The Most Respected Adversary
How Paula Litt’s sleuthing skills ignited the business litigator’s career
Published in 2013 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine
on January 4, 2013
Updated on March 12, 2013
The case sounded boring.
Paula Litt was a second-year associate when her legal career took off—after she reluctantly agreed to work on a case that at first seemed rather dull.
At the now-defunct Chicago firm Reuben & Proctor, Litt was put on a complex case involving gas cylinders missing from a downstate distributor. She would have to pore over stacks of invoices, receipts and mounds of paperwork. “It was not so interesting,” she says. “We had to take a mass of documents and make a story out of it.”
They did. The tale that unfolded turned out to be one of deception and fraud, and the lawsuit evolved into one of the first civil cases in Illinois to go before a jury using the then-new federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
“At the time, RICO was being used primarily for criminal cases, but was now being applied to civil cases, though no one had ever taken a civil RICO case to a jury trial here,” Litt says. “We were trying to prove the distributor defrauded the company [her client] by failing to do what they were supposed to do.”
The advantage of using the RICO act was twofold: If their client won, the court automatically would triple actual damages as a penalty; and the judge would be allowed to award attorneys’ fees.
Litt paired up with seasoned trial lawyer William G. Schopf. Their client, Liquid Air Corp., was suing a Decatur welding supply distributor over thousands of missing cylinders used to store compressed gas. The empties, worth about $150 each, were supposed to be returned to Liquid Air. “The question was, what happened to all these cylinders? If they hadn’t been returned, where were they?” Litt says.
The lawyers believed the distributor had been filing false invoices to cover up evidence of missing cylinders—and they believed this had been going on for years.
Litt took depositions before the trial and hit pay dirt. “I was talking to the loading dock manager for the distributor, and I asked him whether he had seen any Liquid Air cylinders recently, thinking the answer would be no,” she says. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a whole truckload of them in the backyard just sitting there.’”
Litt couldn’t believe her luck. “This was too good to be true,” she says. “The distributor [had] said they returned everything. It turned out to be a pretty important fact for the jury.”
After a two-and-a-half-week trial, the jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages of $2 million to Liquid Air, and the defendants later returned 530 cylinders, whose replacement value was deducted from the damage award.
“It was really thrilling,” Litt recalls. “It was thrilling to work with Bill Schopf, because he’s a brilliant lawyer.”
The admiration was mutual. “At that point she had all the raw material,” Schopf says of the then-rookie attorney. “She had tremendous intellect, drive and determination to win for her clients. It’s sort of like a great wine. It comes out of the press with tremendous potential.”
While Litt and Schopf were working on the Liquid Air case, Reuben & Proctor merged with Isham, Lincoln & Beale. About a year later, Schopf and Steven A. Weiss formed a boutique business litigation firm and invited Litt to join. She said yes.
“Fast-forward 30 years and she’s still got all those tremendous strengths,” Schopf says. “Clients love her.”
Working as a business litigation attorney was not how Litt originally envisioned her career. She majored in social work at Ohio State University, which seemed like a good choice at the time. “It’s a sad reality that when you graduated from high school and were going on to college, the careers for women were still pretty limited,” she says. “It was education, it was social work, it was nursing.”
She went on to the University of Chicago to earn a master’s degree. Though she first thought she’d be a clinical social worker, Litt got into the research side, examining how services were being delivered and seeking ways to improve them. She was hired as research director for a small social-service agency, then went to work for the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission, where she did research, planning and policy work. “I loved it, but my enthusiasm ran out,” she says. “I didn’t see a next job that I wanted. I didn’t see a future. After a while, it wasn’t stimulating anymore.”
She left to work as a planner for the Chicago Health Systems Agency in the maternal and child health area, but saw little future there, either. Inspired by her younger sister, Bonnie, who attended Harvard Law School, Litt began considering law. “I was dealing with a lot of lawyers. I saw what they did and got to see how they worked. … I was impressed,” Litt says. “I thought that would be a good career path for me. I just got started a little later than most.”
At age 29, Litt entered Harvard Law School. “I always wanted to be a litigator,” she says. “That’s how I saw law.”
She did a summer clerkship at Reuben & Proctor, where she was hired after graduation, taking on a variety of cases, from trademark and copyright matters to complex business litigation. Then she was assigned to work with Schopf on the Liquid Air case. “By the time we got to that trial, she had mastered RICO law, which was in its infancy,” Schopf says. “We spent two days arguing instructions to the jury. I let Paula take the lead on that, and by the end of the trial I had across-the-board confidence in her.”
For Litt, that made all the difference. “I think it’s enormously important in your young career to have people who believe in you, and who are willing to give you opportunity and willing to tell you if they need something more from you,” she says.
