Rising Stars 2017

MCCA’s Annual List of Rising Stars proves that the profession has upcoming talent who may or may not be of a certain age group or practice law as a second career, but they all give back. Their backgrounds are as diverse as their practice areas, but what these Rising Stars have in common is their love of law, their diligence, and pursuit of excellence, while possessing a compassion for those in need and a strong desire to give back to others. They are dedicated to their profession, but have also learned the art of balancing work with a life that includes being expert speakers, authors, volunteers and leaders in their communities.

Though they are different ages and at varying stages in their careers, they share a common goal to pursue justice in its various forms. The nomination pool of talented Rising Stars was great, but the Minority Corporate Counsel Association narrowed the field down to 11 stellar attorneys whose accomplishments and dedication to the field and to their community place them among those “attorneys to watch” in the legal profession.
We salute the MCCA Rising Stars!

By Kim Howard,CAE

June Casalmir

June Casalmir

Assistant General Counsel—Marketing and Digital Media,

June Casalmir learned how to snowboard at age 43 without having ever learned to ski. She likes fitness and weightlifting, too, and can deadlift 215 pounds. It’s her curiosity, and because her practice requires her to ask many questions, that leads her to exploring not only her craft as assistant general counsel—marketing and digital media at Verizon, but in her life outside of the office. In her role with the telecommunications provider, she leads legal efforts supporting Fios consumer marketing and is responsible for advising marketing, pricing, and other client teams on digital, print, and social media campaigns, and manages compliance with state and federal regulations as well as applicable consumer protection laws. She is no stranger to the telecom industry having served as counsel at Sprint Communications prior to joining the Verizon legal team.

Casalmir said that while she took the LSAT her senior year in college, she decided to become a lawyer after college. “After I graduated I worked for a year as part of the Congressional Hunger Center’s Emerson National Hunger Fellows program. During that year, I came to understand that those people with an understanding of the law have some of the necessary tools to impact change and help others. Over the course of my legal career, I’ve added to that toolkit, which has increased my ability to help internal clients, working on pro bono matters, or supporting fellow Fil-Am attorneys,” she said.

Not many lawyers, much less female lawyers, seek out securities regulation as their trade. But, Casalmir’s initial interest in this area led her to her role today. “I had originally wanted to go into securities regulation since I enjoyed sorting through the various legal requirements, and had originally thought that I wanted to go into government regulation in that area, so I pursued federal government opportunities. However, after graduating law school, I received a terrific opportunity to join the Federal Trade Commission. While that job was in the Bureau of Competition, the knowledge that comes from working at that agency proved to be invaluable as my career evolved to include consumer protection and advertising matters when I went into private practice. I hit my stride a little more when I started to view myself not just as “legal support” but rather a stakeholder in the clients’ business objectives. My clients work very hard to promote our services in an extremely competitive market, and they should feel comfortable that their legal support understands the business needs. I also felt more comfortable with my practice when I started training clients. While it takes a while to translate things like FTC disclosure requirements into visual concepts, the end result is invaluable. Whether it’s a flow chart, a hypothetical, or a series of examples, I really enjoy putting advertising legal concepts in a framework that helps clarify the parameters increases,” she said. “I still enjoy noodling around with antitrust concepts, and so my poor teenage son can probably describe ligopolistic market conditions better than most people.”

Kimberly Y. Chainey

Kimberly Y. Chainey

Associate General Counsel, for Global Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategy, Innovation and Latin America,
Avis Budget Group

The Wall Street Journal, business deals and social justice were often topics of family discussions at Kimberly Chainey’s house growing up because both her parents had MBAs and were active in the local community. Her dad regularly read her excerpts from the WSJ, and would oft en talk about how large deals were structured and how they would come together. He also talked about a lawyer’s role in making sure this happened. Applying a law degree to make a difference in the world came in the form of Chainey’s mother discussing positive female role models such as former Representative Barbara Jordan. “My Mom would often talk to me about Jordan’s life, her struggle to break down barriers for herself and all women, and her focus on making a difference in the world. These early influences helped me to realize that whatever career route I chose, that being a lawyer was a way to really impact the world around me. This philosophy informs a lot of the volunteer work that I have done throughout my career,” Chainey said.

