Why you can't fluster Mona Hanna
Published in 2020 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 15, 2020
Updated on April 3, 2020
At age 7, Mona Z. Hanna was standing on the balcony of her home in Cairo when sirens sounded, bombs shook the city, and her father threw himself on top of her. For the family, it was the final straw. Within days, they were on a boat for the United States, fleeing the three-year-long War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt.
It was during that voyage that Hanna became a lawyer for the first time.
She and her younger sister were fighting over a favorite doll. Her parents, both attorneys, decided the matter should be settled by a trial, where both sisters made their case for custody. This is how the family settled disputes. Her father played the role of judge, her mother the bailiff. Hanna won.
“It was my first win and that resonated with me,” Hanna says, smiling. “I like winning.”
As the managing partner of Michelman & Robinson’s Irvine office, Hanna has done some winning since. She has handled more than 40 binding arbitrations, dozens of jury trials and even more bench trials. Her cases involve claims of unfair competition and business practices, misappropriation of trade secrets, professional negligence, wrongful termination, and harassment and discrimination. Last August, at the California Court of Appeals, she won a precedent-making case regarding car rental fees.
The common denominator in her victories is the search for innovative solutions.
As a second-year attorney, for example, Hanna was put in charge of a nonbinding arbitration. She was defending a school district in a case in which a student had run into a pole with a bolt sticking out. “When the file was handed to me,” she says, “I was told this is a liability case and to try to minimize damages.” While researching, though, she found a prior case that supported her client, and the court threw the case out on the grounds the plaintiff failed to state a claim.
“The partner of the firm told me that nobody wins a nonbinding arbitration on a nonsuit,” she recalls. “But it showed me if you come at a problem with a unique perspective that no one else has thought of, and the other side isn’t prepared for, you can get great results.”
Today, in her Los Angeles office, every wall is a whiteboard, giving her team plenty of space to work out those ideas.
In the states, the family first moved to New York—which reminded Hanna of Cairo, until winter arrived—and then on to California. In Cairo, she’d been reading and writing Arabic, French and English, so there was no language barrier, she says. Even so, “I was very aware of the cultural differences and did feel like an outsider looking in [for] most of my childhood. I remember that even at Hollywood High, I felt culturally estranged despite having a fairly diverse class, and ended up being pretty shy. I participated in drama my senior year, and that was really a turning point.”
Neither parent wanted her to be a lawyer. “So that’s what I did,” she says. “I’ve always wondered if they actually did want me to become a lawyer and it was just a great strategy on their part to tell me not to.”
As an undergraduate at California State University, Los Angeles, she organized a pre-law group, then went on to UC Hastings College of the Law. One slight glitch: “I have always had a phobia about public speaking,” she says. “I still have issues with it.”
Over time, though, she found that court and arbitration were the only places she could express herself comfortably in public. The nerves are still there—she says she’d be worried if they weren’t, since the energy fuels her—but they’re rarely apparent to anyone else. For a reason. “Regardless of how I feel on the inside,” she says, “I always try to project calm and confident.”
Sanford L. Michelman, chairman of Michelman & Robinson, met Hanna two decades ago when he watched her try a case against one of his partners; she impressed him. “Some people walk into a party and everyone gravitates to them,” he says. “Mona is that way in a courtroom. All eyes on her, even though she’s soft-spoken.”
Michelman tells of a $150 million case in which the side opposing Hanna submitted a motion for summary judgment. The case was so complicated that the motion totaled 4,000 pages. He says the judge came in “hot,” meaning he was perturbed at having to read such a lengthy document. Sensing the temperature of the court, Hanna said, “Before we get into the substance of the motion, I would like to introduce my clients to the court. They would prefer not to be here, but they are here because it’s such an important matter.” It humanized the process and defused the tension.
“You can’t teach that,” Michelman says, adding that the motion was eventually denied.
“I try to be authentic in front of a jury,” Hanna says. “I don’t do smoke and mirrors. I think juries are intelligent, and it’s my job to walk them through the evidence. I think being as credible and truthful as I can gives me leverage over an attorney who is more charismatic.”
