Unbelievable Batting Averages
Three L.A. lawyers who can’t seem to lose
Published in 2005 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 26, 2005
Updated on November 18, 2019
YOU’LL NOT SEE NOTHING LIKE THE MIGHTY QUINN
John Quinn runs a business litigation powerhouse with a 92 percent success rate
In his modest-sized Los Angeles law office, John B. Quinn is wearing jeans and a T-shirt that advertises a bicycle store. As he answers a reporter’s questions, he puts his feet up on his desk and fiddles with Scotch tape. A fit and trim 53-year-old, he could easily pass for a dot-com entrepreneur rather than the co-founder of a business litigation powerhouse with a client list that includes some of the largest corporations in America.
Quinn’s informal style isn’t unusual. Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart, Oliver & Hedges is a firm where the dress code is “Wear shoes,” the visitor waiting area features a big-screen TV and a coffee bar, and the entire culture is focused on a single, simple goal.
“We focus on what matters to achieve results for our clients,” Quinn explains. “We don’t need a big, expensive office space, mahogany walls, suit-and-tied lawyers, layers of bureaucracy. None of that’s got anything to do with whether we win or lose a lawsuit.”
And win lawsuits they do. Quinn Emanuel has tried more than 800 cases, winning 92 percent of them. Profits per partner, a key barometer of a law firm’s success, have reached $1 million, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal. Although most of the firm’s practice is on the defense side, it has collected more than $3 billion in judgments and settlements for plaintiffs. “We know how to try cases,” Quinn says. “We’re not shy about it, we like doing it.”
Quinn and colleague William Price recently won a massive award for two entrepreneurs who alleged German media giant Bertelsmann AG cheated them out of an equity stake in an online venture. The jury verdict — between $250 million and $300 million, depending on the exchange rate and who you ask — was one of the 10 largest of 2003. “John is clearly one of the best trial lawyers in Southern California,” says Jeffrey S. Davidson of Kirkland & Ellis in Los Angeles, one of the few attorneys who has defeated him in the courtroom.
Even in the more formal atmosphere of the courtroom, and despite the angst he feels while trying a case — “You worry everything to death,” he confesses — Quinn projects a relaxed, unaffected demeanor. “I think I come across as sincere and earnest,” he says. “I’m not slick. People can see I’m working hard.”
Things weren’t always so unregimented for Quinn. He was born at the Ft. Belvoir, Va., military base, where his father served as an Army officer. His family, which included eight children, followed the Mormon faith, and, after his father retired from the Army and took up a career in church construction, they moved to Bountiful, Utah.
Quinn is reticent about discussing his childhood. But when asked why he didn’t attend Mormon-run Brigham Young University, he admits to something of a non-traditional streak. “I wanted to get out of Utah and see more of the world.” After obtaining a history degree at Claremont Men’s College near Los Angeles, he decided to pursue a legal career.
“We had lots of lawyers in my family,” he says. The law “always seemed like something I could do.”
At Harvard Law School, Quinn edited the Harvard Law Review for two years. In 1976, he graduated and joined Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the ultra-prestigious firm that is almost synonymous with old-guard stuffiness. As an associate in New York, he says, he learned “the importance of being careful, being thorough and thinking critically.” But he left after three years to start his own firm with another Cravath alumnus.
That firm, Baker & Quinn, was short-lived. Next, with three other lawyers, he ran the Los Angeles office of New York’s Reboul, MacMurray, Hewitt & Maynard. Then in 1986, the quartet opened their own trial lawyer firm. A. William Urquhart, a fellow associate of Quinn’s at Cravath, joined two years later.
From the outset, Quinn had a streamlined vision of a business litigation-only practice. There wouldn’t be any tax or corporate departments to diffuse the focus. “We are first, foremost and exclusively litigators,” he stresses. He recruited attorneys, many of them former federal prosecutors, who were comfortable trying cases and could think strategically.
“His philosophy is to figure out what needs to be done to win the case,” observes Adrian M. Preutz, the head of Quinn Emanuel’s intellectual property division. “From day one, we really focus strategically on winning the case.”
After enjoying early success in employment termination cases, Quinn Emanuel made a big splash when, with Quinn as lead trial lawyer, it represented General Motors in a trade secrets case against Volkswagen that settled in 1996 for $1.1 billion. Intellectual property litigation — for clients as varied as Nike, Pennzoil-Quaker State and the estate of Elvis Presley — now accounts for about two-thirds of the firm’s practice. Quinn also enforces the trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as its general counsel, a position he’s served since 1987. Also on the entertainment side, Fox Broadcasting recently hired him after a rival Hollywood producer tried to block the network from airing its boxing series, The Next Great Champ. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge refused to issue an injunction.