Chainey, who currently serves as the associate general counsel responsible for global mergers & acquisitions, strategy, innovation, and Latin America for Avis Budget Group is currently responsible for leading the legal team that supports key mobility initiatives for emerging technologies like fully connected cars as well as global intellectual property. She has always wanted to help bring the deal together. “Even at Wharton, I knew I wanted to work on large transformative transactions. I wanted to help bring the deal together. After graduation, I had the opportunity to do that right out of the gate. I have always been fortunate to work with great lawyers throughout my career (even early on). I had great mentors at Morgan Lewis and Wolf Block who showed me the value that lawyers could bring to their client’s transactions (whether they were venture capital, private equity, commercial real estate, IPOs, or securities transactions).

Moreover, being able to work on a broad range of transactions convinced me that I wanted to focus my career on being a corporate lawyer. I enjoyed working with the variety of players in these transactions and doing my part to help the deal ‘come together.’ When I moved in-house, I continued to do this. However, I also got the opportunity to work with lawyers who showed me how smart and strategic legal advice was critical to a company’s long-term success,” she said.

Jorja Jackson

Jorja Jackson

Senior Corporate Counsel,

Is there a doctor in the house? Well, there was going to be until Jorja Jackson changed her mind her senior year of college and decided to attend law school. “I changed my mind on becoming a physician and thought since my major was political science and that I was interested in law, it was a reputable profession in which I could be successful, so why not go to law school,” she said. But, she realized her love of practicing law when she went in-house. “I had been practicing at firms for seven years as a litigation associate. It was not particularly motivating to me. It could be grueling and at the same time could be boring and repetitive. I knew I wanted to go in-house probably the minute I started law school and when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped. I absolutely love being an in-house lawyer for many reasons: I’m a counselor, I help the business solve problems, resolve issues, mitigate risk, achieve results that move the business forward and achieve success. I feel like what I’m doing really matters. At all three companies where I have worked in-house, the feeling and excitement I have in my job remains the same. I love being the problem solver,” she said.

As senior corporate counsel for salesforce.com Jackson specializes in providing advice to management on all aspects of global employment matters. Jackson said that she did not necessarily set out to pick employment as her practice area. Like some other Rising Stars, the field picked her. “I was looking to move from my first law firm, which was a small insurance defense practice. Great exposure to litigation and an opportunity to learn right out of the gate. But, I wanted something bigger—a bigger firm, more diverse client base, national or international exposure to interesting areas of law. I started looking and while I was at an event one evening that was honoring one of the California Third District Court of Appeal Justices I met an associate at Littler Mendelson who mentioned they were looking for a junior associate and that I should apply. When I researched Littler I found they met everything I was looking for in my next move: they were a big firm, housed a national client base, worked on diverse issues and solely practicing in an area that was interesting to me—employment law. I’m still doing it 13 years later, so I guess it stuck. The reason I think I thrive in employment law and enjoy it so much is because it’s about people. It’s emotional, it’s technical, it’s full of intrigue. I never know what I’m going to get when I walk in the door at work, which I love and am thrilled by,” she said.

The least enjoyable aspect of her job is that sometimes decisions can negatively impact an employee. “I think the least enjoyable thing about my practice is that it can end on a sad note. You’re dealing with people’s livelihoods. If the advice I give or a decision I make negatively impacts an employee, that’s not always an easy pill to swallow. And that’s why each decision I make isn’t rash or brazen. It’s debated, counseled with my colleagues, reviewed with business partners and carefully weighed,” she said.

Atif Khawaja

Atif Khawaja

Kirkland & Ellis LLP

If Atif Khawaja was not a trial lawyer, he would be a journalist because he loves telling other people’s stories. This approach has served him well in litigating high-stakes suits. He has successfully handled a broad range of commercial and intellectual property disputes. He enjoys challenges and regularly litigates matters as complex as patent infringement, antitrust, fraud, breach of contract and fiduciary duty, trade secret theft, consumer misrepresentation and unfair competition. He has won restructuring disputes, class and mass actions, employment and administrative law disputes before courts and arbitrators across the country.

It’s his mother who inspired him to become a litigator. “My mom inspired me to become a litigator. She is tough as nails and blazed many trails in her life, including by teaching in many countries. At a young age, she impressed upon me the importance of an open mind and a clear argument. Growing up was full of lively discussions, and it was best to keep quiet if you couldn’t string together a credible argument with conviction. I did not know any lawyers then, and it was those discussions and her example that led me to where I am,” Khawaja said. Beyond his busy and broad law practice, Khawaja also co-chairs Kirkland’s diversity and inclusion committee and sits on its recruiting, associate review and pro bono management committees. He also finds time to oversee the pro bono program for the firm’s New York off ice.

