I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on moving up (particularly within biglaw) with the goal of being a star litigator. I’m very interested in becoming the person whose added value is my litigation skills, but when I look at partners it seems as though most of them are valued more for their ability to market and pull clients in. Is marketing the only way up in the biglaw model?

likefunnyhelpful
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OP, I agree with most of what’s been said here. I’m a 57 year old biglaw lifer who is one of the unicorns who has tried a lot of cases to verdict, including dozens worth 8 figures and a handful in the 9 and 10 figures. And they’ve been all over the map geographically and substantively, from patent and groundwater contamination cases to soft IP and fraud cases. I even once tried a cattle rustling case of sorts. Sadly, we are a dying breed.

But both within and outside biglaw there remain people who try big cases. It’s not hard to identify the biglaw players. Many focus on high end patent cases. Others do sophisticated commercial work such as the Epic v. Apple antitrust case that Cravath just tried. Others do bellwether mass tort trials that have implications measured in billions. Some high end insurance coverage cases also get tried, as with the Swiss R case arising from the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center. You’ll find at least a few genuine stars at many biglaw firms, including Cravath, Kirkland, Simpson Thacher, Skadden, Latham, Gibson Dunn, Paul Weiss, MoFo, Arnold & Porter, Williams & Connolly, Sidley, WilmerHale, and O’Melveny, and others. If you have the credentials the path is getting hired, getting close to one of them, and becoming the protege. Not easy but not impossible.

There are also many high end trial boutiques. The best known are probably Quinn Emanuel and Susman Godfrey, but there are a bunch of other really fine trial boutiques that handle serious cases, including Bartlit Beck, Wilkinson Steckloff, and Keker Van Nest. Boies Schiller used to be on the list but appears to be in the midst of a slow motion implosion, which isn’t uncommon when a superstar founder steps aside or slows down without a great succession leadership team in place. In any case, a second path to stardom is getting hired by one of those firms and rising to the top. Again not easy but also not impossible.

The third path is to join whatever firm, build a book, make yourself a star, and then either join a fancy firm our found your own. David Boies and John Quinn both did that after starting at Cravath. Fred Bartlit and Phil Beck, whom I think are the best trial lawyers of the last 50 years, started at Kirkland and then founded their namesake firm. John Keker basically started his from from scratch as a baby lawyer who hung a shingle with a law school classmate. Stephen Susman practiced with a big firm for awhile, quit to teach law, came up with the idea for a new kind of firm, then built that firm from scratch. So, this path is also possible, but not easy (seeing the pattern here?).

There’s one other path that some try to take but I wouldn’t recommend - building your base as an AUSA. Many big firms hire AUSAs in an effort to shore up weak “trial lawyer” benches. One in awhile one of those people becomes a star. Beth Wilkinson is an example. But most of those folks don’t turn out to be star commercial litigators. The reason for that is simple - as AUSAs they very rarely try hard cases. Instead they cut their teeth on sure fire winners and plead out most others. As a result very few of them know how to try tough cases, cross examine, or represent reviled clients rather than the venerated United States of America. They also know nothing about civil procedure so come to firms needing to be taught everything. So, this is a path to being hired by biglaw but it’s the toughest path to becoming a star commercial trial lawyer, at least in my view.

likeuplifting

As a junior lawyer, that is a fascinating reply and I learnt a lot. Thank you very much.

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It’s extremely difficult today to market yourself or advance as a general litigator or general trial specialist in biglaw, for several reasons. First, there are very few true trial lawyers anymore in biglaw. Biglaw clients and biglaw cases rarely go to trial and there are many many litigation partners in biglaw that have tried very few cases and likely never first chaired one. Most biglaw trial lawyers are older, and came up in a time when biglaw tried cases. There’s probably 400 litigators in my firm. I’d hire maybe 2 to try a case (and the number that could capably first chair a trial isn’t much larger than that). Biglaw is basically discovery lawyers who churn documents and take depositions before their cases settle.