These days, Quinn is often recruited specifically for his trial expertise, an example being the Bertelsmann case. A few months before trial in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, he and Price joined the team representing Jan Buettner and Andreas von Blottnitz, who had helped Bertelsmann set up a joint venture to establish AOL Europe. In an unusual twist, the judge ruled that German law, not U.S. law, would apply to the case. So the Quinn team had to not only quickly master the facts but also present issues of German law and contract language to the jury.
For Quinn, again, it was all about keeping it simple. “Communicating your case in a clear, sympathetic way was no different in [the Bertelsmann] case,” he says. “It was not as difficult or as cumbersome as you might think.” The trial lasted three months and Bertelsmann eventually settled the case for $192 million rather than pursue an appeal.
Quinn suffered one of his few jury trial losses while defending defense contractor Lockheed Corp. in a breach-of-contract case. “It was very painful,” Quinn recalls. “We thought we’d won … I lost sleep over it.” But he adds philosophically: “If you’re a trial lawyer, you lose cases. If you haven’t lost any, you haven’t tried enough.”
Kirkland & Ellis’ Davidson, who represented the victorious plaintiff, Cable & Computer Technology, against Lockheed, says Quinn is “personable” in the courtroom. “Like all good trial lawyers, he relates well with jurors and witnesses. He doesn’t come across as putting on airs.” As a cross-examiner, “He’s got more than one speed in his motor. … He can be very aggressive-appearing, and he can also be very gentle-appearing. He’s got that ability to adapt to the witness, the case.”
Los Angeles solo practitioner Hillel Chodos has also opposed Quinn in trial. “He doesn’t engage in a lot of pyrotechnics,” he says. “He gets the job done.”
Quinn Emanuel has grown to six offices employing 225 lawyers. Even at that size, it is relatively bureaucracy-free, with most major decisions being made by the partners as a whole. Quinn tries to spend time in all the offices and to know all the lawyers. “I’m always thinking about what to do better, about how we can improve things,” he says. “I have kind of a mania about our firm.”
“John is one of the best strategic thinkers I’ve ever known, in terms of litigating or building the firm,” Preutz enthuses. “A lot of his philosophies have shaped the way we do things. He just wants everyone to be a great trial lawyer.”
Given his professional demands, it’s hard to imagine how Quinn has time for anything else. But he and his wife, Shannon, have raised five daughters — “The burdens of parenting have definitely fallen unevenly,” he admits. “She probably deserves most of the credit.” He also collects antiquities and competes in marathons and triathlons.
Recently, Quinn competed in the 2004 Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. Competitors endure a 2.4-mile swim in the Pacific, a 112-mile bicycle race and a 26.2-mile run. With temperatures soaring as high as 95 degrees, 90 percent humidity and crosswinds of up to 60 mph during the bike segment, the Ironman may be the ultimate athletic challenge.
In 1999, Quinn finished in 13 hours. Five years later, and older, his time was 45 minutes slower. There’s something pure and, yes, simple about it that he seems to relish. “You test your limits,” he says. “You really find out what you’re made of.”
THE FRAT BOY WHO COULD
Peter Ezzell makes winning — at anything — seem
Peter Ezzell is not a guy to take lightly, a lesson his college roommate learned long ago. At San Diego State, Ezzell was a frat boy, partying and not taking anything too seriously. He earned good grades without much effort and paid his bills from the sales of a book he co-wrote, How to Build Your Own Dune Buggy. However, his roommate, a studious pre-law student, didn’t appreciate Ezzell’s happy-go-lucky style. One night when Ezzell stumbled in at 2 a.m., waking his housemate, who had an early-morning LSAT exam, a conflict ensued. Peter boasted he would take the test, too, and outscore him, though he hadn’t studied, had been drinking and would have only a few hours of sleep. And the bravado was no bull; he beat his friend 655 to 650.
He’s been beating lawyers ever since. Of the more than 150 cases he’s brought to trial, Ezzell has had only three losses. Consequently, he’s revered by his peers (though not always by those lawyers who have to go up against him) and coveted by clients who want the best legal representation. Ezzell prefers to settle his cases in court, before a jury, not a judge. To him, 12 heads are better than one. With his spectacular record, you might think Ezzell is just another great attorney with no life outside the law. But as spectacular as his record is in the courtroom, it’s outside the courtroom where Ezzell seeks his thrills: he builds and races cars, sails his own boat, flies his own plane, skis, writes, lectures, mountain bikes and scuba dives.
