All the World’s a Courtroom
Joan Lukey's flair for the dramatic
Published in 2008 New England Super Lawyers magazine
on October 24, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Long before she became a Boston-based trial lawyer known for winning record-breaking verdicts, Joan Lukey was an undergraduate considering a career in drama at Smith College in the late 1960s. That was when a professor laid it out for her. He told her she wasn’t quite good enough to make it on acting ability, nor was she quite good-looking enough to make it on appearance. “It was actually very good advice,” Lukey says. “I wasn’t offended.”
Choosing her next path was easy. She liked politics; the law seemed a good way to get there. Like others of her generation—she’s now 58—Lukey grew up watching Perry Mason wrap up every case by wringing out a last-minute confession. Doesn’t quite work that way in real life, she soon learned, but she realized she could use her stage training to good effect. “It’s not that you’re acting in the sense of putting on a persona that isn’t you,” she says, “but you are presenting.”
It’s easy to see the performer in Lukey as she leans in to emphasize a point, her hands gesturing gracefully, her face animated. (Friends tell her she resembles Boo, the little girl from the movie Monsters, Inc., who, not coincidentally, was created by her stepdaughter-in-law, an animator at Pixar.) This is a moment of transition: After spending her entire career at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, she has been wooed away to Ropes & Gray.
This past spring, for the annual “Shakespeare and the Law” series, Lukey appeared with other lawyers and judges in a staged reading of King Lear. She played Cordelia, and the king of France was played by John Montgomery, the managing partner at Ropes & Gray. In rehearsal, after the scene in which John makes Cordelia an offer of marriage, Montgomery slipped Lukey an envelope containing an offer of partnership in the firm.
At Ropes & Gray, she’s continuing her practice in complex commercial litigation, which she describes as high-stakes disputes between businesses that involve complicated issues and a lot of clashes over golden parachutes. “It’s amazing how often departing officers will claim that they had an [unwritten agreement],” Lukey says. “You look at them and you say, ‘Aren’t we all supposed to be sophisticated businesspeople? Who in their right mind would be granting you the stock options that you’re talking about and not put it in writing?'”
Her first love is the courtroom. In 1974, her final year at Boston College Law School, her team won the National Moot Court championship and she was named best oral advocate, the first woman to win that honor in that competition’s 25 years.
Lukey went from law school to what was then Hale and Dorr, the sole woman associate that year alongside nine men from Harvard Law School. One of her colleagues was Jim St. Clair, who had served as Richard Nixon’s special counsel during Watergate. “I set out the goal of wanting to be a female version of Jim St. Clair. I wanted to be that elegant and that good,” she says. “He was the paradigm of what a great trial lawyer should be.”
For Lukey, being a great trial lawyer includes serving her community. She has served as president of the Boston Bar Association, raised a significant amount of money for the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry—a friend since law school—and is now president-elect of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the first woman to hold national office in that elite organization.
Lukey has frequently been “the first woman to.” At first, that surprised her. “It wasn’t until I was out practicing law that I began to see a difference in treatment. Judges would call you ‘dear’—with only, I’m sure, the best of intentions,” she adds, laughing.
The situation has improved, she says, as the number of women lawyers and judges has increased. Of pioneering women, such as former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Lukey says admiringly, “You look at [them] and you say, they were first, it wasn’t always easy, and they’ve done a fabulous job. They’ve made the field a little bit more level for everybody else.” These days, her concern is for her daughter, a law school student, and other young women. “I want the field to be completely level for them,”she says.
Lukey estimates that she has tried more than 75 cases, mostly before juries, and her goal is to be in trial several times a year. She constantly works to keep her skills sharp. “I don’t think it’s like riding a bicycle,” she says. “You don’t just get back on it without losing a beat.”
Her reputation as a top litigant has brought her some high-profile cases outside the complex commercial category; for instance, Ayash v. The Boston Globe and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a case that involved charges of libel and employment discrimination. In 1994, The Boston Globe incorrectly identified Dr. Lois Ayash as one of the doctors at Dana-Farber who had signed an order for a massive overdose of chemotherapy that led to the death of one of its reporters. Within days, the newspaper knew it had erred, but didn’t publish a retraction for more than two months. Then the hospital refused to renew Ayash’s contract. Lukey persuaded the jury that Dana-Farber had made Ayash the scapegoat and fired her in retaliation for alleging gender discrimination. They awarded her $4.2 million. The Globe appealed its $2.1 million judgment all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and lost. Dana-Farber also challenged its $2.1 million judgment and ultimately settled.
Though the Globe argued for confidentiality of its sources, Lukey says, “I think if it had just been a question of that reporter protecting his sources, the jury may not have felt as strongly as it did. In actuality what was in evidence before them was that this reporter published her name without checking. He didn’t follow the journalistic practices of the Globe.”
In another case, Lukey recently represented crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, who was being harassed over the Internet by an obscure writer, who had lost a plagiarism lawsuit against her several years before. His allegations grew increasingly extreme and Cornwell wanted them stopped, but the man was living out of the country and no one knew where. Lukey got permission to make service by e-mail—only the second such dispensation in the U.S.—and went to evidentiary proceedings without the defendant present. The judge held her to an extraordinarily high standard—”He was carrying the water for the First Amendment,” she says—but she prevailed.
Lukey reports that when the writer could no longer make false accusations online against Cornwall, he sent a letter to every American ambassador in Europe. “He called us—this is the one I loved,” she says with a mixture of amusement and alarm, “‘the queen terrorist whores.'”
Lukey is concerned that fewer disputes reach trial these days. With fewer trials, fewer people serve on juries, fewer judges and courthouses are required, and in time, it becomes harder to get a jury trial when it’s needed. It’s something she hopes to address at the ACTL.
“If that happens, that’s a crying shame,” Lukey says of the vanishing jury trial. “The jury trial is such an amazing mechanism. There probably is no service more important for us as U.S. citizens, other than serving in the military.
“On balance, I think that 99.9 percent of the time, juries are the best way to come up with the answer to any dispute.”