The Fencer

Why Claudette Wilson chooses artful over aggressive

Published in 2010 San Diego Super Lawyers — June 2010

When the plaintiff took the stand at the federal courthouse in Orange County in August 2008, he seemed supremely confident. He was suing GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) for age discrimination, contending the pharmaceutical giant fired him because he was 49 years old, not, as GSK insisted, because he had violated a company policy regarding grants.

As the cross-examination continued, however, his confidence seemed to evaporate. He kept backtracking and explaining the many discrepancies in his various résumés that the defense attorney, Claudette Wilson, had uncovered. The judge was clearly getting exasperated with the witness’s evasiveness but Wilson remained composed and pleasant as the witness explained that one of the résumés, which listed his degree as “anthropology/biology,” was really “an anthropology degree with an emphasis in biology.”

“How many biology classes did you take to get this special emphasis?” Wilson asked.

“Oh, I took a lot,” the witness replied.

“Really?” Wilson pulled out a copy of his college transcript. “It says here you only took one biology class.”

At the end of the trial, the judge ruled that GSK had a legitimate business reason for the termination and denied the request for $18.6 million in punitive and compensatory damages. Wilson’s meticulous research made for a withering cross-examination.

“I have seldom seen a trial team that worked so well together or seemed to enjoy a trial so much,” GSK associate general counsel Rick Richardson told a newsletter reporter afterward.

It’s telling that the only courtroom histrionics were provided by the witness himself. “A lot of people think you have to be aggressive to be a litigator,” says Wilson, 53, a partner in Wilson Turner Kosmo, the largest women-owned law firm in San Diego, who has been counseling employers and representing companies in employment litigation for 25 years. “To me, it depends on how you perceive litigation. I see it as fencing—artful with attention to detail and strategy. I don’t see it as a street brawl. I don’t compete in who can puff out their chest more or yell louder.”

Appropriately, a painting of a fencer adorns her office wall, since, in an indirect way, the sport brought her into law in the first place.

Her father was a teacher who took regular sabbaticals and the family traveled around a lot. For two years, in fact, starting when Wilson was 9, the family lived in Conakry, Guinea, where they had a pet monkey named Ha. “As my dad said, ‘half laugh, half trouble,’” Wilson recalls. A few years later, in 1970, at age 14, she attended school in France, her mother’s birthplace, took up fencing and competed in the French Nationals. Returning home, she found dueling in short supply at her American high school, and so pursued the sport at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. At the club, she met a woman who worked at a law firm and Wilson was hired as a gopher there every summer through college.

After graduating from UC San Diego with a history degree, Wilson got a series of self-described “terrible jobs,” including one at a firm that asked her to back-date legal documents. “Even without a law degree, I thought something was wrong with that and resigned the next day,” she says. Together with her husband, who, she notes, had an “equally unpractical” degree in psychology, she sold Fuller brushes door-to-door in El Cajon for six months.

“I’d tell people I was either ‘the Fuller Brush man,’ which they thought was hilarious, or ‘the Fuller Brush woman,’ which they thought was equally hilarious,” she remembers. “They’d invite me in for tea and cookies, and go cover to cover in the catalog trying to find something to buy, but we made no money at all.” She wound up following the path of many struggling liberal arts students to law school, attending the University of California, Davis.

In 1985, as a third-year associate with Luce Forward Hamilton & Scripps, she became one of the first lawyers in the firm’s history to become pregnant—a fact that landed her picture on the cover of a national trade magazine. With no existing policy in place, the firm allowed her to work part-time over the next two years. She was doing warranty work on behalf of auto manufacturers, and most of the cases were handled by the same opposing counsel. After she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, this opposing counsel sent two stuffed animals for the babies.

Wanting more time with her family, she left for an in-house job at HomeFed Bank, where, idyllically, her boss would stop by her office at 5:15 and tell her to go home. Two years later, though, in 1991, she saw the “handwriting on the wall” over the S&L debacle and left the bank, which the federal government took over just six months later. She started her current firm after taking a trip with her family to Baja and reflecting on the beach.

While Wilson Turner has garnered attention for being the largest women-owned law firm in San Diego, this was largely a matter of happenstance. Wilson’s original two partners were men who worked with her at Luce Forward. They left 11 years ago, and, at some point, people noticed that three of the four name partners were women, while 12 of its 19 attorneys were also women.

“We never had a plan to become women-owned,” Wilson says. “We didn’t focus on it until it became a marketing tool and only got certification for being women-owned four years ago.”

