How many class action and PAGA cases have you handled? How many depositions in those cases have you taken? How many trials have you handled? What was your highest-valued class action/PAGA settlement? Your lowest? What successful strategies have you employed in other like cases?
These were the questions fired at attorney Laura Reathaford in August 2020 during an interview with a potential new client who sought her services to defend three California wage-and-hour class and PAGA representative actions. Reathaford, a partner at Lathrop GPM and leader of the firm’s California Employment practice group, answered them with confidence.
“Clients are paying for experience and efficiency. They want you to end the case for as little money as possible, and that is what I try to deliver,” Reathaford says. “Class and PAGA litigation can be expensive cases requiring a lot of attorney time but I have successfully resolved many wage-and-hour class actions for under $50,000 in legal fees.”
There’s a lot Reathaford says she likes to do that others won’t, with PAGA cases being at the top of the list. Much of this work, she says, is referred to her by lawyers at other firms who dislike it and trust her to take care of their clients.
“Most of these cases are bet-the-company wage-and-hour class and PAGA actions,” Reathaford explains, having defended more than 100 of these cases. “People know that I’m not afraid of this challenge and that I like this type of work.”
That newly retained client knows it, too. Having hired Reathaford following the interview to represent the company in those California-based lawsuits, the client came back to request that she and her team take over an FLSA collective-action case pending in Arizona. Collective-action opposition briefs were due in a week.
“We rose to the challenge,” she says. “We filed the brief on time, filed supplemental briefing in December and received an order denying the plaintiff’s request for conditional certification in January.”
It’s one of many victories for Reathaford in that arena. Although her name isn’t on the case, she is particularly proud of her work on an FLSA matter in which 64 of 66 plaintiffs did not identify an amount of damages in support of their claims pursuant to Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
“I suggested that we file a motion excluding the 64 plaintiffs’ damages,” she explains. “The plaintiffs took it to the 9th Circuit and the court affirmed it. That was kind of a big win.”
She is excited now about a similar order she received in late 2020 in a case where a plaintiff claims she is owed $1.5 million in unpaid commissions. The Magistrate on the case said the plaintiff was precluded from offering evidence of damages related to the only two theories of liability she has asserted thus far.
“It’s Rule 26 all over again,” she says, after receiving another victory.
“Resolving cases early means more to clients than winning in the Ninth Circuit,” she adds. “I put the clients’ interests first and I feel like that is why I have managed to stay busy.”
Reathaford is putting clients first now, but practicing law wasn’t always her first choice. The Edmonton, Alberta, native, whose father was also an attorney, earned her JD in Canada and clerked for a judge at the Federal Court of Canada before heading to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting.
When the lifestyle grew tiresome, Reathaford says, it was time to move on.
“Being a starving actor for five years was good for me and taught me to appreciate coming back to law,” she says. “I have lawyer friends who say, ‘I wish I could do something else.’ I don’t have that. I’m happy I did it, but now I’m glad I’m practicing law and I don’t regret this decision to return to practicing.
“I enjoy it—the complex thinking and the problem-solving—and it’s a nice way to make a living.”
Even though stardom eluded her, Reathaford does tell something of a soda-fountain-discovery story when it comes to her career in employment law defense.
When she moved to L.A. and was not yet licensed to practice in California, she worked on the Rampart cases doing constitutional law. The Rampart cases ended after about five years and there wasn’t much left for her to do that she found interesting, she says, so she put her name in at a temp agency for paralegals.
One day the recruiter called the office of Howard Knee at his firm, Knee, Ross & Silverman. His assistant, who would typically screen—and most likely decline—such calls, was out to lunch.
“The recruiter asked, ‘Do you need a paralegal?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, we do,’” she says.
“I had a bias against defense lawyers because I worked on the plaintiff side for so long,” she says. But after they went to trial for that big FLSA wage-and-hour case with Knee, she says she was hooked on employment law.
“Howard is an amazing lawyer and was an excellent mentor,” she says. “I wouldn’t be an employment lawyer if it wasn’t for him.
“Someone told me once that I am the product of good training,” she adds. “I’ve had really strong people in my life—many good lawyers whom I’ve learned from.”
Many of those good lawyers have been women.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with women who are excellent lawyers, so I’ve always had really good examples,” she says.
One was Lora Silverman, another named partner at Knee, Ross & Silverman. Reathaford calls her a fantastic lawyer and says she taught her a lot about working with administrative agencies on smaller employment claims.
Then there were those who, in addition to mentoring on the law, provided support outside of the job description—particularly past coworkers Sherry Skibbe, another wage-and-hour class-action lawyer who strongly influenced her work, and Colleen Regan, who sharpened Reathaford’s trial skills.
“I remember this day where I had to be on a call to pitch a very important client on a nation-wide wage-and-hour class action and my daughter throws up in the car,” Reathaford says. “I had no choice; I had to take her to work with me. I’ll never forget—Sherry told me, ‘Laura, I got her.’ And Sherry took her to Starbucks for the hour that I needed to do the pitch.”
