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The Face of Civility

If Lisa Damiani looks familiar, chances are that it’s not because she’s on the cover of this magazine. In recent weeks, Damiani has been thrust into the national spotlight as the attorney representing the family of James Holmes. Holmes has been charged with the movie theater killings in Aurora, Colorado, which left 12 dead and 58 others wounded. In Damiani’s own words, the days and weeks following the crime have been nothing short of “chaotic” even for a 24 year veteran of criminal defense.

Damiani is not, however, new to local and even statewide media attention. As a highly visible attorney in the exceedingly complex and lengthy cases stemming from conflict of interest accusations against Trustees of the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System, Damiani obtained dismissals for her client, former Trustee Sharon Wilkinson, in People of the State of California v. Cathy Lexin, et al., which went to the California Supreme Court, People of the State of California v. Lawrence Grissom et al., and San Diego City Employees Retirement System v. San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre, et al. Later, she represented Wilkinson as a Plaintiff in Torres et al. v. The City of San Diego, where she recouped civil defense costs from the city. Suffice to say, Damiani has gotten to know the local media well.

She acknowledges that defense work is not necessarily for the faint of heart, and quotes Clarence Darrow: “To be an effective criminal defense counsel, an attorney must be prepared to be demanding, outrageous, irreverent, blasphemous, a rogue, a renegade, and a hated, isolated and lonely person ... few love a spokesman and active defender for the despised and the damned.” Still, Damiani was astounded by the instant, overwhelming presence of the media and outpour of contacts from around the world after she came forward as the Holmes family’s attorney. “Yes, I expected media coverage,” she says, “but I was not fully prepared for the emotional reactions the case generated.”

“It started out as a normal morning. I had consultations scheduled, it was a regular day,” she says. That all changed with a phone call. In the blink of an eye, news vans were set up outside of her gated community. The scene she greeted when arriving at the Holmes residence was unnerving. The home was swarming with media outlets as Damiani made her way into the home to consult with her clients. In spite of the commotion, relating as a mother of a young boy, she instinctively did what she’s been trained to do. “When I meet with my clients, I tell them ‘Now that I am here, you can transfer all of your problems to me. That weight on your shoulders, all of those troubles, are now mine to reconcile.’”

First Steps Toward The Legal Field

For Damiani, the idea that our justice system works was instilled in her from the minute she entered the world. Born to first generation Americans, Damiani credits her father with first piquing her interest in law. “He brainwashed me into believing that, armed with knowledge of the law, my voice could make a difference in this world. His parents were born in Italy and he experienced a great deal of discrimination as a child gowing up in Oakfield, New York. He was proud to be American and had great respect for lawyers. He discussed many of them, including Clarence Darrow, F. Lee Bailey, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, and Melvin Belli with me. We read To Kill a Mockingbird and other stories about lawyers and even watched The Paper Chase, a 1973 film about a first year Harvard law student, together. At dinner, he would hold court, when my siblings and I had an argument, and let us each present our case,” she recalls fondly. “His wish was for me to become a lawyer.”

Suffice to say, her father was less than ecstatic when she told him of her plans to pursue a career in journalism following graduation from NYU. However, happenstance put Damiani in a legal conflict with her landlord in Manhattan, where she was fighting for her right to maintain a lovely rent-controlled apartment. The landlord forced her out for higher rent. Following that experience, she was determined to learn the law for herself. “I remember the day I told my father I was going to be a lawyer. He was the happiest I had ever seen him,” she says.

After six years as a New Yorker, living in the city that never sleeps, Damiani was eager to find NYC’s antithesis. A road trip with girlfriends from Los Angeles through to San Diego and into Mexico was all it took for Damiani to be sold on law school in San Diego. There were not many female law students, let alone female attorneys at the time. California Western School of Law wanted to bring more women into the field, so it recruited her.

“I wanted to focus on criminal cases because I found them to be fast-paced, challenging and rewarding,” she says. Upon admittance to the California Bar in 1988, Damiani launched her own firm, and began the work of building a criminal defense practice in what was then very much a male-dominated field. “The styles men used in the courtroom, like Atticus Finch, did not fit me. Rather than act like them, I wanted to be myself. I wore, and continue to wear, skirts in court as testament to the power of femininity. I also learned from jury consultants that jurors like to see women in court today,” she says proudly.

After five years as a criminal defense attorney, Damiani was hand selected and recruited by Robert S. Brewer to join the white collar practice group at McKenna & Cuneo LLP (now McKenna, Long & Aldridge LLP). Damiani was enlisted on the firm’s employment defense matters and immediately took to it. “Although it seems to be very different from my criminal practice, the emotions between an employee and employer can be similarly explosive. We spend more time with our fellow employees than we do with our own spouse and children. The relationships we build while working can be very complex. They help to form our identities. For most people, maintaining our livelihood is as important as maintaining our liberty. Both fields fascinate me.”

Developing A Think Skin

Early in her career, she had several profound experiences that helped shape her into the attorney she is today. First, she got to know Juanita Brooks and Cynthia Aaron, “two phenomenal, brilliant trial lawyers who are respected and admired by the legal community.” They were her mentors. The second experience was equally valuable; it was learning to develop a thick skin, even when representing those who the community at large views as despicable.

