Georgia Pestana is the first woman and first Latina to be nominated to head the city Law Department but those aren’t the only firsts—if confirmed by the City Council, she will also be the first Corporation Counsel to come from within the Law Department, where she has worked for 33 years.
“It’s hard to say what’s the biggest deal—is it that I’m a Latina, that I’m a woman, or that I’m homegrown?” she asked. “I say it’s all three.”
The legal field has been disproportionately male—nearly two-thirds of lawyers across the city are men, according to the New York City Bar Association.
A Place for Women
But the Law Department “has always been ahead of the curve,” Ms. Pestana noted, with women making up about 59 percent of its staff. “That’s not new—that’s been the case since I’ve been here,” she said. “The private-sector has lagged until recently, but they’re catching up.”
Each year, about 1,000 of the department's attorneys handle 80,000 cases, representing the city in civil litigation, drafting and reviewing legislation and procurement contracts and providing legal counsel to city officials.
Mayor de Blasio announced May 26 that he had nominated Ms. Pestana to become the department’s 80th Corporation Counsel. The department’s current head, James Johnson, is leaving to serve as the Chief Operating Officer of Trinity Church.
While at Barnard College, Ms. Pestana studied to become an Urban Planner. But while interning at the Department of City Planning, which was working on a project to revamp Times Square, she interviewed lawyers working for the Real-Estate Division of the Law Department, and that meeting sparked a shift in her interests.
“I wanted to do what they did,” she said. “I grew up in West New York in New Jersey, so I wanted to be in the city my whole life.”
A Policy Person
When Ms. Pestana initially joined the department after graduating from NYU Law School, she wanted to work in the Real-Estate Division (which no longer exists). But Rick Schaffer, who served as Chef Litigating Corporation Counsel under then-Mayor Ed Koch, after an interview placed her in the General Litigation Division.
“He told me, ‘Your interests are more on the policy side, so that’s where you’re going to be,’” she said. “And I think he was right.”
Ms. Pestana, who has been First Assistant Corporation Counsel since 2015, said that she “grew up” in the Law Department, serving at every level. From 2013, she spent two years as Executive Assistant Corporation Counsel for Employment and Policy Litigation, and before that spent more than 10 years beginning in 2002 as Chief of the Law Department's Labor and Employment Law Division, which handled litigation arising from the city’s role as an employer to more than 380,000 civil servants.
Of her time in the labor and employment division, “Those were difficult because those were all my people,” she said. Many of the cases involved city employees who worked in the same offices, “and some relationships are going to have to be repaired. So you have to think of what’s going to do the least harm.”
'The Greatest Legal Job'
Over the past three decades, Ms. Pestana has faced challenges handling a wide spectrum of cases, from fighting against budget cuts for critical services at urgent-care clinics run by the city hospital system to working with the Department of Education to develop educational programming for teens jailed on Rikers Island.
Although she could have earned more money working in the private sector, she never really considered leaving the Law Department, she stated.
“This is the greatest legal job there is,” she said. “I knew that I’d be miserable [going into the private-sector], because you’re just fighting about money. Here, it means something to the cop or the Commissioner I’m representing, so I couldn’t give that up.”
Her nomination must first be approved by the City Council’s Rules Committee, then receive a majority of votes from the full Council. Mr. de Blasio’s decision to appoint the veteran lawyer has earned praise across the Law Department, including from previous Corporation Counsels.
The man she would success, Mr. Johnson, called Ms. Pestana “one of the finest lawyers in this city and a fantastic friend and colleague.”
Zachary Carter, who led the department from 2014 to 2019, said in a statement that she “is an extraordinary lawyer who combines a mastery of law with the common sense required to solve the practical problems confronting the city. There could not be a better choice for Corporation Counsel.”
After she was tapped for the job by the Mayor May 26, Ms. Pestana remarked, “When I started at the Law Department right out of law school, I never dreamed that I would be there 33 years later and or sitting in this seat, hearing the Mayor of the City of New York nominate me to be the next Corporation Counsel. I will make other women and long-serving city employees proud and will make the city proud.”
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