MoFo Women’s Spotlight: Deanne Maynard, Lisa Phelan, and Jina Choi on Going from the U.S. Government to Big Law

Editors’ Note: MoFo’s Women’s Strategy Committee (WSC) comprises both male and female partners and associates who strive to foster women attorneys’ development and professional success. During a recent program hosted by the WSC, Washington, D.C.-based litigation associate Vanshika Vij spoke with three MoFo women partners who held leadership positions in the U.S. Government prior to joining the firm. Panelists included Appellate and Supreme Court Practice Group co-chair Deanne Maynard, co-chair of the Global Antitrust Law Practice and Investigations + White Collar Group Lisa Phelan, and leading securities enforcement litigator Jina Choi. In this 21st installment of the MoFo Women Spotlight series, Deanne, Lisa, and Jina discuss their roles in the U.S. Government and how those experiences helped shape their careers today.

Vanshika: I am a seventh year associate in the Securities, Litigation, Enforcement, and White Collar Groups. My practice focuses on investigations and crisis management, as well as some national security matters and, frequently, matters facing the government. I will turn it over to each of the panelists for a quick introduction and synopsis of their practice.

Lisa: I was incredibly fortunate to have an amazing career at the Department of Justice (DOJ). The entire time I was with the antitrust division. You might think that’s a pretty narrow niche, but there are actually quite a few different types of antitrust. In my early years, I did all three, working on merger cases, monopolization, and criminal enforcement. I spent 16 years as section chief of the national criminal enforcement section, prosecuting large national and international cartel cases, price-fixing, bid-rigging, and collusion. I was coordinating with enforcers and bringing major cases all over the world, with more than 300 cases and more than $8 billion in criminal fines. At the firm, I have really enjoyed helping companies avoid antitrust violations or guiding them in their defense.

Deanne: I joined MoFo in 2009 from the Solicitor General’s (SG) office at the Department of Justice, which is a small office in the Justice Department that represents the United States in the Supreme Court. As co-chair of the Appellate and Supreme Court practice, along with Joe Palmore, we represent clients in courts of appeals, in both federal and state courts across the country, and in the United States Supreme Court. I also serve as a member of the MoFo’s executive committee and as the chair of the partner compensation committee.

Jina: I have been at Morrison & Foerster for two years in the Securities, Litigation, Enforcement, and White Collar practices in San Francisco. I represent companies and boards in internal investigations as well as companies and individuals in Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other government investigations.

Vanshika: Deanne, could you tell us how your appellate career began, what drew you to that area of law, and how you went to the Solicitor General’s office?

Deanne: I, like many litigators, started my career clerking. After law school, I had a two-year district court clerkship and then was very lucky to get a Supreme Court clerkship. I had an offer to be an appellate lawyer with the Civil Division at the Department of Justice after my clerkship, but then lucked into a second Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Breyer during his first year on the Court, which was an opportunity I could not pass up. After four years of clerking, I decided that if I ever wanted to enter private practice that now was the time. As a clerk, I had seen that many of the best briefs on the most interesting matters were from law firms. I went back to the firm where I had summered, stayed for almost nine years, and made partner.

During my fifth year as a partner, one of my best friends told me there were five openings in the Solicitor General’s office at the Justice Department. There are only 20 lawyers in the SG’s office other than the Bristow Fellows, so five openings seemed like a lot. I got an interview and, according to colleagues in the SG’s office, one of the Deputy SGs, who was a friend from the Harvard Law Review, really wanted to hire me because I’m quite good at softball. There’s an annual grudge match between the Solicitor General’s office and the Civil Division’s appellate lawyers, and my friend really, really likes to win.

Lisa: You never know what skills are going to turn out to be crucial! I knew I wanted to use my legal skills for the greater good, so I was inspired by my antitrust class in law school and was especially drawn to consumer protection. I was also fascinated by criminal law. I interned at the Organized Crime Strike Force in Philadelphia, where one of my assignments included listening to taped recordings of mobsters planning hits. In my third year of law school, I discovered the intersection of my two interests when I took an advanced antitrust course. We had a lecture by a criminal prosecutor at the antitrust division, which got me thinking, “I can work on these big, important national and international cases that have a huge impact on consumers, and I can do exciting cases working with the FBI.” It all came together in the Attorney General’s Honors Program. I spent nearly 30 years of my career there and loved every minute of it.

Vanshika: Jina, can you tell us how your career in government has evolved and what ultimately drew you to the SEC and financial crime enforcement?

Jina: I went to law school after going to a small liberal arts college. I didn’t have any lawyers in my life, so I didn’t really know much about the legal profession, such as the difference between litigation and transactional work. Like Deanne, I started my career in a clerkship. I clerked for Judge Robert P. Patterson Jr. in the Southern District of New York.

After clerking, I joined a firm as a transactional attorney, which is a little surprising since I’m a litigation partner now. I worked on a lot of IPOs and M&A transactions, but I always kept up my litigation skills through my pro bono practice. Then, I had the opportunity to join the DOJ Civil Rights Division in a part-policy, part-litigation role. I loved the litigation. The cases were small. I could work on them myself. I could do depositions, and it felt like real advocacy work to me. When my partner wanted to move back to the Bay Area, I found an opening at the SEC and spent 16 years there, including five years as Regional Director.

