Nikki Nesbitt Profiled in Trial Network News

By: GDLD | 12.20.23 | Media

Goodell DeVries Managing Partner Nikki Nesbitt was profiled in the Q4 issue of Trial Network News. Nikki has served on the Trial Network's Board of Directors and was its Chair in 2020. 

Nikki Nesbitt - Employment Law, Medical Malpractice, Commercial LitigationHow do you describe your practice?
I’m part of my firm’s large healthcare practice, representing hospital systems and providers in the regional area of Maryland, Washington, DC, and Virginia. I represent hospitals and individual healthcare providers in professional malpractice cases, and I also represent the healthcare systems in employment, premises liability, and commercial liability matters. Outside the healthcare industry, I handle commercial litigation, focusing on business disputes, contract disputes, and employment and public accommodations matters.

What is your approach to client service? How does it set you apart?
I have the privilege of representing clients with active businesses that have an assortment of legal needs, from general counseling to large disputes in the court systems. Frequent contact with my clients has allowed me to form relationships with the in-house counsel, who feel comfortable calling me because they know I can answer a lot of their minor questions without billing.

This is especially true on the employment side because so many situations are small at first. In-house counsel have a lot of experience in these matters, but often they like to get an outside counsel perspective to confirm whether their line of thinking is consistent with the litigation perspective. When matters blow up, hopefully they have better defenses from collaborating with me along the way.

What are the biggest leadership challenges you’re facing as the firm’s Managing Partner?
One of the biggest issues has been that we have a lot of partners retiring. Our firm was created by a group of young lawyers about 35 years ago, and those lawyers are now heading toward retirement. The biggest task has been finding the best way for those partners to transition their successful practices to younger attorneys. It is time intensive, but we're having very good success doing that on an individual basis.

Along the same lines, we are focused on identifying which practice areas to retain, expand, or pull back from, in response to the way the legal landscape has evolved. We have retained our key practice areas, including product liability and healthcare, while expanding on the commercial litigation side. We also took on a smaller but really beneficial IP transactional practice in early 2022, which is our first effort to reach outside of litigation.

Another challenge we had – and this is just a sign of the times – was our lease renewal this year. With all the changes to the way people work, we had to decide whether we were going to renew or modify our lease, or whether we would move to another space. Ultimately, we decided to reduce the size of our space and renovate it to tailor it to the number of attorneys now working in the office. I think it was a good decision, but I also wouldn’t be terribly surprised if we end up needing more space before the next renewal.

Are there particular legal issues you see heating up?
Our appellate practice has become busy handling nuclear jury verdicts both in and outside of Maryland. We always had a strong group of appellate attorneys to take on appeals in cases that our firm tried, but now our appellate group has independent sources of cases that were not tried by our firm, some of which were pretty high profile.

Another new issue we see has to do with new laws amending the statute of limitations for sexual assault claims. We have a good reputation for handling workplace violence and sexual assault claims in the healthcare space, and other types of businesses and organizations are now approaching us to handle these matters in other contexts. It is one of the most acutely growing areas of litigation around here.

I'm also seeing some states expanding protected employment status beyond the traditional race, gender, sex, and ethnicity, to things that are a little bit more nuanced, like obesity. It's really interesting to see how well those claims play out in litigation, and it’ll be interesting to see which states expand their protections.

What made you decide to become a lawyer?
Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, it wasn't to do what I'm doing now. I don't have any lawyers in my family. I went to law school because I was a criminal justice major, and I was interested in the law enforcement and criminal investigation side of the law. At some point, I learned there were different paths to get into the FBI, one of which was going to law school.

I soon learned that the FBI lifestyle, including moving around quite a bit, was not compatible with what I wanted in life, but I continued with law school because I was drawn to the litigation-oriented classes. After my first year, I put my resume out to find summer employment and was hired by a civil litigation firm. That summer, I rotated through all of their practice areas, and I really enjoyed working on medical malpractice and premises liability cases.

The next summer, I decided to look for a Baltimore-area litigation firm that had a strong medical malpractice group, and that’s how I ended up at Goodell. I’ve been here ever since.

Tell me about one of the most interesting cases you’ve handled.
The public accommodations cases I’ve worked on for the healthcare industry and restaurant clients have been very interesting, especially in regard to the transgender population.

My first case in this area was eight years ago and involved a transgender individual who claimed she did not receive appropriate healthcare because of her gender identity. At the time, I knew very little about the population and related issues, so it was very interesting to learn all angles, from what it takes to accommodate someone who has a protected status many don’t understand, to how to educate people so they don't violate laws inadvertently, and also how to be respectful and how to best interact with the plaintiffs.

Since that time, I’ve handled a lot of discrimination claims based on transgender status, so I’ve developed a level of comfort and expertise in that area. I also handle cases where the plaintiff is transgender, but their gender identity is not related to the claim, and my knowledge about and comfort with the community is still very helpful. I didn't set out to do this as a niche, but it has turned out to be really valuable since, even after all this time, it’s difficult for some people to understand.

