Nancy Hollander


To start with the basics, as a criminal defence lawyer, what do you do?

I represent people accused of crimes, organisations accused of crimes, businesses accused of crimes. That's what I do. People who've been accused of crimes or who are afraid they're going to be accused of crimes or have been convicted of crimes and want someone one to represent them on appeal... I also do tangential things to that. There are people who have property forfeited. There are civil suits and I also have done some civil rights lawsuits but mostly criminal defence.

One of the most interesting things I found on you was that article you wrote for The New York Times about being a terrorist lawyer.

I've always thought that might have been my very best writing. I was so angry that day. It got edited some, by The New York Times, but not much. People have said to me, well it's unfortunate that they added that title, that heading, because usually it's the editors who do that, but that was mine. I meant it exactly the way it's said. It was a response to Vice President Cheney's daughter talking about how terrible we all were.

How is it different, defending someone from Guantanamo, from your normal case of someone who's accused of, say, killing someone?

Well, you expect there to be some rules and procedures that you can rely on. In the US, I think we have a really good justice system, only none of that applies in Guantanamo, none of it. Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who wrote the book Guantanamo Diary, has been there 14 years, never even charged with a crime. He won a habeas civil case in 2010. Was ordered to be released. The government appealed. The Obama administration has spoken out of both sides of its mouth and has said, we want it closed but we're going to fight against all these people who could just be released. The rules keep changing. Nashiri, who is my other client in Guantanamo, is facing the death penalty. It's impossible to know what the rules are because they change all the time. Nothing that we know as American justice, applies in Guantanamo. It's an illegal prison. It's an illegal court and it needs to close.

It's a civil court, right? It's not a military court?

It's kind of a quasi-military court. It's a military commission. It's on a military base. The Department of Defense controls everything about it. It's like a military court but it doesn't have any of the protections of the military justice system, which has good protections. It's just a random court and there's even a quote from one of the judges where he said, "Well, it's really hard to know what's happening because the rules change all the time."

When clients are in prison they can call their lawyers pretty regularly. They can talk to their families. In federal prison, in the US, they even have email. If I need to talk to a client, I can do that. Their families visit. They may be restricted, depending on what the situation is, but they can see them. None of that's true in Guantanamo. Getting a phone call requires an act of God, practically, an emergency and it's not a privileged call. Their families have never seen them except on some occasional Skype calls through the International Committee if the Red Cross and so, it's very different.

How do you talk to your clients then?

I go there. We write some letters but the letters take a long time to get there. Then they come back to Washington. Then someone has to read them and see whether we want them released because they're classified, so we go there. I went to see Slahi in October 2015 and my co-counsel is going in about a week. We try to go every two months but it's very expensive. I am grateful to my law partners who have agreed that our firm will pay for this representation.

When you see what happened in Paris last year, do you worry that Europe might be tempted to do something similar to the US?

Who knows? Britain has already held people for long periods of time and there are rules that have changed. France, now, as I understand it, has made some pretty big changes. I do worry about the world reacting in ways that it shouldn't.

You're also defending Chelsea Manning in her appeal? How is that going?

Well, in fact, I'm going to spend the rest of this week with Chelsea in Kansas. Because she's a real military prisoner, she gets a military lawyer for free. Everyone in the military does, so he helps us in our case. But under the military rules, when there's a civilian counsel, the civilian becomes the lead counsel, which is what I am. We're going to spend a week, working on our brief to the Army Court of Appeals. She has a separate case going through the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, about her gender issues and her lawsuit.

How is she doing?

She's doing very well. She writes for The Guardian regularly. She works with us on her appeal. She works with the ACLU. She tweets. She's doing well. She looks good. Her appearance is changing for the better, for her.

In terms of international criminal law, you're also an associate tenant at Doughty Street Chambers, in London. How does that work, as they are different justice systems?

I can't practice in the UK. I have no credentials to practice. It's something that Doughty Street created as a way to link to people. Most of the associate tenants are actually barristers in London, who are independent but want to be linked somehow with Doughty Street but not formally join it. Then Doughty Street decided to add some foreign people. We've shared some cases. I use their facilities when I'm there. I've given some speeches there. I help those folks whenever they need counsel somewhere where I know somebody. We all work together as much as we can.

So it's more an advisory capacity almost?

Unless we have a case where we can work together because it involves charges in several countries. For example I've had cases with some of the barristers there. .

What would you advise to a reader who would like a career like yours?

Well, if they want to go to law school, they should do that. Then they should get involved with what they're interested in. It happened to me because I reached out. I was on some committees, doing international stuff. I travelled, met people. It's just a matter of being open to what you can do. There are a lot of careers in the law that are different from mine but equally satisfying.

I have a law clerk who now wants to work for an NGO and has moved to New York. I would love to have kept her. She's very, very smart but that's not what she wanted to do. She didn't want to be in Albuquerque. She wanted to be in New York. She wanted to work for an NGO so I wrote letters for her to everywhere I could think of. People have to carve out what works for them. Women are not any different from men in that regard.

When you hire young lawyers, what do you look for?

I look for somebody who will care about the clients. I also look for someone who I believe is a complete lawyer, who can write, who can argue in court. You know, there are lawyers who do one thing and that's fine. They do pre-trial work or they write or they do appeals or they're trial lawyers but that's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for somebody who can do all of those things... If the client is in jail and is worried about what happened to his dog when he got arrested, then you've got to go find the dog.

