Vegas Seven sat down for a power lunch with five Nevada attorneys to discuss what drew them to the profession, the impact of the elections and the peculiarities and politeness of practicing law in the Silver State.
What about becoming a lawyer appealed to you?
Rena McDonald: I have a need to help, to fix things. It’s part of my personality. Unlike a lot of other jobs, where you don’t get to actually see the people you help, as a lawyer, I know them and I hear their stories. I go to bed at night knowing that I helped them.
Jennifer Taylor: My father was a law school dean, so I knew that having a law degree was something that could open up a lot of different doors, in that it provided a way to look at issues in a critical manner. And if I wanted to do public interest law, corporate law, environmental law—which was something I really cared about when I was in law school—those options
Ogonna Brown: I like the challenge of solving problems, finding solutions with clients. People often overlook that lawyers can be very creative. With litigation, which is what I do, you get problems from every spectrum—whether it’s
a tax problem, a family law problem [or] environmental issues. You get to be creative, and you’re constantly learning.
Amy Rose: I think I’ve always been driven by, “How can I improve the situation around me, and how can I help people around me?” When I was in college, I worked at the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center answering the hotline. They also had a legal department, where they were able to provide real justice. That was very attractive to me—providing people with solutions that make a real impact in their lives.
Nic Danna: I saw the world, and I wanted to make it a better place. A lot of people say, “Well, I do it because it’s a lucrative profession.” I like the idea of being an attorney. For me, it was rooted in public service. I started at the public defender’s office and then became a prosecutor. Then I went to the Army. All of those jobs were serving something larger than myself.
Obviously, you deal with a lot of people in bad situations, and every lawyer loses cases. Does the opportunity to help people keep you going?
Danna: Absolutely. Yes. Especially dealing with military families, they have issues where individuals are deployed, waging our nation’s wars, and they have lost their job, or they’ve lost their home. … Being able to get them out of those situations, inform them of their rights and provide them representation is life-
changing for these families. It’s certainly a reason
why you wake up in the morning sometimes.
Brown: It’s the reason why, when you have a bad day because you know your client should’ve won, you keep doing it. It’s almost addictive, the satisfaction you get from knowing you can fix it, or trying to fix it. The people around this table, we take the problems home with us. I worry about my clients, too, how they’re going to survive, how they’re going to get bread on their table the next day.
Taylor: When I was still practicing, the ability to reach out and do community service, community work, was one of the most fulfilling parts of my practice. I could really choose then who I was helping. Knowing that you gave three hours of your time to make a world of difference for somebody is incredibly meaningful.
Is there anything about the legal framework or the clients that makes practicing in Nevada and/or Las Vegas different?
Rose: I think Nevada’s unique in that our law is fairly new and ever-evolving. Other jurisdictions have been dealing with issues and larger populations longer. Now we’ve entered that population status and our law is still pretty new. We deal with a lot of, “Well, in California, they did this. In Arizona, they did that …”
McDonald: People come to Nevada and have ideas and do things that nobody else would think of. We have the ability here to borrow from other jurisdictions, mold the legislation and create a new and improved version based on mistakes that other jurisdictions make and things that they got right.
Taylor: The other thing that’s really unique about Nevada is when you look at that first step of getting the laws made, we have incredible access to our citizen legislators, and a lot of them are lawyers. It’s also so small that people have to work together in a different way. We have a governor who
is a different party than the two governing state legislature bodies. Governor [Brian] Sandoval is incredibly bipartisan.
Danna: I’ve practiced in other states. One of the things that always just leaps out at me is the accessibility to lawmakers, key positions and constitutional officers in the state of Nevada.
Also, the collegial way with which they work together and the responsiveness.
McDonald: It’s a very small town. Everybody gets along. If they don’t, there will be ramifications, because our bar is so small that you talk. You say, “That person—put it in writing. I had two experiences with that person, and I’ll never trust him or her again.” I find the better the attorney, the more civil they are. The attorneys that maybe aren’t at a better firm or as experienced, they’re the ones who can be more aggressive and sneaky. That’s not what advances you, because practitioners don’t like that and judges don’t like that.
Is that the most common misconception about lawyers, that you’re all so aggressive?
McDonald: If I had anything that I’d want to educate the public on, it’s that attorneys really want the community they live in to be a better place. I cannot think of one other profession that’s so involved in the community on a day-to-day basis.
Taylor: There are certainly plaintiffs’ attorneys that make a fantastic living, but there are a lot who don’t. What a plaintiff’s attorney really is doing is protecting consumer rights, civil rights and disability rights. Amy does plaintiff’s work just as much as one of the big trial lawyers who’s had billion-dollar cases. I think that people don’t understand the fundamental work that’s done when a lawyer brings a lawsuit: It’s to protect not just their client, but the clients all behind them.
Brown: Another thing people might not understand about lawyers is that with a lot of our clients, we have longstanding relationships with them, and they end up being our friends. They’re not just clients with dollar signs. You’ll take a call in the middle of the night, because they need you.
