Quinn Emanuel's Successful Bet On Kathleen Sullivan

When law professor Kathleen Sullivan joined the upstart Quinn Emanuel in 2005, it wasn't clear that this unusual pairing would work. It has.

, The American Lawyer


In 2009 Bradley Lerman got a phone call from a former law school classmate. It was Kathleen Sullivan of the firm then called Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart & Hedges, and she and her partner, Faith Gay, had a proposal. They told Lerman, who was chief litigation counsel at Pfizer Inc., that they had noticed that his company had a case on appeal involving the Alien Tort Statute.

In recent years, plaintiffs have sued under that statute to try to hold corporations responsible for human rights abuses abroad. Sullivan and Gay knew a lot about that controversial law from successfully representing The Coca-Cola Company in two ATS cases, and asked Lerman if they could come by and spend 30 minutes talking to him. Lerman hadn't used Quinn Emanuel before, but he said sure.

"It was pure initiative on their part," says Lerman, who had gone to Harvard Law School with Sullivan. Their analysis of the case was brilliant, he says, and Sullivan and Gay even offered to write a "shadow brief" for free, demonstrating a different approach from what Pfizer had taken. Lerman took them up on it and was impressed, but stayed with Kaye Scholer, which was handling the matter. After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled against Pfizer in 2009—finding that the company could be sued over its testing of an experimental drug on children in Nigeria—Lerman hired Sullivan to write a certiorari petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court didn't grant cert, but Ler­man soon afterward chose Sullivan for another Pfizer case that did make it to the justices. In 2011 Sullivan convinced the court in Bruesewitz v. Wyeth that Wyeth (which Pfizer had acquired) was insulated by the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act from suits alleging defects in vaccines. "In terms of oral advocacy, I don't think I've seen anybody better," says Lerman, who is now executive vice president and general counsel of the Federal National Mortgage Association.

Now in her fifth year as a partner at Quinn Emanuel, the 58-year-old Sullivan is a singular success story. After spending more than two decades in academia as a professor at Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School, including five years as Stanford Law's dean, she's proven she can compete in the world of big law. It's fair to say that not many former elite law school deans would be willing to go around making cold calls to companies, hat in hand, asking for work—and offering up free samples in the bargain. But that's the culture of Quinn Emanuel, and the politic and personable Sullivan has fit in seamlessly. So much so that in 2010 the firm changed its name to Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart & Sullivan, making Sullivan the first female name partner of an Am Law 100 firm.

At Quinn, Sullivan has argued four Supreme Court cases and won three, including a prominent victory this spring for corporate America in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. That ruling will sharply limit the ability of plaintiffs to bring ATS cases in the United States. She's also recently won major rulings for American International Group, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Samsung, Mattel Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Entergy Services Inc. At press time she didn't have a case this term before the Supreme Court, but she had a cert petition pending for Pfizer on whether the company could be liable under RICO for its off-label marketing of the anti-seizure drug Neurontin. (Read more about Sullivan's recent wins.)

Within Quinn Emanuel, Sullivan has built from scratch a 43-lawyer appellate group at a firm that was previously known for trial work and that didn't have a single appellate specialist. She's also attracted top talent, recruiting some of her best former students and proving a draw to lateral partners across practice areas. Product liability pioneer Sheila Birnbaum says that Sullivan and Gay were instrumental in convincing her to leave Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom this year and bring her huge practice and a group of 19 lawyers with her. "They were very persistent. But only in the nicest way," says Birnbaum. In fact, it was Sullivan, then of counsel at Quinn Emanuel, who convinced Gay to leave White & Case in 2006. "We talked back and forth about how fun it would be to shape a firm," recalls Gay, who now cochairs the firm's national trial practice group.

Back in 2005, when Sullivan joined Quinn Emanuel, it wasn't at all obvious that this unusual alliance would work. But Sullivan has been willing to adapt, and hustle, to go on myriad client pitches and to provide leadership as the firm grew its appellate practice from scratch. New York partner Peter Calamari says Sullivan has been critical to the firm's recent success. "She gave us a certain amount of respectability during an important transitional period for the firm," he explains. "She changed how the world looked at us: from scrappy lawyers to a force to be reckoned with."

When Sullivan stepped down as dean of Stanford Law School in 2004, law firms didn't line up to bid for her talents. Former deans aren't expected to go into private practice. She returned to teaching and focused on creating the Stanford Constitutional Law Center. "I had no intention of joining a law firm," she says. "None."

Then an old friend, A. William Urquhart, contacted her out of the blue and suggested she join Quinn Emanuel. The two had worked together decades ago at Cravath, Swaine & Moore: Urquhart was an associate and Sullivan was a summer associate. At Cravath, the two spent time in Alabama representing workers in a pro bono racial discrimination case brought against the Tennessee Valley Authority that ultimately failed. They punctuated periods of hard work with beer runs to Tennessee to alleviate the challenges of staying in a dry county. "I can't tell you how many hundreds of thousands of summer associates I've known over the years," Urquhart recalls with perhaps some exaggeration. "I've only stayed in touch with two. Kathleen is one of them."

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