Long before President Obama thrust Sonia Sotomayor into the spotlight by nominating her for the U.S. Supreme Court, she was a corporate attorney with an interesting specialty: designer handbags.
Fake designer handbags, to be exact.
Sotomayor spent eight years at New York firm Pavia & Harcourt, where she represented Italian luxury goods retailer Fendi in its fight against knockoff handbags bearing the designer’s logo. Fendi was one of Sotomayor’s major clients when she was an associate and later a partner specializing in intellectual property litigation.
Sotomayor worked at the firm between 1984 to 1992, following a stint as an assistant district attorney in New York City and before her appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H.W. Bush. President Clinton later elevated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2d Circuit.
Much of her work at Pavia & Harcourt involved assisting the makers of luxury Italian good against counterfeiters, said Richard L. Mattiaccio, a former colleague of Sotomayor who assumed her caseload when she left.
“She was very skilled,” said Mattiaccio, now a litigation partner at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey. “She came to the firm without any civil practice background, but she learned very quickly.”
She was also fearless, said Steven Skulnik, another former colleague from Pavia & Harcourt who now works at Squire Sanders. He recalled tagging along when Sotomayor accompanied a police raid on a suspected counterfeiting operation in a Harlem storefront during the late 1980s.
“I was crouched in the van, waiting for things to clear up, and Sonia goes running out with the investigators,” Skulnik said. “She got a thrill out of the cops and robbers stuff. It’s not something you expect to see from a corporate attorney.”
Sotomayor’s eight years with Pavia & Harcourt weren’t entirely about luxury handbags or protecting Italian carmakers Fiat and Ferrari, Skulnik said. She also dealt with mundane legal matters such as grain export contract disputes.
“Some of it was sexy, like the fashion stuff, and some of it was very unsexy,” Skulnik said. “But she’s one of the hardest working lawyers I’ve ever met.”
Sotomayor is becoming a household name, but Pavia & Harcourt isn’t likely to ring too many bells outside the legal world. The firm’s Web site listed 18 attorneys as of May 26. It had about 30 attorneys when Sotomayor was there, Skulnik said.
The main office is on New York’s Madison Avenue; branches are located in Paris and Milan.
Pavia & Harcourt practices corporate; banking; media and entertainment; estate planning and administration; and immigration law. Most clients are European manufacturers entering the U.S. market, Mattiaccio said. Pavia & Harcourt touts its attorneys’ fluency in Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
The firm was founded in 1940 specifically to represent Italian companies in the United States — particularly fashion companies, Mattiaccio said.
“If somebody’s got a product or a service they want to distribute elsewhere, that’s the firm’s bread and butter,” Skulnik said
Managing partner George M. Pavia did not return calls for comment on Sotomayor’s nomination — an assistant said he was inundated with interview requests following the nomination announcement. He told the Washington Post earlier this month that he had been “instantly impressed” with Sotomayor during the hiring process. Sotomayor’s fluency in Spanish was a plus. So was her personal story of rising from public housing to the legal profession.
Mattiaccio — who started at the firm the year before Sotomayor did — said that Pavia & Harcourt worked ardently to bring her on board.
“We worked hard to recruit her,” he said. “She had other options.”
One benefit of the small firm was that new attorneys would have the opportunity to build an international practice and get court experience early on.
“It was a hands-on practice and a dynamic atmosphere,” Mattiaccio said. “There was a lot of European investment in the U.S. at the time. She wanted to try cases and argue in court, rather than be a mid-level person on a large legal team [at a large law firm].”
Pavia & Harcourt made a commitment to train her quickly on civil litigation, an area in which she had no experience., he said.
Mattiaccio counts himself among those who believe that Obama made a smart choice.
“I think she will bring a very careful reading of the facts,” he said. “My experience with her is that she is very interested in the law, but she doesn’t get into the law until she really understands the facts. That’s a typical trial lawyer’s approach.”