When Schopf asked Litt to join his new firm, she was willing to take a risk. The new boutique set up shop in the former Chicago Boys Club office, a long, skinny five-story building that the partnership bought. Litt recalls coming to work one day and seeing Schopf hanging out a window, installing an air-conditioning unit. They did not have a receptionist at first, so the attorneys had to run downstairs to answer the door. “It had the feeling of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland: ‘Let’s put on a show,’” Litt says. “It was a great adventure.”
Liquid Air moved with Schopf and Litt to their new firm. John Baird, retired general counsel for Liquid Air, says when it came to break-the-bank cases, it wasn’t always easy to sell this small Chicago firm to his superiors at the global, multibillion-dollar company. “They would say, ‘Schopf & Weiss?’ Who ever heard of them? Are they at the top of the biggest building in town?’ ‘No,’ I would say, ‘they’re at the smallest.’”
But results mattered. “We were always successful with them,” Baird says. “No one pulled the wool over Paula’s eyes. She outsmarted them all. Paula is brilliant. She has the ability to shoot right to the core of the matter. She was funny and enjoyable to work with.”
At the boutique firm, Litt also branched out into a new area: insurance coverage. In one case, Litt represented a client in Louisiana who owned a plant at which a gas explosion killed the manager and seriously burned two others. The client’s insurers denied coverage, saying the company had not given proper notice of a merger.
“It was a catastrophic event—the kind of event that’s supposed to be covered; there was going to be no coverage,” Litt says. She worked alongside attorneys in Louisiana, “looking over their shoulders in case it needed to go to trial.” Working in the South was a new experience. “I was referred to as Miss Paula the Yankee,” she recalls. She adds, “It was a term of endearment.”
The insurers agreed to a settlement on the eve of trial.
Litt was also the lead attorney on a copyright infringement case involving a network television show and the legacy of bank robber John Dillinger. Litt represented CBS—which produced Simon & Simon—and the writers of the show, about two brothers who ran a detective agency. The network was being sued over an episode called “The Dillinger Print.”
Chicago author Jay Robert Nash had written two books in which he argued that it was someone else—not Dillinger—who was killed at the Biograph Theater in 1934. The Simon & Simon episode built a story around the murder of a retired FBI agent who believed Dillinger was alive and vowed to track him down. Nash argued that the episode was based on his research. “He claimed that they stole his ideas about John Dillinger,” says Litt, who was still an associate at the time with no experience in copyright law other than a law school class.
“I couldn’t believe I found myself in the position of defending this case. It was great fun,” she recalls. She read Nash’s crime books and flew to Hollywood. In court, she argued that the concept of famous dead people still being alive was not new, and that the producers of the show had created their own fictional tale based on historical information.
Litt won summary judgment, with the court ruling that the historical events could not be copyrighted. She also successfully argued an appeal of the case before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In gratitude, the producers sent Litt a Universal Studios jacket with her name sewn on it.
Litt is known as a tough litigator—relentless, detail-oriented and driven. “She’s my most respected adversary,” says Donna Vobornik, who’s squared off against Litt in the past. “She’s aggressive but respectful and classy, and highly intellectual.”
Besides litigating cases, Litt constantly thinks about bringing in new business. She belongs to the Women Rainmakers Roundtable, an organization of lawyers that focuses on managing, networking and bringing in clients. She’s also on her firm’s executive committee.
“When I started practicing law,” she notes, “you didn’t think about the business of law. You thought about the cases and the clients and the arguments you make in court and the briefs you were going to write.”
But times have changed. Schopf says, “She’s become a real leader in decision-making for the firm. She gets the business side. You don’t get a lot of lawyers who also are making decisions and running the business side. This gives her an appreciation and empathy for our clients running businesses.”
On the home front, Litt has two daughters. She and her husband, Irving C. Faber—also a successful attorney—were married in 1987, the year that Schopf & Weiss opened its doors.
“My family is the most important thing to me,” she says. “I’m about to send my youngest off the college. It’s enormously gratifying to launch a child and also bittersweet.”
Also important to Litt is the issue of women’s rights. She is on the board of directors for the Women’s Campaign Fund, a national nonpartisan organization that backs pro-choice women candidates and encourages woman to run for office. “I couldn’t be more committed to election of pro-choice women, Democrats and Republicans, which is difficult at this point, at all levels of government,” she says. “One of the problems, historically, is that women don’t run.”
Her other passions include working out and cooking, favoring dishes with spice and creating meals through improvisation. “I make a mean gazpacho,” she says.
“Everything she pursues,” says Vobornik, “whether it’s her workout schedule, her cooking, her interest in Chicago restaurants, her pursuit of her children’s education—she does it aggressively and intensely.
“It’s unique that, after all these years of practice, she’s still excited about her practice. Paula still practices all-out.”