Appellate Attorney & Author – M.C. Sungaila – S3E28

This week on the Legally Speaking Podcast, our host Robert Hanna welcomed M.C. Sungaila onto the show.

M.C. Sungaila is an Appellate Chair at Buchalter, and based in California. She’s also an award-winning author, having published two non-law books in her spare time.

For her legal work, she’s won numerous awards, including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Award from the Women Lawyers’ Association of Los Angeles. M.C. also holds multiple leadership positions on the boards of local community and bar organisations.

In this episode she shares:

  • Her reasons for becoming an appellate lawyer
  • Why she decided to write two non-law books in her free time
  • The experience of moving firms in a pandemic
  • More on her mentoring and training initiative
  • Why she does so much pro-bono work, and some of the highlights of this
  • Her key pieces advice for young legal professionals and aspiring lawyers


Rob Hanna (00:00):

Welcome to the Legally Speaking Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Hanna today, I’m delighted to be joined by M.C. Sungalia. In late 2020 M.C. Moved law firms to become the first appellate practice chair at an AmLaw one 50 firm. Hiring and training new associates virtually. M.C. Has been described as a phenomenal writer having published two non-legal books through her own legal press, imprinted and winning an independent publishing award for an earlier book. Mary recently launched the mother’s thoughts for the day website, a merchandise site associated with the book. During the pandemic Mary also founded an online appellate, Law Summer Academy with the Orange County bar association to provide law students with practical knowledge and experience. So a very, very big welcome M.C.

M.C. Sungaila (00:55):

Thank you so much, Rob, for having me.

Rob Hanna (00:58):

It’s an absolute pleasure. And before we dive into all of your amazing achievements and legal experiences to date, we must start with our customary icebreaker question on the Legally Speaking Podcast which is, on the scale of one to 10, 10 being very real. How real would you rate the reality TV series suits?

M.C. Sungaila (01:19):

Okay. So Rob, I knew about the Suits question. I was starting off getting me nervous here because I, in fact, I’ve never seen suits. I got rid of my TV like 10 years ago and I just really haven’t regularly watched programs, but from what I can see, it does not look very realistic. I wish we all dressed as glamorously and, other things from what I’ve seen from the trailers. So I would rate it pretty low on the reality part. I would say also, just as a side note, when I was a newer lawyer, I did a column for our legal newspaper where I rated the practice, law, last series four. It’s a sort of reality checked that series every week. So I actually had to watch it do a column and compare what happened on that show with what would have really happened in real life.

Rob Hanna (02:14):

There we go. Well, that’s super, super interesting. So based on that, I think we’re going to give it a sort of below five and move on and we must move on because there’s a lot we need to talk about today, but let’s start at the beginning. Tell us a bit about your family background and upbringing.

M.C. Sungaila (02:30):

Uh, sure. So I largely grew up in California, lived in the Midwest for a little bit, but most, almost my entire life in California. I live now in Orange County, California, where I went to high school. My parents also still live here, so I have,, two, two parents, no lawyer in the family. So there is no sense where the idea that I had when I was very young, that I wanted to be a lawyer. We don’t know where that came from, but, so no lawyers, my dad is in, was in aerospace and in finance so much more black and white than I think we deal with law. And, I went to Stanford, undergrad, and UCLA for law school. And then I clerked for two different federal judges, before going into practice.

Rob Hanna (03:29):

There we go. So you didn’t have a legal family background per se. So when did that initial spark to, or intrigue to wishing to become a lawyer come about?

