Sheila Birnbaum. Photo: Rick Kopstein/ALM.

Sheila Birnbaum and Mark Cheffo, co-chairs of the products liability practice at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, are leaving the firm with a third products liability partner to join Dechert in New York.

Quinn Emanuel announced the departures Tuesday, citing what it described as conflicts with other parts of the firm’s litigation practice.

“Quinn Emanuel has achieved great success representing both plaintiffs and defendants in a broad range of practice areas,” managing partner John Quinn said in a statement, adding that “over time our broad and diverse practice has created many conflicts for particular clients we have represented in products liability litigation.”

Mark Cheffo.
Photo: Rick Kopstein/ALM

Birnbaum, Cheffo and products liability partner Douglas Fleming all joined Quinn Emanuel’s New York office in 2013 from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, along with 11 other products liability attorneys.

Birnbaum, who has been dubbed the “queen of toxic torts” for her influence on the practice, had spent 33 years at Skadden, where she played a groundbreaking role in products liability cases involving oral contraceptives, breast implants and other litigation.

Before joining Skadden, she was a professor at New York University School of Law and Fordham University School of Law. She also served as associate dean of the graduate division of New York University.

In addition to representing companies like Dow Corning Corp., Pfizer Inc. and State Farm, Birnbaum also served as a special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, setting up a claims process to distribute $2.8 billion to rescue workers and residents who experienced health problems after the terrorist attack that brought down the World Trade Center.

“We have greatly enjoyed our five years as partners in Quinn Emanuel and the opportunity to work with its many talented trial lawyers, but we have come to the realization that our particular practice was creating too many conflicts with the firm’s diverse litigation practice,” Birnbaum said in a statement Tuesday.

Quinn Emanuel’s New York office managing partner, Rick Werder, said that Morgan Tovey in the San Francisco office and Sandra Bresnick in New York would now serve as co-heads of the product liability practice.

The unusual pre-emptive announcement of the departures recalled Quinn Emanuel’s approach earlier this year, when it revealed that litigators Philippe Selendy and Faith Gay were leaving the firm a month before they launched their own litigation boutique with eight other former Quinn partners.

While that breakup led to a public display of rancor between both parties, Quinn Emanuel on Tuesday emphasized it had no ill will towards Birnbaum and her team.

“Sheila, Mark, Doug and their team have been great partners and friends, and we are sorry to see them leave,” Michael Carlinsky, co-managing partner of the firm’s New York office, said in a statement.

Both Birnbaum and Cheffo did not directly respond to requests for comment, but in Quinn Emanuel’s announcement, Birnbaum was quoted saying that she and her partners leave with “great good will and the expectation that we will continue to work cooperatively and collegially with our QE colleague for years to come.”

Dechert also offered a reaction from Birnbaum.

“Dechert provides a tremendous global platform and I have the utmost respect for the team this firm has built,” she said in statement released by her new firm.

The move is a coup for Dechert’s products liability practice, which has in recent years handled work on behalf of Takata Corp. related to allegedly defective airbags coming to a conclusion.

“Sheila, Mark and Doug are simply some of the best lawyers in this market. We are absolutely delighted they are joining the firm,” chairman Andrew Levander said in a statement.

The firm has made several other high-profile hires in the first half of 2018, including former Hughes Hubbard & Reed class action co-chair David Stern in Los Angeles, Hughes Hubbard international trade partners F. Amanda DeBusk and Melissa Duffy in Washington and former associate White House counsel Michael McGinley, also in Washington.

The firm also brought back former international private equity partner Timothy Clark from O’Melveny & Myers in New York in March, and hired former Kirkland & Ellis global finance partner Matthew Hays in Chicago in April.