McGuireWoods’ Ava Lias-Booker on why she’s tired of ‘first’ but not ‘more’
Published in 2016 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine
By Amy White on December 7, 2015
Q: You chose the law with no experience or exposure other than a seventh grade mock trial.
A: I always knew that I wanted to do something academically or professionally inclined, and it was not going to be medicine. That left law. I envisioned having more of a Thurgood Marshall-type career. I absolutely did not see the legal career that I have had for the past 30 years.
Q: What happened?
A: There is a story I tell on this subject about an exchange I had with a professor. I went to visit him for advice and counsel, and I had it in my mind to apply for the honor’s program at the Department of Justice to become a civil rights lawyer. But he thought that my talent might be better utilized in a law firm environment. I remember looking at him wondering, why on earth would he tell me that? I’m telling him I want to go save the world, and he’s telling me to find corporate America. We still laugh about it because I am exactly what he predicted. I was one of the first African-Americans to graduate from Maryland to go into a large private law firm practice, and that’s where I’ve been for three decades, at different firms, all within a five-block radius.
Q: As the Freddie Gray story unfolded in your backyard, did the former “world-saver” wish she had pursued civil rights?
A: Actually, it was the reverse. I wish that we had more folks in corporate America who are, I call it, “living the dream of Dr. King,” across different venues and industries. I think the need for a broader network of similar-minded folks that are not just in the government or civil rights arenas, but are in business, corporate and technology, is what’s needed to help begin to solve so many of the problems that plague us and keep contributing to the tension and unrest that many young folks are feeling today.
Q: How so?
A: Consider what should be happening for women and minorities. The first word that pops in my mind is simply “more.” More, in terms of sheer number; and more in terms of leadership roles and positions, so that we can create institutions that are hospitable to all folks and to diverse thinking. I think that if you could bring that diversity of viewpoints together and move away from that false narrative of “us” and “them,” we might be able to work together to find solutions to long-standing, deeply rooted problems. I don’t see it as a pure civil rights issue. And it far outreaches Baltimore.
Q: You’re the first African-American woman managing partner of McGuireWoods’ Baltimore office. Did you have any mentors who helped you break barriers?
A: I say it takes a village to produce a successful legal career. I was very blessed in the early stages and beyond to have men and women who took a proactive interest to support my career, and—this is key—I was humble enough as a young person to do as I was told. I do remember a partner in my firm at the time who, on my first day, came to me and said, “Let’s go and have a drink at the Center Club.” The Center Club is a private club here in Maryland, and back in the day, to be invited there as a young lawyer was an “ah” moment. I walked in there, wowed, big-eyed. And he asked me about my first day, and I talked about it with big-eyed wonder, and then he said, “Now let’s talk about the business of law.” That had a profound impact on me.
Q: Why’s that?
A: It was a teaching moment that helped me understand and learn that there’s more. More in addition to becoming a really good lawyer and learning the subject matter and developing arguments. I was now part of a law firm that was a business. And I needed to understand how the business functions, and how the business grows, and how the business is managed in order to be a valued contributor.
Q: You seem to like the word “more.” Is that a philosophy for you?
A: What an interesting observation. Perhaps it explains my favorite magazine: More. Its motto used to be “for women over 40,” or something like that, and then somebody took the phrase away. It’s a fabulously diverse magazine, and one of the recent articles was about the First Lady, who was guest editor. It’s very substantive, focused.
I use “more” because I like that word. It captures a lot of what I spend my time thinking about and worrying about: What more could I be doing?
Q: What do you remember about your first big courtroom moment?
A: My first big moment was in the midst of a very large criminal case. My law firm at the time, Weinberg & Green, had been retained to represent and defend a gentleman named Brian Tribble, who had been charged with possession of cocaine in connection with the death of Len Bias. There’s a book on it; there’s an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on it. I went to the senior partner and said that I wanted to work on it. What I didn’t know at the time—here’s where naiveté was a good thing—was that most of the associates had shied away because it was a criminal matter. So I quickly became almost second chair to this very prominent trial lawyer, Tom Morrow. I learned so much. I will never forget a minute of it.
I was sitting in the courtroom with Tom, and the police officer who investigated the case and who found cocaine residue in Bias’ car was on the stand. Tom Morrow reached over to me and said, “Do you want to take this cross?” I was too cocky to say no.
