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His Witness

Lessons in Cross-Examination and Life from Chicago Trial Lawyer Jeffrey Stone

Published in 2013 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

By Nancy Shepherdson on January 4, 2013


In his 52nd-floor office, with its breathtaking views of Lake Michigan and Soldier Field, Jeffrey Stone keeps a collection of antique toy fire trucks to remind him of his early ambition to save lives by running into burning buildings. Though he ultimately took a different path, the co-chair of McDermott Will & Emery has never lost his penchant for saving the day.

Stone focuses on complex litigation and white-collar defense. In 2007, he argued a complicated arbitration for Isis Pharmaceuticals over the rights to a process that might someday treat diseases such as cancer, diabetes and high cholesterol by disrupting proteins thought to cause genetic disorders. Neither Stone nor the judge, he admits, had much background in science. So the attorney called in a scientist from Stanford University who had never before—or since—testified as an expert witness. Roger Kornberg, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in chemistry, was a personal friend of Stone’s who helped the attorney craft a strategy to explain the science in court.

Stone, 56, reaches for a souvenir of the case on a nearby bookshelf. It is a PowerPoint slide, encased in Plexiglas, which he used in court to get the defendant to admit that Stone’s interpretation of both the contract and the science was correct. “With that slide, Jeff was able to elicit from his witness exactly what the court needed to know and make sure the judge understood the science,” says Grant Bryce, former senior legal counsel for Isis. The judge found for Isis, and Bryce became a fan of the firm for life. “Whoever I work for in the future,” he says, “will get to know McDermott.”

Here’s how Stone sums up his career: “I’ve been really lucky and had lots of interesting cases.”

In fact, he is considered one of the best cross-examiners in Chicago. As he wrote in a chapter of a book titled Your Witness: Lessons on Cross-Examination and Life from Great Chicago Trial Lawyers: “When there is an opportunity to go for the jugular, the great cross-examiner will not only seize the moment but will do so in a way that captures the attention of everyone in the courtroom.”

One of Stone’s more memorable “jugular” crosses came during a pro bono case for the state Judicial Inquiry Board.  Several female attorneys alleged that a judge at 26th and California had sexually harassed them; in his response, the judge denied that one of the lawyers had even been in his office. But by the time of his hearing, he apparently forgot that answer. After getting the judge to emphasize how much he valued honesty, Stone moved in for the kill. A simple blowup of his signed answer to the complaint, contradicting his trial testimony, persuaded the Illinois Courts Commission to remove him from the bench—a rare outcome.

Stone’s penchant for getting the job done extends beyond the courtroom. When asked a few years back to help raise $700 million for his alma mater’s Campaign for Undergraduate Education, he wondered: Why not a billion? With Stone as co-chair, the fundraising campaign for Stanford, where he had completed his own undergrad studies, ended up raising $1.1 billion over several years.

These days, most of Stone’s time is spent as co-chair (with Peter Sacripanti) of McDermott’s far-flung operation, whose newest office opened last fall in Seoul, South Korea. But he still spends about a quarter of his time on trial work, mostly for corporate clients and individuals, including corporate executives.

“He has executive skills and a good sense of how organizations should operate,” notes Anton Valukas, chairman of Jenner & Block and Stone’s former boss at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “He is also involved in complex legal matters that may require immediate attention. He’s devoted to his family, too, and actively involved in charitable causes like Legal Aid and Stanford.”

Valukas asks with a laugh, “So, when does he sleep?”

A mystery. Maybe it’s as simple as enjoying his job. “I love being a trial lawyer,” says Stone. “Being in the courtroom is the most fun part about being a lawyer.” He misses being in court as often as he was before he became co-chair but also relishes the challenge of being at the head of a global firm. “I could do the chairman’s job full time, but my partners actually appreciate that trial work makes me more sensitive to their practices.”

Stone was destined to be a lawyer almost from birth, it seems. The son of a Chicago attorney, he grew up being encouraged to read widely and defend all of his arguments logically, even in grade school. He went from Highland Park High School to Stanford, where history and literature—as well as a motley collection of roommates and four months in Europe behind the wheel of a VW van—“broadened my horizons considerably,” he says. He also lived in a trailer park populated by Stanford students for a while. “Stanford exposed me to people from all walks of life and ways of thinking that I had never experienced,” he says. “I was surprised to realize, once I got away from the sameness [of the North Shore] that not everyone shared my opinions.”

