The Changing Face of Litigation
Over the past couple of decades, in-house legal departments have become the career destination of choice for more and more lawyers. Any legal recruiter can attest to the dramatic spike in the number of applicants for staff attorney positions in corporate law departments.
For America's top law firms, the call has come from clients to embrace and craft new service delivery models and fee arrangements, without sacrificing the exceptional quality of representation. Outstanding leadership is crucial in times of change and, today, several St. John's Law alumni are leading prominent law form litigation practices at the forefront of the new legal marketplace.
Adam S. Hakki ’97
Global Head, Litigation Group
Sherman & Sterling LLP
Adam S. Hakki ’97 can trace his decision to study law at St. John’s to a De Novo magazine story featuring Law School alumni at top firms, and to a personal note from the dean encouraging him to attend. “I had a comfortable feeling from the campus,” he said. “Dean Hasl sent a handwritten note on my offer letter and I remember what a nice gesture that was.” The Law School’s “hard work model,” commonsense focus, and vigorous academics suited Hakki and, together with his experience on the St. John’s Law Review, prepared him well for work in a big New York law firm after graduation.
As a young associate at Sherman and Sterling LLP, Hakki thrived practicing litigation at a Wall Street firm with an international client base. “I was fortunate early in my career to participate in several jury trials, which is not necessarily the norm for big law firms,” he shared. “This experience set a good foundation as I progressed through the ranks as an associate and began to focus my practice on financial institutions and hedge funds and on securities litigation in enforcement matters.” Hakki was just 32 years old when he was made partner at Sherman & Sterling in 2005. Along his career path, he has served as lead counsel to prominent financial institutions and investment management firms in high-profile litigations and government investigations, including matters stemming from the recent financial crisis.
In June 2012, Sherman & Sterling appointed Hakki Global Head of its Litigation Group. “It’s a very exciting time to be in this role, collaborating with our litigators all over the world, and fulfilling our mandate to grow our already successful practice,” he said. As the market has become more competitive, Hakki has seen his firm flourish through specialization. “It’s still important for young associates to have a broad base of experience, but more senior associates and partners need to specialize to meet the demands of the marketplace,” he observed. In addition to cultivating specialists, Hakki said, his firm has been able to compete more successfully under pricing pressure by implementing flexible and innovative approaches to billing in certain practice areas.
Considering the challenges faced by today’s young litigators, Hakki acknowledges that the fast paced digital world has changed the business landscape. “Emails, instant messages, coding, these are all things we have to deal with now,” he said. “I think the challenge for young lawyers is to develop the true litigator skill set in writing and speaking because, with all this data, the world is constantly moving and there is less quiet time.” Although it can take time to build the relationship, Hakki said, finding a law firm mentor helps. “Doing pro bono work is also an excellent way to get additional training. I learned the importance of giving back to my community at St. John’s and Sherman & Sterling has a tremendous commitment to pro bono service that fosters our lawyers’ personal and professional growth.”
Richard F. Hans ‘93
Managing Partner, New York Office
Law school marked the start of a second career for Richard F. Hans ’93, who entered St. John’s evening program after serving in the United States Navy. “I started at St. John’s in the fall of 1989 and loved it right away,” he said. “Like me, my classmates were energized by the prospect of switching careers. We had a hunger to succeed and to prove ourselves. There was no sense of entitlement.” Hans did succeed as a law student and served as an editor on the St. John’s Law Review. He also deeply appreciated St. John’s Vincentian mission. “Growing up, my family and faith instilled the value of helping the underserved, and I was able to carry this forward at St. John’s through diverse service opportunities,” he said. While at St. John’s, Hans started working at Haight, Gardner, Poor,& Havens, a firm that had many St. John’s Law alumni in its ranks. After graduation, his career path took him first to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP — another firm with a strong St. John’s connection — then to King & Spalding, and finally on to what is now DLA Piper. He represents financial institutions and other businesses in commercial securities and structured products litigation, and advises clients in regulatory and internal investigations.
