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A Conversation With Stroock Alum Meredith Strauss

We recently caught up with Stroock alum Meredith Strauss. A former ballet dancer, collegiate rower and marathon runner, Meredith started her career at Stroock as a summer associate and worked with the firm for more than a decade. From complex commercial litigation to investor litigation to matrimonial law, Meredith discussed her career transitions, the valuable lessons she learned at Stroock, her mentors and how her ballet training has helped to make her a better litigator.

Q: You were at Stroock for a long time, 11 ½ years. Tell me about your time at Stroock. What did you enjoy most about working at the firm?

MS: I came to Stroock as a 1L summer associate, so the firm was my introduction to practicing law. I interviewed with other firms as a 2L, but decided to come back for a second summer. Then I continued at Stroock after graduating from Columbia. What drew me to Stroock initially were the people. I grew up in a small town in Georgia and I had gone straight from college to law school. It was important for me to feel a sense of community. The people at Stroock were genuine and supportive and I developed long-lasting friendships there. I’ve continued to be in touch with many of the people I worked with over the years.

Stroock also seemed invested in the development and training of young lawyers. I felt that I could develop my own style as a litigator. I wasn't expected to be like any other attorney, cut from a mold. I could learn how to be myself as a lawyer.

Q: Who were your greatest influences at the firm?

MS: I was mentored really well at Stroock, which is one of the reasons I was there for so long and why it was such a positive experience. Judge Brian Cogan was both a formal and informal mentor to me. There’s no substitute for learning on your feet and he made every effort to get associates into court. He had me argue a motion in federal court as a first-year associate. I was the youngest person by about 20 years in a courtroom packed with lawyers from all the big firms. Judge Cogan was always reminding associates that law is a service industry and that our clients expect us to be confident, available and responsive. He’d say that being a litigator is a 24-7 job. You’re always advocating for the client and figuring out solutions to complex problems. Those were important lessons that you don’t learn in law school.

Another key mentor for me was Mel Brosterman of the litigation department. I was very lucky that I got to try two cases with him in my second and third years at the firm. There are partners at big law firms who have never actually handled trials; but at an early stage in my career I got to be an important trial team member. Mel is a fabulous trial lawyer: nimble, quick thinking, a clear communicator and a skilled advocate. Working on those cases with Mel gave me a lot of confidence. I could see the litigation process through from start to finish. That early experience was very important in my career and to my development as a lawyer.

Q: Tell me about the work you’re handling now. Which types of cases do you most like to handle? Which do you find the most difficult?

MS: I’ve been at my current firm, Bronstein Van Veen LLC, for six years. We handle matrimonial matters, from prenuptial agreements to divorce and custody litigation for high-net-worth clients. Because many of our cases involve complicated financial issues and business assets, a lot of what I do is similar to the commercial litigation I handled at Stroock. One major difference is the level of press coverage of our cases—I was never photographed by the New York Post or the Daily Mail before coming into the matrimonial field! I’ve gotten to learn about the art market, real estate development and luxury goods, like appraising yachts and helicopters, while also developing expertise in a specialized area of the law. We recently won an appeal on an interesting issue, which will stop people from using seasonal homes to establish venue in other jurisdictions when they live primarily in Manhattan. Since I work with clients who are going through a challenging time in their lives, I do a lot of counseling, guiding people through what can be a very emotional and frustrating process. Another nice thing about matrimonial law is that you get to know the judges and the other lawyers in this area quite well, so it feels like a smaller community within the bar.

Q: You changed quite a bit from a focus on complex corporate law and then investor litigation to matrimonial and family law. What helped you in making the transition?

MS: My career path happened largely by accident. At each transition point, I looked for an opportunity to try something different that would build on my knowledge and experience. My last firm, Grais & Ellsworth, is a boutique firm focused on investor litigation, which was a hot area following the 2008 financial crisis. I was able to draw on my trial, discovery and motion practice experience. The firm had a great group of smart lawyers and it was a dynamic and busy atmosphere. As those cases came to a close, I happened upon my current firm, which was looking for someone with a commercial litigation background. All the skills I developed through the years are now put into use in a new way.

At every stage, I’ve been fortunate to find colleagues who are supportive and enjoyable to be around. My current firm is just three lawyers and an office manager, so we’re like a family. The head of the firm, Peter Bronstein, is another phenomenal teacher and mentor to me. I’m on my feet a lot, arguing motions, taking depositions and trying cases. Of course, I have a much more robust sense of myself as a lawyer and a broader set of skills to draw from than I did in that first oral argument when I was fresh out of law school.

Q: What did you learn at Stroock that proved to be particularly helpful in your career?

