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‘Where It’s Been, Where It’s Heading’

A talk with rising stars who will take the legal profession into the 2050s

Photo by Adam Lerner

Published in 2023 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine

By Steve Knopper on September 25, 2023


Although he has been a lawyer for seven years now, Kenneth Eng has what he calls “a young face,” so opposing counsel occasionally still asks if he’s a paralegal. “Maybe 60 or 70% of adversaries will recognize that I’ve been there before,” he says, “and won’t be condescending.”

And for those who didn’t get the memo, Eng has a message: “You may think I haven’t been around the block, but what you might not expect is I have a huge support network. I’m going to ask around, I’m going to research, I’m going to figure out the best way of counteracting any arguments they might present. It invigorates me to work harder.”

The six Rising Stars listees we interviewed came into the legal job market around the time of the global financial meltdown and will carry the legal mantle into the middle of the 21st century. We talked with them about diversity, social justice issues, tech, AI, and what it’s like being young in a profession that values experience.

Why Law?

Carolynn Beck; Eisner LLP; Business Litigation: My dad works in real estate and he wanted help in reviewing a real estate contract. I was probably in middle or high school. It was mostly a language barrier issue. It wasn’t an uncommon ask. And it was nice feeling useful. As a girl in a Korean-American family, it wasn’t necessarily something that I expected my dad to ask me to help with—bringing in business.

Carla Sanderson; Carla Sanderson Law; Criminal Defense: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I took a year and worked and tried to figure it out. I thought a law degree would provide me with different career paths.

Amelia Green; Neufeld Scheck & Brustin; Civil Rights: I wanted a career where I could advocate for people from vulnerable communities, and as a civil rights lawyer I have the privilege of doing that every day. … I’m very lucky to be in my dream job.

Adam Apton; Levi & Korsinsky; Securities Litigation: As an undergraduate, I took a business law class and liked it. The deeper answer is that I have an appreciation, or at least take comfort in, knowing things are either right or wrong.

Ephraim J. Pierre; Seyfarth Shaw, Employment & Labor: There was a book that was important in formulating my decision to go to law school: Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality by Richard Kluger. It goes through the entire backstory of all the attorneys, the plaintiffs, the leadup to the litigation. We focus on the Supreme Court case that ended up ruling segregation was unconstitutional, but forget that along the way there were several different cases in a true effort to dismantle that regime. I wanted to be a part of something like that.

Kenneth Eng; Cozen O’Connor; Real Estate: My family came to the U.S. to escape communism and enjoy the freedom here. I’ve always had an interest in U.S. history and government, and when it came time to picking a career, as opposed to teaching history or something like that, I saw an underrepresentation of lawyers in my community. I saw cultural barriers. A lot of Asian Americans will say, “No, I don’t want to report it to police, I don’t want to speak to a lawyer, I just want to deal with it on my own.”

Choosing a Practice Area

Sanderson: When I graduated, it was the height of the recession in 2010, and it was hard to find a job. I got lucky because my friend referred me to a criminal defense firm that was hiring. I knew I could work one-on-one with people and fight for the underdog. It turned out to be a good fit.

Green: It was my first job out of law school. The cases I do are some of the most serious police misconduct cases. Many of my clients have been wrongfully convicted and framed by the police—evidence fabricated against them, forced to falsely confess. Representing that client base in high-stakes litigation with really big systemic issues—the combination was a great fit.

Eng: The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building has always been a safe haven for me. In high school, I’d go there, then in college when I was studying for LSATs, then studying for the bar. It’s a quiet place of solitude. That’s part of why I’m interested in real estate—it’s interesting to see the changes of the landscape and real estate in New York, and the history. I didn’t want to do something I couldn’t get a tangible idea about—like tax law. Real property, you can see it. When I get a new case, I can go on Google Maps, look at the building, walk around the block.

Apton: I started at a large white-shoe firm, and saw incredible lawyering from some of the best lawyers out there. It was right in the midst of the financial collapse. One of the first matters I worked with was CDOs, or collateralized debt obligations, which were incredibly complicated. After the collapse, I spent some years doing other stuff, but eventually came back to it.

Beck: I really enjoyed solving practical business problems for my dad. When I graduated law school, I went into litigation because it gave me an opportunity to do that for others. With each new litigation I make it a point to learn about the client’s business, business and litigation goals, and consider how I can help with the client’s success. Sometimes that simply means litigating fiercely through trial, and I’m happy to do that, if that’s what the client wants. But more often, from a business perspective, it means negotiating a favorable resolution between the client and its adversary so that both sides can move on from the dispute and focus on their businesses.

Pierre: Employment law is intimate. It requires narratives. It requires you to understand the ins and outs of a person’s experience in the workplace. It requires using the entire toolbox as an attorney—you can be arguing an appellate brief, writing summary judgment, taking depositions, advising on an internal investigation, responding to subpoenas, counseling, doing training. That appealed to me. And employment law allows you to better appreciate American history. You go back to the beginning, really, with the Reconstruction Era, civil rights statutes following the Civil War, then you can trace that up to the statutes following the women’s rights movement, then, ultimately, cornerstone statues like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You can flash-forward up to now—you see legislation specifically addressing protected classifications such as sexual orientation, sexual identity. On a daily basis, my practice focuses on the pulse of our country: where it’s been and where it’s heading.

Memorable Cases

Green: My litigation in Philadelphia on behalf of Tony Wright, who spent 25 years wrongfully convicted for rape and murder that he didn’t commit. The case was against the Philadelphia Police Department and individual detectives. DNA evidence led to Mr. Wright’s exoneration [in 2016] and in the civil rights lawsuit we proved the police had fabricated a false confession and planted clothing in his home that falsely implicated him. Our litigation led to a $9.85 million settlement, the largest wrongful conviction settlement in Philadelphia history. The evidence we developed helped shine a light on systemic issues in the police department and uncovered evidence that helped exonerate other individuals who had been victimized by the same detectives.

