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Jan Nielsen Little and Susan Harriman featured in the Daily Journal’s List of Top Women Lawyers


Jan Nielsen Little

If most everyone in the world is lined up against you in the court of public opinion, not to mention a court of law, you want someone who isn't afraid to not only stand by your side but argue your cause.

Little would be that someone.

“There is nothing more rewarding than being a champion for someone facing the powerful force of government trying to crush you,” said Little, a partner with Keker & Van Nest LLP in San Francisco.

Curtis Floyd Price is facing the ultimate form of government's crushing power. He is a death row inmate at San Quentin State Prison, sentenced to die for the 1983 killings of Richard Barnes and Elizabeth Ann Hickey, murders that were carried out as part of a revenge plot hatched by the white supremacist prison gang, Aryan Brotherhood. Price, with two violent felony convictions already under his belt before the two killings and membership in a violent, racist gang, does not fit the bill of a sympathetic client.

But Little saw injustice in his case and when an old law school classmate asked for her assistance, she immediately stepped in.

During Price's trial, a prosecutor saw a juror working at a restaurant. The prosecutor slipped the bartender a $20 bill, told him to give it to the juror, adding the bartender should tell her to find Price guilty. And the state doesn't deny the incident happened, saying it was just a joke.

Little's not laughing.

“The unfairness of this and other issues in Curt's trial was appalling and I was happy to sign up,” she said. The case is currently before U.S. District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton on a federal habeas petition.

Having the legal skills that got her through Yale Law School and earned her the 2014 White Collar Criminal Defense Award from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers — an honor she shared with firm partner John Keker — helps in the courtroom, of course. But what drives her is an instinct to protect those in need.

“In the media-magnified world of a high profile case, the battle is even more difficult for the client, and I yearn more strongly to protect my client,” she said. “That need to protect comes from someplace primal.”

Susan J. Harriman

For Harriman, there are no “small” cases or trials.

“I approach each trial the same way,” said the Keker & Van Nest LLP partner. “I don't go without having read every single exhibit, every single deposition — the good, the bad, the ugly — I want to be prepared for it all.”

Based in San Francisco, Harriman is known for her ability to break down the most complex legal issues into very precise slices, making the case easier for a judge and jury to digest. Preparation is the key — not just for her, but for her team as well, she said.

“It doesn't matter whether or not an exhibit is going to be used at trial, I want to know what's out there. And that's the way I prepare my team,” she said.

She gives her attorneys a preview of her opening argument early in the trial preparation process, making sure everyone is on the same page.

“Just to let the team know what I plan on getting in,” she said, “so that they'll know what I'm going to need for the trial.”

That level of preparation serves her well not just at trial but at every stage leading up to trial. She won a summary judgment motion for a chain of luxury health clubs that was sued by plaintiffs who claimed in a class action that the clubs' lower pricing policy for younger members was discriminatory.

She won the case at summary judgment and that decision was affirmed on appeal. That court ruled in December that not only was the clubs' discount pricing for “young professionals” between the ages of 18 and 29 non-discriminatory, it was good public policy.

Harriman produced expert evidence that younger people earned less than their older counterparts and therefore could not as easily afford a membership at the health clubs.

“The Young Professional discount increases access of 18- to 29-year-olds to worthy facilities and activities promoting physical fitness, including swimming, basketball, squash, tennis, and the like,” the appellate judges wrote in their decision.

Before every trial, at some point, Harriman says she asks herself if all the work is worth it. 

But then there comes that point in every case, whether at trial, or after the case is over where a feeling sweeps over her.

“I'd do this for free,” she says.