Sister Act

Barbara, Therese and Maria Lawless followed in their father’s footsteps—and stuck together 

Published in 2019 Northern California Super Lawyers — July 3, 2019

Three sisters who practice law within a few blocks of each other in San Francisco’s Financial District have heard all the jokes about their last name. Indeed, Barbara, Therese and Maria Lawless wear it as a badge of honor. Not only did their father, William Lawless Jr., serve for eight years as a justice on the New York State Supreme Court, he instilled a sense of humor about the surname.

“If you think it’s a funny name for a lawyer,” Maria remembers him saying, “you should imagine the reaction of the criminal lawyers when I was on the bench.” 

As for herself, Maria says, the funniest comments she’s gotten are from people telling her she must be related to Lucy Lawless of Xena: Warrior Princess fame: “To which I respond that I am the stronger, fitter member of her family.”

Barbara, 72, and Therese, 57, handle plaintiff’s employment litigation at Lawless & Lawless. Barbara, the second of 12 Lawless offspring, launched the firm in 1973 under the name Bourhis and Bourhis with her then-husband, Ray. Therese (No. 9 in the birth order) joined the firm in 1988, after a stint at a large firm. Maria (No. 11), 54, practices estate and trust litigation at Evans Latham & Campisi.

“Maria deals with all that messy, messy family stuff that makes employment law look tame,” says Therese.

Maria, who resisted going into the “family business” of law until she realized she loved debating, says, “I definitely think growing up in such a large family gives me a unique perspective and insight into the complex layers of familial relationships.”

A fourth sibling, Robert, practices law in Massachusetts. Niece Aelish Baig worked at Lawless for a while, and now practices federal-securities and consumer class-action law as a partner at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd in San Francisco.

Asked what it’s like practicing law with your sister, Barbara says, “We complement each other. We have different roles. Therese likes to manage; I don’t. And we generally think alike on the main issues, including hiring decisions, how to spend money in the firm ...”

“… Also the types of cases we’re interested in handling and the political change we want to pursue,” adds Therese. “The age difference gives us varied perspectives on a number of issues. But we don’t have the competitiveness that some siblings closer in age have.”

That generational difference also works to their benefit during voir dire, Barbara says. “You’ve got to appeal to everybody, and it can be a wide cross-section.”

The Lawless siblings grew up in Buffalo, New York; and later in Cape Cod. Their parents identified with the Catholic church’s activist social justice movement, and the dinner table was a nightly colloquy on that day’s cases and social issues. “We grew up instilled with the idea that it’s our job to make the world a better place,” Maria says.

Their mother, Jeanne Marie, enrolled in nursing school at age 45, and, after 28 years of marriage, the couple divorced. “She taught us to be independent and take care of ourselves,” Maria says.

Maria spent her junior year of high school as an exchange student in Germany. She planned to become an interpreter, until her father pointed out, “I think you’re more interested in speaking your own words than translating somebody else’s.” She also credits her life path to Barbara, who spent a couple of years before college helping California farmworkers with AmeriCorps VISTA, then got her J.D. at UC Berkeley. “I might still be wandering around Germany if Barbara hadn’t phoned me while I was there and convinced me to ‘have a look’ at USF.”

Even the non-attorney Lawless siblings help out; Barbara and Therese have been known to use family gatherings as a sort of mock jury trial. Otherwise, family reunions still lead to impassioned discussions on social issues: voter disenfranchisement, incarceration, arbitration, inequities in the justice system. “All of us are on the same side of the political spectrum,” Therese says. “Although there was a breakdown over Bernie and Hillary backers.”

“There are no Trump supporters in our family,” Barbara notes with a laugh.

Barbara and Therese talk about the employees they represent almost as members of an extended family. These days, the siblings tend to work separate cases, but they discuss them and occasionally fill in for each other, as when Therese became lead counsel on Barbara’s cases when her husband, Bill Erskine, was undergoing cancer treatments.

And though Maria is at a different firm, she can also rely on her sisters. She recounts a time when her two co-counsels on a case dropped out for various reasons, and she had a very short period to develop closing arguments:

“I phoned Therese, who gave me advice, which was, ‘Don’t listen to anybody else: You know the case better than anyone.’ And she told me I was going to be magnificent. The closing arguments worked out great.” The case is ongoing.

She adds, “In my profession, I see so many broken families. I’m honored to be part of this family.”

 

 BarbaraThereseMaria
If I weren't a lawyer, I'd be ...in sales or physiotherapya writera neuropsychologist
My fictional hero is ...Atticus FinchJo MarchXena the Warrior Princess
My real-life hero is ...Betty FriedanMary OliverRBG
My most bizarre talent is ...Knowing inadvance when someone will call with a problemriding a horse backwardability to say all 11 siblings' names in birth order, under 3 seconds
I wish I had invented ...a computer that always worksYogaPost-its
The SCOTUS justice I'd most like to meet is ...RBGRBGRBG

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