After college, Stone went to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the National Security Council during the Carter administration, then for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations under Republican Sen. Charles Percy. That experience whetted his interest in investigations but not in government service. “I realized my job would be dependent on things not under my control, like which party was in power,” he says. “I wanted to see the fruits of my labor, not just be a faceless bureaucrat.”

So he went to Harvard Law, where he met his wife-to-be. “Ellyn got me through Accounting for Lawyers at Harvard,” he says. “I thought I’d never need it; wasn’t interested in it. I was wrong, of course—nothing is as important to a business such as McDermott.” He and Ellyn have a son, Sam, who is 25.

At law school, Stone discovered a talent for thinking on his feet. Trial work was a natural. After a year as a judicial clerk watching good and not-so-good lawyers at work, Stone joined the predecessor firm to Sachnoff & Weaver, a boutique where associates immediately got to try smaller cases.

Stone proved talented enough to attract the attention of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago, which was involved in a wide variety of undercover investigations and white-collar prosecutions, including Operation Greylord and the indictments of aldermen, the county clerk and former Gov. Daniel Walker. “It was an exciting time to be a part of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. We were committed to prosecuting the corruption that was endemic in Chicago,” says Valukas. “We were receiving a thousand applications for each opening, and yet we felt extremely privileged to have Jeff Stone join us.”

During his time there, Stone prosecuted a high-profile wire-transfer fraud case. A group of men attempted to exploit a flaw in First National Bank of Chicago’s wire transfer system and transfer $70 million to European banks. If the conspirators had not gone out to celebrate, buying new cars, they might have been able to complete their transactions and spirit the money away. Instead, Stone, as a 28-year-old assistant U.S. attorney, was asked to help investigate the conspiracy and prosecute the case. 

“You needed people [on this case and others] who are not intimidated by sophisticated financial schemes,” concludes Valukas. “In court, Stone comes across as in command of the facts and of the law, so juries trust him right away. They come to like and believe him.” The lead defendant in the case was eventually sentenced to nearly 30 years and bestowed the ultimate populist fame: his imperfect crime was written up in Reader’s Digest. Stone still has a framed letter of commendation on his wall about the case, signed by then-FBI director William Sessions.

After five years as an assistant U.S. attorney, Stone was recruited by McDermott Will & Emery to join its trial department. In 2010, he became co-chairman of the firm, one of the 20 largest in the world, with more than 1,100 lawyers in a variety of practice areas required by businesses, primarily publicly-owned. Bill Schuman, a partner with more than 33 years at the firm, says, “This place is home. Stone reaches out to employees who are sick or are in trouble. Jeff also believes in making it a very transparent place. We get a lot of information.”

Under Stone and Sacripanti, McDermott has emphasized efficiency. Time was, in large firms, litigation was staffed by armies of promising young lawyers, who were bored by all the paperwork. Stone was one of the first at a large law firm to question that staffing model. “Clients today are more resistant to paying for training of associates,” says Stone. Technology, he says, makes it easier to do things differently.

The upshot is that McDermott Will & Emery was one of the first law firms to fully implement what it calls an e-discovery center. The firm employs up to 50 non-partner-track attorneys who analyze documents online and track case details. “There can be millions of documents in a merger case, say, and the costs can get monstrously out of control if you don’t have the technology to fight the battle,” Stone says.

Schuman calls the e-discovery center a “win-win” both for the firm and the attorneys involved. “We get better work for lower prices, plus we can give more interesting work to our rising stars,” he says. “Jeff saw the potential of this before anyone. Clients are happy with smaller bills; the lawyers that do it are happy to stay with the cases. Jeff just said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and it has caused great happiness in all quarters.”

Stone’s leadership style seems to be patterned after his courtroom philosophy. He notes, “Judges and juries will figure out who you are. If you are dishonest, they will know. If you are funny, you might as well let it out. And if there are weaknesses in your case, address them yourself. Juries and judges will thank you.

“My goal,” he says, “is always to be the most trusted person in the courtroom.”

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