Vanshika: Deanne, can you tell us about your experience in the Solicitor General’s office and about any memorable experiences or cases that informed how you practice today?

Deanne: The SG’s office, although small, was a great environment to practice in because everybody is exceptional. You have colleagues who are all rowing in the same direction for the United States, even though we all came from very different places ideologically. In contrast to my clerkships, where we were each clerking for our own judge or Justice, we could all collaborate on our cases to get to the best result. One of my favorite things about the job was the moot courts before our Supreme Court arguments. Joe and I—having both been in the SG’s office—do our moot courts the same way today. We rely on colleagues who have not worked on the case to serve as our mock Justices and let them grill us until they run out of questions.

Vanshika: Lisa, can you tell us about your path within the antitrust division and how you came to be in that leadership position?

Lisa: I went straight from school into the DOJ antitrust division, and I was incredibly hungry to litigate. Lucky for me, this paid off, and, at 27 years old, I found myself giving an opening statement at a jury trial. I ended up arguing a motion against Charles Ruff, who later went on to represent President Clinton in other impeachment hearings, and I won.

I was able to parlay this experience into a position in the front office and was invited to be a special counsel to the assistant attorney general. The exposure I received from the political side of the division and seeing how antitrust fits within the rest of the department, gave me a great perspective on writing memos for the front office. I was immediately put on a matter involving collusion among paper companies. One of these cases became the bedrock case for international antitrust enforcement, establishing that U.S. courts have jurisdiction, even if the conspiracy—or, the cartel meeting—happened internationally, if the intent was to affect U.S. consumers. After that, I applied for the position of chief of the national criminal enforcement section. I got the job, leading to many years leading major investigations.

Vanshika: Jina, can you tell us about why you choose MoFo and how your government experience has informed your practice?

Jina: Being in the San Francisco office of the SEC, I had come to know MoFo quite well because of its excellent reputation in the Bay Area. MoFo also had a lot associates who came to the SEC office. I was very impressed with the quality and the integrity of the attorneys I saw who came to the SEC from MoFo, many of whom—such as the Regional Director who proceeded me—had gone into leadership positions at the SEC. MoFo’s San Francisco office has long-standing roots and is very much a community player, which really appealed to me. In the Bay Area, there are MoFo alumni on the bench: they’re part of the defense bar; they’re part of the in-house community.

Vanshika: Lisa, what led you to MoFo, and how did your government experience inform your practice now that you’re on the other side of the table?

Lisa: During my long tenure at the DOJ, I was finding—especially in the last five or so years—that there was a tremendous disconnect between the government’s arguments and the perspective those arguments were coming from, perhaps not understanding what matters to the antitrust division when prosecuting. There also seemed to be a lot of missed opportunities where a resolution that everybody could have lived with might have been possible. Now that I’m practicing on this side of the aisle, one of the greatest pleasures for me is making sure everybody understands where everyone else is coming from.

There were several things that really stuck out to me about MoFo. I wanted an international platform in the criminal antitrust space, and I particularly love that MoFo has such a strong presence in Japan. I also really wanted to see if it was at all possible to recreate the very collegial team-oriented environment that I experienced working in government. I’m also somebody who’s also been a huge advocate for women, including those practicing in the antitrust and cartel space, a space that has traditionally been very male dominated. I started a female networking group called Women in Cartels to provide a platform for women practicing this area of the law. It really was important to me that MoFo was a place that didn’t just talk the talk but really walked the walk in terms of diversity and, a particular passion of mine, gender diversity.

Vanshika: Deanne, what drew you here from the SG’s office and perhaps, just as importantly, what keeps you here?

Deanne: I was happy working for the Solicitor General, representing the United States in the Supreme Court, and was not looking to leave. But when Barack Obama was elected President, the head of MoFo’s Appellate practice at the time got a job in the Obama administration. So MoFo called and asked if I wanted to interview to be the new head of the Appellate practice. I had one meeting and was intrigued. I agreed to meet more people, and I really liked everybody I met and everything everybody was telling me about MoFo, about the way that the firm operates across offices, and how collaborative it is. Why I stay is why I came. Everything that people told me in the recruitment process has been true.

Vanshika: Jina, I would be interested to hear what factors contributed to your success, particularly in leading the SEC office in San Francisco.

Jina: Interestingly, when I interviewed with the SEC and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the head of the SEC’s San Francisco office and the U.S. Attorney in Dallas were both women. My entire leadership team—my direct report at the SEC, the head of enforcement, the head of examinations, the head of operations—were all women. It was inspiring for me to be a part of this group of women who were role models for much of the securities community in San Francisco. In fact, there’s still an all-women’s leadership team in the San Francisco office. I partly attribute that to the Regional Director who hired me. We all looked to her and saw that there was a pathway for us.

Vanshika: Deanne, we are at a particularly interesting moment with respect to appellate practice and the judiciary. Given your extensive experience in the appellate bar, can you speak a little bit about your perspective on the progress made by women as appellate advocates and in obtaining judicial appointments?

Deanne: In terms of progress, I think there are more qualified women in the appellate bar today than those who actually get the argument opportunities that are out there. But I think it’s great that the Biden administration has committed to put diverse people on the bench. I think we need more people of all different kinds of backgrounds in all areas of the court system. We need to take more intentional steps to try to get more representation by women and others in these positions of power everywhere in our society.

Learn more about MoFo’s long history of advocating for and advancing women here.