Following in the Footsteps

These outstanding attorneys find their strength in good examples while blazing trails for fellow women.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.” So reads the plaque Ann Sullivan’s mother kept in their home. 

Monica Monday’s mother believed in the transformative power of education. 

Nina Ginsberg’s mother protected the oppressed. 

Stephanie Grana’s mother escaped a lack of options.

All four—Ginsberg, Grana, Monday, Sullivan—have risen to prominence in the legal profession and, although they practice different specialties, they all share two things in common: They all have strong women in their backgrounds, and they are dedicated to overcoming any obstacle set in their path.

A Fine Balance
Ann Sullivan 

Founding partner of Sullivan Collins Law Group

Illustrations by Paddy Mills

Faced with the difficulty of balancing their families and jobs, working mothers sometimes feel they must either quit their jobs and devote themselves to family, or devote themselves to work and become absentee mothers. But Ann Sullivan has created a law firm where women can flourish without shortchanging their family lives. “I wanted to create a place where working mothers could continue their careers without having to sacrifice their work-life balance,” says Sullivan. “That was my business model.”

Launched in 2013 in Norfolk as a boutique employment law firm, the Sullivan Collins Law Group eschews the billable-hour requirements that drive lawyers’ careers in most firms. Instead, the attorneys are asked to work whatever hours are required by the client’s needs, giving much more flexibility to individual scheduling. “We work to what [each lawyer] wants to do and try to keep that in balance,” says Sullivan. “And it’s been a huge success from the standpoint of the people who work there. It’s just a real happy place to work.”

The emphasis on teamwork is visibly apparent in the collaborative environment, where individual schedules are not the only thing that’s flexible. “People share desks,” Sullivan explains, “so if you’re working Monday-Wednesday-Friday and somebody else is working Tuesday-Thursday, I have to remember who’s going to be where on what day and what desk they’re going to be sitting in.”

Although Sullivan has never advertised, word of her management style has spread through Hampton Roads, and the legal community has responded as matchmaker. Judges, lawyers, family members, and drinking buddies have all given referrals. The result is an all-female cadre of lawyers, some with young children, some returning to the workforce after a long absence, and some military spouses who, as new arrivals in Virginia, would have had to retake the bar exam if not for Sullivan allowing them to practice under her license. 

In addition, the women are grateful to Sullivan for providing guidance. In more than 40 years of practicing law, Sullivan has worked both sides of the aisle in cases that have resolved behind the scenes and in those that have been argued passionately in court during bitter trials. Two cases she was involved with went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, both ruling unanimously in her team’s favor. Now, she’s sharing her vast knowledge with younger associates. “I’ve become much more of a mentor and strategist,” she says. “These young women need more of my strategy and mentoring than my writing answers to interrogatories or things of that nature. And that’s been a very rewarding experience.”

On a recent visit to the College of William & Mary, Sullivan gave law students advice for guiding their careers. She told them that in addition to keeping a gratitude journal—“what you liked about your day and what you were thankful for”—they should be making note of other experiences. “If there are things about your day-to-day existence as an attorney that are bothering you, you should make note of those, because that will show you the path where you need to go,” she says.

And if the path doesn’t exist, you can always follow Sullivan’s example and blaze one yourself.

Fair is Fair
Nina Ginsberg

President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

Nina Ginsberg learned the ins and outs of law before she even went to college. Growing up in a Manhattan apartment with parents who were both partners in the same law firm, her home was filled with legal talk that couldn’t help but seep in. 

Her mother was an estate lawyer who often represented people dying of AIDS who wished to bequeath possessions to their gay partners. She did this in the 1970s, long before gay rights became a popular fight. Occasionally, clients would come to the apartment and rant about the horrible things their lovers’ families were doing to separate them from their dying partners. Ginsberg heard it all through the walls but was sworn to secrecy about everything that went on at home.

Following the example set by her trailblazing mother, Ginsberg also decided to stand up for the oppressed. She became a criminal defense lawyer in Alexandria, cutting her teeth on the Eastern District’s “Rocket Docket,” so named due to its radical enforcement of swift justice. The court shortened time periods for discovery, accelerated deadlines, and rarely granted continuances. “It was not unusual in a criminal case,” says Ginsberg, “for a judge to ask either side, ‘How many witnesses are you going to put on?’ And when you say, ‘12,’ the judge would say, ‘Pick your best six.’ By and large, it forced lawyers to get to the crux of what the case was really about and what really mattered.”

Over the years, Ginsberg has argued every type of case imaginable, from drugs to murder to cases involving national security. She has represented multiple clients accused of espionage. Following the 9/11 attacks, Ginsberg was one of the civilian lawyers with death penalty experience flown in to represent suspects. “Half the detainees didn’t even want to talk to the lawyers,” Ginsberg says. “Some were ready to plead guilty and get the death penalty because they wanted to be martyrs. Others wanted to defend themselves. I remember the first time we were in front of a judge, these 9/11 detainees, who had been separated from each other until this time, were all talking to each other loudly in Arabic over the proceedings. There was pandemonium in the courtroom. It was insane.”

After a lifetime of fighting for the underdog and exhibiting a passion for legal fairness, Ginsberg  can now effect real change as the newly elected president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. A key component of NACDL’s mission statement is to identify and reform inequities in the criminal justice system. Ginsberg plans to address undue pressures to make pleas, under-resourcing of defense counsel, and unfair rules of discovery. 