And the judge took one look at me and I think he probably figured, she is going to throw up. The courtroom was packed every day; there were reporters from all over the world. It was not my most brilliant moment, but I did fine.
We won, but once I had to wait for that verdict, I knew I was not a criminal lawyer.
Q: It didn’t excite you?
A: It was very exciting. But I understood after that case that you had to be all in, or all out. It wasn’t halfway in and halfway out. I wasn’t all in on criminal.
Q: How did you build your practice?
A: I was heading out to maternity leave when a banking regulatory lawyer, and a partner and mentor, called me up and said, “How about financial institutions litigation? Would you like to do that?” And I said, “Sure, why not?” Of course, I’m probably grossly over-simplifying it.
I started working on small things, and small things got bigger, and client relationships developed. I was able to hold myself out as a financial institutions litigator and trial lawyer, and had some wonderful results. And when you do that, and you do it long enough, it allows you to do other kinds of work for clients in other industries because they are very interested in your litigation trial skills.
Q: How was the learning curve across industry?
A: I’m a very logic-driven, very hands-on person, so doing everything from check fraud to UCC sale of goods to lender liability—and digging into the documents and working through all of that and piecing together a story—was very fascinating to me.
It sounds tedious and boring, but it’s not. You get to talk to people in different industries. In a recent contamination case, I had to learn science and biology. It was a toxic tort case that involved the alleged contamination of an underground water supply in a neighborhood that was dependent on well water. I was brought in after the trials had resulted in over $1 billion in damage verdicts, so I originally joined the appellate team that sought reversal of both cases. And we won reversal of both jury verdicts.
Q: Is it harder to weave a narrative when you’re not working with an individual client like, say, a family or personal injury lawyer would?
A: Narrative is just as important when you are working for a corporate client. There are bits and pieces, there are documents, there’s witness testimony. And if you just leave the strings unconnected, you’re in trouble.
The first piece is getting all the details together, and the second piece is figuring out from the analytical perspective what it is that we’re saying happened; then understanding that, and making sure you can communicate that to the decision-makers. Then you have to figure out how to communicate it in a way that is compelling and captures the attention of the person you are speaking to, in a way that they understand and therefore can appropriately return a decision or verdict that will support your viewpoint. That’s not easy.
In the appellate argument, for example, we were trying to explain the contamination concept. Many of these homes had done testing that showed the presence of the chemical of concern in their well was less than one part per billion. At the appellate argument, a couple of the judges had a cup of coffee in front of them, so I told them that the amount of formaldehyde—which was the chemical of concern—that is in your coffee that you drank this morning is greater than one part per billion. If I put one of the chemical engineers from the company up here, you’d never get that point.
Q: How would you describe your litigation style?
A: I compare litigators to surgeons. We’re very methodical. We go and we get in and we don’t always have the best bedside manner. The question at the end of the day is not just getting in and carving out the disease. The patient has to feel good about it. So what you learn over time is you can’t just rely on the case law, or on a particular document. You’ve got to become an effective communicator.
Q: Is it difficult to juggle your leadership role with your practice?
A: Being managing partner of the Baltimore office has given me exposure to other similarly situated folks, and has brought me into a conversation and a dialogue on a national level about the profession. My role on the board of partners at the law firm has also allowed me to have a better understanding of how a firm is run and to be a part of the decision-making process and the strategic planning of how the firm moves forward.
But there are only so many hours in the day. If you have two kids who are doing amazing things, and a husband, it makes it even more challenging. So it is important to love what you do and to really embrace what you do as part of who you are and what you are. I do not subscribe to the view of once the day is over, the job is over.
A woman partner told me when I first started, “Sometimes you’re going to be a really great lawyer, and sometimes you’ll be a really great mom. Not always will you be both of them at the same time.” So, I [wasn’t] in New Jersey [recently] to see my son play football, but I [had] an iPad nearby. That’s my reality. By the way, we won that game. It was a huge win, and we’re now ranked No. 23 in the nation. For a private school, are you kidding? We’re rockin’ and rollin,’ honey.
Q: You’ve racked up some historic firsts. Do you feel pressure to continue that trend?
A: I didn’t feel pressure at the time because I was so focused on doing the work. And I don’t feel pressure now, either. Quite honestly, I would like not to be the first. I would like for there to be so many more women and minority lawyers doing what I’m doing that we don’t need to celebrate the firsts anymore. We can simply celebrate the work.
This interview was edited and condensed.
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