Even though his work finds him regularly representing well-known companies including United, Dow, Honeywell, Expedia, IBM, Pfizer, and Hess, as well as the world’s largest hedge and private equity funds, Khawaja is closely vested in the outcome of every client he represents. “The trust of a client is a very satisfying reward. It doesn’t matter if that client is a large company or a pro bono individual, it is tremendously gratifying and humbling to stand up in court on behalf of a client,” he said. He tries to keep a level head in the face of adversity. “I love my job, but when there are setbacks, I think about the mentors I have had and the values that they drilled into me empathy, humility and service. Those values keep me going,” he said. Khawaja earned his JD from the Boston University School of Law, magna cum laude, and his BA in biology and religious studies from the University of Virginia.

Corena Norris-McCluney

Corena Norris-McCluney

Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary,
Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corporation

Corena Norris-McCluney works for a company that owns an app to alert its customers when a location’s famous Hot Now doughnut sign is lit. But, if it weren’t for the fact that television portrayed being an attorney to be more glamorous and exciting over teaching, Norris-McCluney might be decorating school rooms today instead of serving as Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corporation’s senior vice president, general counsel and secretary.

“In high school, I wanted to either be a teacher or an attorney. Being an attorney sounded glamorous, mainly because the only exposure I had to the profession was attributable to what I saw on television. In college, as I had more exposure to the profession, including classes that were taught by judges and/or lawyers, as
well as being able to read case law, I became more fascinated with all the various avenues being an attorney could open,” she said.

Falling into employment law happened easily, she said. “In law school, my favorite classes were employment law related classes. My personality matched with that area of law—I had a clear sense of right/wrong, but also a very compassionate and empathetic side. Pursuing a career in employment law allowed me to maintain a connection to the human side, relate to all people, and the best opportunity for me to be a counselor and advocate,” said Norris-McCluney.

But, serving as an employment lawyer meant something beyond a practice expertise. It helped Norris-McCluney create a foundation for life as in-house counsel. “After clerking for an appellate court judge for two years, I went to what was formerly known as Kilpatrick Stockton, where I expressed a major interest in employment law. The firm allowed me to practice in that area, eventually solely, but initially I was exposed to a variety of practice areas related to a business. Unbeknownst to me, having exposure across various practice areas provided me with an ability to think quickly, advise on a variety of topics, learn the whole business, and eventually provided me with a base to have a general practice in a corporate department,” she said.

Dimitri Portnoi

Dimitri Portnoi


While television lawyers are often not portrayed realistically, that did not stop Dimitri Portnoi from aspiring to become what he saw on TV. “I first thought I wanted to be a lawyer when my mom was obsessed with ‘L.A. Law’ when I was a child. I lived in Washington, D.C. at the time so that may have also presaged my move to Los Angeles,” he said. And much like the ‘L.A. Law’ characters who handled cases spanning the hot-button social issues of the time, Portnoi dedicates a large portion of his legal work to being a champion for the voiceless, in addition to his extensive corporate client work.

The experienced litigator has represented clients in a diverse array of industries in a wide range of matters including complex business litigation, financial service, entertainment matters, consumer class actions, unfair competition, business torts, fraud, contract and related commercial litigation. But, this everyman lawyer has avoided picking a practice area, on purpose.

“I’ve practiced in almost every area of litigation, including copyright and trademark, tax, environmental, international law, housing, civil rights, products liability, finance, securities and constitutional law. Recently, however, I’ve specialized in water law which I’ve appreciated because it’s involved learning history and science, as well as law, and helping California players to navigate its ecological challenges,” Portnoi said. He has represented clients in industries including entertainment, health care, natural resources, finance and banking, communications and manufacturing as well.

Melissa C. Rodriguez

Melissa C. Rodriguez

Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

Many lawyers can trace their first interest in the law to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Melissa C. Rodriguez is no exception. Like many lawyers, she is passionate about words and writing and playing the defense counsel in her high school play cemented her future.

“Two pivotal experiences made me realize that I wanted to be a lawyer. First, I am passionate about words: the origin of words, the structure of words and of words within sentences, paragraphs and longer writings. I am fascinated by how changing even one word can completely change the message that is being conveyed. I always knew I wanted to ‘play with words’ and being a lawyer, particularly as a litigator, allows me to do so in a real world, practical sense. This became tangible to me through the second experience that led me to realize I wanted to be a lawyer: playing the part of defense counsel in a 10th grade class mock trial based on ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird.’ Through that experience, I learned to put my passion for words to work, and in the process, help another individual navigate through crisis and prevail,” she said.

