Members of Conway Stoughton litigation team.
Members of Conway Stoughton litigation team. ()

When former hockey teammates Matthew Conway and Paul Stoughton opened a law firm together 11 years ago, they decided to apply the same competitive edge that helped them score goals on the ice to reach goals for their legal practice.

And so as they grew their practice to 10 attorneys, they looked for one trait in new hires: a competitive hunger.

“Every attorney [in our firm] has played sports competitively—hockey, soccer, basketball, rugby—and many still do,” said Conway, who is currently sporting a cast after breaking his arm playing hockey this year. “I ran the Hartford Marathon two years ago and many of our attorneys still participate in adult leagues in soccer, softball and basketball. … Our attorneys draw upon their competitive fire from their sports backgrounds in persistently defending or prosecuting our cases.”

Despite its small size, the West Hartford firm of Conway Stoughton handles every type of civil litigation, from personal injury and property damage cases to insurance disputes. To add to the challenge, the firm does both plaintiff and defense work. Its founders claim a 90 percent victory rate.

For its ambition and for its achievement, the firm has been named by the Connecticut Law Tribune as an overall winner in the Litigation Departments of the Year competition in the small law firm category.

Conway Stoughton’s mindset is evident from its website, which displays hockey photos and the motto: “Teamwork, Persistence, Success.”

Since its founding, Conway Stoughton has added a new attorney group every year. It now has three litigation partners, five associates and two other attorneys. All of the associates were judicial clerks before coming to the firm, which doesn’t hire laterals who might have their own preconceived notion of how a law office should operate. After the initial hire, the lead partners instill the firm’s philosophy in the new recruits.

“We cultivate our attorneys through our own minor league program. It’s like everyone buying into the same system on a team,” Conway said. “After going through the clerkship, where the focus is on researching and writing, the firm provides extensive trial workshops and file-handling seminars in an effort to have everyone buy into the same philosophy of efficiency and success.”

The team concept extends to the relationship between the two name partners.

“Matt and I personally interview every person we hire,” Stoughton said, “and we’ve been very careful to hire people with the qualities that our lawyers here have, and as a result we have an intelligent, hard-working team of people.”

Stoughton noted that he and Conway have contrasting personalities, and that, too, works in the firm’s favor. “Matt is a tremendous leader. He’s got boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm,” Stoughton said. “Having a good leader is a huge key to success. He doesn’t browbeat but leads by example. I am more reserved. Matt’s the guy running the show, but people come to me for other things. It’s a balance and it works.”

Stoughton, who earned his law degree from the University of California Hastings School of Law, is a commercial litigator. Originally from Buffalo, Conway graduated from Suffolk University School of Law in Massachusetts and is an insurance defense litigator.

Conway Stoughton litigates in state and federal court, and before workers’ compensation commissions and other administrative forums. It handles trials and appeals on cases that range from simple to complex.

In one case, Conway and attorney Christopher Williams represented Federal Insurance Co., which was dealing with a claim from a woman who had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a low-speed car crash. The woman settled with the other driver’s insurer for $100,000 but then filed suit against the insurance carrier for the vehicle in which she was riding. She sought the entire $1 million policy limit, but the jury returned a verdict of only $58,000. Because that was less than the $100,000 settlement, the plaintiff received no money from the trial.

Conway said this was a significant decision because the plaintiff’s counsel was attempting to be the first attorney in the state to prove a traumatic brain injury through the science of neuroimaging. Traditionally, traumatic brain injuries have not been diagnosed through electronic imagery, but through neuropsychological exams that tests things such as the patient’s cognitive abilities. Plaintiffs then try to prove their injuries in court through expert physician testimony.

Conway credited his victory to an effective cross-examination of the plaintiff’s experts, the retention of credible defense experts and a thorough understanding of the unique medical issues. He said he is particularly proud of the outcome because of how much he and his cocounsel had to learn about the scientific and medical aspects. He said that opposing counsel was pushing for the acceptance of new science and it was a challenge to learn enough to argue its shortcomings.

Conway believes the decision will likely play a role in future traumatic brain litigation.

The firm has had a significant amount of success in insurance defense cases, including one complex and precedent-setting matter involving the obligation of businesses to pay workers’ compensation premiums to insurance companies on behalf of independent contractors.

Laurie Penna, assistant vice president and casualty supervisor of Chubb Group Insurance Companies, often hires Conway Stoughton to supplement the insurer’s small in-house team. She described Conway Stoughton as a small firm that delivers like a large firm.

“They have the creativity to move the cases to the next level because they are savvy on the law,” Penna said. “The lawyers are passionate. You don’t have to wait for anything and you don’t have to look behind anything.

“Matt [Conway] has gotten some great results for us under some bizarre claims. We insure a lot of high-profile commercial accounts and there’s a lot of sensitivity involved in that. He really has impressed every one of our [policyholders] with his ability, passion and customer service. When Matt’s on a case, we don’t worry about anything.”

Appropriately enough, one of the firm’s higher profile cases involved a sports figure. Well, at least a relative of a sports figure.

Conway Stoughton successfully defended a personal injury lawsuit brought by the sister of former baseball pitcher Orel Hershiser, who had asked for $6 million in damages plus pain and suffering. Conway took over the case just two months before trial from another firm. Preparation included a flight to Georgia to conduct a key deposition with a physician and ended up with a trial, where the jury returned a defense verdict after only 30 minutes of deliberations.

“What I love about being a lawyer is learning more every day,” Conway said. “Our competitive backgrounds have wired us to win, whether it be at trial or by achieving a positive result for the client by settlement. The name of the game in litigation is winning.”•