MS: Three major things come to mind: First, I learned effective legal writing. Clarity is so important in written advocacy, and we had terrific writing instructors and mentors at Stroock. Second, civil practice: Burt Lipshie gave a weekly course on New York CPLR and I learned a great deal from the docketing department and its managing clerks while at Stroock. Those rules and procedures are so important in the matrimonial field. To this day, I wish I could have the Stroock docketing department on speed dial. The third is the trial experience I gained – the bench trials with Mel, my many pro bono asylum cases, and a jury trial I handled with Dan Ross as a more senior associate. All of that experience helped me understand that everything you do as a litigator has to be viewed through the lens of a trial. At every stage of the case, you’re developing your themes and narrative and gathering your evidence. How will you tell this story to the judge? What are your strongest and weakest points? What are the other side’s strongest and weakest points? How will you get a particular document into evidence? All of these things are building blocks, creating a structure for the case.

Q: How has COVID-19 changed the way you practice?

MS: My office transitioned to remote work for a year, from mid-March 2020 until late spring 2021. During that year, I took almost a dozen depositions, argued motions, conducted document discovery, filed an appeal and brought in new clients—all while working out of my living room. After getting vaccinated, everyone at my firm came back to the office for the most part, but we maintain the flexibility that technology afforded everyone during lockdown, which contributes to a positive work/life balance.

Q. Did you find any silver linings during the pandemic?

MS: Definitely. I value efficiency very highly. Pandemic life was streamlined. There was no commuting so there was not a lot of lost time. Even now, court appearances are still on Microsoft Teams and they’re at a specific time for a specific duration. Instead of sitting in a packed courtroom for a three-hour calendar call and spending over an hour getting to the courthouse and back, you log on, do your half hour conference or argument and then go right into your next task. It benefits the clients and the lawyers, and probably the court personnel as well.

My firm has a lot of cases with an international element. Before Covid, we would have had to travel to Europe to take depositions in some of our cases, which is expensive, time consuming and inefficient. Now it’s all via Zoom.

I also feel more connected to and in command of my home life. Because I’m able to have more flexibility, I can pick my daughter up from school or ballet a few times a week and enjoy that extra time with her, which has been wonderful. Eating dinner together as a family and generally being more present (while still having two of the most productive years at work ever) has been a big silver lining.

Q. I read that you were a former pre-professional ballet dancer, a member of the women’s crew team in college and that you’ve run the NYC Marathon twice. How do you think sports have played into your career and life generally?

MS: Ballet was a huge part of my life for more than 20 years and prepared me for my career more than anything else. As a dancer, you are always trying to achieve perfection and constantly being corrected to get better and better at your technique. By comparison, being a lawyer is not nearly as intense. I am definitely a type A perfectionist in many ways, but as I get older I try to extend myself some grace. Brian Cogan taught me that most mistakes lawyers make can be corrected and that’s why it’s called the practice of law. Of course, we try hard not to make mistakes, but you have to figure out a way to calmly correct when things go wrong.

Like ballet, being a litigator is a type of performance, but it’s easier to stand up in court than it is to be on pointe shoes doing pirouettes on the stage.

Q. You did some impressive pro bono work while at Stroock, representing asylum-seekers from Iraq, Sierra Leone, Tibet and Guinea. What did you take away from those representations? If you’ve been able to stay in touch with any of those clients, how are they doing now?

MS: Those were the most meaningful experiences of my career. It meant a lot to me to represent these people, get to know them and witness their will to survive in the face of unthinkable horrors. They each found a way to flee to the U.S., which they saw as a safe and hopeful place. Then they arrived and had to go through the asylum process here, without speaking the language and had to relive the traumas through retelling of the persecution they went through. Several of those I represented are now American citizens. Some have brought over family members. One was a surgeon in his home country, but had to start over completely in the U.S. He worked as a custodian and had a night job as a security guard while getting his medical education here. Another of my former clients now has a Ph.D. and had a fellowship at MIT.

Q. I also read that you are a Sunday school teacher, Girl Scout Troop leader and a library volunteer. What made you decide to take on these roles and what do you enjoy most about them?

MS: My daughter was my inspiration to get involved in these areas. As a family, we became active in our church and I started teaching Sunday school when my daughter was small. Then when she was old enough, I became her Girl Scout Troop Leader. We have a great family tradition with the Girl Scouts. My mother and grandmother were troop leaders for their respective daughters. I grew up in a family where the women always served their community in all sorts of different ways. My daughter and I also serve in a soup kitchen. We look for where we’re needed and step in in ways that are meaningful to us. The library volunteering is at my daughter’s school. The library is a calming space for me. I love to read and be surrounded by books. Shelving books is just the most relaxing thing to me.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MS: I’m thinking more about the lessons I learned while at Stroock. There was a partner in the corporate department who taught me about the importance of networking and business development in your own way. As many young associates do, I felt at the time that those were things to focus on later, when I wasn’t just trying to figure out the most basic tasks and drowning in billable hours. That partner said that the best way to develop business is to make a friend. He meant that both life and your career are about building relationships. In your time outside of work, engaging in meaningful things that you enjoy will naturally build friendships. People come to know you and trust you, and that can lead to other connections and even to business opportunities. To be happy in life, you have to connect with others in a meaningful way, and that also happens to be how you build a reputation as a lawyer.