Rose: When somebody comes to us and we take a case, we have so many different roles. We have to play their attack dog or their shoulder to cry on. We also have to be the attack dog with them and rein in their expectations. We have to be psychologists and therapists, and it’s really incredibly tense
We’ll see big changes in both the federal and state legislatures next year. Have you thought about how they might affect you or your clients?
Rose: Absolutely. The policies put into place by the federal government will certainly affect Nevadans and will be an issue people are going to have to deal with, whether it’s an immigration issue, some kind of an issue with abortion, an issue of surveillance or whatever else is going on.
Taylor: We’re lucky here in Nevada from an energy perspective. Governor Sandoval has shown fantastic work in terms of pushing clean energy forward. He understands that we don’t have fossil fuels in this state, it makes the most sense for us to develop our own state resources. He also understands that the businesses that we want to attract are businesses that are going to require direct access to clean energy. You’re not going to get a Tesla in Nevada if the only way you can power their factories is through coal.
On the national front—to promise to repeal the power plan, the threats about [the Clean] Water Act and the [Clean] Air Act, the gambit of environmental laws … they don’t understand that renewables are becoming the cheapest energy. The coal market is dying on its own without any help. Fortune 500 companies have made commitments to their customers that they will get their energy in a sustainable, clean manner—it helps their bottom line, it helps their brand. I think we’ve got enough corporate kinetic energy to move the ball down the road even at a national level. We certainly have that here in Nevada.
McDonald: In Nevada, I think the election is very positive. … The uncertainty is from the federal side of it and what’s going to happen there. It’s interesting to me the way my clients are already taking a step back. I have business clients that were thinking about opening businesses that are now [saying], “Let’s wait a little while before we do that.”
Rose: Policies can be changed, laws can be changed, but the Supreme Court is for generations, and that is certainly a more terrifying prospect. I hope that [the president-elect] would appoint someone who would not be in favor of overturning things like Roe v. Wade, but I think we’re just going to have to see what happens. Thankfully, here in Nevada, we have a constitutional right to abortion, but I’m concerned about the rest of the country and what’s going to happen.
What about Question 2, which legalizes recreational marijuana? What kind of changes might we see with that?
Brown: A lot of my business clients are calling me saying, “As a business owner, what should I be putting in employee handbooks about marijuana?” It’s so fresh and so new—I take a deep breath, do some research, figure it out.
Even though Nevada wasn’t one of the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana, I think Nevada is going to become very important with how that is viewed in a business context. So many employees of casinos and these huge unions—it’s going
to be really interesting, and I think we’re going to be on the forefront of changing that.
Taylor: I saw an article this morning in the Las Vegas Review-Journal about the district attorney’s office and the police department being at odds. I’m curious how the judges will react now before it becomes effective in January. There’s some immediate change. It’s not going to be slow, because [the state] moves pretty quickly on stuff. And there’s money to be made. You’re taxing it, which means it helps your citizens.
Have you been to one of the grows? It is amazing, seriously: Here’s a seed, I’m going to barcode it. Here is the bloom, we’re going to track it. Then they even barcode on the debris and the leaves. One of my friends worked on that campaign, Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. I’m like, “If alcohol was regulated like this …”
Rose: I think for us, the biggest win on Question 2 is that people won’t be prosecuted for low-level drug crimes. That is such a huge win for them, for some people who are stuck in jail because they can’t afford the bail money, though they had just a little pot on them. Now they’ve lost their job, maybe they’re going to lose their kids and now they can’t be a productive member of society anymore. It’s really great to see the people say, “This isn’t what we want to do with our tax dollars.” I think that is going to be such a huge impact on us and in our criminal justice system. It frees people, it frees up public defenders’ time, it frees up the prosecutors’ time to focus on real crimes and issues, violent crimes.
Danna: I see what it does to a secondary market where young people have cards and they’re going to buy … and sell it to kids they know. Granted, that’s something you have to deal with anyway, and I understand there’s a large percentage of the population that engages in this anyway, but it would make it even easier to distribute to high schools.
Rose: I think it’s a fair point—obviously with that big a change, there’s going to be other ramifications that you couldn’t have anticipated. They already have other problems in other states, but personally and from our perspective, it’s worth it because we are not going to be prosecuting for low-level drug crimes. That is huge, that’s going to be such a big impact on our low-income communities, on people whose lives have been destroyed by this. Even if there are some negatives, that positive is such a huge win for us.
If you could write or change one law, what would it be?
Brown: I absolutely agree with wage equality for women. I think it should be both a state bill and federal bill. Wage equality, equal pay for equal work, there’s no reason that shouldn’t [happen]. I don’t
understand why that is a controversial issue.
