Assuming Leadership Of An Outstanding Commercial Litigation Group: A Challenge And An Opportunity

Saturday, November 1, 2008 - 00:00

Editor: Mr. Weil, you have built an impressive career. As you look back on more than three decades as a trial lawyer, what were some of the high points?

Weil: I have been fortunate to have been involved in two of the largest class actions in the history of American jurisprudence. The first was the airlines antitrust/price-fixing litigation in Atlanta, and the second the cigarette class actions against Philip Morris and others. Both actions were very complicated matters and involved the challenge of running large, complex cases, with the best plaintiff's class action lawyers on the other side. I handled 12 to 15 of the tobacco class actions, in a variety of jurisdictions, more or less at the same time.

I have also been involved in some very interesting securities litigation, including the very first Rule 10b-5 class action, tried all the way through to the jury.

The representation of a number of accounting firms has been extremely fascinating for me, as well. Over the years I have handled a considerable volume of work for PricewaterhouseCoopers. I was involved in the fallout from the debacle at Adelphia Communications Corporation. I represented the trust that succeeded to Adelphia's interest in a large accounting malpractice case against Deloitte. And, I am very excited about continuing this type of work at Cozen O'Connor.

Editor: I understand that you joined Cozen O'Connor just a month ago after some 32 years elsewhere. Would you share with us what went into that decision?

Weil: Cozen O'Connor offered me the opportunity to lead its commercial litigation group. This is an exceptionally talented group of lawyers, and the commercial practice is expanding. The opportunity to participate in the leadership and management of a firm of Cozen O'Connor's caliber was simply too good to pass up.

In addition, I think the culture and environment at many large firms have changed considerably over the years. Those firms are no longer general practice firms, but rather focus more narrowly on those areas deemed to be the most profitable. That focus has created considerable stress for many long-term clients. A number of my clients were affected by this.

Editor: In light of your very distinguished accomplishments, I am sure you had a number of options. What was it that attracted you to Cozen O'Connor in particular?

Weil: Two things:The first is the depth and quality of the trial practice at Cozen O'Connor. There is no other large firm in Philadelphia with as many true trial lawyers. There are people here who have tried literally hundreds of cases. That is not the case today in most of the large firms, where it can be difficult for litigators to actually get trial experience.

The second reason is the opportunity to lead the commercial litigation group. I know the Cozen office very well, and I have been very impressed with its leadership and management. I know they are committed to growing both the commercial practice and the firm. I am honored to have a role in this process.

Editor: More than a quarter of the firm's 400 trial attorneys are commercial litigators spread across 22 offices. How do you approach assuming leadership of a group that extensive?

Weil: I've been here only a short time, and I am gradually getting around to meeting everyone. My approach to management in a setting like this is consensual, and I want to make sure I understand the environment before I start to make decisions. In addition, the firm is already established as a great litigation platform, so change here is evolutionary, not revolutionary. I am going to move slowly. I have a great deal of confidence in what I have seen at the firm already.

Editor: How will you use your depth of experience to grow the practice?

Weil: Over the past 32 years I've been through a number of high-profile, bet-the-company type litigations, and I believe that the firm will use this knowledge and experience as an additional resource to attract future clients. In addition, I have my own client contacts, which, hopefully, will contribute to the practice's growth.

Editor: I think you are aware that most of our readers are general counsel or members of corporate legal departments. What should general counsel look for when trying to assess which litigation firm to retain?

Weil: All general counsel look for lawyers who can achieve the desired result at the lowest cost. A major factor in making a decision with respect to a firm in a litigation matter involves the experience of the trial lawyers and the depth of that experience. The degree of comfort a lawyer has in the courtroom is largely determinative, in my experience, of the efficiency with which the case is managed and of its outcome. That is precisely what Cozen O'Connor brings to the table with its trial lawyers.

Editor: What advantage does general counsel get by working with a firm like Cozen O'Connor that has so many trial lawyers across so many jurisdictions?