The idea of women-owned firms started gaining cache in 2005, when the legal departments of five of America’s largest corporations began an initiative to promote the increased use of minority- and women-owned law firms for outside counsel. Originally, being women-owned was something of a dubious honor.

“We didn’t misrepresent the fact we were women-owned, but we certainly didn’t tout it,” Wilson says. “A lot of clients asked me, ‘Aren’t you too nice to be a litigator?’” Inevitably, Wilson responds to such questions with good-natured laughter and a fencing analogy.

“Some women lawyers can act like men and be successful. But most have to be careful of a general societal dislike of women being aggressive,” Wilson says. She finds she has to walk the fine line of being strong and garnering respect while not appearing to be badgering a witness. “The younger generation,” she adds, “both attorneys and juries, don’t mind seeing a woman lawyer get in someone’s face.”

Still, Wilson is noted for civility even as the legal industry develops an ever-greater reputation for rudeness. Some time ago, she received a call from an outside counsel, who wanted information on an attorney Wilson had recently opposed. Years later, that outside counsel became Select Comfort’s in-house counsel and hired Wilson for its California work, then recommended her to Minneapolis-based Target for its San Diego work.

As Darragh Davis, vice president and general counsel for Petco, puts it: “Many lawyers are so time-pressed they don’t always go the extra mile to extend professional courtesy to a colleague. Claudette is a cut above and it’s not surprising she would lend a helping hand with no expectation of direct tangible benefits.”

Wilson Turner also operates with a degree of civility and consensus. There is no managing partner and the firm’s sole committee is compensation. But even in terms of pay, the firm favors a teamwork approach.

“We’ve made an active decision not to actively track who brings what business in the door,” Wilson says. “We thought that was counterproductive to our effectiveness as a group; we wanted one of our lawyers to be able to invite another lawyer, with better expertise for a particular client, to lunch with that client without worrying about who gets credit. We are not a completely socialist state and have a general idea who brings in business, but you couldn’t tell by looking at our books.”

The approach works for this close-knit group, though Wilson questions whether the lack of a top-down structure would be successful if the firm expanded to, say, 40 attorneys. Wilson Turner has not quite reached a size where it occupies the entire floor of its handsome building in downtown San Diego, but the issue of expansion has been raised with the recent influx of new business and Request For Proposals (RFPs).

Large companies can often have conflicting demands for legal firms. On the one hand, they want to hire more women- and minority-owned firms, which, these days, tend to be smaller, boutique firms. On the other hand, they are trying to consolidate vendors, which generally requires larger firms. “We are getting a lot of RFPs to provide service for the whole western United States,” Wilson notes.

Wilson has noticed a number of RFPs asking for “alternative fee” scenarios during the economic downturn, and on this, too, the firm is flexible. “Most of our clients are quite happy with hourly,” she adds, “and we tend not to lose clients because we understand our fiduciary responsibility. Because we’ve had many clients for 15 years, there is a trust factor and we don’t look at cases as income opportunities. If it seems like the type of case that will settle early, we’ll make a preliminary call and suggest the client settle rather than take it to court where it will cost them much more even if they win. That’s a lot better than us not picking up the phone and just sending nasty-grams to the other side.”

Petco’s Davis adds that she’s “never seen a firm do as extensive case evaluations as [Wilson’s firm]. They are far more detailed and client-centric than other firms, and this expertise has been critical to our informed decision-making on major matters.”

Another aspect of the economic downturn has been negative for the firm—a drop in discrimination cases over termination. That may seem counterintuitive in an era of high unemployment, but it’s hard to press discrimination when you are a subject of a mass layoff. Things may be turning around, though. In the first six weeks of 2010, the firm has received three sexual harassment cases and two pregnancy discriminations.

“My feeling was that during the mass layoffs, the people who weren’t fired were on their best behavior,” Wilson says. “They showed up early and stayed late. But now people are having recession fatigue. You can’t have a bunker mentality forever.

“The facts were much wilder with employment and discrimination cases in the past,” she adds. “There would be unbelievable sexual harassment cases that we don’t see much anymore because people and companies are more careful.”

Some of those cases include: a Hispanic employee who claimed he was fired by an all-Hispanic board because his skin was darker than theirs; the GSK case, which for a variety of reasons went to trial five years after the plaintiff’s termination; and a corporate manager who protested being fired for sexual harassment, which in essence had Wilson trying him for sexual harassment to prove the termination was legitimate.

“I was the vindicator of women’s rights,” she says. “It was a rewarding experience, but that’s as close as I want to get to being a plaintiff’s attorney. I’m a defense attorney through and through.”

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