Rose: I think one issue is that most states have some form of either temporary or permanent [voter] disenfranchisement for people who have committed felonies, and in Nevada it can be a very complicated system. I think when we are promoting democracy and we’re trying to say everyone matters and that everyone should have a voice, it’s really disheartening that we as a society have said, “Even though you have paid your debt to society and you’ve gone to prison and you’ve done what you needed to do, that you are still not able to participate in the democratic system and your voice doesn’t matter.” That to me is so upsetting, where the people who need to have their voices listened to the most do not have that basic right as an American to vote. So that is something I would love to see change.
Taylor: I’d love to see an expansion of voting rights and voting opportunities, period. There’s a ballot right now for automatic voter registration when you purchase your car or when you get your driver’s license. I think it’s important for our democracy to make sure that voting is as easy and as open and as accessible as possible.
Danna: I’d want a more consistent definition of veterans, which allows people to get VA medical care. To have the definition of veteran standing be anyone who [has] put on a uniform would allow millions of individuals to get the health care they need. Also, a streamlined process for veterans to get into the system—some of them [need services] as simple as dental care, or as big as prosthetics, where they’ve actually lost a limb.
McDonald: You can interpret it different ways, but we all believe in the Constitution. We all believe in civil liberties and that our civil rights need to be upheld. Whenever we see those situations as attorneys, we’re the first ones to cry foul. There are some constitutional issues—the right to privacy, the right to free speech—that our Founding Fathers couldn’t have anticipated, the technology that needs to be addressed. I think Facebook and Google have more control over free speech than the federal government, which is really interesting. There are a lot of things that need to be fixed, and that’s OK. It’s a work in progress.
A Lawyer’s Life
As legal director for the ACLU of Nevada, Amy Rose focuses on anything that has to do with civil rights and civil liberties. That includes potential constitutional violations and concerns about transparency in government. Recently, the group took the Nevada DMV to task for failing to comply with the National Voter Registration Act and successfully challenged the Education Savings Account program, which diverted state money from public schools to private and/or religious schools. Before joining the ACLU, Rose advocated on behalf of Nevada workers facing discrimination or harassment, and she has also volunteered for the Anti-Defamation League and Planned Parenthood.
Ogonna M. Brown
Ogonna M. Brown, shareholder at Holley, Driggs, Walch, Fine, Wray, Puzey and Thompson, wants you to know that despite all the lawyer jokes, attorneys are good people and part of a noble profession. Many of her cases focus on bankruptcy, often involving people facing medical issues or struggling with some sort of catastrophe. She is a champion of pro bono work who believes that people have a constitutional right to file for bankruptcy and should be able to do so whether they can afford an attorney or not. The UNLV alum speaks Bulgarian and German and originally wanted to be a corporate international lawyer, but found those jobs tough to land without living in a coastal city. So Brown found success in the courtroom, where she enjoys the challenge of presenting cases in front of a judge.
The job title is almost as big as the mission. Nic Danna is the director of the Nevada Attorney General’s Office of Military Legal Assistance. He was tapped by Adam Laxalt to help run a state program designed to offer current military members free legal representation in civil matters (where JAG attorneys generally can’t help), powers of attorney and legal advice to veterans. The program was praised by the Department of Defense and is being used as a model for similar plans in other states. Danna is an Afghanistan combat veteran himself and remains a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves. He was also a
prosecutor for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
After working as a lawyer for just five years, Rena McDonald realized she didn’t like the way clients were treated by large firms and decided she could handle things better. She opened her own civil litigation firm, covering areas such as business formation, family law, debt management and estate planning. She practices more than 50 hours a year of pro bono work and participates in the “Ask a Lawyer” program, offering answers to legal questions at no charge. McDonald also serves on the board of The Shade Tree, which offers assistance to homeless and abused women and children.
As executive director of the Clean Energy Project, Jennifer Taylor has a lot on her plate. The organization was the first to support the recently passed Question 3 initiative to reduce monopolies and create competition within Nevada’s energy industry. Taylor says a thriving clean energy policy not only improves the environment, but also strengthens the economy—a message she hopes will resonate when the Legislature is called back into session next year. Along the way, Taylor has been a clerk for the Nevada Supreme Court, did litigation involving the construction industry and worked for Congressman Steven Horsford. She also offers pro bono services for the Poppy Foundation animal rescue. —Rob Kachelriess
Italian seafood restaurant Mercato della Pescheria, located in St. Mark’s Square at the Grand Canal Shoppes, was the ideal setting for Vegas Seven’s power lunch and legal roundtable.
Bringing together an authentic fish market and gourmet eatery, it’s a bustling, colorful and delicious scene with hand-painted designs on the walls, cured meats hanging from the ceiling and an enticing fragrance of charcoal ovens in the air.
Mercato’s custom-designed, climate controlled wine cellar and private dining room holds around 1,400 bottles. The restaurant currently carries 96 different labels—56 red, 24 white, 14 sparkling and two dry rosés—focusing on big-name, recognizable producers.
Mercato della Pescheria is like a trip to Italy without the jet lag.