Apton: We had a good case in Denver called Peter Voulgaris et al v. Array BioPharma Inc. [in which the company did not adequately describe how it obtained FDA approval for a skin cancer treatment]. The client in that case, his wife was sick, and this was a substantial loss, and we got an excellent recovery. To hear that thanks was very gratifying, very rewarding. That thanks goes a long way sometimes.

Sanderson: I worked on numerous cases during the COVID pandemic where people who received lengthy sentences were put in for compassionate release—a mechanism in federal court where they could get out [of prison], essentially. Someone was serving a life sentence and I was able to ask the judge for him to be released, and that was granted. Once it was realized how awful the pandemic impact on prisons was—it was spreading like wildfire, people weren’t getting healthcare, there were people dying at a greater rate than they were on the outside—among the legal network, we started sharing information. Oftentimes the sentences are way too long in the federal system. That’s my belief. I had an appellate win, where someone’s sentence was vacated. The client first had a 210-month sentence, and after appeal it was resentenced to 109 months. There are mandatory minimum sentences, so it takes a lot of the power away from the judges and the defense and puts it in the hands of the prosecutors. As the attorney, I feel like [with COVID-era releases], “OK, at least there’s a little bit of justice that has happened here.”

Eng: I had an opportunity to work on a case where a co-op owner decided not to go along with the rest of his fellow owners and said, “I don’t need to pay maintenance fees. … If the building has no certificate of occupancy, you cannot collect maintenance.” We made the argument, “This doesn’t make any sense. He knew all that when he bought shares in it. He can’t now say, 20, 30, 40 years later, ‘Hey, there’s no COO here, I don’t have to pay maintenance fees’—that’s very much to the detriment of his fellow owners.” It was a small, four-story walkup in Brooklyn. It was a good result, a declaratory statement from the judge [in our favor].

Apton: A gentleman I represented lived in Turkey, his father had prostate cancer, and there was a drug at the time that all the doctors said was going to be a great cure. My client invested the vast majority of his savings in this company. The company was Dendreon, in Washington, which ended up going bankrupt [in 2014], and quite epically, too. This man had just lost his father, and now his life savings, [but we] were able to get money back for him. Not everything, but a sizable amount. To this day, he sends emails thanking me.

Being Young in a Field That Values Experience

Apton: Not easy at times. A lot of my colleagues are older. Earlier on, I faced a certain skepticism, or indifference, from some of my adversaries. When people don’t expect much from you because you’re a young whippersnapper, it’s easy to get the jump on them. But proving your credibility, your skills, your trustworthiness, is difficult to do, and it takes time, and it’s something you need to keep at.

Eng: I get picked on because I am relatively less experienced and have a young face. I ignore it and remain professional and try my best to represent my client.

Pierre: One of the things I’ve been mindful of throughout my career is leaning on the many colleagues at Seyfarth. There are centuries worth of legal experience just on my floor of the New York office.

Green: As a young attorney, it can be hard, certainly when you’re first starting out, to get those trial opportunities. My advice to young litigators is: Don’t let the fear of failure keep you from raising your hand for more challenging opportunities even if you haven’t had that experience yet. This is a profession where success comes from hard work and practice and grit.

Sanderson: In my area, there are a lot of solo practitioners in their 70s, 80s, 90s. I’ve been doing it over 10 years, so I don’t feel super inexperienced anymore. But when I started out, I was always questioning my abilities, or, “Why am I being entrusted with this?”—those feelings of imposter syndrome. Now I appreciate my more experienced and elder colleagues as mentors who can share their wisdom and help if I have any questions.

The Future of Law

Green: The legal profession can continue to benefit from elevating more diverse voices in the profession—for example, where I practice in the civil rights world. You have a diverse client base but not a diverse bar. The bar of attorneys that represents these clients should be as diverse as the client base.

Pierre: If anything, the pandemic has taught attorneys to be nimble in terms of how we practice and serve our clients.

Sanderson: The practice of law needs to become much more diverse, and there is more to be done on the legislative end. In federal courts, the judges have lifetime appointments—I frankly think we could limit that and have more diversity and accountability on the bench.

Eng: When I first started practicing, the legal profession was starting to say, “We need to diversify.” While minorities are still very much underrepresented, I see a shift in trying to focus and including everybody. Obviously change can never come fast enough, but I do see good stuff in the industry as a whole.

Beck: Wellness in the legal community is a trend that is getting a lot of attention lately. I think if the concept actually sticks, it could result in more efficient and effective legal counsel, not just better retention and promotion at law firms. Personally, I have found that taking even just a moment away from working actively on particularly challenging legal issues can be so helpful for resetting and reframing. 

Pierre: Artificial intelligence has the capability of influencing employment law. Its influence can start right at the beginning of the hiring process—using AI to identify or screen candidates. AI can also touch on employee job tasks such as creating correspondence, email responses, coding. The challenge will be in keeping up with the technology and understanding regulations influencing AI and how AI can influence employment law generally.

Eng: I don’t see being replaced by AI. There’s a human factor in it—trying to get eye-to-eye with where your client is trying to go, and having someone understand that and take the facts from investigations and discovery and applying it and thinking about it.

Green: The legal system is based on tradition, but with new technology we should be embracing change and ways to make the profession better. I’m still excited. It’s really a privilege to be a lawyer and have the ability to use my law degree to make change in people’s lives. 

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