Second, biglaw is obnoxiously expensive and there’s little reason to pay that type of money for the overwhelming majority of cases. This is particularly true because biglaw litigators really aren’t meaningfully better (if they’re better at all than what you can retain in boutiques and other firms).

Third, with rare exceptions (like extremely well known trial lawyers), clients don’t look for generalists. They look for people who have a specialty in their particular case.

Finally, even if you’re an unbelievable trial lawyer, is that doesn’t translate into an ability to generate business, you’ll never be as important as the idiot with a big book of business.

So, after all that, if you really want to be a star litigator, my advice is simple, try cases. Try lots of cases. And to do that, my advice is simple, leave biglaw (or at least NYC if you’re there). NYC biglaw will brag that their associates asked two questions in a trial as a 7th year. You need to be in court constantly trying cases. Look at boutiques, plaintiffs side firm, US Attorneys offices, etc.

Finally, none of that matters if clients don’t know you. That comes down to marketing and getting your name out there. So yes, it does all somewhat come down to marketing. Also keep in mind that, in many firms, a very large percentage of litigation work comes in from corporate clients. Make your corporate colleagues your best friends. When they have a problem, you want them to think of you first.

likehelpful

Yes. Lol not to be blunt but yes, marketing and biz dev is the key. But you already know that, given that you want to become a star litigator. Being known for your litigation skills is ultimately a marketing tactic that you can use to differentiate yourself. Those who have a book of business are the ones winning in our profession, the rest of us are just along for the rise

likehelpful

*ride

To get to the actual top (equity partnership), business is all that matters these days. Maybe 20 years ago, and certainly 40 years ago, it was very possible to simply be an outstanding attorney for 5-8 years (more towards 5 the further back you go), get equity, and handle cases for institutional firm clients and make a great career out of it. These days, being a star attorney - in the sense that biglaw defines it - will get you nonequity partnership, counsel, or super senior associate roles if you’re lucky and in an in-demand area (litigation usually isn’t; there’s a glut of over capable partner-level litigation attorneys at most big firms). Moreover, as mentioned by others, most big law litigators aren’t really trial attorneys and you won’t ever get the chance as an associate to show that you’re so good at true trial work that you just have to be a partner. This is why many rainmaking partners come from the government these days, where you’ll actually get a chance to be a litigator and not a highly-paid discovery and motion minion.

likesmart

Agree 100% with what you’re saying about the glut of litigators. I work with people who are just unusually good at M&A or restructuring. It’s much harder to differentiate yourself in lit. What do you say? I take a mean depo? So do thousands of other lawyers.

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That's all it is. Very few are so exceptional that they can overcome bad facts and bad law. Those 2 things are usually outcome determinative. Those that are that see things differently tend to be entrepreneurial and gravitate to Plaintiff's work.

likehelpful

Yes, but effectively marketing yourself and being a great litigator require the same set of skills, so you should be able to do both.

likeuplifting

Theres also a tremendous luck factor that goes into these things. Take David Boies for example. His first first chair trial was for IBM in a major antitrust trial when he was at an age that today most people are senior associates. Tom Barr and the other senior people were tied up on the main IBM antitrust trial and Boies was able to do the smaller (but still nine figure) trial. Boies was obviously good but that’s a huge degree of luck, and the chances that a client would let a 7-8th year, which he was then if I remember correctly, handle as their first trial a $400 million trial today are very very small.

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Honestly, if you want to be a star litigator, I would strongly suggest doing a stint in a state attorney general’s office doing inmate section 1983 suits. It’s not the sexiest work in the world, but you’ll get civil jury trial experience, and you’ll get it a lot quicker than you would in biglaw. I’ve been in my gig less than two years and have already tried two federal jury trials, and a handful of state bench trials.

Meanwhile, I have friends who graduated with me who’ve been at litigation firms for several years who’ve yet to even handle a hearing.

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