As Maya Eckstein opens the door of her Richmond home with an 8-week-old baby perched on her hip and a 2-year-old standing shyly by her side, she looks like any busy young mother. The toddler pulls on her hand and Eckstein ruffles his hair, promising him a story after his nap. This is the same woman alternately described by colleagues as formidable, intense and a sharp thinker.
Eckstein is a study in such contrasts. A partner at the Richmond office of Hunton & Williams, she is currently a member of the litigation, intellectual property and antitrust team. She has successfully represented a national railroad in slavery reparations litigation and successfully defended Ethyl Corporation against putative class action suits alleging injury from exposure to leaded gasoline emissions. She is also involved in pro bono representation in domestic violence matters and international child abduction cases.
“I like being a litigator,” she says. “I like the challenge of being on my feet and having to do the right thing. You prepare for everything to the extent you can, but you never know what question is going to be thrown at you.”
Equally important is the pro bono work. One of her current cases involves child custody and support. “It feels good when it’s somebody like this mother I’m helping. Despite the fact that she’s raising four kids, trying to work a job and trying to have some semblance of a life of her own, she’s also trying to just be a good mom and teach her kids to do the right thing.”
Which is something Eckstein can understand.
Maya Eckstein announced her decision to become an ice skater at age 7. “My grandmother just about died,” Maya says, smiling at the memory. “She immediately had a talk with my father, asking how I thought I was going to make a living.” Her brother, Gabriel Eckstein, currently a professor of law at Texas Tech University, remembers her as being just a typical little sister until she went to college. “Then she completely changed into someone who was goal-oriented, dedicated and”—he laughs fondly—“opinionated. She has one of the strongest work ethics I’ve seen.”
Eckstein entered college determined to become a journalist but quickly changed her mind. “I soon realized that everyone I was writing about—the decision makers—had law degrees. I decided that was what I wanted to be: a decision maker.” She graduated cum laude with a journalism degree from Kent State University, then attended Syracuse University College of Law, graduating magna cum laude, Order of the Coif and associate notes and comments editor for the Syracuse Law Review.
After a two-year clerkship with the U.S. Court of Appeals, and noting that “law school was not free,” Eckstein applied to the Richmond firm of Hunton & Williams. The majority of her initial work, she was told, would be representing a major tobacco company in cigarette-related litigation.
“I really had to think about that,” she says. “When I first went into law I was interested in being a public defender, [so when] I spoke to my dad about my concerns he said, ‘Maya, you wanted to represent all sorts of people as a public defender. Why can’t you do this?’” She laughs, remembering the conversation. Leaning forward, her voice is both passionate and amazed. “And the thing is I loved it. The company understood what was on the line, and, as a result, hired the best and the brightest. So as a first- and second-year associate I was on conference calls with attorneys who were so smart that I believed their brains were going to explode. It was fascinating. It was cutting-edge litigation.”
Complicated and challenging cases became Eckstein’s forte. In 1999 the Virginia State Bar recognized her as the Young Lawyer of the Year. Soon she was coordinating defense attorneys working on a major national tort litigation. Jack E. McClard, retired senior counsel for Hunton & Williams, says Eckstein quickly commanded respect as she helped defense attorneys develop and articulate arguments. “It was remarkable to see these gray-haired lawyers in major firms following her lead. They were surprised to learn she was a second-year associate.”
Eckstein is also a member of the Hunton & Williams community service, pro bono and recruiting committees. She’s involved with the firm’s Women’s Advocacy Project. She is president of the Virginia State Bar Young Lawyers Conference and spearheaded its Domestic Violence Safety Project, Crime Victim Compensation Program and the Wills for Heroes program. In addition, Eckstein is an active member of the Virginia State Bar Access to Legal Services Committee and is proud of her work with the Flagler House at Saint Joseph’s Villa, a two-year transitional housing program for homeless women and their children.
“Lawyers have a responsibility,” she says. “To the extent they can act on that responsibility, they should. I’m privileged because I’m in a position where I work for a big law firm, which covers my overhead, which allows and encourages me to do the pro bono work. I should give something back.”
