Little Big Woman
Elizabeth Cabraser is a 5-foot giant among Bay Area lawyers
Published in 2006 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on July 17, 2006
Updated on March 17, 2017
Pound for pound, Elizabeth Cabraser may be the most effective plaintiff’s attorney on the planet. Standing just barely 5 feet tall, she is usually the shortest person in the room. When she sits in regular office chairs, her feet don’t touch the floor. Shy by nature and soft-spoken, she is certainly not central casting’s idea of a big-time litigator.
But according to colleague Samuel Issacharoff, one of the best parts of working with Cabraser is getting the chance to watch her walk into court: “When you go into the courtroom for these big, complicated cases, there are dozens of lawyers there,” says the 6-foot-4-inch NYU law professor who has joined Cabraser as co-counsel or legal expert on several significant cases. “There’s a lot at stake — these are tough cases — and a lot of the people drawn to this world are big burly men. Then in walks Elizabeth, and immediately she is the dominant figure in the courtroom.”
That kind of stature is hard-won. Over the last three decades, Cabraser has played an integral role in more than 250 class actions, including some of the largest and best-known civil lawsuits ever filed in the United States. She’s been involved in litigation related to the Exxon Valdez disaster, the diet drug fen-phen, the Georgia crematory that mishandled human remains, Big Tobacco, silicone breast implants, and even the Holocaust. In the last 15 years, the firm she helped found has obtained at least 20 settlements and verdicts in excess of $100 million. But according to Robert Lieff, her friend and law partner of 28 years, it’s not about the money or the accolades: “For Elizabeth, it’s about being on the right side — representing the person who has somehow been hurt by corporate America. That’s what drives her.”
Cabraser’s well-developed social conscience appeared early. Growing up in the Bay Area, she was the kind of kid who would read anything. Her parents, an industrial photographer and a teacher, had a collection of books that ranged from the humor essays of Robert Benchley to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. After her family moved to the Castro Valley, Cabraser insisted on going to high school in East Oakland, even though it meant a two-hour bus ride each way. “I didn’t want to go to high school in what was becoming a little suburb,” she said. “Oakland was lower-class, working-class, multi-ethnic. When I went to high school, the Black Panther party was very active. It was a difficult time, but it was an exciting time.”
It also was the Vietnam era, and Cabraser’s involvement in politics and protests caused trouble at her strict Catholic prep school. “My last year of high school, I went to [the University of California at] Berkeley as part of an early enrollment program,” she says. “I think the school realized after the fact that, in 1968 and 1969, it was probably a mistake to send the school’s brightest students to the Berkeley campus and then have them come back to a Catholic school atmosphere and not expect them to agitate.”
After high school, Cabraser continued her education (and political activity) at Berkeley, attending on a National Merit Scholarship. She majored in physics, and then classics, and then criminology. A dedicated drummer from age 12, she also periodically left school to tour with her band. “I changed my major several times,” Cabraser says. “Eventually, I accumulated so many units that the university asked me to make up my mind and leave.”
Law school, at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, was an almost random choice. Cabraser had no real inclination toward a career in the field. “I knew I had to get back into school, because it was a socially acceptable way to be poor, and I had the $15 it cost to apply,” she says. She had no intention of being a courtroom lawyer: “I was very shy,” she says. “I wasn’t one for class participation — I didn’t say anything to anyone if I could help it. I loved the drums because you got to sit in the back behind a lot of equipment.”
Cabraser wasn’t the most consistent student, and as she entered her third year, she didn’t have a clear idea of what she would do after graduation. Then one day, during a trip to the law library, she saw an index card on a bulletin board advertising legal research work for $5 an hour. The attorney was based in Sonoma County, where she lived with her parents. “I called the attorney and was hired on the spot, sight unseen,” she says. “My first task was a draft of a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals brief, due the next morning. I didn’t know it was an impossible task, so I did it.”
The attorney was Robert Lieff, a former law partner of Melvin Belli, the legendary San Francisco attorney who, earlier in the century, almost single-handedly invented modern consumer rights law, often by way of class actions and mass torts. Lieff had an office in San Francisco and another in Sonoma, where he was starting a vineyard. “He was working on cases he still had from his Belli days,” Cabraser says. “It was my job to help him clean up the files and resolve the cases so that he could close the office and move on. That I utterly failed to do, because 28 years later we haven’t closed yet.”