M.C. Sungaila (03:40):

Well, I decided to become a lawyer. I think when I was about eight and I had given it deep thought, you know, everybody asks you when you’re little, you know, what do you want to be when you grow up? And I would always tell people that I hadn’t decided I was still reviewing the options and I would let them know. I suppose that was a hint that perhaps I might be a lawyer, but you know, people look at me funny and go, well, we just want to know a cute little answer kid. But, my first thought of what I wanted to do actually was that I wanted to be a writer specifically a poet. And then after thinking that that is what I wanted to do, I had an image of me starving in a Garret. I wasn’t sure where to Garrett was, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to starve. So I thought maybe I should turn directions to a career that would be self-sustaining. And, and I came to decide on the law and as it turns out, the kind of life practice appellate law, where we’re largely writing briefs to judges and then having discussions, conversations with them about the case, that’s the closest you can get to pure writing within the law. So I feel like eventually I merged those two interests into my practice.

Rob Hanna (04:57):

Yeah. And I, I love that and you’ve not been afraid of, of making some, great connections and networks and moves. And on that note last year, you made the move from Hays and Boone, I believe to Buchalter as the firm’s first appellate practice chair. So what was that like and what have you found to be the biggest challenges particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic?

M.C. Sungaila (05:21):

Oh, yes. Uh, I would say don’t, don’t try this at home ladies and gentleman, it is definitely a challenge. It’s definitely a challenge to move law firms during the pandemic, because it’s difficult to integrate in the same way. You have to be much more intentional about integrating under the team, getting familiar with the team, their strengths and managing and leading and working with them is this has many more challenges, especially when they’re spread out. Um, and you can’t go visit them. So you have to be more creative. And, but it was, you know, really cool opportunity. The practice was founded 30 years ago, by a former California Supreme Court Justice when he retired from the bench. So it has a very, you know, deep, original pedigree. And then after that, the practices continued on without a leader for 30 years. So I’m very excited to, to have taken the reins and, and worked with that and starting to, as you mentioned in the beginning too, to think about longevity of training, next generation of lawyers, both within the firm and outside the firm. And how can we do that? Especially during this time when things again are more disjointed because of COVID and various lockdowns and restrictions on travel.

Rob Hanna (06:47):

Yeah. And absolutely. And we’re going to, we’re going to talk a bit more about that, because as you’ve mentioned, you you’ve taken over the current firm’s appellate practice in the middle of this pandemic. So, you know, how has that been in terms of handling cases remotely and how did you find the process of hiring and training new associates virtually?

M.C. Sungaila (07:07):

Yes. Okay. So that’s two part question. So the first part question would be how is our practice really adapted to the, to the environment? And I think that with appellate law, we, we kept moving, very similarly to how we have before, because we’re, we’re largely just filing briefs and those get filed the same way, whether, you know, electronically , the differences in the oral arguments. So all of the oral arguments are remote, whether it’s by zoom or telephone or some other method, video, so video or audio. And that has been not only an adjustment, but I think that immediately, and I think in the longer run that will have a, it has an impact on how you present argument. It isn’t just a change in venue or how you’re doing it. The whole format of the argument changes a little bit becomes more formal, less conversational. So that’s been the biggest adjustment in a appellate practice overall is adjusting to the remote arguments. And then, yeah, in terms of hiring and training, so hiring, you know, zoom interviews for sure of people. And when I could, I would meet them in person outside, you know, distanced and all of that. I think it’s helpful to see people in person, if you can. And in terms of candidates really got a lot of good candidates from judges who recommended people who had externed or clerked for them. And that was my kind of work around of getting a good pool. A good initial pool of candidates was to ask the judges for their recommendations.

Rob Hanna (08:56):

I love that. And I, I liken that to what I tend to speak to people around is working warm. Who do you know, in your network who can introduce you to someone who perhaps do not know outside of your network? So that’s a, that’s a great strategy. That’s obviously been very successful for you. So you’re also an award winning writer. So did you always have a passion for writing?

