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They’ve Got Next: The 40 Under 40 - Menaka Fernando of Outten & Golden

July 14, 2021, 8:46 AM

Please describe two of your most substantial, recent wins in practice.
During the height of the #MeToo movement, I represented three waitresses who were subject to both rampant sexual harassment and wage violations. Studies show that low wage workers (and especially those of color) are far more likely to suffer sexual harassment in the workplace. These women’s stories unfortunately bore that out. I helped secure a near seven figure settlement on behalf of these brave women.

In the past year, I have been privileged to be able to help workers during an extraordinarily uncertain time. For example, I represented a female tech worker who despite a strong performance record was unfairly included in a pandemic related layoff soon after she complained about sexual harassment by a male coworker. This case settled for half a million dollars.

What is the most important lesson you learned as a first-year attorney and how does it inform your practice today?
As a first-year associate, I went to trial twice in the span of six months to fight for victims of egregious abuse. In the first case, I helped represent a disabled African American man who was severely injured when a Los Angeles Police Department officer used excessive force to detain him. In the second case, I helped represent two Chinese asylum seekers who were sexually harassed by their asylum officer. I poured hundreds of hours preparing for and powering through each trial. Ultimately, justice prevailed all around, and we won seven-figure verdicts in both cases.

While I certainly learned that hard work pays off, I was also struck by my ability as a lawyer to restore the dignity stripped from vulnerable individuals. As I sat and talked to those clients every day of their respective trials, I was reminded that each “case” I worked on involved the lives of living, breathing, feeling people and their loved ones. I was overwhelmed by the trust they placed in me, and it motivated me even more to achieve justice for them. I continue to carry the weight of this responsibility every day.

How do you define success in your practice?
I define success by the number of clients whose lives I positively impact. I strive to give power back to employees whose managers and employers have illegally harassed, abused, discriminated, or retaliated against them. My approach is very client-centered, starting with carefully listening to each client, understanding their objectives, and tailoring my representation to address their needs. I spend significant time gaining their perspectives and assessing potential claims and options. Whether it’s a one-time consultation or a five-year litigation, I want each client to walk away from our relationship feeling more empowered than when they first walked into my office.

I also define success by the close professional relationships I’ve cultivated at my firm, among the plaintiff’s employment bar, and with adversaries, judges and neutrals. I am a kind, reasonable, but tenacious advocate, an approach I believe has earned me respect within the local and national legal community.

What are you most proud of as a lawyer?
I have a few sources of pride as an attorney. First, my fierce commitment to use the law as a means to help people and deliver justice is as resolute now as it was on my first day of law school. Also, I cherish the lasting connections I have made throughout my career, particularly with clients for whom I have successfully fought and the colleagues whose support helped me achieve all of my accomplishments so far. Last, I’m privileged to lead a fulfilling, enriching career while raising young children and balancing important family responsibilities.

Who is your greatest mentor in the law, and what have they taught you?
I have been fortunate to have many great colleagues and supervisors train and mentor me throughout my career. I cherish the relationships I have built with strong female leaders within Outten & Golden and the plaintiff’s employment bar. Seeing each of their successes and struggles firsthand, especially as working moms, has helped me forge my path in the law and find ways to prioritize the essential work I do and my family’s needs. Importantly, I have learned to trust myself and grow into my own style as a lawyer and advocate. As a young female attorney of color, these lessons have been invaluable for me.

Just for fun, tell us your two favorite songs on your summer music playlist.
My family’s go-to weekend album this summer is Jon Batiste’s “We Are.” It gets us moving out of our seats around the breakfast table. And because my 2-year-old’s epic dance parties are not complete without it, Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is also a current favorite.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com

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