In 2009, the firm named Hans Chair of its New York Litigation Practice, a role he continues in. “We are about 120 lawyers strong and the single largest office practice group in our global firm,” he said. “And I’m happy to report that we have a number of St. John’s partners and associates in the group, who prove to me every day that St. John’s produces outstanding litigators. They are tenacious and out to show that they can and do compete with the best and brightest from the elite law schools.”
Hans recognizes that the business of litigation has changed over the last decade in ways that he would not have predicted. “One of the driving forces is the advent of electronic discovery,” he said. “The volume of documentation that affects litigation overwhelms anything we saw 20 years ago, and clients are now looking to drive the cost of document review down.” The client’s quest to control costs and to drive efficiencies, in turn, impacts firm staffing. “We have significantly smaller first year classes, but we continue to recruit from the law schools,” Hans said, noting that “change is inevitable.” This inevitable change is compelling law firm innovation. At DLA Piper, Hans is seeing a rise in cross-disciplinary work. To offer more comprehensive representation to a major pharmaceutical client, for example, the firm fielded a team of lawyers from across its regulatory, commercial, and intellectual property practices. “Our clients are savvy consumers of legal services,” Hans observed. “They understand the economies and we are partnering with them to find mutually beneficial solutions.” Hans will have more opportunities to help DLA Piper and its clients thrive under his new appointment as a Managing Partner of the firm’s New York office.
James D. Herschlein ‘85
Co-Chair, Complex Commercial Litigation Department
Kaye Scholer LLP
As a prospective law student, James D. Herschlein ’85 knew that he wanted to practice law in New York City. So when friends who attended St. John’s Law boasted about the school’s strong reputation and extensive alumni network in New York, he knew where he would spend the next three years. At St. John’s, he served as Articles Editor on the St. John’s Law Review, which proved to be a formative experience. “As a journal member, I gained focus and discipline, sharpened my legal writing skills, improved my test-taking abilities, and became very adept at time management and critical thinking,” Herschlein said. He also credits his New York and Federal Practice coursework for helping him establish a foundation in how best to accomplish his clients’ goals via the courthouse.
With this foundation in the fundamentals of the law, Herschlein graduated from St. John’s and embarked on a career as a litigator at Kaye Scholer LLP. As a partner in the firm’s New York office, he has represented some of the world’s largest companies in a range of trials, arbitrations, mediations, and appeals, focusing on complex contractual disputes and product liability litigation. Although based in New York, Herschlein’s trial experience spans the country, including a year-long trial in the federal district court in Puerto Rico. Rising to leadership roles at Kaye Scholer, he currently serves as Co-Chair of the Complex Commercial Litigation Department, the largest practice at the firm, overseeing department strategy, personnel optimization, and business development.
Litigation — as a practice and as a business — has always been customer-centric, Herschlein notes, and that has not changed during his career. Indeed, his consistent focus on client service led one of his clients to mandate in the company’s insurance policy that Herschlein is always to be contacted first in the event of any crisis. “Technology has helped make client service easier by enabling a real time flow of communication between the client and the litigation team, accelerating the strategic thought process from a proactive and reactive perspective,” he said. “Today firm and client work in tandem to attain a shared vision of a desired outcome. Technology enables this synchronicity.”
Considering advice for future litigators, Herschlein said: “Pay attention to the basics of your legal education. Courses such as Civil Practice are the cornerstone of a litigation career. Gain experience any way you can. Seek out clinical and pro bono work with real clients under the watchful eye of a supervising attorney or a faculty member. This valuable work experience will hone your legal skill set.”