M.C. Sungaila (09:16):

Uh, yes. Well, as I said, I had originally thought I would be a poet and then, decided maybe I’d just write for myself. And then, and then I dabbled a few years ago in taking some creative writing classes, thinking that, you know, maybe this would be something short story writing or something like that, that I would want to do to transition out of practice at some point, but you know, everybody has their sort of mid-life or whatever view of should I have taken another path. And I can confirm that my classes in creative writing further affirmed that I took the right path, that probably I’m not a full-time writer in part, because I think being a writer is very isolating and you have to be a different person to, to be a writer. And I really like people and writing in a way that has a purpose. I mean, that’s what we do as appellate lawyers. We write to achieve a particular result or to make a change in the law. And so there’s always a connection with what you’re writing directly with an impact in the real world. And that isn’t the same thing with creative writing. So I could do it, but I don’t know that I like the person I’d be if I did it all the time. So I decided, okay, not all the time, but then, but then I started this, independent publishing press and started doing books anyway. Not, not, not deep legal books, but really kind of inspirational gift books for, for people and particularly for, for families and the mother’s thoughts for the day series. And, yeah, I would say that doing that publishing and the merchandise and everything, the whole brand around it has been an amazing help or, you know, adjunct to being a lawyer and to do, to doing other kinds of business as well.

M.C. Sungaila (11:11):

I’ve learned a lot from doing that, more sensitive to my clients about what things they’re, they’re dealing with on a business level. And also, I really did that whole project on instinct because I felt that the world needed some positivity amidst turmoil and that this would be something that would, even if it just touched a few people, would be worth doing, because it would be a positive contribution to the world. I had no idea who those people would be. I had no idea how the book would be received, but I just had a feeling that it was something that should be done. So I went with it and figured it out. And I think as a result that I kind of go with my gut more in my law practice to that, I don’t ignore those feelings when I have them.

Rob Hanna (11:59):

Yeah, no, I love that. And that kind of answers one of the questions I was, I was going to mention around, you mentioned that your first sort of non-legal book was mother’s thoughts for the day, which I believe was released in 2019. And you’ve kind of touched on it there and, and sort of, it’s quite a bold move as you’d like to write a book that wasn’t related to the law. So is there anything else you would, you would share around that?

M.C. Sungaila (12:22):

Yes, so, well, I mean, we’re, we’re more than just lawyers, right? We’re people, and we can contribute to the world in other ways. And for me, it was tied to the law a little bit in, in that the book is based on letters that my mother sent me every day since I started practicing law. So every day from the day I started law practice, even when I was in law school, she would mail me a letter. Now she would text me, but she would mail me a letter with some quote or something positive for the day, so that when I was in the office alongside all the deposition notices and all the other stuff I would get, I, every day I would get a letter in the mail from my mom with some kind of positive thing for the day and so that’s, you know, over 25 years of that, which was remarkably persistent of her to do, but it really did make a difference. And I thought maybe there are others, especially young women lawyers who don’t have that kind of encouragement and having, you know, some of these notes in a curated way might encourage them during the day. And, and that’s in fact been the case. That’s what I’ve heard from a lot of professional women and also for families that, mothers and children will, you know, read parts of the book at bedtime or to start the day, or they’ll write out some of the quotes from the book or similar comments in the book into little notes in the lunch pail kind of thing for their kids. And so it’s just been really neat that it’s allowed for more family, more families to connect in addition to ours, and also has encouraged, you know, women to carry on if they’re having a rough day, in business or, or in the law.

Rob Hanna (14:13):

Yeah. And I love that. And the takeaway from that for me is what I tend to tell you to a lot of people is be a human first, and then you can be your profession, so human than a lawyers. And that’s just absolutely, I love everything that you were saying there M.C. And okay. We mentioned earlier during the summer, you founded the online Appellate Law Summer Academy for law students and new graduates. So can you tell us why you decided to do this and what that particular program consists of?