Ezzell’s parents gave him a great start. From his father — an inventor and all-American guy from Oklahoma who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, flew in the Battle of Britain and later joined the famous Eagle Squadron — he gained discipline, mechanical ability and physical bravery. His mom, an English war bride, gave him her love of the written word, notably Shakespeare.
Born in a small south Texas town, young Ezzell showed exceptional ability and character. His father began his son’s flight instruction when Ezzell was just 3 years old. His favorite childhood memory is being tied (as a safety precaution) at age 6 to his grandfather’s racing sailboat. Most kids would’ve been terrified, but for Ezzell it was exhilarating — and the beginning of a lifelong love affair with sailing and the sea. At 14, his quick thinking and extraordinary courage made him a local hero. He rushed to the scene of a plane crash and swam across a river to aid two injured airmen. One of the aviators was bleeding heavily. Ezzell made a tourniquet and was instrumental in their rescue. That same year Ezzell drove solo from Texas to California – Texas being a state that allowed 14-year-olds to drive – to join his older brother in Southern California while his parents went through their divorce.
Ezzell excelled in and out of school. He played football, was the first graduation speaker for the first graduating class at Corona Del Mar High and became a dedicated surfer. Though he seemed to put in little time studying, he excelled in his studies at San Diego State. Recognizing his own ability, and deciding on a career in law, UCLA Law School seemed to follow naturally. There he was inspired to legal excellence by Professor Paul Boland. Heading to San Diego after graduation, he went into solo practice, specializing in environmental law. As a veteran surfer and sailor, this seemed an obvious choice, but he soon found himself bored with routine cases. He tried sailing around the world, but, finding it cold and dangerous, abandoned the attempt. In 1973 he joined what is now Haight Brown & Bonesteel. There he began a remarkable run, trying 12 cases his first year and an average of four to five a year thereafter. What are his secrets to winning? Obviously, he’s brilliant and dedicated and he does his homework. But more important, Ezzell connects with the jury, communicating effectively, personably and passionately, with a masterful use of language. And he is always striving to be better. After every trial, he invites the jury and his opponents to lunch, then questions them about his case presentation, asking for tips to improve it. He says that even after 30 years of doing it, he still gets chills every time he begins presenting a new case to a jury, and that, more than anything else, may account for his incredible success.
When dealing with judges, clients and the opposition, he’s as pleasant and straightforward as possible. Good reputations are golden, and he doesn’t want to be known as an ass. There seems little danger of that. Accomplished trial lawyer Mike Piuze, winner of a record $28 billion judgment against Philip Morris tobacco company, says, “When some of the best legal minds in the profession get on the wrong end of a legal malpractice claim, Peter Ezzell is one of the first lawyers they turn to for help. That in itself shows a tremendous vote of confidence.” Bruce Broillet, a Los Angeles attorney ranked among California’s 100 most influential lawyers by the Daily Journal, adds, “Peter Ezzell is smart, quick and agile. I wouldn’t want to go up against him in court.” Ezzell has been managing partner at Haight Brown for four years, so administrative duties have cut into his court time. He looks forward to more trials and less administrating for the 80-lawyer, 200-plus employee firm that has five California offices. And he has fears about the institution of the jury trial itself. There are fewer every year, and most law students receive absolutely no jury-trial training. Describing himself comes easy for Ezzell. “Will try anything.” His philosophy of life? “Carpe diem! Seize the day!” He says that “family and friends” are most important to him and that his personal hero is General George Patton. Married for 26 years with two adult daughters, Ezzell admits that it’s tricky to balance his personal and professional life. He sleeps five hours a night, rises at 4:30 a.m., watches very little TV, and multitasks, routinely reviewing cases while flying his own plane to trials around the States. His wife is a dedicated quilter and horseback rider, and both their daughters have successful careers: Christy works for the ICM talent agency and Megan is a hotelier. Ezzell’s only vice? Beer. Lately he’s had to cut back because that extra weight has affected his mountain-bike racing. He’s on the Atkins diet and craves Italian cuisine. Still a kid of the ’60s, his favorite music groups include the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Bob Seger.
