We asked our readers to nominate firms in the United States that did exemplary, cutting-edge work on the plaintiffs’ side between the summer of 2008 and the summer of 2009. Firms needed at least one significant win and an impressive track record within the previous three to five years. A “significant” win meant prevailing in a bench or jury trial when the stakes were high, meaning that a substantial amount of money was at issue, or that the case could affect the litigation strategy or outcome of similar cases nationally. We also looked for wins that could effect significant social change or civil rights gains. Firms needed to devote at least 50% of their litigation resources to plaintiffs’ work. We don’t pretend this is anything but our subjective take on the major players in the plaintiffs’ bar. We looked for firms that struck us as representing the bar’s best qualities and that demonstrated unusual flair and creativity.

These are the firms to watch
Who would have thought we’d be handing out kudos to Milberg LLP three years after firm predecessor Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman was indicted for kicking back legal fees to class action plaintiffs? Who would have thought the firm would survive in any way, shape or form — much less that it would continue scoring significant settlements? Funny thing about plaintiffs’ attorneys: They’re a tenacious bunch.

The firms selected for this year’s honors are: Barroway Topaz Kessler Meltzer & Check; Berger & Montague; Bernstein Liebhard; Bernstein Litowitz; Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy; Coughlin Stoia; Grant & Eisenhofer; Hagens Berman; Labaton Sucharow; Lieff Cabraser; Milberg; Phillips & Cohen; Quinn Emanuel; Seeger Weiss; and Woodcock Washburn. Read on for the winning cases that earned these firms their place on the list.

Milberg lives long after all — and prospers
When the federal government indicted Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman in May 2006, the odds that the venerable plaintiffs’ firm would avoid utter collapse looked slim to none. The indictment caused almost 50 lawyers to ditch the firm; many expected it to disintegrate within a few months. Several client pension funds fired Milberg and a number of courts fired it from lead counsel roles. In short, the firm looked like a goner. But Milberg is back.

Risky investment in Enron case paid dividends
When Coughlin Stoia inherited lead counsel on behalf of Enron Corp. investors in 2002, it wasn’t clear the firm’s contingency fee would cover its litigation costs. They took the case anyway, and ultimately $688 million in attorney fees were awarded to the plaintiffs’ firms. Most of those fees went to Coughlin Stoia.

Advocates for ‘braceros’ wore opposition down
A class action by Mexican laborers (“braceros”) who legally came to the United States under 1940s-era guest worker programs required some heavy lifting by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. After eight years of heavily defended litigation that required the plaintiffs to win reversal of three trial-court dismissals, the plaintiffs claimed victory in a financial settlement paying the equivalent of $3,500 to each worker or his family.

Further reading:

The 2008 Plaintiffs’ Hot List