The two hit it off, and soon they were practicing law together. Lieff, who calls Cabraser his best friend, enjoyed the unlikely partnership. “When I read the first thing she wrote, I thought it was just terrific,” he says. “I’d been hiring people for 12 years — high-caliber lawyers at a big firm — and even compared to that, she was quite extraordinary. There was no one else who had the grasp of the legal issues and was able to write as well as she was from the outset.” (During his time at Belli’s firm, Lieff had hired Harriet Miers, now George W. Bush’s personal attorney. “Frankly, she was never the self-starter Elizabeth was,” he says.)
Many of their early cases involved investment fraud. “California was rife with investment fraud schemes in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” Cabraser says. “We encountered clients who had worked hard, been responsible people, and built up their lives — and then had their lives destroyed. There were whole communities — whole trailer parks or retirement homes full of them.”
Lieff and Cabraser used the securities laws and the class action process to bring groups of plaintiffs together to pursue their claims in federal court. In most cases, the promoters of these Ponzi schemes had disappeared along with the money, so they went after the banks and accountants who had helped support the fraud.
These were tough, labor-intensive cases, especially for a two-person firm. Out of necessity, Cabraser did just about everything: took depositions, did discovery, licked envelopes, went to court to argue motions and helped prepare cases for trial. “I ended up in the courtroom despite myself — there wasn’t anyone else to send,” she says. “But I found I enjoyed it. It was a privilege to go into court to represent people who had clearly been wronged, whose lives were devastated. These were not technical violations of the prospectus content requirements. This was fraud with devastating consequences that the courts could repair.”
Lieff made Cabraser a partner in 1981, about four years after they began working together. From there, the firm just grew. “The cases got bigger. The firm got bigger,” Cabraser says. “When it went to 20 lawyers, it occurred to me for the first time that it might actually be a law firm.” Today, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP is a 75-attorney operation with offices in San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., Beverly Hills and Nashville — one of the largest plaintiffs-only law firms in the United States.
Along the way, Cabraser developed the oral advocacy skills she’d never intended to use. She discovered a particular talent for addressing the court on legal issues — arguing sophisticated or complicated matters of law. “She’s very different in that she’s by instinct not a trial lawyer,” Issacharoff says. “Her impulse is that the law should be on her side. The impulse of many trial lawyers is: The law be damned, I’ll talk them into anything.”
Cabraser served as one of many class counsel in litigation related to the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which the jury returned a $5.2 billion verdict (currently on appeal and earning interest) against the oil company for damage to the local fishing industry and ecosystem. She served as a member of the plaintiffs’ management committee on a case involving the diet drug fen-phen, which resulted in a $4 billion product liability settlement. She helped win class certification for litigation against Firestone related to the Ford Explorer rollovers. And she served as settlement class counsel in litigation filed on behalf of Holocaust survivors against the banks, manufacturers and insurance companies that profited from the persecution of World War II-era Jews by the Nazi regime. That case resulted in a pair of settlements totaling more than $6 billion.
“I think a lot of the energy that I put toward political issues at an early age has been sublimated into my law practice, not because I have a particular ideology, which I don’t, but because I really appreciate law as the fundamental bastion of our rights and freedom,” Cabraser says.
According to those who know her, that sense of purpose leads Cabraser to simply outwork her peer group. “She works harder than anyone I know. She has a sense of mission about her cases,” says Issacharoff. “She also takes a tremendous craft pride in her work — she reads voluminously; she is up on everything that has happened; she worries about the state of the record. The judges know if she makes a representation in court she will back it up in terms of the legal authority or the facts required — she doesn’t make mistakes.”
In her off-hours, Cabraser lives in Sonoma County with Marguerite, her partner of 25 years, and their children Francesca and Rene. She still plays drums whenever she can, and owns a drum-making company that produces high-end snare drums and drum sets. During the academic year, she teaches law school classes at either Boalt Hall or Columbia, commuting to New York for class once a week. She sits on the board of directors for the local Legal Aid Society. And in the summers, she’s a visiting artist at the Rock & Roll Camp for Girls.
It’s not hard for Cabraser to imagine an alternate future where she didn’t go to law school — where she spent her 20s as a musician sleeping on other people’s couches. Despite making it onto just about every list of top lawyers — including the California Daily Journal’s “Top 30 Women Litigators” and the National Law Journal’s “Top Ten Women Litigators” and “One Hundred Most Influential Lawyers in America” — she doesn’t identify herself with the practice of trial law. She identifies herself with justice.
“Americans understand representative government, and working for other people,” Cabraser says. “The power of class action comes from the fact that you’re doing something for other people, not yourself, and representing a group that has a common interest. I’m not particularly enthused by technical violations of any law, but I am outraged by unfairness and injustice.”