Litigators

Tom Wallerstein

Last week, I was having a business lunch at Michael Chiarello’s Coqueta overlooking the San Francisco Bay. (Those who know me won’t be surprised that I managed to combine a business meeting with some good eats. I’ll save my restaurant review for another time, or you can read it on OpenTable.)

Anyway, my lunch was with a partner at Leason Ellis, a thriving IP boutique in New York. The firm is a boutique in that the lawyers are specialists in intellectual property; as far as I know, that is their only practice area. But within that subject matter, they have both a litigation and transactional practice. Conversely, with limited exceptions, my own firm has remained a litigation-only boutique since it was founded four years ago. We handle a wide range of subject matters, but only do litigation within those subjects.

What are the pros and cons of running a litigation-only shop? Why haven’t we added a robust transactional practice as well?

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Last week, we wrote about reductions to the ranks of lawyers and staff at WilmerHale. We noted that the cuts, made in connection with twice-annual performance reviews, seemed to focus on IP litigation and on the Boston and Palo Alto offices.

Today we bring you additional information about the reductions, which look a lot like stealth layoffs. They seem to be more widespread, in terms of offices and practice areas, than previously reported.

And they might be due to some earlier overhiring, reflected in an interesting email we received….

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Usually when we talk about Eliot Spitzer there are the obligatory “Client 9″ prostitute jokes. Yes, yes, it’s terribly embarrassing that a married man frequented prostitutes. Spitzer was most famous for being a prosecutor, and prosecutors who break the law are hypocrites, and we have to point and make the Invasion of the Body Snatchers face and scream.

So I’ll pause to let everybody do that. In the immortal words of Tim Curry in Congo “have your laughing.”

Okay, are we back now? People love to bash this man; Spitzer made few friends in public life. But those of us who were in Biglaw while Spitzer was doing his thing at the New York Attorney General’s Office should hold him close to their hearts, or at least their wallets. Because Spitzer made a lot of lawyers a lot of money. Suing Wall Street might not have been popular with Wall Street, but it was sure as hell popular with lawyers who serviced Wall Street firms.

Bet-the-company litigation, huge fees, tons of associate man-hours just trying to unpack whatever shady, arbitrage/Ponzi/derivative bollocks your client was doing — these are the cases that make it rain in litigation, baby. Most of my brief Biglaw career could be described as applying wet wipes to clients whom Spitzer crapped all over.

And everybody made money.

So the question is… can The Steamroller do it again?

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What should unemployed law school graduates do when they can’t find work and can’t feed themselves? A certain great French princess — although not Marie Antoinette, FYI — might say, “Let them eat cake.”

But not everyone can afford cake. Debt-burdened young (and not-so-young) lawyers don’t want to spend dough; they want to make it.

Perhaps literally as well as figuratively. Do you have some talent in the kitchen? Here’s an inspiring story for you….

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In the dark days of 2009, we had frequent occasion to discuss the difference between “layoffs” and “performance-based dismissals.” Layoffs are generally understood as economically motivated, large-scale reductions in headcount, while performance-based dismissals involve specific individuals being asked to leave for cause. (Some see this as the difference being getting laid-off versus getting fired, although I’ve sometimes heard layoffs referred to as firings.)

The distinction can be a fine one. Unless cuts are made based on factors like seniority or practice area, layoffs often target weaker performers, so they can look a lot like performance-based terminations. There’s no bright-line cutoff, in numerical terms, for what constitutes a round of layoffs. And you can’t let firm characterization control, since many firms find it in their reputational interest to deny layoffs (unless the cuts are so large as to be undeniable; see, e.g., last week’s Weil Gotshal layoffs).

Today we bring you a story that captures this ambiguity. Several lawyers and staffers, totaling a number believed to be in the double digits, have been asked to leave a firm — but the firm denies that it’s conducting “layoffs.” We’ll present the facts and let you be the judge….

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Tomorrow, I’ll be going into a meeting with the folks from finance, and they’ll ask me: “How much are we going to pay in the Smith case, and in what quarter?”

[Note to accounting purists: We'll assume that we could reasonably win Smith, so liability is not probable.]

To be sure that I have the most informed opinion possible, I call outside counsel and cleverly ask: “How much are we going to pay in the Smith case, and in what quarter?”

And outside counsel starts the usual spiel:

“Life is full of surprises. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Litigation is like a black box; you never know what’s inside until you’ve opened it, and by then it’s unstoppable.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I say. “But how much are we going to pay in the Smith case, and in what quarter?”

“Well,” says outside counsel. . . .

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One of the more amusing law firm nicknames belongs to Weil Gotshal & Manges. As we noted a few years ago, some refer to the firm as “We’ll Getcha & Mangle Ya.”

Alas, the nickname is less funny in the wake of yesterday’s big layoff news. The firm announced it will be cutting 60 associates and 110 staffers from the payroll. Despite the generous six-month severance for associates, some probably feel like their legal careers have been mangled. The firm also plans to reduce the compensation of about 10 percent of its partners (roughly 30 out of 300, some income and some equity partners).

Let’s take a closer look at the layoffs and try to make sense of them….

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Let’s assume for a moment that arithmetic is true.

This means that the average lawyer is average.

And average is actually pretty bad. (As one of my co-clerks said during the first week of a clerkship, reading a Ninth Circuit brief several decades ago: “This is great!”

“What? Is the brief good?”

“No! The brief is terrible. We are not gonna starve!”)

The average lawsuit thus pits Tweedledee against Tweedledum, and, sadly, they can’t both lose. After the verdict comes down, Tweedlewhoever boasts on his website of another great victory and yet more proof of his talent and expertise.

Twenty years later, what does that look like?

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I imagine there are a few dozen articles on the internet about “dealing with difficult opposing counsel.” There’s probably some good advice in some of them, but I thought I’d offer my own, as, well, I deal with difficult lawyers and have found a way to cast them into the abyss of irrelevancy, causing them to either question their own disgraceful way of practicing law, or wonder how to proceed next.

First, where I learned how to deal with these self-important blowhards. When I was a young lawyer, I had the opportunity to work on a case where a well-known securities lawyer was involved — he was on our side. I went to see him at his New York office, and after an all-day session with the client, he invited me to dinner. (See what I did there?) He told me the story of an opposing counsel in another case that sent him a “lawyer letter” laying out his position on the case, and making several threats and demands.

My friend responded with a letter of his own. It was two words: “I disagree.”

That dinner taught me two things. One, there is no requirement that your response be as wordy as the initial screed of threats and demands. Two, there is no need to respond in detail to bluster, regardless of who is blustering.

I’ve used this tactic many times. I read every email with this question in mind: “Does this require a response?” I also maintain a philosophy that I practice law my way, not opposing counsel’s way. Just because you yell, doesn’t mean I need to yell. Just because you’re a piece of crap, doesn’t mean I need to join you in the gutter….

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Stanley M. Chesley

People have strong opinions about Stan Chesley, the high-profile, hugely successful plaintiffs’ lawyer — or former plaintiffs’ lawyer, since he recently got disbarred in Kentucky and gave up his law license in Ohio (in a retirement application that was notarized by his wife, federal judge Susan Dlott). Here are some choice comments about Chesley, nicknamed the “Prince of Torts” and “Master of Disaster”:

  • “[A]n opportunist and just a nasty son of a bitch.”
  • “[W]hat [Chesley] does is evil.”
  • “The ultimate grotesque, exaggerated perversion of what it means to be a lawyer.”
  • “He has balls as big as brass bells.”

And those bells are still ringing. Stan Chesley might not be back in the courtroom, but he’s back in the headlines in Ohio….

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