Four years ago, Mark Poe left the security—and confines—of Morrison & Foerster, where he’d just been promoted to of counsel, to open a litigation boutique with his old Stanford Law classmate Randolph Gaw, a former associate at O’Melveny & Myers.
Last week, their San Francisco-based firm got a birthday present of sorts: Poe on May 31 had two different eight-figure appeals affirmed by two different appellate courts. Sweeter still, these were literally his first and second cases after leaving MoFo to launch Gaw Poe.
Talk about serendipity.
Making the leap from Big Law cog to small firm boss is a bold and potentially nerve-wracking move, but Gaw and Poe have made it work.
“Lawyers are risk-averse by nature, but I knew if I didn’t give this a try, I’d regret it for the rest of my life,” Gaw said by phone from the federal courthouse in Santa Ana, California, where he and Poe are currently mid-trial, representing cigar maker Trendsettah USA Inc. in a contractual dispute with a German supplier. (Poe was not able to break free for an interview).
A few things have contributed to their success. For one, both lawyers left their old firms on good terms, and their former colleagues have been a steady source of referral business.
They’re also wildly efficient. For example, Gaw and Poe won a $44 million antitrust verdict in 2016—the largest of the year in California—on behalf of Trendsettah in a case against the world’s largest cigar manufacturer, Swisher International. They billed less than 3,000 hours for their work on the case.
Gaw said the expert who reviewed their fee application was shocked, and told them that in comparable cases, other firms have billed 10,000 hours or more.
“We try to seek contingency arrangements as much as possible, as a reward for [our] efficiency,” Gaw said.
The firm has grown to five lawyers, all partners. Two came from MoFo—Victor Meng and Samuel Song—and Joshua Ko is a good friend of Gaw’s from college. They’re now thinking of adding a few associates.
“We certainly would like to get bigger … maybe to 10 attorneys. Then we can legitimately claim to be able to handle almost any kind of litigation,” Gaw said.
In the meantime, they’re a tight-knit group. When they go to trial, for example, they rent an Airbnb and all stay together in the house.
And in the first two years of the firm’s existence, they went to trial “all the time,” Gaw said. As a new, untested entity, “We could not settle cases. Everyone wanted to take us to trial—and we were almost always up against a bigger firm. But we got some great results.”
Now that they’re more of a known quantity with a winning track record, Gaw said “Our cases are settling at a nice clip.”
Poe’s two wins last week came in his first-ever trial and his first-ever arbitration. (According to Gaw, Poe spent more than seven years at MoFo without ever actually trying a case.)
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed an $11.3 million arbitration award on behalf of Poe’s client Ronald Barranco against 3D Systems Inc., the largest 3-D printing company in the world. Barranco sold his company to 3D Systems but had a dispute about post-acquisition terms.
Also on May 31, the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District affirmed a judgment and statement of decision holding that firm clients Nasir Javaid and Dejauna Joseph were not obligated to sell their San Francisco gas station—now worth more than $10 million—for $3 million pursuant to an option contract with plaintiff Joseph Tierney.
For Gaw, the best part of having their own firm is that it’s “a true partnership” that gives them the freedom to practice law the way they see fit. “We’re not beholden to doing things a certain way, because that’s how they’ve always been done.”
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