Super Lawyers list selectees display skill, leadership and a commitment to becoming the best. They also showcase perseverance and strength in the face of opposition. In February, the cover subject lawyers profiled in North Carolina, Indiana and Georgia exemplified the mettle, curiosity and ingenuity needed to develop into some of the best attorneys in the country.
Sara Lincoln, co-founder of Lincoln Derr, is a no-nonsense trial lawyer with a niche in medical malpractice defense. She primarily represents large, privately owned medical practices in Charlotte and she’s not afraid to stand up for herself, as well as push for representation in the legal profession.
Frustrated at the difficulty of making equity partner in a large-firm setting, and at the dearth of minorities and women in such positions at big firms in general, Lincoln and Tricia Derr, who were working together at Womble Carlyle, brought the majority of the firm’s med-mal work in Charlotte with them.
It was their Thelma & Louise moment-with a happy ending. “[We called it] jumping off the cliff,” Lincoln says. “Our ethics rules do not allow us to call our clients and ask them in advance if they would come with us if we left our existing firm. It turned out that all of our clients came with us, and the transition ultimately was pretty seamless, but getting to the edge and jumping was very unsettling.”
The two have expanded the firm into other areas of civil law and brought on seven other attorneys.
In adding associates, they seek not only demographic diversity but economic diversity.
Lincoln comes from middle-class parents who double-mortgaged their home to send her and her older sister to undergraduate school; Derr’s working-class family is made up of a Korean mother and Hispanic father. Considering their roots, both partners work to encourage women and minorities, either serving on committees and attending conferences, and by simply being accessible.
“We see diversity as a gift,” says Derr. “If you’re not considering a variety of perceptions, you’re not being very smart.”
She’s spent nearly three decades defending companies, primarily in insurance trials; handling complicated cases ranging from products liability to trucking to environmental; and standing her ground in what was once considered a man’s profession. “I love thinking on my feet,” she says. “I love cross-examination. It’s probably my favorite part of any trial. I just love challenging people and being able to, as a defense lawyer, show the weaknesses in their case.”
But breast cancer has been the toughest battle of her life.
At age 44, less than a year after launching her firm with husband Gary Miller in 2009, doctor’s discovered a pea-sized lump in her breast. The same day, several mammograms and an ultrasound revealed Stage 3 breast cancer requiring immediate removal. During the double mastectomy, the surgeon discovered the disease had spread to at least one of her lymph nodes.
During the recovery, pain became unbearable and work nearly impossible. By late 2012, she couldn’t work at all. Miller returned to working as a judge and the firm closed.
“When we had to close the firm, that was probably as hard as my diagnosis,” Meyer says. “I was very, very sick, and now I had lost the thing that I had worked so hard for all these years. I think that really set me back.”
But as usual, Meyer never quit. Gradually, she began to feel better and in 2014, the security division of the Indiana Secretary of State contracted with her to serve as an administrative law judge. The following year, she was hired part-time at Rocap Law Firm and she slowly reclaimed her stamina and momentum.
In the fall of 2016, Meyer joined Metzger Rosta.
A year ago, Meyer, now 53, delivered an oral argument in front of the state Supreme Court, a crowd of judges and politicians, and several hundred students at a retiring judge’s high school in Lake County. These days, Meyer’s schedule is once again packed with a full caseload, speaking engagements on topics ranging from trial skills to insurance coverage issues, and volunteerism with local, state and national bar associations.
“I live life to the fullest,” she says. “My husband tells me I’m making up for lost time, and I think I probably am. I’m going to make every moment count because you never know when one thing can change your life so drastically.”
“I’ve always enjoyed learning about new things and teaching other people about them,” says Varner, 74, whose clients include pharmaceutical kingpins Merck and GlaxoSmithKline. “There’s this old adage about trial lawyers. You work on a case and it’s like filling up a bathtub. Then you try the case and get the outcome and you empty the bathtub. Then you fill it up with something entirely different.”
“Chilton is one of the best in the business because she can master any subject that is put in front of her,” says Halli Cohn, a former King & Spalding colleague who moved to Troutman Sanders in 2017. “It’s because she has a work ethic beyond compare. She works harder than almost everyone else to master whatever she needs to, then distills the material and makes it understandable for a jury.”
Along the way, Varner has been invited by peers and legal giants to serve on, and hold leadership positions for, a host of boards and committees. Among them: She was appointed to the Federal Civil Rules Advisory Committee by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist in 2004, then reappointed by Chief Justice John Roberts in 2007. She was president of the American College of Trial Lawyers (2012-2013). She is currently president of the Supreme Court Historical Society, which was founded at the suggestion of former Chief Justice Warren Burger.
“It exists to educate the general public about the role and importance of the Supreme Court and the Constitution,” she says. “One way in which we fulfill that is by procuring valuable artifacts that reflect the history of the court.”
A few years ago, Varner thought about becoming a judge herself but decided she enjoyed a career that challenges her every day: defending corporations.
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