James Meggesto ’97 is a partner at Holland & Knight in Washington, D.C., and co-chair of the Native American Law Practice Group, which includes 10 full-time attorneys among the firm’s 1,000 lawyers. Meggesto seemed destined for a leadership role in the specialized practice early on at Holland & Knight, because of family influence and personal passion.
He grew up in Syracuse, just a mile from where his mother, a member of the Onondaga Nation, was raised on the Onondaga reservation. He became interested in his Native culture, learned some of the Onondaga language, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from State University of New York at Brockport. His late mother, Judy Lewis, was one of the first members of the Onondaga Nation to go to law school and the first to be admitted to the New York State Bar. She practiced in Oklahoma as a Tribal Court Judge, while his father, James A. Meggesto, maintains a law practice in Syracuse.
After college, Meggesto went to work for the National Congress of American Indians, a Native advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. He was invited to attend a historic meeting of leaders from all 567 federally recognized Native tribes hosted by President Bill Clinton at the White House in April 1994. It was a watershed moment for Meggesto.
“I got a taste of helping tribes interact with the federal government in the nation’s capital and it became clear to me that the ones who could really make a difference were the lawyers,” he recalled. “I was 22 years old and I had found my purpose.”
At Albany Law he took Professor David Siegel’s classes on New York civil procedure and federal practice and procedure. “I understood early on that procedure was the foundation for everything in the law and it gave me a great respect for the practice of law in general,” he said. “Albany Law gave me an excellent, well-rounded legal education.”
“I grew up in my mother’s tribal community and it helps me understand some of the issues inherently and emotionally.”
He spent eight years at Akin Gump, where his experience in Native American law led to his being recruited by Holland & Knight to lead their Native practice. His devotion to the exclusive representation of Indian tribes and tribal interests through legal and government affairs has taken him to all corners of the United States. “It involves a fair amount of travel,” he said. He has represented the Lummi and Colville tribes in federal fishing rights cases in Washington and Oregon. He’s worked on water rights adjudication cases and government relations for Southwest tribes in Arizona and California.
In New York State, he represents the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in various legal matters and serves as the tribe’s federal lobbyist. He’s also worked with the Seneca Nation on issues including tribal lands and gaming in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
In the Midwest, he has been involved in a wide range of issues facing Native American casino development projects, including confirming tribal land status, financing, regulatory matters, investor relations and securing capital. Underpinning his legal expertise is the issue of trust.
“As my career has evolved, the business interests of Native tribes have evolved and they need more sophisticated counsel,” Meggesto said. “In the 1990s there were only one or two large law firms representing tribes, including the boutique firm where I started. The tribal culture wouldn’t let the big guys come in for a long time. You need to demonstrate that you’re there for them and that they can trust you. I realized over time there was a growing need for large firms because we ended up referring things to them that we couldn’t handle at the boutique firm.”
Meggesto’s heritage is also a key to his success. “I grew up in my mother’s tribal community and it helps me understand some of the issues inherently and emotionally,” said Meggesto, who continues to study the Onondaga language with online resources. He is active in the Native community in Washington, D.C., and his son, Nick, a sophomore in high school, spends summers with Native youths as part of the Pathkeepers for Indigenous Knowledge program supported by the National Museum of the American Indian. Meggesto’s wife, Darlene, is a special education teacher at the Lab School of Washington and the couple also has a daughter in middle school who qualified to participate in the North American Indigenous Games in swimming.
“I’m committed to passing on the Native culture to our children and the next generation,” Meggesto said. “The gaming industry has been a game-changer in recent decades for Indian tribes. It is the economic driver for better health care, educational and diversified economic opportunity. It has helped improve the state of Indian affairs and given tribes resources to confront the challenges of the next generations.”