In 1994, Damiani participated in a five month federal trial in the case of United States v. Jeffrey Rutgard, a marked experience comparable to climbing Mt. Everest. “Unexpectedly, I was asked to assist the McKenna team in the defense’s case in chief, after Racehorse Haynes, lead counsel, was relieved. The judge didn’t appear to like the defendant, and as part of his defense team, didn’t appear to like counsel either. I felt hatred coming from the bench, the jury box and the prosecutors,” she explains. “The allegations were serious against our client. This was the type of case that generated a lot of hostility in the community. On top of that, many bizarre things happened. For instance, one of the client’s family members had a heart attack in the courtroom while we were in session. During direct examination of a defense witness, a patient who had good things to say about our client, the judge actually lunged at me over the bench, red-faced and spitting, ordering me to sidebar,” she recalls. “When you represent someone who is denigrated by the prosecution and media, people look at you the same way they look at your client.”

Recalling the experience, Damiani likened it to “boot camp.” The case was hard-fought and forced her to see that her role as a defense attorney was not always going to make her the most popular person. However, it also reinforced her belief in our judicial system as a whole. “Our legal system is built for the wrongfully accused. Everyone is presumed innocent. Unless the one pointing the finger can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we must find innocence. I’m not the judge and I’m not the jury. I am much more comfortable in defending than in finger-pointing,” she says.

Coming Into Her Own-Creatively

After seven years at McKenna & Cuneo LLP, which Damiani recalls as a “wonderful experience, where I met talented defense lawyers and had abundant resources,” she decided she wanted the flexibility afforded by running her own firm again. She also wanted to take on plaintiff cases. To that end, she launched the Damiani Law Group APC in 2000, and created a practice that would bring together her various areas of specialty and passion.

“Typically, I represent those accused of crimes and other unlawful acts, including fraud, racketeering, homicide, assault, battery, rape, hit and run, laundering, and drug offenses in state and federal courts. A majority of my matters are referred to me by other civil attorneys who are savvy enough to see criminal implications or criminal defense lawyers who need advice on the civil side. Getting me in the case early helped to keep their client’s exposure limited. Past clients also refer me cases because they know how I work. Many of them have retained me in parallel criminal and civil proceedings, involving a variety of claims, like fraud, theft of trade secret and unfair business practices. I love the challenge. Most of my present civil cases involve defending and consulting with employers on labor and employment matters,” she says.

In order to sufficiently provide the representation that her clients deserve, Damiani has cultivated a firm which has been known to employ unconventional and creative means of discovery. From taking out ads in local newspapers encouraging readers to contact her if they’ve had experience with particular expert witnesses, to printing up fliers and distributing them in neighborhoods where a home builder’s ethics were questioned, Damiani is not afraid to push the envelope. She recalled opposing counsel filing for a protective order and sanctions to stop her flyer distribution, which he claimed defamed his client. The judge didn’t see it that way though, allowing Damiani to carry on and even complementing her on her creativity. “We think outside of the box in strategizing the case. Every move we make is designed to show our client in a different light and achieve that strategy. We don’t care if it upsets our opposition.”

Comfortability In Her Own Skin

For a woman who has built a career representing clients in the face of palpable adversity, Damiani is not only comfortable with her position, but counterintuitive to what one may think about the effect such a demanding profession may have on one’s spirit; Damiani is an exceedingly nice and friendly woman. More importantly, she’s proud of the work she does. “Somebody has to do this job,” she says. “You’ve got to be able to be in a position where you may not look so good…there is always someone who views you as despicable because of their experiences in life or they don’t fully understand the case and our system. I’m ok with that.”

Certainly her clients are grateful that Damiani is willing to take the heat, especially her employer clients, who have asked her to deliver the “pink slips” in lay-offs or stand up to accusations of discrimination. But the entire legal community has also recognized the hard work, success and creative tactics that Damiani utilizes to the benefit of her clients. Respect from peers has resulted in an AV Peer rating through Martindale-Hubbell every year since 2008. Since 2010 she’s also earned the AV Preeminent rating, an award bestowed on less than 5% of female lawyers.

For the talented attorney and rising public figure, Damiani is looking forward to a bright future, wherein she plans to continue to “grow her business to fit the firm,” but has no plans to expand her fields of practice. She’s happy with her career, which is a fairly even mix of business, employment and criminal defense. Her professional life extends well beyond the office or the courtroom though; as an active member of local legal organizations such as the William B. Enright American Inn of Court. Damiani’s leisure time is often spent in the company of colleagues and peers, including judges and fellow members of the Bar. She’s also very happy to be a mother to her 9 year old son Nikolay whom she adopted from Russia in 2003.

Something tells me that for all of these reasons, her father, who first shared with her his love of the law so many years ago, is very proud that Damiani is indeed using her knowledge of the law as a voice that can and does make a difference in the world.

Contact:

Damiani Law Group APC

701 B Street, Suite 1110
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 239-0170

Jennifer Hadley

Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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