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 was bringing on Sheila Birnbaum, the former co-head of the mass torts and insurance litigation group at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and partner Mark Cheffo in New York.
Birnbaum and Cheffo are experts in products liability litigation, and both lawyers are expected to join the firm’s New York office sometime this week, where they will cohead Quinn Emanuel’s global products liability and mass torts practice.
“Sheila has been a trailblazer both in the legal profession in general and at Skadden,” said a statement by the firm’s executive partner Eric Friedman. “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 its 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 were given a standard one-year guarantee on compensation by Quinn Emanuel to leave Skadden.
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 move to hire Weil, Gotshal & Manges litigation partners Michael Lyle and Eric Lyttle in Washington, D.C.—a move that was first reported by legal blog Above the Law, which also broke the news Tuesday morning of Quinn Emanuel’s bid to bring on Birnbaum and Cheffo.
Birnbaum, who gained the nickname the “Queen of Toxic Torts” for her years of work handling products liability cases involving everything from Hurricane Katrina-related claims to oral contraceptives and breast implants, spoke in December with sibling publication the New York Law Journal about her career highlights, which include 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 court 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 status at Skadden, Birnbaum, 73, was allowed to stay on at the firm past its mandatory retirement age, which remains 70, according to our previous reports.
Skadden’s mass torts group, which received a huge boost several years ago when pharmaceutical giant Pfizer chose Cheffo to serve as its national coordinating counsel for litigation involving the antiepilepsy drug Neurontin, was a finalist for The American Lawyer’s Litigation Department of the Year in 2012.
Beisner and Cheffo have 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 a setback to the company this month by affirming 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 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. While Schulman did not respond to a request for comment about whether Skadden’s role as national coordinating counsel was in jeopardy following Cheffo’s defection for Quinn Emanuel, Pfizer did address its relationship with Skadden, which remains one of the company’s preferred providers of outside legal services.
"We value our long and deep relationship with Sheila and Mark," said a statement by Pfizer provided to The Am Law Daily. "We also value our longstanding 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 was a major factor in getting both litigators to leave Skadden, but 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.”
As such, Gay notes that no legal recruiter was used to broker the lateral move of both partners from Skadden, who she says are the first from the firm to make the move to Quinn Emanuel.
Quinn Emanuel saw its gross revenues rise to $853 million and profits per partner surge to more than $4.4 million in 2012, according to our previous reports. Skadden’s preliminary financial numbers for last year saw the firm’s revenues hit $2.21 billion, while profits per partner increased 5.4 percent to $2.62 million.
Gay says that Quinn Emanuel’s products liability group previously had no leader, as it was predominantly focused at the appellate level. She calls products liability a “growth area” for Quinn Emanuel, whose hire of Birnbaum also gives the firm another high-profile female litigator to add to its stable, which already includes Gay, partner Susan Estrich, and name partner and national appellate practice chair Kathleen Sullivan, a former dean of Stanford Law School who joined the firm in 2005. (Sullivan was added to Quinn Emanuel’s shingle in 2010, making her the first woman name partner at an Am Law 100 firm.)
Last year The NLJ named Birnbaum a trailblazer in advancing the careers of women lawyers through her four decades of work in the products 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.
As for Quinn Emanuel itself, the firm founded in 1986 by John Quinn, Eric Emanuel, David Quinto, and Phyllis Kupferstein spent the better part of the next 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 cover of The American Lawyer 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 form has been on the move, expanding into New York in September 2001, opening offices in Moscow and Washington, D.C., a decade later, heading to Hamburg in 2012, and having designs on future offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, according to sibling publication The Asian Lawyer.