As a labor and employment attorney, Rodriguez represents clients in the full spectrum of labor and employment law matters including single-plaintiff , class, and collective action litigation (both wage and hour and discrimination claims) and wage and hour and other employment counseling. She said that specializing in labor and employment law came early in her legal career. “After working as a summer associate in a law firm in Puerto Rico, where I am from, following my first year in law school, I rotated through various legal departments as a summer associate. Through that firm’s summer program, I realized while working in their labor and employment department that I wanted to focus on that area of the law because it is about people. Almost everyone in this country is either an employee or an employer, or has the potential to be one or the other, so what we do in labor and employment has a tangible and immediate effect on real people’s lives,” Rodriguez said.

Like many litigators, Rodriguez enjoys using words to build a story. “As a litigator, and lover of words, I very much enjoy crafting arguments, both in writing legal briefs and for purposes of oral arguments or presentations to fact-finders. I relish the challenge of assessing the facts, and using them to build a story that, consistent with legal principles, makes sense, is just and advances your client’s position,” she said.

Yaneris M. Rosa

Yaneris M. Rosa

Assistant General Counsel,
Honeywell International Inc.

Yaneris M. Rosa who was born in the Dominican Republic, recalls her earliest memories telling anyone who would listen that she wanted to be a lawyer. Rosa and her mother left their native country seeking a better life when she was 10 years old. Her experiences as an immigrant heightened her interest in a career as an attorney. “Aft er seeing and experiencing discrimination and unfair treatment, I saw the legal system as a remedy for some of these difficulties,” she said.

About a month aft er graduating from Harvard law school, Rosa delivered her first child and moved to Long Island, New York in order for her mom to help with her new daughter while she tackled working as a corporate associate at the law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP in New York City. During her time at the firm, Yaneris also served as member of the Simpson Thacher Diversity Committee Advisory Council and managed pro bono matters. Aft er a few years of daily commuting three hours round trip from Long Island, Rosa was able to land an opportunity working as Assistant General Counsel of Planet Payment, Inc., a start-up located about 10 minutes from her home, allowing more work-life balance. “I jumped on the opportunity despite the pay cut associated with moving in-house. I selected this company because I was intrigued by their credit card processing technology. During my tenure at Planet Payment, I worked on a variety of transactions and was also fortunate to work on the company’s IPO and listing on the NASDAQ. It was also fun being able to ring the closing bell at NASDAQ with my colleagues on the day that we listed the company,” Rosa said.

Rosa set her sights on working for a Fortune® 100 company but didn’t want to go back to commuting from Long Island into Manhattan. She found the perfect opportunity at Honeywell, as assistant general counsel of Honeywell Security Group, a business headquartered in Long Island.

“I’ve been working at Honeywell since 2014. I started as assistant general counsel of Honeywell Security Group. In 2015 Honeywell combined its security business, located in Long Island, with its fire business headquartered in Connecticut and I represented the legal department in the integration team responsible for integrating the two businesses. My role has also grown as a result of acquisitions and integration of companies that didn’t have their own in-house legal departments. My favorite part of the job is facilitating our transformation from a traditional hardware company to a soft ware industrial and working on cutting-edge technologies in the space of connected home and connected buildings and internet of things. I am happy that I’ve been able to stay in the field of technology because it is an ever-evolving practice,” she said.

Amandeep Sidhu

Amandeep Sidhu

McDermott Will & Emery

Many people remember exactly where they were on 9/11 and how it impacted them and their decisions at the time. Amandeep Sidhu is no exception. He co-founded the Sikh Coalition, the largest legal advocacy organization for the Sikh American community. After college, Sidhu was an economic consultant in Washington, D.C. and had begun preparing to take the LSAT when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. “There was an immediate backlash against the Sikh community in the form of hate crimes, profiling by law enforcement and employment discrimination. While I did not yet have a law degree, I had advocacy skills that helped me support the Sikh Coalition in those critical weeks and months aft er 9/11. After being part of that movement, there was no question that a legal education would give me the tools to help my community rise up in the face of tremendous discrimination,” Sidhu said.

But the 9/11 attacks were not what spurred Sidhu to pursue law. It was a close friend and mentor who was in law school at the time who originally piqued his interest. “Not knowing any lawyers growing up, this was my first meaningful exposure to the legal profession,” said Sidhu. As a senior at William & Mary, Sidhu had the opportunity to take a joint law/undergrad class and was instantly hooked.

