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They’ve Got Next: The 40 Under 40 - Moira Penza of Wilkinson Stekloff

July 14, 2021, 8:15 AM

Please describe two of your most substantial, recent wins in practice.
As a federal prosecutor, I first-chaired the jury trial of Keith Raniere, leader of the NXIVM “cult.” In June 2019, Raniere was convicted of all counts, including racketeering and sex trafficking, and is now serving a 120-year sentence. Bringing justice to the survivors and protecting future would-be victims made this win the most gratifying of my career.

Private practice has brought its own excitement though. In 2020, an antitrust trial involving billions in potential damages settled favorably days before I was to deliver the opening on behalf of Allergan. In June 2021, I was back at trial (remotely) handling examinations of the science witnesses in our defense of Altria in FTC litigation related to its investment in JUUL. A ruling will follow post-trial briefing.

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, the most important lesson I learned was that opportunities are not going to be handed to you on a silver platter. There are many ways to shine with senior attorneys and clients that do not require being a first chair trial lawyer. Working hard, being reliable, mastering the facts—those are the traits and skills I brought into every interaction when I was a very baby lawyer, and then it paved the way to be given other chances to step in when there was a space for me to flourish. Nowadays, I find those same skills are invaluable. I do not think of any task or witness as “beneath me” which I sometimes see other lawyers do. I seize all types of tasks as opportunities to learn and be of client service, and the more glamorous roles have always followed. Also, treat everyone—assistants, courthouse staff—like you would want your mother to be treated. Can never go wrong with that and it has paid dividends!

How do you define success in your practice?
Although it might not be the most politically correct answer, there can be no definition of success as a trial lawyer that does not include winning. At the end of the day the judge or jury is going to go one way or the other, and success to my clients is the win. And in the courtroom, there is no way to get to a win, without having successfully told your client’s story in a thoughtful, compelling way. But success is, of course, more than the win. It is making sure that every win is obtained with grace and integrity and maintaining the respect of those you interact with—judges, juries, colleagues, clients, witnesses, and yes, even opposing counsel.

What are you most proud of as a lawyer?
I am proud that I have developed a career that is intellectually stimulating, gives me a feeling of purpose, surrounds me with smart, fun people, and gives me financial independence. The gratitude I feel every day to be in that position is motivating. I’ll also say that since becoming a mom I’m motivated to model for my son that women are just as capable as men of being leaders and to show him that when I am working—which of course takes me away from him sometimes—it is because I’m doing something important and personally meaningful. And while I am proud of all my cases, the Nxivm case stands out as a source of enormous pride. I took a legally challenging case from start to finish and brought justice to many people. There are not many people in the world who can say that they know there are people who have been saved because of the work they did (along with an amazing team, and brave witnesses), and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had that opportunity.

Who is your greatest mentor in the law and what have they taught you?
Beth Wilkinson—my mentor and now partner. Beth took a chance on me as a very junior associate and gave me a significant role preparing experts in a bellwether trial related to the hormone therapy medication Prempro. From then on I was hooked on trial work: the teamwork, the opportunity to learn about new industries and new areas of the law, and the focus on storytelling and taking complicated stories and narrowing them to the key issues. I was able to learn by observing and working with one of the greats, who was also a wife and a mom, and I saw what I wanted my future to look like. Above all else, Beth instilled in me a love of being in the arena (no one is better than she is) and recognizing that the critics really do not count. Working with her now as a “grown up” lawyer has been a new level of fun and learning, especially at the business development and client strategy level.

Just for fun, tell us your two favorite songs on your summer music playlist.
“Firework” by Katy Perry - A perfect summer reminder of the spark inside us all!

“Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” by Taylor Swift - No sweeter sound than my four-year-old singing it word-for-word.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Small at asmall@bgov.com

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