Deneen LaMonica: The Path Less Taken

Deneen LaMonica
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“Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” says “Super Lawyer” Deneen LaMonica of Ziccarelli & Martello. “It’s the best advice I ever received and it’s the way I approach every case. There’s always a way around, always a creative solution.”

It’s a philosophy LaMonica applies to her personal life as well. In fact, seeking “creative solutions” became a mainstay for her at a fairly young age. It was her way of adjusting to and coping with, the various surprises life sprang on her. Rather than defining herself as either an optimist or pessimist, LaMonica sees the glass as having X ounces, while almost simultaneously calculating how much more is needed and how to get it. Essentially, she’s a pragmatic, problem-solving realist. As she puts it, “There is always a way to make it work.”

If set to music, this mantra could be the soundtr ack of LaMonica’s life. Highlymotivated and driven by her passion for succeeding, this energetic and enthusiastic litigator meets every challenge by drawing upon a ready arsenal of skills powered by relentless determination.

Where some might classify themselves as “late bloomers” or be discouraged by the fact that they were just entering law school when their contemporaries were launching careers, LaMonica’s approach is to embrace this revised schedule, focusing on the advantages rather than the drawbacks.

“Everything happened the way it was supposed to,” she insists, pointing to the circumstances surrounding her applying to and then attending Cleveland-Marshal College of Law.

After graduating from Mentor High, La- Monica began working at a family-owned restaurant, where over the course of sevenyears she steadily worked her way up from hostess to manager, before taking maternity leave for the birth of her first daughter Michaella.

“When I was ready to return to work, it was for a large, corporate restaurant,” she says, “but because I did not have a college degree, the highest position they offered was as the lead banquet server. I thought, ‘no way,’ and made the decision to go back to school.”

For the next six years, the young mother never looked back, working full time at night, while attending Cleveland State University, maintaining a nearly 4.0 grade point average. “I couldn’t have done it without my mom, sister, and close friends,” she says. “They were there for me babysitting and offering moral support. Quarter after quarter, I was obsessed with making straight A’s. By the time I had my bachelor’s degree I figured I’d just keep going and do what I’d always wanted to, and applied to law school.

“It took me eight years because I had my daughter Mackenzie in between. It turns out, that was my life path. I think it worked out better for me, because I had the focus and drive I would not have had at 20 or 21, and would not have graduated summa cum laude. I think I got more from the whole experience at 27, than I would have if I had gone straight from high school.”

Alternate Path

An avid reader and someone who loves learning, LaMonica has been interested in the law since high school, but believes that her unconventional path to becoming a lawyer turned out to be the most beneficial.

“It’s just funny how everything comes together,” she says. “For instance, one very important aspect to becoming a successful litigator is the ability to think on your feet. There’s not a lot of attention given to the public speaking aspect, but it’s certainly a critical skill to possess.”

Like so much else in her life, this experience came to LaMonica in an unexpected way. After going through a divorce, La- Monica took on a part-time job teaching spinning classes. Naturally, this meant speaking in front of a group of strangers, which turns out, was perfect practice for the courtroom.

“As a litigator, in the beginning you might consider yourself a ‘people person,’ but when you actually get up, there’s that stage fright. You’re nervous and it’s hard to get your words out,” LaMonica says. “But teaching those classes was almost like a graduate course in Toastmaster’s, because you’re on stage all the time. Every night that I teach a class, there’s a different group. You never know who’s going to be in your class or what might happen, and you just have to roll with it. It’s really helped make me feel comfortable in my own skin and have the confidence and clarity to think through the clutter and communicate, regardless of the circumstances.”

Hit the Ground Running

Graduating from law school in 2000, La- Monica, then the mother of a 9-year-old and a 4-year-old, was immediately hired by a boutique law firm in Cleveland where she specialized in asbestos defense for Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies. When that firm closed, one of her clients picked her up, which meant moving to Chicago.

From there, she was recruited by the illustrious Cleveland firm of Calfee, Halter & Griswold LLP. “I was initially recruited for my extensive asbestos background,” she says, “but they also put me in the general litigation group. As the asbestos work slowly began to wind down, I was primarily focused on general litigation. About five years into my tenure there, I moved into the white-collar crime group. It was a wonderful experience. I had a wonderful mentor in Virginia Davidson and was introduced into a whole new practice area.

In 2014, LaMonica was presented with the opportunity to join Ziccarelli & Martello.

“It felt like the perfect fit,” says LaMonica. “It’s a relatively small, high-volume firm that suits my personality and skillset. I handle all the litigation for the firm’s Cleveland Office which includes; personal injury, other tort matters, privacy issues, and appeals for workers compensation cases. In addition, I continue to practice in the areas of criminal defense, white collar crime, and commercial litigation.

“Joining Ziccarelli & Martello has really opened up a lot of new areas of practice for me,” she adds. “I love the variety and the fact that no two days are alike. I never had this opportunity before, I was always stuck in one area.”

Despite her many years of practice, different firms and numerous cases, LaMonica says she still clearly recalls the first case she took to trial. She also finds it interesting, that all those years ago, it was a defamation case.

“I remember volunteering to help another attorney,” she says. “It was her case, and it was getting too large for one attorney to handle. I had a colleague at the firm who said, ‘What? Are you crazy? What if you lose?’ I couldn’t believe it, because the idea of losing had never occurred to me! We did end up winning, but it’s something that has never left me. You get behind a case and you believe in it, you don’t dwell on if you might lose. It’s just not a consideration.”

Passionate about upholding justice, especially for the “little guy,” LaMonica gives generously of her time and talent to the Legal Aid Society. She has obtained signifi- cant results for clients on matters ranging from landlord-tenant, to domestic relations, to general litigation. In addition, La- Monica is on the felony assignment list for Cuyahoga County and regularly defends indigent clients on the criminal docket.

LaMonica is a member of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, the Ohio State Bar Association, The Chicago Bar Association and the Federal Bar Association. She is also actively involved with The Justinian Forum and the The Womens’ White Collar Defense Group. Currently serving as vice-president for the Federal Bar Association, she has previously held the post of secretary and treasurer, moving steadily up the ladder.

At home, this very young grandma, enjoys the company of her two daughters, now 26 and 21, and her adorably boisterous grandson Michael who is just 1-yearsold. The light of her life.

“It’s great,” says LaMonica. “My daughters are wonderful, the kind of people who I’d love to be friends with even if we weren’t related. And having my grandson with me every day is such a blessing. It’s really the perfect arrangement and I couldn’t be happier.”

When asked how she manages to keep her sanity, let alone any semblance of balance with her practice, volunteer work, and teaching spinning, LaMonica doesn’t hesitate with her response. “I have the world’s best assistant Linda Hochartz,” she says. “I brought her with me soon after I made the move to Ziccarelli and Martello. She’s my right hand and doubles as a secretary and para-legal. I simply could not do what I do without her.”

She may have arrived via an unconventional path, but according to LaMonica, it was not only well worth it, but undoubtedly the best route for her.

“All the pieces have fallen into place,” she says. “There were times when I was struggling as a single mother and wondering if I could make it, but when you truly want something badly enough there is nothing that can stand in your way.”

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Susan Cushing

Susan Cushing is the associate editor of Attorney at Law Magazine as well as a staff writer. She has been contributing to the magazine for more than eight years.

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