Top med-mal attorney Margaret Holm wants you to know she’s not that interesting
Published in 2015 Southern California Super Lawyers Magazine on January 26, 2015
As Margaret “Peggy” Holm eases into her desk chair in a bright office in Orange County, she’s surrounded by, among other things, a life-size model of the human spine, thick volumes of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and silver-framed photos of her two children and two grandchildren. Her brown hair is ironed into a short bob, and large, dark-rimmed glasses give her the bearing of a magazine editor. She exudes confidence and warmth.
But within seconds of sitting down, she leans forward to protest the very premise of the meeting.
“I looked at some of the past profiles, and I’m going, ‘Shoot, look at what this person did! Look at what that person did!’” She adds, with a laugh, “I’m not very interesting.”
We’ll let the legal community raise an objection.
“She has a tremendous presence about her, and a piercing style on cross-examination, particularly with opposing experts,” says Raymond McMahon, a shareholder at Bonne Bridges Mueller O'Keefe & Nichols, where Holm has worked for the past 32 years.
“She’s a great lawyer, a magnificent trial lawyer,” says Judge Thierry Colaw, a former law school classmate, who now sits on the bench of the Superior Court of California for Orange County. “She does everything but climb in the jury box, roll up her sleeves and talk to them. She’s got the whole package.”
“Anybody who goes to trial against Peggy and thinks that they are going to have the upper hand,” says David O’Keefe, president and managing shareholder of Bonne Bridges, “is going to learn a thing or two.”
Holm, 63, one of the most prominent medical malpractice defense attorneys in Southern California, is often at the helm of landmark litigation—including a 2006 scandal in which the University of California faced almost 100 claims against its liver transplant program at UC Irvine Medical Center.
“That was a very complex, high-profile matter, with myriad types of negligent and intentional tort theories being brought, and she was the lead counsel,” says McMahon. “She did an incredible job sorting through, evaluating and staging the cases. She obtained great resolutions.”
Holm was born in San Francisco but her family soon moved north to Sunnyvale. Surrounded by apple orchards and open spaces, she grew up with two younger brothers, and parents who believed in both self-expression and hard work. “My mom was a strong woman,” says Holm. “She was a 5-foot-10 redhead, and she would always want me to do the best.”
Holm’s mother translated that passion into her career as a theater director, and that theater—the King Dodo Playhouse—was at the center of the Holm family’s world. Holm’s mother acted and directed, and her father, who worked in the mortgage business, was often cast as the star. Peggy and her brothers regularly performed in productions. They also served as stagehands and ticket collectors, and helped with props.
“The theater was a huge part of our life,” she says. It also made her comfortable speaking in front of people. “Now when I get in front of a group of jurors, I feel fine.”
In addition, it taught her to seek out her passion, and as she neared high school graduation, Holm found that passion—in medicine. Her pediatrician encouraged her pursuit, and in 1969 she became pre-med at the University of California, San Diego. There she was thrown into biology, chemistry and physics classes.
“I took a lot of heavy-duty stuff with people who were going to be Nobel laureates,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘Gosh, I love the idea of being a pediatrician, but all I’m seeing is a bunch of numbers. And do we ever see anything larger than a cell?’”
Then in her junior year, she says, “I realized I was going to have to take PChem—physical chemistry—and run a fruit fly lab.”
Exit medicine, enter law.
As a woman at Santa Clara University School of Law in the early 1970s, Holm was a rarity, but that didn’t faze her. By her second year, she secured a position with the district attorney’s office as its first certified law clerk. “My mentor there loved to go to court,” she says. “He was a DA and he let me go and argue pretrial matters in hearings in the criminal court in my second and third year of law school.” Bonus: The attorney she worked for in private practice hated to go to court, and brought her along to argue cases as his certified law student. “I got a lot of experience,” she says.
In her third year, Holm ran for student body president. Among her campaign promises: strong financial management, outstanding leadership, and beer kegs at the library every Friday night. The victory made her the first female student body president in the law school’s history. It was such a milestone that the news made the local paper. “I remember they wanted to take a picture in the rose garden. So my hair is down, I have my beads on, I look like this hippie chick,” she says. “But it was a big deal.”
