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They’ve Got Next: The 40 Under 40 - Abena Mainoo of Cleary Gottlieb

July 28, 2022, 9:01 AM

Please describe two of your most substantial, recent wins in practice.
In early June, my team obtained partial summary judgment on behalf of our client Bosch in follow-on litigation relating to government investigations of diesel vehicles’ emissions. The court dismissed plaintiffs’ claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, as well as certain of plaintiffs’ state law consumer protection and fraudulent concealment claims.

In another case, my team won a decision in April denying a motion to dismiss our clients’ counterclaim. A key issue in the case concerned the interpretation of a statutory provision that had previously not been squarely addressed in the case law, although the existing authority strongly supported our position. I argued our opposition to the motion to dismiss.

What is the most important lesson you learned as a first-year attorney and how does it inform your practice today?
The benefits of consulting. I’m resourceful, and I value figuring things out myself. I learned early in my career, however, to tap into the experience of colleagues.

For example, I found that if one of my colleagues had appeared before a particular judge, it would be helpful to speak with my colleague about her experience. I could benefit from her suggestions about how to frame certain arguments, or what style of presentation may be more effective. I often saw senior partners pick up the phone to consult with other colleagues. I realized that this type of consultation and collaboration are part of Cleary’s culture, and it goes in all directions across seniorities, practice groups, and offices.

In my practice, it is particularly important to take a consultative approach. My clients are often involved in parallel investigations in multiple jurisdictions, as well as litigation in different courts. We consult with lawyers in those jurisdictions to develop an approach that takes into account, and addresses as appropriate, the specific legal issues and practices.

How do you define success in your practice?
In government investigations, a terrific result for my client may be that there is no enforcement action. My client stays out of the headlines and the government closes its investigation. That is the opposite of the headline-grabbing courtroom showdown. It’s rare, but my team has achieved it, and there’s nothing more satisfying.

Considering another aspect of my practice, I measure success based on the growth of the lawyers I am training and the opportunities I am giving them. I am keenly aware that my mentors have given me opportunities (both known and unknown to me) that have spurred my professional development and increased my confidence. For example, when I was a mid-level associate, the senior lawyer on a matter let me and another associate handle a hearing on behalf of our client. Other mentors have given me stretch opportunities on high-profile matters. Success also means paying it forward.

What are you most proud of as a lawyer?
I am proud of my representations of people seeking asylum in the United States. My work on asylum cases dates back to a clinical course in law school, when I represented a couple from Togo and a woman from El Salvador. As a young associate, I was part of a team that represented a Cameroonian woman seeking asylum based on her political opinions. Later, I worked on the asylum application for a woman from Uganda. I am currently leading a team representing a Guinean woman seeking asylum. In each case, I have been inspired by my clients’ courage and moved by their conviction that they would be protected by the rule of law in America. I have tried to do my best to draw out the facts about my clients’ experiences in their home countries, present their testimony along with other evidence and marshal the legal arguments supporting their eligibility for asylum and other relief. For the clients who successfully obtained asylum, I have worked on applications to reunite them with their children, after long separations. I am proud to use my knowledge and experience as a lawyer to secure the protections provided under asylum law for those seeking refuge.

Who is your greatest mentor in the law and what have they taught you?
As an associate, mentoring relationships with senior lawyers like Debbie Buell, Larry Friedman, and Breon Peace helped me feel more comfortable sharing a fuller part of myself at work. They spoke openly about their experiences as associates and shared insights from other parts of their lives, which let me see them more fully than as only “partners.”

They exemplified firm values like a commitment to excellence. I remember vividly how Debbie went point-by-point through a memo we prepared to make sure we keenly understood the facts. I observed Larry forcefully defend a deposition witness, while maintaining his characteristic civility. Working with Breon on a sentencing submission, I saw the methodical way in which he approached the issues and his searching analysis of the authorities cited.

Now, I try to serve as a bridge between my mentees and others, in addition to passing on firm values by the example I set.

Just for fun, tell us your two favorite songs on your summer music playlist.
“People Get Ready” – Aretha Franklin. “This Woman’s Work” – Maxwell.

Abena Mainoo was a key member of the team appointed by New York Attorney General Letitia James to conduct the independent investigation into the sexual harassment allegations made against former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She is the hiring chair in her firm’s New York office and co-chair of the office’s talent management committee. She also serves as the board secretary for the Federal Bar Council.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Helem at; Kibkabe Araya in Washington at