In the product liability field, some firms operate at a level of 30,000 feet and oversee the legal strategy for an entire litigation. Other firms put boots on the ground as they engage in courtroom combat in individual trials. King & Spalding prides itself on being able to do both. The firm’s product liability group has demonstrated an ability to serve as national coordinating counsel and trial counsel on a wide range of pharmaceutical, tobacco, automotive, and toxic torts matters.

Boasting 15 first-chair trial lawyers, the group has plenty of talent to call on to handle all aspects of litigation. Case in point: Partner Chilton Varner and group leader Andrew Bayman are serving as national coordinating counsel for GlaxoSmithKline plc in its Paxil litigation. (Plaintiffs have claimed that the antidepressant causes suicidal tendencies.) Varner seamlessly switched gears in October 2009 and November 2010, trying the only two cases to go forward—in Philadelphia, no less, one of the most plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions in the country. Varner won a dismissal from the court during trial in one case and limited damages to only $2.5 million (with no punitives) in the other.

Indeed, the firm has emerged as one that companies call on to handle the most delicate matters and navigate the toughest jurisdictions. Jeff Raborn, assistant general counsel of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., says he handpicked partner Jeffrey Furr to try his company’s cases in a difficult county where RJ Reynolds has had previous setbacks. “We assigned that jurisdiction to Furr because he is one of the best, if not the best, lawyers we have in our stable,” says Raborn. Between Furr and partner W. Ray Persons, the group won three cases in Florida during 2011 on behalf of RJ Reynolds in the latest round of Engle-progeny cases. The Engle victories were especially sweet for the firm, which represented Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation (which merged with RJ Reynolds in 2004) in the original Engle class action that resulted in a $160 billion loss for Big Tobacco.

An outstanding track record in the courtroom is what drew the attention of Richard Silbert, associate general counsel of Purdue Pharma, L.P., to King & Spalding in 2002. Silbert was looking at the beginning of “bet-your-company” litigation brought by consumers who had purchased OxyContin, the company’s painkiller. He turned to Varner, whom he calls “one of the deans of the product liability defense bar.” Silbert explains, “I thought the only way we would prevail would be to show that we were willing to go to trial and win.” Over the past nine years, Varner and her team have obtained the dismissal of nearly 400 OxyContin claims. (According to Varner, the claims totaled nearly 2,000 throughout the litigation.) Her most recent success was the dismissal of a putative class action case in May brought by consumers who purchased the medication.

Varner says the department has come a long way from her first days as an asso­ciate in 1976, when the group consisted of two partners and three additional associates and centered around primary client General Motors Corporation. No longer a niche practice within the firm, the department currently numbers 105 partners, associates, and counsel. And there should be plenty of work to keep King & Spalding busy as it continues to pick up new clients. In February 2010, for instance, the firm was retained by Toyota Motor Corporation to coordinate the company’s response to allegations of unwanted acceleration in its vehicles. Full speed ahead.

Practice Group Size: Partners: 37, Associates: 51, Counsel: 17

Practice Group as Percent of Firm: 13%

Percent of Firm Revenue 2010: 19%