The Adrenaline of Breaking News
Why Amy Rao Mohan traded journalistic objectivity for legal advocacy
Published in 2021 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine on November 30, 2021
For one of her first assignments as a TV reporter in Lansing, Michigan, Amy Rao Mohan got permission to spend 24 hours in the county jail to interview the women there.
“That was an eye-opening experience for me,” says Mohan, 41, now a business litigator at Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison in Nashville. “I really connected with them and had a lot in common with them, which I wouldn’t have suspected beforehand. I was able to tell their stories.”
Mohan’s interest in journalism took root as a child watching live CNN coverage of the Gulf War with her dad late into the night. After graduating from Northwestern University, she joined the Lansing CBS affiliate, reporting on labor union issues, politics and—way too often—blizzards and tornadoes.
Weather-related news sent her abroad, too. In January 2005, a few months after moving to NewsChannel 5 in Nashville, she and a photographer arrived in south India to cover Tennessee physicians providing medical relief after the devastating Christmas tsunami. On the first day, expecting to see the type of destruction inflicted by natural disasters back home, she stood on a beach and marveled at its quiet beauty. It didn’t seem so bad. Then she learned that a week earlier the area had been crowded with thousands of homes. “Nothing was left,” she says. “All the debris had washed away: the homes, everything. It was empty.”
For the documentary and feature series that emerged from that trip, Mohan won two Emmys.
Even so, she felt increasingly drawn to the law, especially after covering many high-profile arrests and trials. “I enjoyed interviewing the prosecutors and the defense attorneys,” she says, “and was fascinated with the court process.”
By then, she adds, “breaking news” had eclipsed in-depth coverage and she missed longer-form pieces. Ready for a change, she enrolled at the University of Tennessee College of Law, where her journalism skills gave her an edge on the National Moot Court Team. “Appellate arguments are like breaking news for me. Some of those skills come in, like the ability to think quickly on your feet and to respond quickly under pressure and try to convince an audience—or in that case a judicial panel—in a short amount of time.”
Litigation was a given. “As a journalist, I always had to remain neutral and I was careful not to express my opinion,” she says. “And the ability and the opportunity to advocate is something I really enjoy.”
She sees many similarities between the two professions: the deadlines, the storytelling, the real-life characters struggling with challenges. “Everything about litigation, to me, is like a story,” she says. Her practice at Sherrard Roe, which she joined in 2013 after two summer internships, is also like journalism in its never-ending variety: cases range from business disputes and medical malpractice to civil rights.
But the case she considers most meaningful is the one she almost didn’t take.
After witnessing a prison execution during her stint at NewsChannel 5, the last thing she wanted was to get involved with a death penalty case. But her former moot court partner persuaded her to represent a death row inmate convicted of double murder and rape. Although her attempts to gain clemency were unsuccessful and the man was executed, she says, “His story, who he was and how he had changed, was really impactful for me. It was heartbreaking and emotional and difficult, but completely worth it.”
In 2015, Mohan found a way to meld her two careers when she formed the firm’s crisis management and media relations group to assist litigation clients. “It was kind of a unique position because I understood both sides of it,” she says.
As for regrets about the career change? Too few to mention. “When it’s freezing outside, and I’m in my comfortable office, I don’t miss being on the side of the road telling people how cold it is,” she says. “But every once in a while, I miss a little bit the adrenaline of breaking news.”