He lives in Santa Monica, in the same house for 26 years, and does his own repairs. After work he mountain bikes until 10 p.m. and rides 20 or more miles every Saturday, despite having had several fractures and dislocated shoulders. He donates his labor and money to help maintain the trails. He loves the constant variety in his job, trying cases of every conceivable nature. There’s no rocker in Ezzell’s future. He wants to go on an African safari and write a book about the most interesting case of his career, a case involving the Witness Protection Program, a murdered lawyer, the Mafia, secret gay love affairs and enough bizarre twists to titillate even the most jaded audience. And, oh yeah, he’s not through taking on high-profile trials. Recently he agreed to represent actor and alleged murderer Robert Blake in a civil case brought by his late wife’s family.
EVERY (PLAINTIFF) LIKES MIKE
Big Tobacco foe Michael Piuze is among the winningest lawyers in America
Michael J. Piuze’s jackpot streak of personal injury and product liability wins stretch back to 1983, when a Los Angeles jury handed down the largest amount ever awarded to a plaintiff in an insurance bad-faith case. It stemmed from an accident in which movie studio janitor Henry Fellows, his wife, Alice, and several members of their family were riding in a car struck by an uninsured motorist, breaking Alice’s arm and causing minor injuries to the others. Allstate Insurance had refused to honor the $31,000 claim.
In court, Piuze told the jury the case wasn’t just about fair compensation; it was about punishing an intransigent corporation with assets of $7 billion. Persuaded, the jury gave the Fellows family $40.5 million — nearly three times the previous record bad-faith verdict. Seated in the gallery with several other lawyers, renowned litigator Larry Feldman blurted, “Holy shit!” when the amount was announced.
Since then, Piuze has become one of the nation’s pre-eminent trial lawyers (a job description he welcomes), joyfully defeating huge corporations that were once immune to big-money claims because of their endless legal resources. In 1990, Piuze won $7.3 million for a client in a wrongful-death case, the largest such award in California history. In 1998 he convinced a jury General Motors should pay $15 million for a rollover accident that left his client a quadriplegic, even though the plaintiff admitted to falling asleep at the wheel. GM appealed, the case was retried and a new jury awarded his client $25.7 million.
Yet those amounts are dwarfed by the combined $31 billion in damages juries have dished out in Piuze’s trials against tobacco giant Philip Morris: $3 billion to lung cancer victim Richard Boeken in 2001 and $28 billion to Betty Bullock in 2002. “We’ll never keep that much money, but we can really wound the beast,” Piuze says. (Both awards have been reduced and are under appeal.)
A 33-year veteran of some 150 jury trials, Piuze has run his small practice out of the same West Los Angeles high-rise space since 1986. In his office, ankle-high stacks of documents lie on the floor in front of a sofa. Several pertain to suits against Ford and General Motors involving collapsed roofs and other defects. One pile represents another lawsuit against Philip Morris.
In one corner stands a wooden cutout of a shapely blonde waitress carrying the head of former Philip Morris CEO Geoffrey Bible on a serving tray. Bible, who retired in 2002, epitomized tobacco industry denial with his testimony in the 1998 trial Minnesota v. Philip Morris (in which Piuze was not involved). “He said under oath, ‘Gee, I don’t know if one person has ever died from smoking cigarettes, but if I was convinced of that, I’d shut down the factories tomorrow,’” says Piuze. For Bible to be “so ill informed is inconceivable,” he says. “To be such a liar is conceivable.”
Piuze, who once smoked two packs a day, quit in 1981 as a Christmas present to his oldest daughter. “I woke up and had a Marlboro, took the rest of the pack and chucked it in the drawer — and I still have it,” he says, sitting in a chair in front of his desk and drinking a diet cream soda.
Dressed in a golf shirt, jeans and running shoes, he is tan and fit. His biceps bulge admirably for a man of 60, and his bluish-gray shirt matches his bluish-gray eyes. He runs regularly and works out at home with a trainer at 5:30 three mornings a week. His responses are calm and measured like the narrator’s monologue in a PBS documentary; at times his voice is so low the tape recorder barely catches it.
Colleagues attribute Piuze’s success in large part to his ability to empathize with jurors. “He’s one of them — by background, by training, by philosophy,” says attorney Gary Dordick, who first met Piuze as a law clerk in the mid-’80s. “So when a case makes sense to Mike, when an argument makes sense to Mike, most of the time the jurors are sitting there nodding right along with him.”
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts — “a blue-collar, don’t-screw-with-me kind of town,” Piuze says — he
entered the labor force during his sophomore year in high school, working in factories and driving trucks. “Regular people, real people, I was one of them,” he says.
Owing to those hardscrabble roots, Piuze gets along better with the janitors and car attendants in the building than he does with other lawyers, another colleague once observed. When asked if his relative discomfort with peers is the reason for his lack of partners, Piuze laughs. “Yeah, it sure is,” he says with an air of confession.