“People always say, ‘How can you represent these lousy criminals?’” says Ginsberg. “And I say, ‘How can I not? Because one day someone you love is going to be one of those lousy criminals, and you’re going to have a very different attitude about this.’ I see what happens every day when people don’t get treated fairly in courthouses—and it happens all the time. Still, to this day, a frequent reaction that I have, even in court, is wanting to say to a judge, ‘Look, this is just not fair. It’s wrong.’”

And “wrong” doesn’t sit well with Ginsberg.

Seize the Day
Monica T. Monday 

Managing Partner of Gentry Locke and head of the firm’s appellate practice

“Never in a million years did I think this would be part of my path,” says Monica Monday, referring to her position as managing partner of Gentry Locke. When she was approached in 2013 about stepping into the position, she said no. For nine years, she’d been working part time so she could be present for special moments with her young son. But her son had grown into a young man, and she wanted to show her appreciation to the firm. “The more I thought about it,” she says, “I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is the right thing for me to be doing. Maybe this is a way that I can help the firm.’”

Monday took over as the firm was celebrating its 90th anniversary. Up to that point, it had operated out of one office in Roanoke. But in the six years since, Gentry Locke has opened new offices in Richmond and Lynchburg, giving Monday three times the personnel, caseloads, and overhead to manage, spread over a much wider area. “Maintaining the culture and the cohesiveness of the firm, and the relationships of the team that makes up this firm, really has been my number one focus as managing partner.”

Monday also heads the firm’s appellate practice, which itself is a daunting task. While a trial lawyer has months, or even years, with a particular case, the appellate lawyer comes in blind after the initial verdict to deconstruct the court proceedings and filings in search of legal errors. It is a process Monday finds exhilarating. “I love to analyze the issues,” she says. “I love to get in the weeds and strategize on where to take the case so you can get the best outcome.”

She doesn’t see the “blind” aspect of her job as a hindrance. “The appellate court doesn’t have the benefit of knowing what people look like or what the intonation of their voice was,” she says. “They look at the record cold. So coming in without that kind of knowledge enables the appellate lawyer to basically put themselves in the same shoes as the appellate court that will actually decide the case. So I see it as an advantage.”

Her positive outlook, coupled with a tireless tenacity, has resulted in a stellar legal record. She has been victorious in multimillion-dollar verdicts. She has appeared on the Legal Elite list for Best Lawyers in America every year since 2009. And in 2015, she became just the fifth Virginia attorney to be inducted as a fellow of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers. 

Monday comes by her robust work ethic naturally. Her grandmother worked at factories and at a dry cleaner until she was 75. “That’s hard work for a 75-year-old woman,” says Monday. “So that set a standard for me to live up to. In my family, we believe that work is good. Work is good for you mentally, and it is good for you physically.” 

Monday’s mother was another proponent of hard work, but she also believed that education could carry one to new heights. She led the way through personal example, putting herself through college while working a full-time job and raising two teenage daughters on her own. Monday was the first person in her immediate family to graduate from a four-year college (William & Mary), but her mother graduated from George Mason University the year after. 

Looking back on her career and the job she never expected, Monday has two pieces of advice to share: “Sometimes doors open that we don’t expect,” she says. “You need to seize opportunities when they arise. And definitely get out of your comfort zone. That’s the way that people grow.”

Justice for Clients
Stephanie Grana 

Partner at Breit Cantor Grana Buckner

When Stephanie Grana’s mother graduated high school in rural North Dakota, her staunch Catholic father said she had only two practical options: get married or become a nun. Instead, she chose something impractical; she hopped a train to New York City, where she lived and worked and, eventually, got married. Money was always tight, but she was glad she fought to achieve her own destiny.

Following her mother’s example, Grana worked hard to propel herself beyond her upbringing. She earned stellar grades and was offered a dozen partial college scholarships. But the University of Richmond offered her a full ride, so she came to the Commonwealth and has never left. She earned both her bachelor’s and law degrees at UR, served a judicial clerkship in Norfolk, and has practiced law at various firms in Richmond. 

Her first position was as an associate for a lawyer who specialized in medical malpractice. She made herself an immediate and indispensable asset by spending weekends at the Medical College of Virginia poring through tomes on hematology, general surgery guidelines, and tables of lab values, learning enough medicine to decode the lingo and explain difficult concepts to the public. The knowledge gave her an edge and led to greater responsibility. “I had only been working a month or two, and I remember taking the deposition of a geneticist in a birth injury case, which was not your typical deposition two months out of a clerkship,” she says. “And then a month later we were doing an eight-day jury trial in front of Judge

Harris in the City of Richmond, and I had that geneticist witness, as well as family members and some other tasks in the trial. … I was tossed into the courtroom and found that I loved it!”

Grana now focuses on catastrophic injury cases. Each can demand a year or more of her time, but the result is justice for her clients in the only form available in these cases: money. “I cannot give my clients their health back,” she says. “I can’t return a loved one to them. Financial recovery is the only thing that I can offer. And that weighs on my shoulders.”

More than 45 times, Grana has won million-dollar verdicts. But more important to her is the impact on her clients. “I had one large verdict in Norfolk for a 12-year-old boy,” Grana says. “He had a brain injury, but, based on the verdict, he was able to go to a special school and has done many amazing things. His dad still sends me pictures and tells me how he’s doing. The amazing thing about this job is that when your job is done, you’ve got this extended family of friends.”

Grana is thankful that she can provide life-changing results to those in need, and she hopes to help many others in the future. But she must also look back and give thanks to her mother for setting such a fine example and for putting Grana in a position where she can tell her own children with certainty that anything is possible.

This article originally appeared in our August 2019 issue.

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