Weil: In litigation and trial work it is essential to know the local players, particularly the judges and their tendencies. It is also helpful to have some sense of the opposing lawyers and how they have handled similar matters in the past. A firm such as Cozen O'Connor, with seasoned trial lawyers on the ground all across the country, constitutes a resource that is without parallel when it comes to the detailed management of litigation.

Editor: Do you find that clients really benefit from the experiences of an entire firm, or does internal competition preclude the sharing of information and best practices?

Weil: Everything I have seen has shown me that Cozen O'Connor's culture is one of mutuality and sharing, and that partners work together to support each other with the clear understanding that this helps to enhance the firmwide practice. Our clients are the principal beneficiaries of such a culture.

Editor: In today's climate the high cost of litigation is very much on the mind of corporate counsel. What is the firm doing to try to meet this concern?

Weil: Cozen O'Connor has always had a tradition of being flexible in its pricing strategies, which is increasingly important in light of the economic realities of today's legal services market. In addition, the firm does a very efficient job in staffing its cases. My own approach is to use the fewest number of people necessary, consistent with meeting the client's goals and assuring the right outcome quickly and efficiently. That is certainly the philosophy I will bring to the commercial litigation group. By the way, that philosophy is already in place across the firm; so my role is to reinforce a concept with a long history here.

Editor: Is arbitration part of the commercial litigation group's mandate?

Weil: Yes. There are people here who spend considerable time acting as arbitrators and mediators, and of course, our litigators also represent clients in the ADR arena. Clients are very conscious of the differences between ADR and litigation, and there are occasions when the dispute may only lend itself to resolution through ADR. In addition, ADR is almost always less expensive than litigation, and it is also more private. Our group has a strong capability in both areas.

Editor: Speaking of costs, discovery seems to be on everybody's mind at the moment. Are there things - I am thinking of technology - that Cozen O'Connor, which is so heavily weighted toward litigation, can do to help keep costs under control?

Weil: There is a current debate as to whether technology has served to contain costs or has exacerbated the problem. I think technology's utility is entirely dependent on how it is used. At the beginning of a case I think about how it is going to be tried, and I attempt to picture my closing argument. What are the key points to be made? What facts can I develop through discovery that will prove these points? Technology can be very useful in this process, but it is important not to use it simply because it is there. It is a tool, and it must be directed toward a finite goal.

Editor: How does the group prepare for the inevitable appeals?

Weil: The goal from the beginning is to win at trial, and that entails developing the facts necessary to persuade the finder of fact, whether judge or jury. Since it is the appellant who has the burden of proof on appeal, the best preparation is to do the right job in developing the record and prevailing in the trial court - whether by motion or trial.

The firm has an excellent appellate practice group under the leadership of Justice Sandra Newman, formerly of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. I think the structure in place at Cozen O'Connor gives us the best of both worlds. A trial lawyer's arsenal will include writing skills, familiarity with depositions and the entire discovery process, and the ability to manage relationships - with the client and with the judge and opposing counsel. The appellate practitioner's approach is going to be both more focused and more scholarly. He or she must possess the ability to write a persuasive brief and have excellent oral skills. On appeal, the combined participation of the trial lawyers, who know the case and the record, and the appellate practitioners, who possess great expertise in the appellate process, guarantees the best chance for a favorable outcome.

Editor: Has the economy impacted the firm's plans for future growth?

Weil: No. Cozen O'Connor is a broad-based general practice firm. That does not mean that the firmwide practice is not affected by the state of the economy, but it does mean that when the economy is booming, the transactional side of the practice, mergers and acquisitions, financings, and so on, is very busy. But, in a depressed economy, litigation, bankruptcies, and workouts tend to increase. Litigation tends to be counter-cyclical in my experience: If there is not much money around to address problems, people resort to litigation. In any event, we anticipate growth at Cozen O'Connor irrespective of the ups and downs of the economy.

Please email the interviewee at jweil@cozen.com with questions about this interview.