You’ve got to be open and present to each client. That's really important and people who care about justice and the law and want to do everything and do an A+ job. That's what we look for. We never hire anyone who is not a complete rounded lawyer. That doesn't mean they want to do every kind of law. We have lawyers in my firm who just want to do civil law and some who, like me, want to do criminal law. We don't generally hire people right out of law school. They have to have shown what they can do a little bit.

You've been a partner at Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward P.A. since 1983. What does that mean?

In our law firm, we on and off have associates and then sometimes we don't. I wasn't an associate for very long. Now we try to have our associates be associates for longer so we're sure that this is what they want. Each one is individual. A partner means that you own it, that you are responsible for paying the bills, that you're responsible for making sure that everything is done right. For me it means mentoring the younger people and helping them with their cases and making sure they learn everything, so that they can do them by themselves.

Do you think there's been particular advantages or issues, to being a woman in law?

I've always resisted that. When people say, "I want a woman lawyer. I want a Jewish lawyer. I want a Christian lawyer. I want a male lawyer." I usually say to people, "No, you want the best lawyer you can afford. That's what you want." I have a lot of stories about things that happened to me as a woman but my mother was a vice president of a very large company and I grew up believing women were not victims. Women just did whatever they did but I've always stood up for women who got screwed, one way or another.

There are some very funny stories. Early on, I was in a courtroom and a judge kept saying, "Gentlemen, approach the bench," or "Gentlemen," this or that. He expected that to be all of us. One day I decided I'd had enough. He said, "Gentlemen, approach the bench," and I just sat there and didn’t move. I wouldn't have done this in front of a jury. He said, "Miss Hollander, aren't you counsel in this case?" I said, "Yes, but I'm not a man, Sir. You said, "Gentlemen"." Then he said, "See me in my chambers." I go into his chambers and he said, "Well what's the problem?" I said, "The problem is you refer to everyone as "Gentlemen"." Those days, there weren't that many women in the courtroom. He said, "Well, what do you want me to do?" I said, "Well, you could say "Gentlemen", two days a week and "Ladies", three days a week, or you could just say "Counsel"." He said, "Oh, well that's a good idea." It had never occurred to him. Then all these other women kept coming up and saying, "Thank you so much." I said, "Well, it wasn't really very hard. All it took was a conversation."

I once appeared in front of an elderly judge in a rural county, who was not a lawyer. The prosecutor was also a woman and the judge referred to me as "Miss Nancy". He referred to her as "Miss Jean" and he called us both "honey" and "girls". The transcript was very funny. My client was a young cowboy and the judge treated him the same way. He said, "Now... John, I've known you your whole life and I knew your mommy and daddy and this lawyer has come down here from Albuquerque and you do what she says, you hear me boy?" I came back to Albuquerque and I told my partner,  "You've got to see this transcript, man. You're just going to love it." It didn't bother me.

There've been other times... I'll tell you one other one. This was a long time ago. I was standing with my partner, Charlie Daniels, who is now a justice on the New Mexico Supreme Court. The two of us were standing next to our secretary's desk. Somebody came in and said to me, "Are you the secretary?" Charlie, popped up and said, "No, she's not and neither am I."

There was a lawyer from Florida who asked us to assist him with a case in New Mexico. The lawyer said, Charlie was talking to him and the lawyer said, “I thought you turned this over to some girl in your law office." Charlie said, "I don't have any girls in my office so we're not going to help you anymore." He was my mentor in many ways and totally supportive. Those things, I don't think happen as much anymore, but you've just got to stand up and sometimes you've got to have a sense of humour.

One of your former partners is now a justice. Is that something you'd like to do or would you like to continue your career as a lawyer?

I have no interest in becoming a judge. I think it would be boring. In New Mexico, you have to run for public office to be a judge. I would never want to do that. I would never want to be involved in party politics. I just want to continue my career and maybe start to change more into mentoring the younger people, consulting with them. I've told some of my younger partners, "You know, the next case we get, you're going to be lead counsel and I'm going to second chair you." That's how you learn. That's how I learned. I want to mentor them and help them. I have a young male partner and a young female associate who will become a partner and both of them I treat, pretty much, the same way.

Do you have any parting words of wisdom?

My parting words are the words from my mother, which are: "Always be feminine." My mother was exquisitely feminine. She didn't put out the garbage without her make-up on. The day she died, she insisted on having rouge put on, but she was very powerful. She was vice president of Field Enterprises. She had a big organisation. She was in charge. She was a mathematician. She told me that I had to get a housekeeper when I was in law school. I said, "It's kind of expensive." She said, "Yes, but you need to spend time on the weekends with your son, not cleaning your house. Cleaning your house is the least important thing to do."

Consequently, I have no idea how to clean a house, by the way. I really don't, because my mother hated house cleaning. She got a job so she wouldn't have to clean house, her first job when the kids were little, teaching and then worked her way up. I grew up believing that women could do everything. I don’t relate to women as victims I see women who really are being victimised, which happens, of course, but I want to tell them to go forward. We've all had bad things happen in our lives."

That's how I relate to women, which is get out there and do it but, be yourself, be feminine. You don't have to be like a man. You don't have to talk like a man. You don't have to act like a man because you're not a man. So that's my advice.

Nancy Hollander | Criminal defense lawyer | Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward P.A.

Over 35 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied at University of Michigan | The University of New Mexico School of Law

Find Nancy online Twitter | LinkedIn | Doughty Street Chambers profile | Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward P.A. profile

A terrorist lawyer, and proud of it (The New York Times article)

Exclusive Skype interview 18 January 2016