Not So Small
An international network headed up by Charles Kagay arms boutique firms with more firepower
Published in 2017 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine on July 7, 2017
Over the years, Charles Kagay has battled corporate giants accused of over-flexing their muscle. As head of the International Network of Boutique and Independent Law Firms, he’s now helping small firms—like his own—maximize theirs.
“The INBLF gives boutique firms the combined firepower and reach greater than that of the largest multinational law firm,” says the appellate attorney at Spiegel Liao & Kagay. The goal is to offer clients the range of services of a big firm, with the lower overhead of a small one, and typically with senior attorneys handling their accounts. Members have quick access to pre-vetted independent firms in other practice areas and locations.
In North America, the network includes about 250 boutiques in 32 chapters, each limited to one firm per practice area. Geographic areas vary greatly, with roughly 40 miles separating the San Francisco and Silicon Valley chapters; while in both Indiana and Wisconsin, one chapter covers the entire state.
Kagay, who has headed up the INBLF for the past five years, personally approves each new member firm. In general, each focuses mainly on one or two areas. Although applicants often find that another firm already occupies their “slot,” Kagay says there is regular turnover, mostly as boutiques are absorbed into larger firms. Also, INBLF keeps expanding as new practice areas come along—such as art law and elder law. The network’s reputation has also expanded over the years; its annual black-tie dinner in 2014 was held in no less a venue than the Great Hall of the U.S. Supreme Court, and hosted by no less a presence than Justice Samuel Alito.
It started in 2004 with a phone call from New York litigator Steven Spielvogel, who had formed a network of boutique firms in New York City. Impressed by Kagay’s credentials, Spielvogel wanted to enlist his help to take part in a second wave in San Francisco, with the intention of expanding nationally and internationally.
Initially, Kagay was reluctant to assume the volunteer position, but then agreed.
“Appellate law is kind of an isolated field,” he notes. “You don’t interact with other people that much. This was an excuse to get to know other lawyers.” Also, he adds, Spielvogel was very persuasive.
In the early days, he says, the “international” part of INBLF was like the “world” in World Series: limited to Canada. Now, there are member firms in Latin America, Europe, and Asia and the Pacific. When the overseas expansion began around 2008, it was determined that adding one full-service firm per country was more practical than adding boutique firms. This led to appending the words “and Independent” onto “Boutique” in the moniker.
“For international members, the INBLF offers a direct connection to an otherwise unavailable range of legal resources across the United States and Canada,” says Kagay. He handles the international recruiting.
Kagay took the helm as president and chairman of the board as Spielvogel stepped down. “Steve long said he didn’t want to be president for life,” Kagay quips, “but it took him many years to find someone qualified or gullible enough to take the job.”
Fresh from Harvard Law School, Kagay started out his career in 1976 as a deputy state attorney general. In the AG’s antitrust department, he litigated price-fixing class actions against companies in a variety of industries, including paper manufacturing and armored-car services. He also worked on civil rights litigation.
In 1985, his boss, the late Mike Spiegel, left the AG’s office, taking along Kagay and two other young attorneys, to start the antitrust boutique now called Spiegel Liao & Kagay. The firm was retained by the AG’s office to continue working on a decade-old multistate petroleum price-fixing suit against several major oil companies. A major turning point came when Kagay won a crucial appeal reinstating the case after it was dismissed in federal court. That led to a settlement in 1993.
It also led to Kagay redirecting his career. “I realized I enjoyed the appellate experience and decided to focus on that,” he says.
The mid-1990s spawned a spate of investigations by independent counsels, and Kagay was recruited as chief appellate counsel in the cases against Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros. The California Attorney General also brought in Kagay to work on the remedy portion of United States v. Microsoft.
He still handles some antitrust work in his appellate practice, and in 2015 became of counsel to the California Appellate Law Group. But Kagay always carves out time for duties at the INBLF, which he describes as a “benign dictatorship.” He runs the network much like his members run their firms: “There’s no bureaucracy. It’s my job to do whatever has to be done, or find someone to do it.”
Charles Kagay’s Beef With Most Legal Films
In 1996, Kagay and his wife, Teresa Serata, purchased a San Francisco house built by the Mann family, who owned the eponymous movie theater chain. The basement contained a screening room large enough for 40 viewers, complete with a large screen and projection booth.
After renovating it, Kagay, heretofore a casual moviegoer, made it a personal project to watch each film on The New York Times list of 1,000 best movies. He’s waded through more than 700 to date, and notes that few courtroom dramas made it onto the list.
“Among the few that are there,” he says, “some are hard for an attorney to watch, because they are so unrealistic, you are constantly distracted by the need to jump up and object. Spencer Tracy seems to get involved in a lot of these.
“It’s pretty much impossible for a courtroom drama to be believable, since they have to cut out the boring parts and radically streamline whatever’s left. Some films do an interesting job of portraying some of what goes on outside the courtroom, not all of it complimentary to the profession.” Kagay’s list of films that do a good job of showing what goes on outside the courtroom includes Reversal of Fortune, A Civil Action, The Verdict, The Thin Blue Line and, yes, My Cousin Vinny.
Here’s his list of those with unrealistic portrayals of what goes on inside the courtroom—and his explanations of why they made it.
Least Believable Legal Films
“The judge steps down to become a witness, offering rank hearsay from an anonymous source.”
Adam’s Rib (1949)
“Husband and wife (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) represent opposite sides in a criminal trial.”
Inherit the Wind (1960)
“Cross-examination in the Scopes Monkey Trial consists of asides to the jury, interrupted intermittently with questions to the witness.”
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
“We can accept Santa Claus winning a sanity trial, but not the Post Office as an expert witness on his behalf.”
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
“Hard to believe the young child would be forced to testify, even for Dustin Hoffman against Meryl Streep.”