Litigators

The experience of leaving a Biglaw partnership to start a boutique law firm did not allow me to stop thinking about Biglaw. If anything, I think about Biglaw now more than ever. Because the very nesting grounds that I flew away from, IP litigation departments at national and international law firms, are some of my upstart boutique’s biggest competition for new business. And considering our experience with the first five or so cases that our firm has brought, our adversaries as well. Of course, I continue to work with Biglaw firms as co-counsel on some cases as well.

So I think about Biglaw. How it works, and most often how it fights patent cases. For over a decade I was a Biglaw-branded pugilist, and now that I am on the other side of the ring, I am forced to respect but try and beat the Mike Tyson’s Punchout-worthy cast of characters that Biglaw rolls out on behalf of its clients. There are not many Glass Joe’s in the bunch. Which makes it fun.

I would not have left unless I thought that my partners and I would be competitive — both with Biglaw and with the many quality IP boutiques that have come before us and continue to thrive. But as I think back on how IP litigation practice has changed just in the short amount of time that I have been practicing, I take comfort in the fact that the playing field between Biglaw and boutiques has been leveled across a number of fronts. Two areas in particular deserve focus….

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This is not a column about getting bloated Biglaw partners into running shape, as much as many of them need the exercise. Instead, let’s focus on another 10K milestone, one that Biglaw associates chase after, spurred on by a number of incentives, ranging from a simple desire to keep their hard-earned jobs to the burning ambition necessary to even aim for partnership: reaching 10,000 billable hours.

In the popular conception, 10,000 hours of practice at any skill is a critical hurdle to achieving mastery. It does not work that way for lawyers, especially those that start out in Biglaw.

As anyone who has started their career in Biglaw knows, the early years are more about survival than anything else. The most critical skill is adaptability, both in terms of being able to handle the lifestyle stresses presented by the Biglaw junior associate experience, and recognizing just how little law school has prepared one for Biglaw legal practice. In fact, I would say that for purposes of tracking personal progress towards the 10K mark, the first year of Biglaw practice (and maybe two or three depending on whether one is in a firm that “rotates” their juniors to expose them to different practices areas) should be thrown out. Consider that time as the foundation that allows for future productive lawyering if it makes you feel better. And first-years would do well to disabuse themselves of the notion that they will be “contributing” or doing “quality” work. Obviously they need to do their best, and perform up to Biglaw standards, but the hard truth is that the first-year in Biglaw is there to force high-flying and well-credentialed aspiring lawyers to humbly confront two uncomfortable questions. First, do you even want to be doing this? And second, even if you want to, are you good enough?

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A jury trial: “the grand bulwark of our liberties.” Cross-examination: “the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” I remember these quotes (from Blackstone and Wigmore, respectively) uttered grandly during Evidence or some such class in law school.

Just guessing these maxims aren’t entirely reflective of everyone’s experience. A particularly discouraging example, after the jump….

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I’ve now written more than 250 columns at Above the Law; I’m invoking a point of personal privilege.

Neil Falconer (of Steinhart & Falconer in San Francisco) passed away last week at the age of 91. He was an extraordinary lawyer, a fine man, and a mentor to anyone who had the sense to listen. Between 1984 and 1989, I learned from Neil what it meant to be a lawyer – “be a sponge; soak up the law;” “never tell a small child not to stick peanuts up his nose;” “you take as long as necessary to solve the problem; let me worry about the bill” – and I later dedicated The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law to him. I expected to shed a tear when I read his obituary, but I didn’t expect to be dumbstruck. Words are a terribly feeble way to encapsulate a life. And sometimes you’re paid back, years later, for even the smallest of gestures. Here’s a link to Neil Falconer’s obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle. Rest in peace, Neil. And thank you.

Thinking about Neil caused me to reflect on the decision that I made, 30 years ago, to work at a small firm (of 20 lawyers) on the West Coast.

Everyone told me that I was nuts: “You can always move laterally from a big firm to a small one, but you can’t move laterally in the other direction!” “You can always move from a big New York firm to a firm in California, but you can’t move west to east!” “You have to start by getting the ‘big firm experience.’ Then you can always move to a small firm.” “Go to a big firm! That’s how you keep your options open!”

The conventional wisdom isn’t always right . . . .

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One of the things that was always interesting about Biglaw was just how much the skills of senior partners were celebrated, even in the absence of any verification. Or rigorous comparison to their peers, for that matter. Such exaltation of abilities was not limited to individual lawyers, of course, but extended also to practice groups and even other firms. In fact, a fair amount of Biglaw’s “prestige” is pollinated by secondhand anecdotal evidence, many times passed along by people who have either never seen their subjects in action or who are not qualified to distinguish between a great performance and a mediocre one.

Of course, I do not doubt that many, if not the vast majority of, Biglaw reputations are well-earned. For example, even though my knowledge of real estate law is severely limited, I would feel comfortable hiring some of my old colleagues at Greenberg Traurig in New York for real estate help, should I ever be in a position to acquire or dispose of some commercial real estate. I admit that I have no frame of reference, other than reputation and some personal relationships, supporting such a prospective choice. But it is not like I could “shadow” a closing and figure out which set of lawyers is doing a better job anyway. “Wow, those guys really put out a nice refreshment spread in the room with the closing binders” would be the level of my analysis. Probably not a good idea to choose counsel solely on that basis.

