The 260 litigation lawyers in the Kirkland & Ellis Chicago office handled some of the nation's most intractable and complex high-profile lawsuits in 2015, tallying 168 litigation victories overall.
But not without help from other Kirkland offices around the country, said senior litigation partner Richard Godfrey, who leads the team handling the General Motors Co. vehicle ignition-switch class action and related personal injury lawsuits. Partners from three offices represent the company in handling more than 250 pieces of GM litigation.
"At any given time, and in light of the size, experience and the way in which our trial teams are organized, our litigation group has the capacity to simultaneously try multiple large matters," Godfrey said.
The office's team-effort style came in handy last year when Godfrey had to take a six-week detour from the GM cases to try a jury case for another client.
"While I am responsible overall for leading GM's defense," he said, "I have another senior partner — Mike Brock — who shares that responsibility with me with a focus on leading various trial teams. We both are assisted by a number of younger partners and trial lawyers responsible for the many work streams, including preparing various individual cases for trial."
Steve Berman, partner at Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, one of Kirkland's adversaries in the GM ignition litigation, offered grudging praise of Kirkland: "Hard-ball tactics, teams — and I mean teams — of lawyers on every issue. They were professional — a good choice for a company with a high-stakes case."
The first of six bellwether personal injury trials against GM collapsed in January, leading to the plaintiff's dismissal of his claims. The plaintiff said he was severely injured when the air bags in his Saturn car failed to deploy, but evidence indicated he was already partly disabled before the accident.
Kirkland lawyers showed that the plaintiff and his wife also made numerous false statements about the financial impact of the accident.
Kirkland also made strides for GM in other aspects of the ignition litigation. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York agreed with the firm that claims based on accidents that preceded the company's bankruptcy should be precluded, along with certain other categories of claims. In addition, the firm represents GM and some officers and directors in securities fraud class actions.
GM is not the only automobile firm tapping Kirkland for its services. Volkswagen A.G. hired Kirkland among other firms to handle the litigation stemming from its admission that it devised ways to falsify the results of emissions tests.
In 2015, Kirkland also helped wrap up one piece of the massive litigation triggered by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident.
The legal team tried the final phase of the Clean Water Act litigation on behalf of BP PLC, and then settled with the government for $5.5 billion, to be paid over five years — a fraction of the penalty sought by the government.
"Given the size and complexity of that matter, we had several of our most senior partners from four Kirkland offices responsible for various aspects of the litigation," Godfrey said.
A win for Kirkland client Caesars Entertainment Operating Co. before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit helped the gaming company through one of the largest restructurings in U.S. history.
The Chicago office also won a $73.6 million verdict for Miller UK Ltd. against Caterpillar Inc. in a trade secrets dispute Another case that hit close to home for Kirkland's Chicago office involved a dispute between the Chicago Cubs baseball team and rooftop businesses that provide paid seating for fans outside Wrigley Field.
The businesses went to court to halt renovation plans at the stadium, claiming that the club violated a licensing agreement that allowed the rooftop businesses to operate with an unobstructed view of the ballfield in exchange for a percentage of gross revenue.
Kirkland partner Andrew Kassof, representing the Cubs, succeeded in getting the suit dismissed, in part because the agreement contained an exception that allowed the stadium to expand.
All in all, Godfrey said, 2015 was "extremely busy, with increasing client demands for our services. We were very fortunate in that regard and … have experienced a period of sustained vibrancy and growth."
Looking ahead, Godfrey said the firm is embracing the "virtual law firm" concept to serve its clients — meaning collaboration by senior lawyers from several of the client's law firms.
"In most of the megamatters today, clients want, need and expect a virtual law firm to defend them and protect their interests. Clients want the best lawyers from a number of their core outside firms working together as a virtual law firm to achieve the best possible outcomes for the company," Godfrey said.
"KEYS TO SUCCESS"
“As an institution, you must have a robust and sustained commitment to creating a meritocratic culture over time—in recruiting, evaluation and advancement. The senior leaders of the litigation group must lead by example, and never ask a younger lawyer to do anything that the most senior lawyer is unwilling or unable to do himself or herself.” And work “collegially and humbly” with counsel from other law firms. —Richard Godfrey
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