You’ve been at Goodell for your entire career, which is an anomaly these days. What drew you to the firm, and what has kept you there?
I have had such a good experience learning and developing at Goodell that I have always felt at home here, but a lot of things have gone into deciding to stay. About four years into my career, I had an opportunity to join the FBI as an attorney (not as a law enforcement agent, but still similar to what my original goal had been). The opportunity sounded amazing, but it was clear that it was highly structured and formalistic.

What stopped me from taking the job was the thought of losing the autonomy I have always had at this firm. We have always promoted autonomy to do work on terms that accommodate your life, so long as the work gets done. Even as a new associate, long before people regularly worked from home, I never felt obligated to be in the office every day at a certain time. When I had young kids, sometimes I had to leave at three in the afternoon and then work later at night. There has never been any pressure to keep to a structured schedule, and that is important.

My firm is also great about getting new attorneys plugged in and doing active work from the start; they're placed on teams, they do forward-facing work with clients, and they take on important assignments early in their career, which accelerates their development into strong trial attorneys.

I try to maintain the qualities I’ve appreciated and modify our approach for the present moment, especially now that we have people working from home. These things were so important in my decision to stay with the firm, so we need to do the same for our new hires today.

As a smaller firm, what challenges do you face in recruiting new associates?
Our firm has about 44 attorneys, and our only office is in Baltimore, which puts us at a bit of a disadvantage in the region for recruiting. We're close to Washington, DC, and we are surrounded by firms whose Baltimore office is one of many offices. Those firms have more resources, so we have to find recruits who care specifically about our clients, the specific kind of work we do, and our culture.

A firm like ours is attractive to laterals who originally went into law thinking it didn't matter what kind of law they practiced, and then realized they were not having a fulfilling experience working behind the scenes at a large law firm. Associates in those firms may be seven years out of law school but haven’t done a deposition. At our firm, they could be partners trying cases by that time. That’s the message we try to drive home in our recruiting.

What sets Goodell apart from its competitors?
There's an incredible feeling of community and support. Our attorneys are part of litigation teams and don’t spend their days isolated in the back room. We have a tremendous group of partners who care very much about the younger attorneys’ development of long-term relationships with clients.

We are also on the verge of being a women-owned business, with about 48% women partners, not due to any specific effort but because it's a naturally occurring thing. That definitely sets us apart.

Our client base is also second-to-none. If someone wants to work for large, prestigious healthcare organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and hospital systems in the area, our firm is the place to be. We may not be able to compete with big firms’ salaries, but we can compete with client prestige, fascinating work, and a positive workplace culture.

Tell me about your experience with The Trial Network. How did you initially get involved, and what has motivated you to be such an active participant?
Our firm joined The Trial Network within a few years of its inception. My mentor and the firm's previous Managing Partner, Linda Woolf, was one of the first active women attorneys in the Network and became its first woman Chair. Linda first pulled me in to help her develop presentations for the Network programs. After a while, she invited me to attend the New York programs, and at the time, very few women and younger people in general attended Network events.

When the previous Executive Director retired, I was asked to join the search committee for his replacement, and that's when I really started becoming active in leadership. The progression from intermittently attending events alongside more senior partners, to getting on committees, and then ultimately joining the executive board happened quickly. I was Chair of the Network in 2020 – unfortunately bad timing in terms of having in-person networking events – and continue to be as actively involved as I can.

The Network has been tremendously beneficial to my practice and to many other attorneys in our firm, since referrals of all kinds – including matters that fall outside of my practice – come through our Network connections.

What advice would you give someone attending their first Trial Network event?
One of the best things a new attendee can do is create relationships with other Network members. It is great to meet clients, but I believe it is more beneficial to create relationships with attorneys from Network firms. Client attendees may not be the same from one event to another, but you'll always see some familiar member attorneys. It's especially great to connect with a Network member who does some of the same type of work as you or has similar practice interests.

The WIN Society has been so beneficial and is perhaps a little more user-friendly for newer women attorneys who are overwhelmed by the networking process. It's great that women can start by meeting and building community with the other women, so the 200-person dinners at the large programs are more enjoyable with those familiar faces in the room.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The Network has a lot of intangible, difficult-to-measure benefits. Like all Network firms, Goodell DeVries joined the Network for the referrals – it's meant to drive business, for sure – but being able to bounce ideas off of attorneys in other parts of the U.S. who are practicing the same kinds of law and handling some of the same legal and business issues, is incredibly valuable and very difficult to measure.

I’ve also developed such supportive friendships through the Network. Those relationships have been incredibly impactful in my professional and personal life.

It's difficult to articulate the full scope of benefits we've received from the Network because you can't always measure it in financial data, but being involved has really supported my practice and my career as a whole. A lot.