Employment Law: Patricia Holland

By Arthur O. Murray

Being a lawyer wasn’t Patricia Holland’s first choice. She wanted to nab criminals the way characters on The FBI television show did. As a kid, the Raleigh native plastered the walls of rooms with the latest circulars of bad guys on the G-men’s most-wanted list. “My poor parents put up with my obsession.”

As college approached, she changed her mind. She decided to become a lawyer, she says, but not just any lawyer. “I wanted to become a federal prosecutor to work with FBI agents.” After finishing law school at Wake Forest University, she went to work as an assistant U.S. attorney in Raleigh. She was part of the team that defeated an appeal of the 1979 triple-murder conviction of Jeffrey McDonald. After three years as a federal prosecutor, she joined Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, where she has been ever since. But she still didn’t find her niche as an employment lawyer right away. “I started out as a litigator.”

Things changed in 1988. “When the first employment-law case came into the firm, no one else had any experience. I volunteered, and it was love at first sight.” The roundabout path she took to her specialty, she says, has given her an advantage. “What I found was that a lot of employment lawyers are not trained as litigators. It’s made for an interesting skill set.”

She uses it most often in defending sexual-harassment cases. “I have some very strong feelings about that. The majority of cases do not have merit, and those that do get diluted a bit by the fact that so many people claim it. That offends me as a woman.” Her strategy is to attack the plaintiff’s case during pretrial depositions. “I approach that phase like a Mack truck. There’s usually an underlying motivation for bringing the case.” It’s often fear of a bad performance review or something else in the plaintiff’s life, she says.

Tom Farr, an employment lawyer for Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in Winston-Salem, recently got to see Holland’s work on a case they handled together, and he praises her skill and willingness to go to trial in a field in which most cases are settled out of court. “She conducted one of the best cross-examinations of an expert witness that I’ve ever seen. Most experienced employment lawyers have done five to 10 jury trials. She’s done more than 50.”

Alene Mercer, a colleague at Cranfill Sumner, has never been in a deposition with her but has read transcripts. “Just when you couldn’t think of anything else to ask, she can think of another five hours of questions. She can get witnesses to go places they never planned with testimony.”

Nevertheless, Holland spends about half her time training executives on how to avoid lawsuits. “I have reached the conclusion over the years that litigation is not the way to go. Having a litigator doing preventive work is good because you can help the client avoid claims and get them ready for what they would face if they do have a claim.”

Outside the office, she enjoys scuba diving and taking care of her dogs, Cane, a golden retriever, and Riley, a Labrador retriever. Both came from shelters, where she works to free animals with the same zeal that she once had for locking up criminals. “I’ve been bringing rescued creatures into our home since childhood.”