Hartford-based Robinson & Cole hasn’t been boasting about its litigation achievements — but it has every reason to. For a host of reasons, the firm is the winner of the Connecticut Law Tribune’s Litigation Department of the Year Award in the Large Law Firm category. Among its latest accomplishments are several that are being reported here for the first time.

The most notable is Robinson & Cole’s recent U.S. Supreme Court win in the case of Standard Fire Insurance V. Knowles, an important decision for insurance companies that makes them less vulnerable to state class actions.

For many years, plaintiffs had waged class action claims in the Circuit Court of Miller County, Arkansas against various insurance companies. That’s one of those jurisdictions the defense bar dubs a traditional "hellhole" for plaintiff-friendly class action results. The plaintiffs’ claim was that the insurers were acting illegally when they failed to provide policyholders with enough money to hire a general contractor for their significant home repairs. Previous insurance defendants had been forced to pay large settlements, with more than $420 million in attorneys fees paid to two plaintiffs’ firms alone.

Robinson & Cole got involved because it represents the Standard Fire company, a subsidiary of The Travelers Co., which is based in Hartford. A major issue was which court should have jurisdiction.

In 2005, the federal Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) gave federal courts jurisdiction of cases in which the anticipated damages are over $5 million. Congress wanted to allow interstate cases of national importance to be heard in federal court, where out-of state defendants often feel they have a more level playing field. In the Standard Fire case, named plaintiff Greg Knowles asserted by affidavit that the class’s damages would not exceed $5 million, a strategy that had worked to keep previous plaintiffs out of federal court.

At first, Knowles’ affidavit was enough to get a federal judge to remand the case back to the Arkansas state court. After losing the jurisdictional ruling, Robinson & Cole partners Stephen Goldman and Wystan Ackerman filed a petition for certiorari at the U.S. Supreme Court. Beating steep odds, they obtained cert and, with the help of a Supreme Court specialist at oral argument, won the case. The justices unanimously ruled that the named plaintiff, in this case Knowles, had no right to set a maximum damages threshold for members of the class not yet involved in the case.

It was the first time the high court had interpreted CAFA, and lawyers say the significance is that future would-be class action plaintiffs can’t use this kind of damages-limiting affidavit to steer a case toward a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction.

"A case like this doesn’t come along very often. It was of tremendous significance to our client, The Travelers, and of enormous excitement internally, to be practicing at that level," said Rhonda J. Tobin, co-chair of Robinson & Cole’s 62-lawyer litigation department, who is an insurance defense trial lawyer. "Some of the breadth of our practice may not be known to all of [the Law Tribune's] readers. We are certainly known as a Connecticut law firm, but we’re practicing all over the country in the highest courts."

With over 225 lawyers in five states and seven locations, Robinson & Cole is highly diversified, but its largest department and core strength continues to be litigation. "We try cases — it’s not just a slogan," said Bradford S. Babbitt, the other litigation co-chair, whose focus is business defense.

Short Notice

The firm has some refreshing no-frills traditions. Lawyers like to answer their own phones. Clients are billed for legal work, not an endless list of add-ons for office services. Unlike some big firms, a bill from Robinson & Cole won’t include, for example, a charge for the time spent compiling the bill itself.

The direct approach helps contain litigation costs, Babbitt explains. The first question they ask about any case is, "What is this case about? What do we need to do to present that theme to the judge or jury? And we set the rest aside. If we don’t need to take 16 depositions, we’re not going to do that."

Being a big firm doesn’t mean it can’t be nimble, he noted, because individual cases often boil down to teams of two or three key individuals. R&C lawyers been called in on short notice to handle critical trials, Babbitt said, citing a recent case in which Tobin was called into a complex case at the eleventh hour. The client, said Babbitt, "called up Rhonda and she and [Appellate Practice Group chair] Jeff White tried that case some 60 days later – a pretty short time period" to prepare a case years in the making.

"The clients," Babbitt said, "recognized the case had to be tried, and was going to pay more than it’s worth to make it go away. They wanted someone who’s been in the courtroom and who’s experienced."

Although the vast majority of Robinson & Cole trials are handled by two- to four-lawyer teams, the firm also handled some huge matters in 2012. Among those was an antitrust review of an $18 billion merger for a publicly-traded multinational company by the U.S. Department of Justice. In 90 days the firm analyzed 100,000 documents, marking 17,000 of them as privileged, and the merger went through on schedule.

Some of the firm’s trial talent works in the criminal courts, like veteran litigator Jim Wade and white collar defender Craig Raabe. In recent years, both have been appointed as defense counsel in a half-dozen serious criminal defense cases, including capital murder cases, which they had to be "death-qualified" to defend.

A major segment of Robinson & Cole’s litigation business comes from the insurance industry, recently hit hard by hurricanes and other liability claims. For insurers, exclusionary clauses, which disallow claims for certain actions or circumstances, are as important as a seawall in a typhoon.

In the South, between 2005 and 2007, a wave of claims arose from the installation of Chinese drywall, which put the insurers’ exclusion clauses under scrutiny. The wave of cases were consolidated in federal multidistrict litigation.

In a case defended by Robinson & Cole lawyers, TravCo v. Ward, another Travelers subsidiary sought a declaratory judgment on the effectiveness of its policy exclusions. TravCo argued the claims were not covered, due to exemptions for latent defects, defective materials, corrosion and pollutants. Partner Steve Goldman, a veteran of 30 years of litigation, argued the issues on remand to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Last year, the court ruled TravCo had won on all four exclusion issues. Significantly for insurers, "this was the first time any state court had applied the pollution exclusion to a property insurance policy," said Ackerman.

Firm Character

Robinson’s long history of courtroom battles affects how its lawyers view themselves today, Babbitt said. "It’s a real tradition of top level, complex litigation.," he said. "You go back 20 years, and the names and the faces are different, but those leading the section were doing the same kind of interesting, challenging cutting-edge work."

He added: "I feel that we’re the terrific beneficiaries of client relationships and courtroom achievements that were created 20 years ago, and 40 years ago and 60 years ago."

The firm’s reputation as an active litigation power helps attract talent, Tobin says. "It’s part of our culture, and that’s part of what draws people here. They do want to try cases.

But it’s not a passive process. For example, the firm’s trial training program for upcoming lawyers is a monthly hands-on education in essential skills. It leads to a final all-day mock trial with a jury that can be observed by closed circuit TV as it deliberates.

Internally, the firm presents "Insurance 101" to train lawyers in the basics of that practice, and "Business Litigation University" teaches litigation skills, how to quickly assess the essence of a case, and how to work with expert witnesses.

"Even in this age of vanishing trials," says Tobin, "our clients understand that for those few cases that need to be fought, that we’re ready to do it. We’ve trained our associates to do it, and we all really enjoy being in that setting. I think that does make us a little different from other big firms." •