Marissa Alter-Nelson ’07 came to NYU Law to be a human rights lawyer, but discovered a passion for litigation while working as part of a trial team in the Federal Defender Clinic during her 3L year. Working as a litigation associate at Sidley Austin after graduation only deepened her interest. “I fell in love with civil litigation,” says Alter-Nelson, who made partner at Sidley in 2017. “I honestly just had no idea how much I was going to love being a commercial litigator.”
In her high-stakes litigation practice, Alter-Nelson has represented clients such as AT&T, Cargill, and Citibank. This year, she was named to both “Notable Women in Law” and “Notable Black Leaders & Executives” lists by Crain’s New York Business and was one of fifteen litigators chosen by Business Insider as a “Rising Star of the Courtroom.”
On September 21, 2022, she took on a new role, leaving Sidley after a decade and a half to become partner in the complex commercial litigation practice at Latham & Watkins. In this Q&A, Alter-Nelson discusses the appeal of commercial litigation, the role that mentorship has played in her career, and what she’s looking forward to in her new role.
How did you first become interested in the law?
When I was in college, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into politics or study law, so I spent my last year of college first interning in DC on the Hill, and the second part in South Africa, where I studied abroad at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. While in South Africa, I volunteered at a home for children orphaned by AIDs, many of whom were also ill, and I worked on clean water initiatives at the provincial parliament. That opened up my eyes to so many different things, and I decided that I was ‘going to study human rights law.’ And NYU Law was the school you go to for studying human rights-related law.
After participating in the Federal Defender Clinic at NYU Law during my 3L year, I learned I loved going to trial. I still wanted to be a human rights lawyer, but I also wanted to be a trial lawyer. And I thought I would combine the two. I envisioned getting a few years of trial experience, doing great pro bono work, and then switching course and become a full-time human rights lawyer. And I knew from talking to people at firms, that the type of pro bono work I could do would be human-rights focused, and I would still be doing what I was passionate about, but in a law firm setting.
So I came to Sidley. I started in litigation and really liked it. And I realized after my first few years at the firm, that I could still quench my thirst for human rights work by doing philanthropic work and pro bono work while also working on high stakes commercial matters. So it was a really good hybrid for me.
What do you like about commercial litigation? What have been some your significant victories?
What I like about commercial litigation is that every day you’re confronted with interesting cutting-edge legal issues, and you’re crafting strategies to win for your client. You meet all kinds of interesting, sophisticated people and work in teams to find the best solution for your client. I learn new things every day. One thing that is challenging about being a trial lawyer in particular, is that very few cases actually go to trial, and that translates to fewer opportunities to grow the very specific skill set that is trial advocacy. That said, I personally have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to gain significant trial experience throughout my career. And resolving a matter, no matter what form it takes including a settlement on the court-house steps, can be a win for your client, so a win for you.
Last year, I was part of the team that obtained a double trial victory for Accor Management, which is a leading hotel management company, in connection with a dispute over the hotel formerly known as the Fairmont San Jose. I served as co-lead counsel in the bankruptcy estimation hearing in June 2021. Accor received an estimation of $22.24 million, which was approximately $20 million higher than the estimation set by debtors, a major win for the client. I also co-chaired an arbitration for Accor related to the same dispute which Accor also won.
How has your field changed since you began practicing?
The profession has diversified significantly since I started my career and I am a great example of that having been a partner at two nationally prominent firms. Diversity in the legal profession as a whole still has a long way to go, but every day I see wins on the diversity front especially as it relates to increased representation of women at the senior level.
I grew up with a single mother and I’m the first person in my family to have a professional career. I was also the first Black lawyer in Sidley’s New York office to rise through the ranks from first-year associate to partner. Fortunately, I had a lot of amazing mentors along the way to help me achieve that goal. But, frankly, when you don’t see people who look like you, it’s sometimes intimidating, and you can struggle with imposter syndrome.
Every day I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and the people who have helped me. Lynn Dummett ’84, now vice president and general counsel of litigation at Honeywell International, was a partner at Sidley who became my mentor the day I started as a first year associate. She really helped nurture me as a young lawyer and still mentors me today. And she introduced me to so many other people that became mentors to me throughout my career, ensuring that I had the full package of mentors and sponsors. I appreciate and respect her very much and aim to give back to the next generation in the same way that she gave back to me.
On that front, I mentor countless associates and law students and I also teach as an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law. I hope that both my students and mentees feel supported and have the guidance they need to be a success in whatever form their careers take.
What are you looking forward to in your new role at Latham & Watkins?
I’m really interested in pursuing more trial and commercial litigation work, which are areas Latham in New York and beyond has really honed into a destination practice. Plus, I’m huge on mentorship and the chance to plug into the evolving leadership and mentor programs at Latham, and to have the opportunity to grow and grow with new folks, is exciting.
It’s something that’s going to be an integral part of my career: giving back to the community and ensuring that people who can’t afford high quality representation get it. What specific area that will focus on is unclear, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you see me on additional death penalty type work in the future.
I’ve been really fortunate thus far to be where I am, but I see it continuing to grow, and I’m really, really excited about where I’ll be five years from now.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted October 21, 2022.