After graduation, Holm took a job in the office of Herbert Hafif, a business litigation and plaintiff’s personal injury attorney in Claremont. “It was just brilliant the way he would handle cases,” Holm remembers. “He was always saying that if you can’t tell somebody what your case is about in a sentence or two, then you don’t know what your case is about; you haven’t gotten to the essence of your case.”
Holm and other female attorneys may have been breaking new ground, but old attitudes died hard. “I would show up for a deposition and I would be mistaken for the court reporter,” Holm says. “‘Um, no, I’m the lawyer.’ There were even times in my early years where if you won a legal battle in the courtroom you might be described as ‘a pushy broad.’ You had to make up your mind as to whether you were going to be offended by those comments or keep moving and do your best.”
As Holm took on more plaintiff’s medical malpractice cases, she routinely found herself facing lawyers from Bonne Bridges Mueller O’Keefe & Nichols, a med-mal defense firm headquartered in LA. “At one point, she made some objection to some question I asked of her client,” says O’Keefe, recalling his first case against Holm. “I kind of facetiously remarked, ‘That wasn’t a very ladylike objection.’ But she was very composed, very articulate and certainly was not any kind of a pushover. She was not going to be intimidated.”
But she found herself drawn to med-mal defense. “I have a lot of respect for physicians and what they do,” she says. “It’s maybe natural for me to defend doctors, insofar as I wanted to be one. They’ve worked so hard, and most of them have absolutely the right reasons for which they are in the field of medicine.”
And so, in 1982, Holm set up an interview at Bonne Bridges. Her desire to work for the firm was matched by its desire to bring her on.
“I immediately scooped her up,” says O’Keefe.
In representing providers, Holm pores over complicated medical records—written by health care professionals, for health care professionals. “If you’re going to sit down and speak with an expert, you have to know as much as you possibly can,” she says.
It’s a practice Holm instills in younger lawyers at the firm. “I tell my associates,” she says, “that if you’re going to defend a health care practitioner, or if you’re going to deal with a skilled nursing facility, or if you’re going to deal with a damages case that requires an understanding of what the injuries are, I want you to go into that medical record and know it.
“To do that, you have to really like the medicine. You have to like to look at medical records.”
She does. Glancing over her shoulder at the hefty volumes of the DSM, Holm lights up. “I think it’s fascinating,” she says, smiling.
In 2013, Holm defended an unusually sensitive case. The mother of a 13-year-old autistic boy had sued the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Inclusive Education and Community Partnership, claiming that a one-on-one aide hired by IECP smashed her son’s fingers into a pencil box and abused him. Holm was representing LAUSD and IECP.
The trial went on for six weeks, and toward the end, the plaintiff’s counsel brought out its star witness: the alleged victim.
“That was the moment to make or break the case,” says Robert Zermeno Jr., a Bonne Bridges senior associate who worked with Holm on the case.
Holm began gently questioning him. Had he ever felt threatened by the aide? Had he ever been physically harmed?
“It was kind of like a motherly instinct where she was talking to this child,” says Zermeno. “The jury could comprehend him, and he could express his feelings when Peggy dealt with him. She was able to take what he was giving her and just went with him.”
As she spoke to the boy, says Zermeno, his testimony changed. By the time the child left the stand, he had basically revealed that he had never been abused, felt threatened or suffered damage at the hands of the aide.
The plaintiff, who had asked for $6 million in damages, received nothing.
It was Holm’s questioning of the child, says Zermeno, that turned the case in the defense’s favor. “It was truly artfully done,” he says.
“She does not back down from a fight, ever,” says McMahon. “She does not like to lose.”
Of her own kids, Holm’s daughter is now 33 and raising two children; her son, 29, lives in the Bay Area and recently became engaged. “Everybody’s out of the house now and things have settled down a bit,” she says, adding, “I’m boring. That’s what I’ve been telling you.”
Just think of it as another argument she doesn’t want to lose.