May 07, 2021

She's passionate about consumer protections, women's representation in leadership positions, and the practice of law.

This week, I had the opportunity to catch up with Victoria Nugent, who was recently appointed the co-chair of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC’s Consumer Protection Practice Group. It’s been almost four years to the day we last connected.

Ever since we met, I have admired Victoria and her mission as a consumer advocate. It is evident when speaking with her just how passionate she is about consumer protections, women’s representation in leadership positions, and the practice of law.

As someone with a background in health care, I often think about how digital solutions can help provide access to care, value, and equity — but they also can create a digital divide if they are not intentionally designed and regulated with a diverse population in mind.

Victoria and I touched upon this concept in our chat, along with several other similar sentiments. And she eloquently communicates these principles far better than I ever could. So, without further ado, here is a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our conversation:

Renwei Chung (RC): It’s been a little while since we last chatted, what have you been up to?

Victoria Nugent (VN): Earlier this year, I was thrilled to become co-chair of the firm’s Consumer Protection Practice. It’s a return to my roots, as this is the practice group I started in when I first joined Cohen Milstein 20 years ago. For the last 10 years, I’ve been working in the firm’s Public Client Practice Group, which I co-chaired from 2017 through 2020. The Public Client practice addresses consumer claims from a state attorney general perspective. So, there is significant overlap between the two groups –- these cases can be vigorously litigated from different perspectives using different tools.

Before I joined Cohen Milstein, I worked at Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy organization, where I focused on consumer impact litigation. Consumer protection has been a passion of mine that has been the foundation of my career, and I am incredibly excited for this next phase.

RC: Congratulations on your recent appointment to the firm’s Consumer Protection Practice Group, returning to the practice you started with 20 years ago! What are the biggest changes over the last 20 years in consumer protection?

VN: Consumer protection is a dynamic area of the law. The type of harm and misconduct that we come across is always changing, especially with the rise of the digital economy.

Key questions about how to regulate digital platforms, online retail, and the virtual service economy continue to evolve. It’s almost impossible for legislators to stay on top of innovation in this area and public enforcement doesn’t have the resources to be in all places at all times, so private enforcement is essential to regulating technological innovation. The rise of the micro-computer has had almost as profound an impact on traditional products.

One other area to watch is digital currency. As digital currencies gain traction, they may present substantial opportunities for unfair and deceptive trade practices. “The market” has already failed to provide basic, affordable banking services to millions of Americans. The mind boggles at the thought of unregulated, complicated currency being added to ordinary consumer transactions. But that day may come.

RC: You mentioned the rise of the digital economy, digital currencies, digital health, and data privacy. And I love your quote: “The economy is only working when markets are working for everyone.” How can we make sure these new, evolving markets work for everyone?

VN: The economy should reflect and be a proxy for our political system. Employment rates, consumer spending, and savings rates tell us if the system is really working for everyone.

The foundation of capitalism in a democracy is free and accurate information, but we know that this is not always the reality for many people. Our laws are not always enforced fairly and equally, and I view it as my job to identify these problem areas and find solutions.

This is critical for ensuring everyone in our society feels engaged and valued. People will not want to, and cannot, participate in markets and the economy if they are tilted toward special interests. They must be open and accessible to all.

RC: When we last spoke, you said “the civil justice system is the product of revolutionary and enlightened political theory, and as a lawyer I am privileged to play a part in it. It is remarkable that under the laws of this country, the least powerful individuals can challenge the most powerful institutions and vindicate their rights in a court of law.” Can you expand on this a bit more?

VN: The civil justice system is one of the most important tools we have for upholding our laws and ensuring accountability for those who exploit others. In court, the playing field is equal — it does not matter your age, background, or income.

Everyone has the opportunity to present their case in an impartial venue. It sends a message to powerful individuals or companies that you cannot act with impunity or disregard for your workers or consumers — if you violate the law, you will face consequences. That is how we root out wrongdoing and create a better economy and society for all.

RC: Much is written about the lack of diversity at law schools and law firms. What are your thoughts on this issue?

VN: While there has been some progress, the legal profession still has a long way to go. By a narrow margin, the majority of students enrolled in law school by my graduating year (1998) were women. But the disparities are stark when you start looking at who is being elevated to key positions at major firms.

Diversity in law school and firms is essential for the administration of justice. Having lawyers with different backgrounds and life experiences allows for new perspectives and interpretations of the law that might otherwise be overlooked as well as better management of firms.

RC: Cohen Milstein now has eight of its 10 practice groups co-led or led by women. Any advice for other law firms who lack representation in their leadership ranks?

VN: They need to take a hard look at themselves — because the lack of women in leadership is not because women lack the ability and drive. If women aren’t succeeding at firms, it’s almost certainly because of structural or cultural barriers.

More broadly, providing attorneys with the support and mentoring they need to succeed — and doing so in a meaningful, substantive way — is not something firms have always done well. But it’s critical for the development of a robust, diverse partnership.

RC: Over the last year, COVID-19 has taught our society quite a few lessons. What have you learned during this pandemic era?

VN: The pandemic has reinforced the need to protect ordinary people against powerful companies and corporations. We saw how so many essential workers were forced to work in dangerous conditions without the proper safety equipment.

To the extent that conduct was motivated by profit, it’s unconscionable. Bad actors have to know someone is watching and ready to hold them accountable, otherwise we will continue to reproduce the disparities that we have seen over the past year.

On a personal level, the pandemic has shown me how resilient my colleagues and our firm are. And that all status conferences should be done through video conference!

RC: What makes Cohen Milstein such a great place to work?

VN: Every day I am grateful to be surrounded by such smart and passionate colleagues. The entire firm is driven by a collective mission to pursue economic and social justice. It’s great to work at a place where everyone is fully invested in that mission.

There is a strong interest in collaborating across practice groups and among colleagues that produce creative and groundbreaking solutions for our clients, and every day we are grappling with challenging but meaningful issues. It has been a rewarding 20 years so far, and I am thrilled to be entering this next chapter.

The complete article can be accessed here.