A self-described “non-student,” he earned a law degree from the University of Texas in 1971 and moved to California, convinced he wouldn’t pass the state’s rigorous bar exam. He did, and spent three years at a Los Angeles firm that defended a major automobile insurer against lawsuits.
Even then, he realized his destiny lay with plaintiffs. “I was defending someone who rear-ended a car containing a State Farm Insurance Company claims supervisor,” he says. “He was seriously hurt and had two back surgeries. I wound up convincing the jury he didn’t deserve any money. He got zero. That was the last time. I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
He left the firm and opened his own practice in 1976 to talk juries into granting the compensations he had once convinced them to deny. Among his staff, the list of the big cases is called the “ego sheet,” but Piuze doesn’t hype the dollar amounts in conversation and doesn’t call himself a crusader. “That’s not my label,” he says. “I am a small cog in a loosely organized group of lawyers whose interests are slightly different but overlap. Some rein in bad doctors, some drugs, some insurance companies.
“There’s an idealistic streak that underlies the ability and the desire to do this,” he says. “I hate to see little people get screwed.”
He clearly romanticizes his role as their champion. During the conversation he frames his efforts against corporate wrongdoing in various military analogies: Marines striding ashore at Normandy, Revolutionary colonists fighting the British army, Native Americans challenging U.S. cavalry and Viet Cong combating French and American soldiers (with Piuze belonging to the Native Americans and Viet Cong in the last two instances). Dordick says Piuze, a big supporter of the African Wildlife Foundation, identifies with the big cats. “They’re fast, agile, deadly — all the things he admires.”
And, like any skilled trial lawyer seeking monetary damages, Piuze uses numbers to make his case — not just for the amount, as others do, but for the propriety of the verdict itself, guiding the jury in a mathematical vernacular like a geometry teacher walking students through a proof. In the case of the $28 billion decision against Philip Morris, he explained to jurors how, based on the number of tobacco-related lawsuits filed in California and the estimated number of people killed by smoking statewide, there was one case — including his client’s — for every 28,000 deaths. The jury, accepting this logic, acted on behalf of 28,000 victims, not just the plaintiff, arbitrarily valuing each life at $1 million and handing down the $28 billion bill.
If it isn’t Piuze who sways jurors, it’s his larger-than-life expert witnesses. In car accident cases he has presented automotive safety expert and former GM executive Donald Friedman, who designed the Lunar Rover. To prove his point against Philip Morris, Piuze brought in legendary English scientist Sir Richard Doll, who first demonstrated the link between smoking and lung cancer in 1950 and has tracked tobacco’s effects ever since.
How much lasting punishment their testimony will inflict remains to be seen. The $3 billion award has since been reduced to $100 million and the $28 billion decision was whittled a thousandfold to $28 million — and Philip Morris is appealing both amounts, and so is Piuze, to have them reinstated in full. “Here’s the perfect case for you,” Piuze says he told the appellate justices hearing the Boeken case. “Everyone wants to know how much is too much punitive damage. This is the case. This is pure evil. Millions of dead Americans. Hundreds of billions of dollars in illicit profits.”
Piuze has posted the entirety of the Boeken trial documentation on the Internet as a template, called “Trial in a Box,” for lawyers preparing anti-tobacco lawsuits. But he fears that cases — including his current one, which hasn’t gone to trial — will be dismissed after a federal appeals court justice in California ruled that long-standing public awareness of addiction meant the statute of limitations had effectively expired. “There are some crimes that are so big they can’t be dealt with,” he says. “If it turns out that because of court decisions and the Federal Court of Appeals here, other lawyers can’t go forward with their cases, well, it was a nice chapter, but a failure.”
For him, perhaps not entirely. Behind one wall of Piuze’s office is a long, narrow closet with a few mementos. “No one really comes back here,” he says, walking to the far end, where he has hung a framed photo of Ted Williams, the last major league player to hit .400 in a season, and a handbill featuring famous harness horse Bret Hanover, which set the world record for the mile. Like Piuze himself, named the winningest lawyer twice in 2001 and 2002 by the National Law Journal, his two heroes excelled in fields where success is publicly quantified.
Out in plain sight in his office, conversely, is a pair of boxing gloves signed by Muhammad Ali. “I love the taste of blood,” Piuze says. “Sometimes you’re tasting your own blood. You can’t taste the other guy’s blood because you haven’t hit him hard enough. It beats not tasting any blood at all.”