She’s handled about a half-dozen celebrity cases, too—including taking over as Johnny Depp’s lead lawyer in a fraud lawsuit against his former business partners—but one thing bothers her about these cases: She’s never actually met any of her celebrity clients. It’s a team of managers and/or their own general counsel. It’s not that she’s after a selfie; she wants a win. “I like to work closely with my clients and really understand their goals,” she says.
John Rygh, general counsel for Knight Insurance Group, uses many lawyers across the country, but sometimes he’ll phone Hanna to get her opinion on a case being handled by a lawyer in another jurisdiction. “She’s very collaborative,” he says, “though she doesn’t hesitate to say if she thinks she has a better strategy that will play well before a judge.”
Rygh once saw an opposing counsel try to get under her skin during a deposition. “‘Did you even go to law school?’” Rygh remembers him saying. “He was extremely rude with her, but she handled it professionally and didn’t fall for his clear attempt to intimidate her. I love her coolness under pressure.”
As Michelman puts it, “She’s a brilliant thinker who puts a lot of care and consideration into the client’s cause, and trains people and brings them along—that’s not a combination you see a lot. When she prevails, it’s about the team. When she loses, which doesn’t happen much, [she says] it’s on her.”
To help the firm’s young lawyers, Hanna recently developed an in-house mock trial program that will roll out in March and have its first trial in July. “I know a couple of firms that have programs like this but they outsource them to third parties,” she says. “We are doing it internally because we think we have a secret sauce to trials that we want to train our attorneys in.”
Part of that secret? “An overlooked strategy is preventing the other side from putting on the case they want,” she says. “If they are setting up a case, and you find a reason for why they can’t present it in the way they want, it can implode on itself.” That’s when her team—ideally—presents a plausible alternative that often comes from finding an overlooked detail. That part isn’t innovative—it’s just old-fashioned digging.
“Sometimes in a legal theory that doesn’t look defensible from the 60,000-foot view, there will be some detail in your favor,” she says. “When I’m preparing a strategy, I can step back and see the big picture. But when I am getting ready to take a case to trial, I dig into the details.”
Early in her career, for example, a senior associate was handling a case in which several banks were accused of improper actions during foreclosure—including sending the foreclosure notice to the wrong address. Thinking the case was a loser, he handed it off to Hanna. She dug into the documents and realized the bank sent the notice to the wrong address because the customer put the wrong address on his application. She prevailed.
Her recent class action, Adhav v. Midway Rent-A-Car, Inc., concerns whether the fees that car rental agencies charge for optional insurance need to be included in their rate filing with the state Department of Insurance. Since there was no legal precedent, Hanna, who repped the insurance company, decided to support her position with legislative history. “We brought in as our expert the former chief of a regulatory function of the Department of Insurance during the relevant time period,” she says. “That was a very important aspect of the overall strategy.”
She won, both on trial and on appeal. The case has been petitioned for review to the U.S. Supreme Court. “As a trial attorney, one of the greatest things you can do is make law,” she says. “I hope it sticks because that will be something cool to leave behind.”
Hanna has always been around influential women. Her mother was the fifth female attorney in Egypt and appeared on the cover of The Middle Eastern Times. “She was very focused, career-oriented, and I get a lot of that from her,” Hanna says.
That doesn’t mean Hanna hasn’t encountered resistance. When she told a career guidance counselor she wanted to become a lawyer, his response was, “Wouldn’t you rather be a paralegal?” She also notes how male colleagues are allowed to be louder in court. “If a woman does that,” she says, “she is often seen as flighty or hysterical.”
She knows progress is being made. “I am in trials now,” she says, “where the judge is a woman, the opposing counsel is a woman, and the client is a woman.” And she helped create a subcommittee at Michelman & Robinson to promote the career growth of the firm’s female attorneys. “Studies show that male colleagues will ask for a certain case or compensation,” Hanna says. “Female attorneys think if they do a good job, they will get it”—which isn’t the way the world works, she adds.
“You shouldn’t be so afraid of a no,” Hanna says, “that you don’t ask for what you want.”