There was also the time that she was lamenting missing her 4-year-old daughter’s holiday program due to being in the middle of a trial with Regan, a seasoned trial attorney.
“Colleen said to me, ‘You will not miss that Christmas show,’” Reathaford says. “She covered for me in trial until I returned from the morning performance.”
The woman attorney who impressed her the most, as well as drew her to her current firm, she says, is Nancy Sher Cohen. She and Cohen, partner in charge of the Los Angeles Office of Lathrop GPM, met at Proskauer, and even though they practiced in different areas of law, she says Cohen’s talent and tenacity resonated.
“Our offices were right next to each other and when we interacted, I thought, this is a woman of quality,” she says. “This is what I want to be when I grow up.
“What I love about Nancy is that she is a quality lawyer first. I want to be recognized for being a good lawyer; I don’t want to be recognized for being a woman,” Reathaford says. “I want to make a name for myself because I do good work. And I knew that if I was going to practice here, I was going to have support for that view.”
Reathaford doesn’t want preferential treatment based on her gender. Crediting being raised by a single mother for her strong work ethic, she says being hired or promoted for anything less would be hurtful.
This stuck with Reathaford in her ability to pitch for those class actions in 2020 and get hired.
“Getting the work had nothing to do with my being a woman, and I loved it!” says Reathaford. “If I had been put on a ‘pitch team’ just because of gender, I might not have been able to answer those important questions in any meaningful way.”
She says the same holds for opportunities she passes along to others, and she is quick to point out her view that advancing women has nothing to do with bias.
“I support women who are invested in the practice of law,” she says. “If a woman is invested in the practice of law, has the experience the client needs and is committed to delivering the highest level of client service, I want her working with me.
“I will give a woman a deposition or have her argue a motion, but she has to prove herself,” she adds. “If she doesn’t do it well, she’s not going to get a second chance. Same thing with a man.”
Reathaford says she has seen a trend of law firms’ promoting women so they can reach desired numbers and impress potential clients.
“Placing gender in front of our skills diminishes what we have accomplished,” she says. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we sacrificing skill and quality in the name of feminism?’”
Lathrop GPM, she says, has made no sacrifices in those areas while still committing strongly to diversity and inclusion. In regard to gender equity, more than half of the firm’s practice group leaders are women. [See sidebar.]
Other practices in the Los Angeles office enjoying “an impressive resume of success,” says Reathaford, are labor and employment; insurance recovery and counseling; toxic and mass tort litigation; and business litigation.
With respect to expanding the Labor and Employment Practice Group in California, Reathaford’s goal is clear: “Recruit partners with a strong work ethic and niche practices.”
She has already started the process by recruiting Barri Lyn Friedland from Seyfarth Shaw.
“Barri is a well-known and well-respected labor and employment attorney with more than 20 years of experience,” she says. “She is hyper-focused on client service and is exactly the kind of lawyer we are looking for.”
Reathaford also hopes to expand the California group with the addition of a labor lawyer in the near future. In anticipation of President Biden’s proposed changes to the NLRA, she says she expects labor law will be a critical need for the firm’s clients, not only in California but also in the other states where our clients have operations.
Lathrop GPM already has a deep bench in employment law, Reathaford explains, including labor law and its nationally ranked higher education niche practice area. With over 30 lawyers throughout the nation, she says the firm draws upon its national expertise to assist clients with these unique federal issues involving union organizing and Title IX advice and litigation.
Likely to attract even more top talent to Lathrop GPM is its stunning new L.A. workplace. Relocating from the 1888 Century Park East to the 35th floor of 2049, the office’s construction was completed as the COVID-19 shutdowns were taking place.
Reathaford says Cohen and the office administrator, Laura Brayton, spent a lot of time asking their colleagues what they would like to see in the space and didn’t overlook a single detail. She describes the new office, which will encompass half the floor, as state of the art in technology and comfort.
“I feel like it’s definitely a place I’m excited to go back to work when COVID is over,” she says. “It’s warm but professional, and it will leave a great impression on our clients. I’m so excited to work here because it’s the space that meets all of our clients’ needs, as well as those of our lawyers.”
The Los Angeles team has grown from two attorneys in October 2017 to 15 today. The new office is ready to accommodate even more growth, with 26 external offices and several conference rooms for collaboration and entertainment.
“We’re not just growing the office with brick and mortar,” insists Reathaford. “We’re growing it with quality.
“It’s Nancy’s vibe that sets this tone,” she adds. “She’s going to attract women (and men) who are excellent lawyers because she’s an excellent lawyer.”
Reathaford says attorneys’ experience and results are the only key requisites to joining the firm.
“This is what inspired me to join Lathrop GPM,” she says. “I want to provide high-quality service and to work with high-quality lawyers. And that’s exactly what I am doing here.”