M.C. Sungaila (14:42):

Sure. So it grew out of two things. One thing in particular, honestly, the power of LinkedIn, I will say this. So on early in the summer, while we were all still fully in lockdown the North Carolina court of appeals posted that they were turning their externship program into an online training Academy for appellate law. And that, you know, they would open that up to other law students who weren’t in the externship program. And I thought this seemed like a great thing, because there were a lot of students either who were waiting to take the bar and had to delay it or, or couldn’t do their summer programs. And so they, they needed to do something productive during that summertime and to continue to learn and they couldn’t do it by going to an ordinary bar program because they weren’t happening.

M.C. Sungaila (15:39):

So based on the North Carolina program and the fact that our own Orange County bar association here in California was doing a lot of online programming like this anyway and hadn’t done anything though for law students or new graduates. We decided to do this Appellate Law Online Academy, and it was four sessions at the end of it the students got a certificate showing that they had done this, and there were really great judges and experienced practitioners covering everything from brief writing to oral argument. And even we had a session on jobs and appellate law. Like if you want to be an appellate lawyer, where would you go? And how would you go about, you know, looking for that job and what settings could you practice in everything from being a research attorney for a judge to practicing in government or in private firms? So, so we did that and we had hundreds of students, take that program. And, and so as a result, we’re continuing to do some programming during the year, and then we’re going to do another Academy, next summer with different coverage.

M.C. Sungaila (16:49):

And honestly doing that online Academy led me to think about other ways that we can continue to grow the pipeline of lawyers who want to do appellate work, because there aren’t a lot of jobs in that area and it can be a hard, a difficult on-ramp to get onto if you don’t have a federal clerkship or you want to get a federal clerkship with a judge, which is very competitive, you know, is there some other way, if someone thinks they have an interest that they can get some training in it? When I came to Beau culture, we founded the Calf Men Appellate Fellowship. And we have our first fellow that started in the fall. And that’s designed for one to two year program for either a new law school graduate or someone with a trial court clerkship who wants to go on to appellate clerkship. And we, work with them and train them and give them opportunities and appellate law. And then we help them, you know, off-ramp to a clerkship. And if they’d like to come back, they can come back, you know, and, and we all want everyone to come back. Then they can possibly also leverage a fellowship into a full-time position with the firm.

Rob Hanna (18:01):

Yeah. And that sounds super, super helpful. And I’m glad that you’ve kind of taken that initiative and it’s thriving. You are deeply committed to pro bono work as well. I believe you’ve served as counsel of record in one or more pro bono appeals each year for over 20 years, I believe before the U.S Supreme court and international courts, just to name a few. So as someone who’s clearly so passionate about pro bono work, why do you think, there is a need for this now, perhaps more than ever as a result of the current climate?

M.C. Sungaila (18:36):

Yes. There are additional needs, certainly now. For me, pro bono work is forever intertwined with my interest in appellate practice. My first case, my first brief that I worked on when I was quite young, was an Amicus brief in the U.S Supreme court, and that’s what made me realize that I wanted to do appellate work. So I guess in some way, I feel like by continuing to do that, I’m continually sort of honoring the part of the practice that, that showed me that this is what I wanted to do. And, also, it’s really part of my upbringing. We just kind of, I was taught that when you have something to give you, you share it. So, so I have some skills and some time to give. So, so that’s what I’ve done. And it’s really satisfying because I think especially at the appellate level, what we can make a really big difference, uh, with one case, you know, if it’s at the U.S Supreme court or the international human rights court, we can make law that not only helps the people in this case, but helps a lot of other people.

M.C. Sungaila (19:41):

So there’s a lot of efficiencies built into doing pro bono appellate work. That isn’t the same when you’re doing one person at a time in the, in the trial courts. So there’s a really big upside to doing that work in terms of, in terms of the impact. And, you know, one case that I worked on was in the Inter-American court of human rights in Costa Rica, a case against Mexico where I represented Amnesty International and hundreds of other law professors and human rights organisations. And the question was the first interpretation of a women’s rights treaty, really in the world in terms of protecting women and girls from, from violence and the case involved decades of unsolved killings and assaults of women and girls in Ciudad Juarez, which had gone, you know, unprosecuted for years. So that when the decision came out, it was what it was the first decision interpreting a human rights treaty or, or women’s rights treaty and human rights treaty in that context and it’s been very influential in other human rights courts, including in Europe.

