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They’ve Got Next: The 40 Under 40 - Alexandra Harwin of Sanford

July 14, 2021, 8:46 AM

Please describe two of your most substantial, recent wins in practice.
In a high-profile trial victory, I represented faculty member Enrichetta Ravina and won a jury verdict holding Columbia and one of its senior professors liable for retaliation against our client. This civil rights victory was especially rewarding because it spurred calls to action within academia and beyond to implement stronger protections for those who speak out against discrimination.

In a case that settled privately, I represented and negotiated on behalf of a group of law firm partners who banded together to challenge pay discrimination at their firm. We negotiated an eight-figure settlement that more than compensated our clients for all their damages. Meanwhile, the large amount that the law firm paid was a wake-up call for management to rethink a host of discriminatory practices.

What is the most important lesson you learned as a first-year attorney and how does it inform your practice today?
A critical lesson that I was fortunate to learn early on is that relationships matter. I began my legal career working with lawyers who were models of collegiality and professionalism. Like them, I have made a point of cultivating positive relationships with the many people I interact with on my cases, whether those are clients, adverse parties, opposing counsel, mediators, or court personnel. There is always something I have in common with the person on the other side, and I always strive to find that point of connection. It makes cases go smoother, and it makes lawyering a lot more pleasant. By the end of my cases, I find I often know a lot about opposing counsel’s kids and have a good feel for the kinds of TV shows my client enjoy. In many ways, the pandemic has made it all the easier to connect because many of us are navigating similar challenges.

How do you define success in your practice?
Many of our clients come to us after suffering at the mercy of large institutions or powerful individuals. Success is helping our clients regain control over their lives. Often that takes the form of financial control, by getting clients the resources they need to chart a new path. For many clients, that also involves professional rehabilitation and a dignified transition out of a toxic workplace. Sometimes that means reclaiming the narrative by sharing their story publicly, whether in litigation or in the press. And in some cases, success includes the vindication of seeing a bad actor get ousted or disciplined. Whatever the goals are, I need to be a problem-solver to achieve them. Our clients are often used to being told “no,” and a mark of success is finding a way to come up with “yes.”

What are you most proud of as a lawyer?
I am proud that I get to spend my days fighting to make the world a more equal and just place. I have been passionate about discrimination issues for my entire adult life, and I went to law school because I believe in the power of the law as a tool of social change. In representing employees, I get to partner with clients who often have themselves been advocates for equity within their organizations but have been marginalized or mistreated simply because of who they are or because they were brave enough to speak up. Employment discrimination remains widespread but is a lot more nuanced than it used to be, and my work gives me a platform to strive to eradicate discrimination in the often-subtle forms it takes today. It is particularly satisfying when we get to push the law in new directions in ways that cause employers to fundamentally rethink their standard operating procedures.

Who is your greatest mentor in the law and what have they taught you?
When I was just out of law school, my passion for gender issues drew me to the field of family law, and I worked with a stellar team of lawyers at Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell, LLP in Washington, D.C. One of the lawyers I learned the most from was partner Sarah Zimmerman. When we would draft and negotiate divorce or custody agreements for our clients, Sarah never took a cookie-cutter approach; instead, she was creative, flexible, and attuned to our clients’ needs. Like Sarah, I am always trying to think of outside-the-box solutions for problems that seem intractable, and I consider not only the preferences our clients tell us about, but also the needs that they cannot articulate or may not have thought of. Sarah is also a model of collaboration and humility; like her, I relish working with a team to improve our collective work product.

Just for fun, tell us your two favorite songs on your summer music playlist.
Like so many working parents, the pandemic has meant a huge amount of time at home with the kids, and “Puppy for Hanukkah” by Daveed Diggs was one of their holiday favorites that I still can’t get enough of. In challenging moments, I find myself coming back to “The Keep Going Song” by the Bengsons, a soulful song that felt pitch perfect during the height of the pandemic.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Helem at