UPDATE: 4/23/2013, 5:35 p.m. EST. A statement from Pfizer has been added to the 16th paragraph of this story.
It seems every high-profile litigator these days is setting up shop at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.
The national litigation firm announced Tuesday that it has hired Sheila Birnbaum, the former cohead of the mass torts and insurance litigation group at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and partner Mark Cheffo. Experts in product liability litigation, Birnbaum and Cheffo are set to join Quinn Emanuel’s New York office sometime this week and will cohead their new firm’s global product liability and mass torts practice.
“Sheila has been a trailblazer both in the legal profession in general and at Skadden,” Skadden executive partner Eric Friedman said in a statement. “We thank her and Mark for their contributions, and we wish them well in their next chapter.” John Beisner, a former O’Melveny & Myers partner who joined Skadden in May 2009, will now lead the firm’s mass torts group.
Cheffo, named a Litigator of the Week last year by sibling publication The Am Law Litigation Daily for his work representing Vintage Pharmaceuticals in a mass torts case, did not respond to a request for comment, but a source familiar with the move says that he and Birnbaum received a standard one-year compensation guarantee from Quinn Emanuel in making the move.
Reached Monday morning in her office at Skadden’s Times Square headquarters, Birnbaum demurred when asked about her decision to join Quinn Emanuel, although she acknowledged that the firm has been on quite the hiring spree as of late.
The Am Law Daily reported last week on Quinn Emanuel’s hiring of Weil, Gotshal & Manges litigation partners Michael Lyle and Eric Lyttle in Washington, D.C.—a move first reported by legal blog Above the Law, which also broke the news Tuesday morning that Birnbaum and Cheffo were headed to Quinn Emanuel.
Birnbaum, who earned the nickname the “Queen of Toxic Torts” for her years of work handling product liability cases involving everything from Hurricane Katrina–related claims to oral contraceptives and breast implants, spoke with sibling publication the New York Law Journal in December about her career highlights, which have included mediating liability claims filed by the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The 9/11–related litigation work won Birnbaum and Skadden accolades from U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, and in 2011 she was named special master for the new compensation fund set up after Congress passed the James Zadroga Act in December 2010.
Given her stature, Skadden allowed Birnbaum, 73, to stay on past the firm’s mandatory retirement age of 70, according to our previous reports. (The NYLJ notes that Quinn Emanuel has no mandatory retirement age.)
Skadden’s mass torts group, which received a huge boost several years ago when pharmaceutical giant Pfizer chose Cheffo to serve as the company’s national coordinating counsel for litigation involving the antiepilepsy drug Neurontin, was a finalist in the product liability category of The American Lawyer’s Litigation Department of the Year contest in 2012.
Beisner and Cheffo have previously teamed up with Quinn Emanuel to advise Pfizer in the ongoing litigation over Neurontin. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit dealt the company a setback in that litigation this month when it affirmed a $142 million verdict on behalf of plaintiffs, according to a report by sibling publication The National Law Journal.
A Skadden deposition defense in the Neurontin litigation led to sanctions against Pfizer two years ago, although the plaintiffs’ lawyers have also come under criticism in the federal multidistrict litigation, which The Am Law Litigation Daily once deemed the “incredible, shrinking mass tort.”
Boies, Schiller & Flexner, another firm known for its litigation expertise, has also handled Neurontin cases for New York–based Pfizer, whose general counsel is former DLA Piper litigation partner Amy Schulman. In a statement provided to The Am Law Daily, the drugmaker addressed its relationship with Skadden—one of the company’s preferred providers of outside legal services—in light of Cheffo’s defection to Quinn Emanuel.
"We value our long and deep relationship with Sheila and Mark," Pfizer said. "We also value our long-standing relationship with Skadden Arps, which supports Pfizer in some of our most critical areas. We are committed to working together to ensure that Pfizer continues to receive the best possible legal support across the company."
Faith Gay, the cochair of Quinn Emanuel’s national trial practice, confirmed to The Am Law Daily that her firm’s previous relationship working with Birnbaum and Cheffo—who she says are the first partners to join Quinn Emanuel from Skadden—was a major factor in persuading the litigators to leave Skadden, though she declined to discuss specific cases or clients. “We’re very lucky to have Mark and Sheila join us,” says Gay, who herself joined Quinn Emanuel in 2006 from White & Case. “It grew out of our personal friendships with the both of them.” (Because of those friendships, Gay notes, no legal recruiter was necessary to broker the two partners’ lateral move.)
While Birnbaum and Cheffo are leaving one of the world’s top-grossing firms, the one they are joining had another strong year financially in 2012. Quinn Emanuel reports that its gross revenue rose to $853 million and its profits per partner surged to more than $4.4 million last year, according to our previous reports. Skadden, meanwhile, saw its gross revenue grow to $2.21 billion and profits per partner rise to $2.62 million.
Gay says Quinn Emanuel’s 25-partner product liability group has previously been without a leader. She calls the practice a “growth area” for the firm, which, with Birnbaum’s arrival, adds another high-profile female litigator to a roster that already includes Gay, partner Susan Estrich, and name partner and national appellate practice chair Kathleen Sullivan, the former Stanford Law School dean who joined the firm in 2005. (Sullivan’s name was added to the Quinn Emanuel moniker in 2010 in a move that made her the first female name partner at an Am Law 100 firm.)
Last year the NLJ named Birnbaum a trailblazer in advancing the careers of women lawyers as a result of her four decades of work in the product liability arena. "[Sheila's] not just the queen of mass torts, she’s the queen of the litigation bar, and a path-breaking role model for many highly successful partners in our firm," Gay says.
Quinn Emanuel, which was founded in 1986 by John Quinn, Eric Emanuel, David Quinto, and Phyllis Kupferstein, spent the better part of its first decade hewing closely to its Los Angeles headquarters, where it developed a reputation for having a laid-back atmosphere in the office but being tenacious in the courtroom.
Quinn, who appeared on the The American Lawyer‘s cover in June 2006, and name partner William Urquhart, who joined on in 1988, both began their careers at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. In recent years, the firm they helped build has been in growth mode, expanding into New York in September 2001, opening offices in Moscow and Washington, D.C., a decade later, heading to Hamburg in 2012, and expressing interest in establishing offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, according to sibling publication The Asian Lawyer.