Malik K. Cutlar always doubts his own case. A partner at Albo & Oblon who handles employment discrimination, contract litigation and personal injury, Cutlar believes constantly looking for flaws helps him build a stronger suit. It’s a good strategy: In the 11 years Cutlar has tackled employment cases, he has yet to lose one.
“I look at cases as if I am the opposing counsel,” Cutlar says, “and then try to get very persuasive sworn statements to support my client’s position. If people who are not necessarily friendly to your client’s position are willing to give statements to support the claim, I know I am representing the right side.”
After graduating from Cornell Law School in 1990, where he was one of 10 African-American students, Cutlar returned to the neighborhood where he grew up to work for Bronx Legal Services. “A lot of my colleagues were going on to big law firms,” he says. “I wanted to give back.”
The Bronx, he says, was a great place to grow up because “it exposed me to rough times and people who were struggling to make it.” Keeping him out of trouble fell to his mother — and a paper route.
“When I was about 14, I wanted to buy a shirt but my mother didn’t have the money,” Cutlar says. “She told me if I wanted to buy things like that, I would have to get a job. So I took over a friend’s paper route. I had two buildings, with about 75 to 80 customers for the daily paper and about 125 for the Sunday edition. I had to keep the books for my route, interact with all sorts of people, read the paper and understand how to deal with money. Perhaps most important, because I had to get up at the crack of dawn seven days a week, I gained a lesson in responsibility that really helped me.”
That lesson stayed with Cutlar through law school and beyond. After a stint representing tenants in eviction proceedings at Bronx Legal Services, Cutlar joined the Department of Justice (DOJ) as a civil rights trial attorney.
Cutlar’s future wife, meanwhile, was a rising star at the DOJ. Though they worked on the same floor — he as staff, she as summer intern — they almost didn’t meet. “I spent most of my summer on a litigation case in Georgia,” Cutlar recalls. “One day I went to the Department of Labor to have lunch, and she was having lunch there too. It was the end of her internship, and she was on her way back to California.” But she returned to the DOJ after graduating from law school and the couple began to date, and then married in 1996. For several years Cutlar ran a solo practice in New York and commuted from D.C.; but when his two sons were born he wanted to be with his family full time. He met David Oblon, managing partner of Albo & Oblon, at a county fair. “He was sitting at the Arlington Bar table, and I walked up to ask if he had any job announcements,” Cutlar says. “He said, ‘Why don’t you send me your résumé?’ I joined the firm in 2000 and made partner at the beginning of 2004.”
At Albo & Oblon, Cutlar has handled some unique employment cases, including one in which a former Department of Agriculture employee alleged he was the victim of same-sex gender discrimination (Proffitt v. Veneman). “His boss was a man but favored a woman over our client for a job promotion,” Cutlar says. “It was very unusual, especially as there was no allegation of sexual impropriety. We had witness testimony to the effect that his supervisor favored women over men. When our client complained, his supervisor retaliated against him by putting him on details to faraway district offices where he would have to commute three hours one way.”
Bolstered by that witness testimony, Cutlar and his client prevailed. The jury awarded more than $1 million.
Cutlar admits he finds employment discrimination cases satisfying but draining. “With contract litigation cases, there is not a lot of emotion involved,” he says. “It’s dollars and cents … [but] when you accuse someone of discrimination, they have a visceral response. They fight those claims tooth and nail.”
Cutlar still finds time to work on moot court competitions, manage his firm’s civil division and provide counsel at local pro bono clinics. And the attorney who says he never knew a lawyer growing up is helping recruit the next generation of law students. “I go back to high schools and tell students about the practical aspects of working in a law firm,” Cutlar says. “So many children, especially minority children, have not met a lawyer before. That’s another way I can give back.”