Are there other options out there?

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One of Biglaw’s calling cards is the ability to marshal resources quickly to handle nearly any kind of legal issue. Going to trial and need some immediate help with responding to a host of motions in limine filed by your adversary? Even in these days of reduced associate classes, at most firms it would be no problem roping in the necessary support. Need to put a team together on short notice to respond to a preliminary injunction motion? Not a problem. An email or two to the head of the group and a fellow partner or two, and you can have all the resources you need.

With some luck, you can even benefit from assistance in multiple time zones, always a plus when dealing with court deadlines in “foreign” jurisdictions, as is commonly the case in patent matters. Just ask any East Coast-based patent litigator whether they appreciate the extra hour for filing they get in their Eastern District of Texas matters. I know everyone is super-organized and never files at the last minute, but sometimes “unexpected delays” can result in a litigator making full use of the allotted response time for a filing or two.

While the Biglaw beast can be roused to quick action on occasion, it often prefers to move very deliberately towards a target. Patent cases are a good example. While there may be a flurry of activity surrounding an important hearing, or the close of discovery, or trial, there is also a lot of “preparing the case” time. Cases that take years just to get to trial are normal, and when you factor in appeals, it is not unusual for a Biglaw patent lawyer to go from associate, to counsel, to partner during the pendency of a single case. I speak from personal experience on that point….

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The patent world can at times seem very small. The same firms, representing the same group of technology companies, pursuing the same strategies, both to maximize profits for their firms and to deliver results for their clients. Sure people move around, but the players in the larger sense are pretty static. Most patent cases are of limited importance to everyone but the parties involved as well. Sometimes a case has a broader scope, and becomes of interest to industry competitors or even investors. Every once in a while a patent case captures the public fancy, as Apple v. Samsung undoubtedly has, usually because of the nature of the parties involved or the ubiquity of the technology at issue. When that happens, the patent world can seem very big — global in scope, even.

Sometimes a little case can actually turn into a huge deal. When the Supreme Court gets involved, for example. Especially when the issue in the case has far-reaching economic implications for society at large, and not just for the litigants involved. I have seen a number of “big” patent cases during my career, but none has the disruptive potential of a case that is set for oral argument next week in the Supreme Court. From humble beginnings as a declaratory judgment action filed in an unusual forum for patent cases (District of D.C.,) the dispute between Alice Corp. and CLS Bank has grown into one of the most closely-watched and debated patent cases — ever. And deservedly so, because the viability of software patents is on the line. With major ramifications possible: for technology companies of all sizes, IP firms and lawyers, the courts, and the good old global economy as well….

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Juan Monteverde and Alexandra Marchuk

Last week, we wrote about lawyers leaving Faruqi & Faruqi, the litigation boutique that’s locked in an ugly legal battle with a former associate, Alexandra Marchuk. Marchuk’s lawsuit accuses F&F partner Juan Monteverde of severe sexual harassment and alleges that the firm’s leaders turned a blind eye to his misconduct.

We asked our readers for more information about the recent Faruqi departures. Well, ask and you shall receive. We have the details on the lawyers who left — as well as info about how Faruqi is looking for laterals, and how much it pays them (hint: not enough)….

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Juan Monteverde and Alexandra Marchuk

Alexandra Marchuk’s headline-grabbing lawsuit against her former firm, Faruqi & Faruqi, has generated a lot of headaches for the firm. It has given rise to some bad PR. It has created client concerns. It has distracted the firm from its mission of shaking down corporate America vindicating shareholder rights.

And is it now causing the high-profile boutique to lose lawyerly talent? Here’s what we’re hearing….

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Watching other lawyers in action is fun. Much more fun than watching myself in action, as I have had the opportunity to do on a number of occasions. Such as during my trial training days, when the instructors decided that making us watch clips of ourselves try and conduct a direct examination was valuable. At least they got a kick out of it. But as edifying as watching video of yourself can be, you can learn a whole lot more by watching other lawyers. This lesson was ingrained in me as far back as my 1L “summer clerkship” in New Jersey state court. I remember the clerks gathering around on motion day to check out arguments in front of other judges, mostly to watch the lawyers in action. Ditto for trials.

Of course, once you enter practice — especially in Biglaw, where opportunities to even get out of the office are hard-earned — it becomes even more important to turn opportunities to watch other advocates into learning experiences. Because of the nature of the cases we were handling, many of which involved Biglaw firms of some repute on both sides, there were plenty of opportunities to watch great lawyers in action. Just as frequently, I was able to watch inexperienced lawyers from great firms struggle to get through routine litigation events. I am sure that many other lawyers were forced to endure my inexperienced attempts to handle those events along the way as well. Experienced lawyers just love sitting through a deposition where the questioner spends an hour getting through the educational background of the witness…

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