Now a highly skilled litigator, Sidhu focuses his practice on complex commercial disputes with an emphasis on regulated industries, including health care-related investigations and litigation. He represents hospitals and health care companies in investigations and defense of qui tam whistleblower litigation involving federal False Claims Act (FCA), Stark Laws and Anti-Kickback Statute in federal district courts throughout the United States. Sidhu is also extremely active in the diversity and inclusion space serving as a long-time member of McDermott’s Pro Bono & Community Service Committee, as well as its Racial and Ethnic Diversity & Inclusion Committee. His tireless pro bono work helped achieve groundbreaking successes for Sikh soldiers in the U.S. Army and broke barriers that previously forced Sikh soldiers to choose between their faith and service to their country. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army amended its policy to finally open its doors for Sikhs and other religious minorities to serve without having to compromise their religious practices. To date, 19 McDermott clients have received religious accommodations allowing them to serve.

David Singh

David Singh

Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP

David Singh’s interest in the law can be traced back to his high school debate team. As a member of one of the top high school debate teams in the country, he realized that he enjoyed the strategy and competition of debate, and that “becoming a lawyer seemed like a natural next step given my aptitude for and love of argumentation, public speaking and advocacy.” This initial experience has served him well as a litigator. Singh’s practice at Weil covers all aspects of complex commercial litigation in state and federal courts
throughout the country. He has litigated a wide variety of disputes, including consumer class actions, trade secret misappropriation and employee mobility disputes, breach of contract, fraud, and product liability cases, among others.

“I knew even before law school that I wanted to be a litigator. My particular focus in litigation, however—consumer class actions—picked me. During my first week at Weil, a new client visited the firm seeking assistance with what became a massive ten-year (and counting) litigation. Through the tedious initial task of document review, I learned our case cold and this led to increasingly substantive opportunities, including client contact, depositions, oral argument and trial experience. Experience beget experience, as my reputation for initiative and strong substantive skills led to additional opportunities,” Singh said. In addition to representing clients in high-profile class actions, Singh serves as a leader of Weil’s Class Action Task Force, editor of Weil’s Class Action Monitor, and regularly speaks and writes on significant class action issues. Singh was recognized by Law360 as a “Legal Lion” for recent work on several high profile consumer class actions and named one of the “40 under 40” by the Daily Journal, a recognition
of rising legal stars in the State of California.

The strategic challenge of litigation is what appeals to Singh. “I love the intellectual and strategic aspects of litigation. Each case is a chess match and each move must be carefully taken in light of your client’s goals and your adversary’s likely countermove. You always need to think several steps ahead,” he said. But, he also finds that the argumentative nature of litigation can sometimes lead to professional uncivility. “I strive to establish a good relationship with opposing counsel from the onset—treating them as I would like to be treated. In my experience, this generally leads to increased cooperation, less wasteful disputes, and better outcomes for clients,” he said.

Wilson L. White

Wilson L. White

Public Policy & Government Relations Director,

Wilson White knew he wanted to be a lawyer early in his educational career in the public schools in rural South Carolina. And, like many children of his generation, exposure to a television show planted a professional seed. “I had an inkling that I wanted to be a lawyer in second grade after a field trip to the county courthouse. I was already a fan of the TV show ‘Matlock,’ but the visit to the courthouse added a dose of reality to what it meant to be a lawyer. I was intrigued by the hard work that went into problem solving and the intellectual rigor associated with truth finding. Although I went on to study computer engineering and worked as a software developer for a short stint, I eventually came around to my childhood passion,” White said.

White followed that passion and truth finding all the way to his current position as a public policy & government relations director at Google, where he is the global policy lead for the company’s mobile and hardware businesses. He also advises on policy implications of emerging tech issues, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, internet of things, fintech and virtual reality. Like many of our Rising Stars, Wilson’s professional path marries his technical expertise with his legal skills.

“I started my legal career as a federal judicial law clerk, then as a patent litigator. I pursued a career in patent law since I had the technical background, but litigation was my real passion. It was the source of my initial attraction to the practice of law. As a kid, I knew I wanted to be in the courtroom. More recently, my work has involved public policy and government relations, which is more focused on prospectively shaping legal frameworks. Focusing on what the law should be is an interesting area that I am beginning to really enjoy,” he said.

White said that the “cutting edge nature of the work” is what he loves most about his job. “Whether it is contemplating the impact of machine learning systems on jobs or ensuring that artificial intelligence algorithms don’t exacerbate already existing instances of bias and discrimination, there is never a dull day. The demanding intellectual discourse is exciting,” he said. He concedes, like many of his colleagues, that the long hours are a drag. “There really is no way around it. The work I do now is global in scope, so I am up early working with teams in Europe and up late working with colleagues and in Asia,” White said.

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