This is no rehearsed speech. “I have to be here for a reason. I can’t just be here because I’m person number 5 trillion. I have family who died in the Holocaust, so I have to be here for a reason.” She elaborates. “There is a deep tradition in the Jewish community of giving back. At Passover my dad would always tell a story of what Passover meant to him. He would talk about his own personal passage to freedom.”
Yoram Eckstein was 2 years old when his family fled Poland from the Nazi invasion. His family lived in Siberian labor camps with others who were part of the same exodus, including Maya’s maternal grandparents (although they didn’t yet know each other). Yona, Maya’s mother, was born in the labor camp. “No matter how destitute they were, they always managed to celebrate Passover,” Maya Eckstein says.
Both families returned to Poland after the war and lived under Communist rule. In 1957 the families immigrated separately to Israel, which is where her parents met, married, and had Gabriel and Maya. In September 1974 the family immigrated to the United States, where daughter Michal was born, and where both parents earned their doctorates. Her father is a geology professor at Kent State University specializing in hydrogeology, and her mother is a chemist holding several patents through her works with various companies.
“My parents never really talked much about it,” Gabriel Eckstein says of the Holocaust. “I know that two of my father’s uncles perished and there were other family members as well.” Maya recalls the same family reticence. “Every once in a while, my brother, sister and I would try to get them to talk, would ask them specific questions about the family, but these things were not easily discussed.” (After this interview she learned that grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins from both sides of the family perished during the Holocaust.) She adds that knowing her parents’ history made her realize she had to give back to the community. “After what they went through, how could I not be a good person? How could I not try to do good works?”
In 2001 Eckstein took a sabbatical from Hunton & Williams to serve a one-year clerkship with the Honorable Roger L. Gregory, the first African-American judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Judge Gregory’s December recess appointment by the Clinton administration was three months after the court term began; he needed someone who could jump right in. “There was no downtime with Maya,” Judge Gregory remembers. “Her learning curve was almost nil. I definitely needed a good resource in my chamber, someone who was a good thinker and writer. With Maya this certainly proved to be true.”
With a successful year of clerking under her belt, Eckstein returned to Hunton & Williams, where she continued her litigation practice. John A. Lucas, partner with the Tennessee office, has worked with her on a variety of complex litigations. He recalls one particular case involving considerable dollars, a demanding client and multiple attorneys. “It was brief writing by committee, type-A personalities all,” he says. “And these were substantial briefs. Maya was capable of writing a first-rate product in record time.”
In 2003 Eckstein was awarded the American Inns of Court Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Professional Service, a national honor recognizing excellence in public interest and pro bono activities. She was six months pregnant when she received the call, and the awards ceremony was scheduled two days after her due date. The blacktie dinner was held at the Supreme Court, and Eckstein ended her acceptance speech by saying, “I’ve been willing this child to stay put, and my husband has been amusing me by going along with this.” She looked at him. “Honey, we can go and have our baby now.” At 3 o’clock the following morning she woke up with contractions. Eckstein smiles at the thought of telling the story to her son one day. “He was at the Supreme Court and he was front and center!”
Eckstein was front and center herself when she made partner in April 2005. Lucas comments on this with laughter in his voice. “Maya and I have an agreement to say only the nicest things about each other,” he jokes. Then he turns serious. “I’ll tell you what I told the partners when Maya was being discussed for partnership: ‘She is a superstar who does it all and does it all in a five-star manner. In the words of fighter pilots, she has the right stuff.’” High praise from a former U.S. Army ranger and four-time Bronze Star winner.
Her partnership came as no surprise to Judge Gregory. “What is key with her is her energy and drive to be loyal to the law. That loyalty, to paraphrase Justice Felix Frankfurter, was reflected unfailingly in her work product—the relentless ‘effort of reason to discover justice.’”
Eckstein currently concentrates on patent infringement litigation. “There is a lot of logic to it. It’s not just what is happening in the courts, because you also have to know what’s going on at the patent and trademark office. The technology is fascinating.” She pauses and remembers. “I protested against my parents’ scientific background. My parents are shocked that I am doing anything related to science at all.”