Rob Hanna (20:56):

Brilliant. And thank you so much for sharing that that’s really insightful, so very appreciated. And we have to move on because you are regularly ranked as one of the top women lawyers recognized as one of California’s top women lawyers, according to the daily journal for 10 years running and winning the distinguished service award for the Women’s Lawyers Association of Los Angeles. So I’ve got a very important question. How do you do it?

M.C. Sungaila (21:24):

Well, not all at once, usually, you know, sequentially, I think that if you enjoy what you’re doing, then, then you’re energized by it and, and you keep you keep going. And I think always the question is, you know, how, how can I serve or who can I serve at this point, whether it’s the community, whether it’s your clients or whether it’s the larger good,

Rob Hanna (21:47):

Brilliant. Yeah. And I love that and I love how humble you are as well in your, your, your response and your you’re no stranger to the media either. Um, you’re a highly recognized public speaker featuring as a guest on Bloomberg Law, January Riches, I believe Lawpreneur, if I’m getting that right, podcast. So tell our listeners, what sort of things you tend to get interviewed for. Um, so they can have a bit of an idea.

M.C. Sungaila (22:12):

Oh sure. So, you know, Jeremy interviewed me for business development questions and Bloomberg law interviewed me previously for about the U.S Supreme court cases involving the Holocaust art recovery, because I have worked on a few of those cases and in fact, filed a cert petition myself in another case last year. And actually they’re going to have me back on the decisions just occurred. So I’ll be back on their podcast next week, talking about the decisions. So women in the law. And also as I said, more, more generally sort of expertise on appellate cases and appellate strategy.

Rob Hanna (22:52):

Brilliant. And as we look to conclude M.C. I guess my final parting question will be, you know, what one piece of advice would you give to people starting out in their legal journey or people going through their current legal journey at the moment?

M.C. Sungaila (23:08):

I think too, I think there’s a one skill aspect and then the, the other, sort of a softer skill, right? So, so the first thing I would say is that as a new lawyer in particular, it’s important to really focus on, on the skills that you are becoming the best you can be and really excellent at your practice area. But I would amend that because a lot of people will say, Oh, just do that. That’s enough. I would amend that to say, you have to do that, but you also should be considering, your relationships and long-term because if you want to have independence to have a portable practice and to have frankly, a lot more fun in law practice, you really need to have clients that’s a very long game. So if you just start thinking about being active outside of your law firm or your practice group, you know, right before you’re up for partner, you know, 10 years out, you’re behind the game. So I think balancing the excellence in practice with also considering relationship building, I wouldn’t say necessarily business development, but relationship building, you know, even in law school and beyond that.

Rob Hanna (24:27):

Yeah. And that’s really great advice. I think that’s something also now with the level of platforms that are available, it becomes, a lot easier in certain respects to form those relationships, particularly in the online digital world that we’re in. So yeah, really, really loved that piece of advice. And I’m sure M.C, A lot of people are going to be very intrigued and want to know more about you following today. So if people want to follow or get in touch with you about anything we’ve discussed, which is the best platform for them to do that and feel free to shout out any web links or relevant social media, which we’ll also share with this episode for you.

M.C. Sungaila (25:02):

Sure. So the best way to get ahold of me is on LinkedIn. I’m active on LinkedIn, as you know, and, and also on my , law firms website, and also for the book and merchandise publishing side, that’s a mother’s thoughts for the

Rob Hanna (25:21):

Brilliant. Well, thanks. An absolute million embassy. It’s been a real pleasure having you on the show, listening to your journey truly, truly inspiring. So wishing you lots of continued success, but from all of us on the legally speaking podcast, the now over and out.

Rob Hanna (25:37):

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