It was roughly four decades ago when Elizabeth Cabraser, co-founder of the plaintiffs-side class action firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, began working with law partner Robert Lieff during her final year of law school.
At the time, Cabraser had no intention of becoming a plaintiffs attorney, she said. But she was hired to help Lieff — who was then in his 40s after years as a plaintiffs lawyer — wind down pending cases so he could retire early and run a vineyard.
Once the cases were wrapped up, Cabraser would search for another legal job. Although Lieff eventually did start a vineyard in addition to his legal practice, that’s about the only part of the plan that came to pass.
“He didn’t retire; I didn’t go off and find another law job,” said Cabraser, now 65 and one of the country’s top class action lawyers. “We gradually built a firm around the fact that he couldn’t quit working for plaintiffs, and I became fascinated by it. “
One of Cabraser’s first entrees into class action litigation arose out of her and Lieff’s office in Sonoma County, California, early in their partnership. The area had a large share of retirees and, as Cabraser came to realize, “scamsters of all stripes” had brought “an epidemic of investment fraud in our small town.” So she spent time in the early 1980s on a series of investment and mortgage fraud cases, helping retirees recoup financial losses.
“Those were cases in which people’s life savings had been stolen. To be able to get back the work of a lifetime … was very satisfying,” she said.
Cabraser has since devoted her career to plaintiffs-side advocacy in a range of high-profile cases, including the multi-state tobacco litigation in the 1990s and in landmark human rights litigation brought on behalf of Holocaust survivors who were enslaved or had their assets looted by banks and other companies during the Nazi regime in World War II.
“It was a tremendous and moving experience,” Cabraser said of the Holocaust litigation, which the firm handled pro bono. More recently, she took a leadership role in litigation stemming from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and she has served as lead plaintiffs counsel for consumers impacted by Volkswagen AG’s diesel emissions scandal.
Cabraser has given back to the legal and local communities by serving on the board of directors for the San Francisco-based Legal Aid at Work. She also serves on the council of the American Law Institute and is completing a six-year stint on the Federal Civil Rules Advisory Committee, a group appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s chief justice to study and propose changes to the rules of civil procedure.
Along the way, Cabraser has become a class action expert, lending her enormous credibility with judges and opposing counsel, said Sullivan & Cromwell’s Robert Giuffra Jr., who faced Cabraser as VW’s lead defense in the diesel emissions litigation. “She’s a combination of a big time plaintiffs lawyer and a Legal Aid lawyer. She genuinely cares about her clients, in a way that no other plaintiffs lawyer that I’ve ever been on the other side of does.”
Name: Elizabeth J. Cabraser
Firm: Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, San Francisco
Position: Founding Partner
Practice: Consumer protection; defective products; mass torts; securities & financial fraud
Law School: University of California at Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1978
Advice to young lawyers: “It’s very simple: you’ve got to love it. You’ve got to love the law; you’ve got to love the process; you’ve got to love the legal system. You’ve got to love the law, even when it doesn’t love you back.”