Thomas C. Rice ’81
Co-Chair, Litigation Department
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP
When Thomas C. Rice ’81 came to St. John’s Law, he had no idea what it meant to be a lawyer. But he was keenly aware that this was an opportunity to improve his life, and he understood the velue of hard work. In his second year, Rice earned a staff position on the St. John’s Law Review, and as a 3L he served as Senior Notes and Comments Editor. After graduation, he became a litigation associate in the New York office of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. “I was attracted to the firm’s notion that litigators should be generalists, and not pigeon holed,” he said. Rice credits his St. John’s legal education for giving him a strong foundation in civil practice and procedure. “I knew the procedural rules and some of the nuances and oddities of the New York system better than anyone, and this gave me a real advantage.” Rice became a partner at Simpson Thacher in 1989, and continued to have a broad based practice as a commercial trial lawyer serving clients in a range of complex litigations, including securities, bankruptcy litigation, ERISA, and professional malpractice. Today Rice’s practice focuses on representing a number of the world’s leading financial institutions in complex litigation. In 2011, he was made Co-Chair of the firm’s Litigation Department of 50 partners and more than 200 associates in five offices. Rice’s leadership role is an amalgam of providing support to partners, thinking of growth areas, and practicing law. “We have a great group of partners here and we have never been busier,” he said, with nods to the firm’s “great institutional client base” and his partners’ entrepreneurial bent. But Rice also recognizes that the consolidation of financial services clients and the proliferation of law firms seeking a market share have impacted big firm litigation practices. Getting a good result for a client in a matter today does not guarantee that you will earn their business tomorrow, he said. “We have to compete with a greater number of lawyers and law firms and prove that we are right for each engagement.” In addition to navigating greater competition for a more concentrated client pool, Rice said, his firm has had to respond proactively to the increasing cost of litigation. “In certain areas, we are sometimes just priced out,” he said, noting that the firm is responsive to client concerns about legal fees and considers alternatives to the traditional billable hour.
Even with these larger market shifts, Rice observes that the core qualities of a litigator remain unchanged. “The highs are higher and the lows are lower than they are in transactional work. You need to be a strong writer, thinker and strategist, you need to work hard, and you need to have the confidence that, when you get to the courtroom at the end of the day, you’ll be able to obtain the best result for your client.”
Richard A. Spehr ‘86
Managing Partner, New York
At St. John’s, Richard A. Spehr ’86 found success as a law student, serving as an editor on the St. John’s Law Review in his last year. He also found an extraordinary mentor in David D. Siegel ‘58, a Law School alumnus who taught New York Practice during his tenure at St. John’s. “To this day, I remember a number of the lessons Professor Siegel imparted,” Spehr said. “They served me well as I transitioned into big firm practice, since so much of what you do as a young litigator relates to federal and state civil procedure.” At Mayer Brown, Spehr’s practice focuses on complex commercial litigation, including federal and state securities laws, internal investigations, SEC investigations, international arbitration, derivatives, banking, and financial services. He became Managing Partner of the firm’s New York office in 2009.
According to Spehr, the litigator’s essential role of applying procedural rules and advocating in the client’s best interests remains unchanged. What has changed is the way the role plays out during negotiations and in the courtroom. “Over the last 10 or 20 years, the courts have taken a more proactive role and rules have been crystallized to streamline discovery and to aggressively move cases to settlement,” he noted. Law firms have also had to respond proactively to greater competition for an increasingly sophisticated clientele. “Most law firms would say that their single greatest challenge is to satisfy their clients by doing the best work at the most reasonable cost,” Spehr said.
For young litigators, the key is to enjoy the work. “Litigation is much different than transactional work in that it can last years instead of months,” Spehr said. “You have to be genuinely interested in the people you encounter along the way. This is a service industry, and we all have to be focused on our clients.” In this regard, Spehr believes that St. John’s Law students are well suited to the work of big firm litigators. “My experience is that St. John’s graduates are hungry to succeed. Plus they are much more interested in practicing law at the highest level — and in satisfying the firm, its clients, and their colleagues — than they are in serving themselves. That’s what makes a great lawyer.”
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