Lisa A. Bertini on delis, Fabio and the terror of hanging your own shingle
Published in 2007 Virginia Super Lawyers Magazine — July 2007
For many years, Lisa Bertini, 46, practiced employment law as a dutiful hired gun for corporations.
Tall and slender, her dark, determined eyes offset by a head full of curly blond hair, she’d stride into court on behalf of Xerox or Food Lion.
But three years ago, she started her own law firm in Norfolk, now called Bertini O’Donnell & Jochens, and carved a more treacherous path. About 80 percent of the time, Bertini is a plaintiff’s lawyer. In Virginia, that means the law isn’t necessarily on her side.
“It’s more difficult to be a successful plaintiff’s lawyer,” observes friend and longtime opponent, William Furr, chairman of the labor and employment law practice at Willcox & Savage in Norfolk.
“Part of that is because Virginia is in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the more conservative courts. … If you are going to be a plaintiff’s lawyer, you have to be good. There is a lot of case law that allows the employer to prevail.”
And Bertini is good. Already one of her cases could leave its mark.
An African-American woman was promoted to district administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation. The woman contends that her boss intervened instead of letting her do her job. When asked why, he said he wanted to help her because others thought a minority woman couldn’t do the work.
In time, she was given a new job—a demotion. Now the woman is suing. Bertini is her lawyer. In April, a judge ruled against a summary judgment sought by Virginia’s Department of Transportation. The case goes forward.
“A lot of times I believe that the spirit of the law is ignored, and it is very hard for the plaintiff to make a case,” Bertini says, her voice rapid-fire fast. “And my point, and many lawyers’ point, is: Let us get in front of a jury and tell our story. You can’t even get there in federal court because you get knocked out at the summary judgment stage.”
In the case against the Virginia Department of Transportation, it looks as though she will have her chance.
Bertini and her two sisters grew up in Ocean City, N.J. Her mother, an Italian immigrant, stayed at home when the girls were small, but later took a job at a bank, where she was eventually promoted to vice president. Her father, a first-generation Italian American, was a meat cutter. “I worked in a deli my whole [childhood],” Bertini says.
Her father was fascinated by the law. He would read books about Clarence Darrow and watch Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law on television. When Bertini was 9 years old, he read her his favorite book: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
“I absolutely fell in love with it,” she says. “I fell in love with the idea that you could be a lawyer and make a difference.”
Her parents backed up her dreams. Education was such a priority in the Bertini household that it took precedence over chores. “Most kids had to clear the table and clean the plates,” she remembers. “[My mother] would say, ‘I’ll do that. Go study.’”
She didn’t disappoint. She went to Georgetown University and then to Marshall-Wythe School of Law, College of William & Mary in Williamsburg. After graduation, she spent a year with a law firm in Dallas (“I call it my year abroad,” she quips) before, in the late 1980s, returning to Virginia, this time to Virginia Beach, where she was hired by Greg Giordano, then of Shuttleworth, Ruloff, Giordano & Kahle.
She was ambitious, Giordano remembers.
“Just about everybody who comes out of law school is bright,” says Giordano, now with Troutman Sanders. “I always like people who are a little hungry. … I’d rather hire some kid who comes out of school, the first generation to go to college, as opposed to someone who spent summers in Switzerland as a trust fund baby.”
Her career took shape working with Giordano, who specializes in labor law, employment law and commercial litigation. Later, she moved to McGuireWoods. “I did the employment side. I loved it,” she remembers. By 1999, she became a partner with another firm, Hofheimer Nusbaum.
Notably, she worked as outside counsel for Busch Entertainment/Anheuser Busch, which operates Busch Gardens Williamsburg, tackling premise liability and personal injury defense cases.
And so it was that on a spring day in 1999 she received a phone call about an accident on a new roller coaster—The Apollo’s Chariot. As it happened, the park had been doing publicity for the ride, which boasts speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour and a plunge that takes passengers down 210 feet of steel track.
In what must have seemed a brilliant publicity stunt, the romance-novel model Fabio—known chiefly for his muscular build, golden tresses and margarine commercials—was on hand to portray Apollo. A cluster of women clad in white tunics followed him.
“He was the Apollo with the goddesses around him,” Bertini says.
So the Greek god and his entourage climbed aboard Apollo’s Chariot. It whooshed off. But somewhere around the first dramatic plunge, a collision occurred between a low-flying goose and Fabio’s famous face. Bertini was taking a deposition when the phone rang.
“They said, ‘Come immediately! Fabio got hit in the head by a blankedy-blank goose!’ I was like, ‘What? The guy with the margarine?’”
While Bertini said she couldn’t talk about precise terms, “[Fabio] ended up being good about it. He wanted to make sure he was okay, because he was an actor and a model. … He was pretty cool about not demanding anything outrageous.”
Soon after having her first child, Bertini wondered if she would continue to practice law full-time. “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. “And then after about two weeks at home, I was already on the e-mail and I couldn’t, frankly, wait to get back.”
At the time, she worried this made her a bad mom. “But I know now that it didn’t. It just means I really love what I do. I also really love my kids.” She has two daughters: Zoe, now 12, and Lucy, 10.
But she’s still in overdrive—balancing work, home and community. She’s a board member for the Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, and has participated in the planning commission for her children’s elementary school in Virginia Beach.
Bertini is committed to her family and is civic-minded, says Mary Jane Hall of Kaufman & Canoles in Norfolk. Doesn’t mean she’s not tough, Hall says.
Hall and Bertini were hired in the 1990s by a city attorney’s office in an employee discrimination case. A mammoth Washington, D.C., firm was on the other side. Quickly, the D.C. law firm overwhelmed the resources of the small city attorney’s office.
“We got to our first deposition,” Hall says, “and the D.C. lawyers started making demands of our client.”
The other firm’s lawyers pushed to get around the rules of discovery.
Bertini told them no.
Her opponents kept pushing. They complained that the previous attorney would have agreed to their demands.
Bertini leaned across the table. That attorney is out, she told her opponent. “I’m in.”
Hall chuckles, remembering. “She doesn’t let anybody push her or her client around.”
As time passed, though, the limitations of working for larger firms began to get to Bertini.
“It’s very difficult to represent an individual when you work for a big firm,” she says. “They want to represent the banks. They want to represent the big corporations. So when you bring in someone to sue, they would rather not take that chance.”
At home, every night, she’d vent about it to her husband, orthopedic surgeon Jack Siegel.
“And he would say to me, ‘Open your own place. I’ll help you out. … You’ll be great. You’ll be successful,’” she remembers.
With his support, she did exactly that in 2004.
“It was terrifying,” she admits bluntly. It’s not just law. There’s paying the rent and ensuring workers have paychecks. “There’s nothing un-scary about it,” she says. Last May, two other lawyers—Lisa Palmer O’Donnell and Amberley Gibbs Jochens—joined her.
Some of the cases she takes—especially of the Title VII variety—are the difficult ones. The employee’s been fired, she says. They have no money. Taking their case on contingency is often the only option.
“It’s not a rear-ender with a broken hip,” she says. “It’s someone saying that they were terminated wrongfully in a state that basically doesn’t recognize wrongful termination.”
Indeed, some statutes protecting employees in various states have not been enacted in Virginia, observes Furr.
Not that this will stop her.
“If I feel passionate about a cause,” she says, “that’s where I’m going to be. Nobody’s going to change my mind. It doesn’t mean a judge won’t tell me I’m wrong, and I’ll [have to] accept it. But in my heart, there’s got to be another way to get around it.”