant person; I'm quiet. I prepare thoroughly. I probably over-prepare because I want to know everything. I want to be in control as much as I can. Of course, when you're in trial, you have to think on your feet, but to the extent I can control my environment, I like to. I'm a person of habit and I like things organized.

LD: Speaking of trial, can you tell me about any recent matters you’re working on?

JO: I have a case right now which is just at the onset. We’re representing a 23-year-old woman who was sexually harassed at work and not put on payroll. But the employer doesn’t understand what he did wrong. He thinks, “Well, I’m not the person who harassed you, so why am I here?”

Sometimes, a case is much harder when it's against an employer who does not have insurance and is on the hook for the actions of another person in the company. Especially when it's a smaller employer, they have a very hard time grasping what they did wrong.

It's also cultural because, depending on who the employer is, they don't always realize that the behavior is illegal. You can't treat people this way. “Mad Men” is gone. It's not 1950.

LD: Have you seen any improvement of understanding in the last few years, particularly with the #MeToo movement?

JO: Well, I think some people are becoming more sensitive to it, but then you have people who are reacting from the opposite side. They don’t get it or they don't want to get it. After the #MeToo movement, some men have started to say that they’re the victims, not the woman. They think that you have to “tap dance” around women and that you can’t say anything to them anymore, but that’s not it. It’s just that you have to treat people with respect. But I think for certain people, particularly powerful people, they don't understand that their actions have consequences.

LD: That’s interesting. The people who don’t understand and the ones who don’t want to understand are two very different types of people.

JO: Right. And then I get people from out of state who violate California labor codes and they’re shocked when I tell them they’ve broken the law. But we live in a state where workers have rights and if they don’t agree with that concept, they can stay in their own state.

It’s just mutually beneficial to treat your employees well, because if you respect your employees, they're going to be the best employees because they're going to stay around, they're going to love their job and they'll perform well. If you treat them like dirt, the quality of their work is going to be bad. And if you keep your employees around for years by treating them right, they’ll develop invaluable institutional knowledge.

LD: Right. The work you do is so important because so many of these individuals’ stories often aren’t heard and don’t get to court. Can you tell me about a case that’s really surprised you, or that you felt just needed to be tried?

JO: I did a case a few years ago and, and my client came to see me for a toxic tort case initially, but I realized while I was talking to him that he had this really sad employment case. The man was a nighttime security gate guard. He had been working there for 20 years. He sent me photos, and I was so shocked when I saw his working conditions. He had a wood shed outside where they had put some crappy folding bed and a Port-O-Potty because he was not even allowed to go in the building to use the restroom. This poor man would work for a flat rate, but it evened out to less than $4 an hour. I was outraged.

They had abused this man for 20 years and gotten away with it because he was an immigrant and he didn’t speak English. That’s true in so many employment cases I see. Not only does the person not want to be deported, they don't want to see their family deported and they live paycheck to paycheck. So, if you lose that job – that's not paying you even minimum wage – it's still the difference from being on the street versus having a roof over your head and saving your family. So, they don't have a choice.

Most of this company’s employees didn’t speak English, and they were afraid that if they said anything the employer would call immigration on them. So, I told him, “Don't worry. If they call immigration, they're going to be the first ones in trouble because we are going to show that they knew about these conditions." So, I thought about it and I said, "You know what, I'm trying this case."

I was furious. For such a rich state, I was shocked that we could tolerate these kinds of working conditions. The minimum wage is rising, but still employees still cannot pay for a lawyer on an hourly basis, like companies are able to do. So we work exclusively on a contingency basis for employees, many of whom can barely put food on the table.

LD: Absolutely. Do you do any pro bono work outside of your firm?

JO: Before the pandemic, I volunteered at a legal clinic for battered women.  Now I focus on volunteering for my synagogue and for various bar organizations.

LD: Absolutely. I'm sure that your clients learn so much from you, but is there anything that you've learned from your clients?

JO: Each case teaches you something. Each person comes in with their history, with their baggage. Each jury comes in with the same. I’m not my clients’ best friend – I have to tell them things they don’t always want to hear. But I want them to be able to make their own decisions. I want to empower them to stand up, to have a voice. When they come from being abused and not being heard, that’s such a change for them.

I just finished a case with a client who was sexually assaulted. After the case, she came up to me and said, "You know, I learned so much from you and my daughter now wants to be a lawyer because of you." I was totally in tears, and I said, "No, she should want to be like you, because you stood up and told your story."

LD: That’s beautiful. Reflecting on your career overall, did you think that you’d end up in this type of practice? And what have you found to be most rewarding about your work?

JO: When I went to law school, I thought I was going to be taking a very different path, but then I found this area. When you are 18 or 20, you have different dreams than when you are approaching 50, but I was very lucky to fall into this. When I was in school, my dream was to do environmental law for the United Nations.

LD: Wow. That's a little different.

JO: It’s completely different. I thought that I was going to change the world – but now I realize that I change the world a little bit, each person at a time.