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Most Januarys, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Theodore Olson gives the firm’s freshest hires a speech that he calls “How to Fail.” One sure way, he tells them, is always to swim with the current. “Sheep, lemmings and dead fish all learn to head in the same direction at the same time,” he warned in a recent version of his talk. The message is clear: Don’t be afraid to think for yourself and make your own path.

His bromide has become a market strategy and a hallmark for the firm’s practice. Time and again in 2008-09, blue-chip clients in desperate straits have turned to Gibson Dunn lawyers to get them out of trouble at every stage, from subpoena to summary judgment to U.S. Supreme Court final appeal. The litany is breathtaking: helping Dole Food Company, Inc., end a costly war of attrition with Nicaraguan plaintiffs, and uncovering a nasty pattern of fraud in the process; beating back massive, reputation-gutting employment class actions for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and United Parcel Service, Inc.; persuading the Supreme Court, on behalf of a teetering West Virginia mine owner, that a state judge must recuse himself if he took money from one of the parties in his last campaign — a now obvious point that was in the couldn’t-be-done category two years ago. “I call them lifeboat lawyers, because our careers depend on them,” says Wal-Mart executive vice president and former general counsel Thomas Mars. For those rescues, and a broader record of excellent work for hard-pressed clients, The American Lawyer names the firm its Litigation Department of the Year.

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