Walking in Hammurabi’s Footsteps

When he's not winning cases, Najeeb Nabil Khoury studies Islamic philosophy

Published in 2009 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2009

Najeeb Nabil Khoury wanted to make a difference in the world, but he wasn't quite sure how to do that. Though he comes from a distinguished Palestinian-American family of doctors and pharmacists, he had little interest himself in the sciences and leaned toward the humanities.

In 1997, while earning a double major in history and politics at Williams College (where he would go on to finish second in the history department) he spent a semester in the West Bank studying Arabic writing and reading (growing up in Glendale, Calif., he had learned only spoken Arabic). The experience of seeing relatives living under the Israeli occupation and the failures of the Palestinian Authority crystallized his commitment to bringing about social change.

At first, the law seemed the way to combine his interests. He went on to Harvard Law School, where he took courses on the relationship of Native Americans to federal and state governments, feeling a natural affinity with dispossessed peoples. During school he decided to clerk in Alaska, where the state's high native population has been transformed into various corporate entities by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and faces unique challenges.

In 2002 he graduated from Harvard, then spent a year clerking for the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, and another year working primarily on prisoner rights in San Francisco.

But in 2004, as Iraq spiraled into chaos and there was talk of a "clash of civilizations," Khoury felt that he might make a larger contribution by helping to bridge the misunderstandings between the West and Islamic and Arabic countries. He went back to school, earning a master's in Near Eastern civilizations from the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on medieval Arabic philosophers. In the process, he spent four months in Amman, Jordan, working further on his Arabic (Khoury has also studied Farsi, French and Spanish).

"The lively debates between Islamic philosophers of that period were about the nature of God and humanity's relationship to God," says Khoury. "The more nuanced thinkers realized the limits of their own knowledge. For them, truth was something real, but not attainable by only their individual rational abilities. Truth might be obtained through dialectical group debate." The American legal system mirrors this approach to truth, he realized. "The problem with an individual's reason is that it takes as its starting point certain assumptions dictated by personal experience or self-interest, so the best way to arrive at truth is to have people with different assumptions or interests argue forcefully. This is the search for truth through advocacy."

He also began to appreciate that the pre-modern Arab world had flourished in part due to the rule of law and Muslim legal scholars who took great pride in being at odds with the state. That put a check on political leaders in the eyes of the people and forced them to be more responsive to the needs of the public.

"There are a lot of historical and geopolitical reasons why the Arab world is the way it is now. One of the hardest things to achieve is to create a system where there is the real rule of law," says Khoury. His respect for a legal consistency that does not depend on personal relationships grew when he visited Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. The irony, he notes, is that the first code of law was devised before 1750 B.C. by Hammurabi, king of Babylon, which is in present-day Iraq, and the first law school was in Beirut. "There are ways to improve the rule of law without imposing Western systems. When people don't feel marginalized and are treated with dignity, that gets you 90 percent toward peace and a better way of life."

By the time he graduated in 2007, Khoury had married, and his wife (a business litigation attorney) was pregnant. They moved back to Los Angeles to be near their families.

"He's a genuine idealist and a deep thinker about human nature and how to change society, but he's also realistic," says Sanford Jay Rosen of San Francisco's Rosen, Bien & Galvan, who worked with him on prison litigation. "I think he'll be a remarkable leader of the bar."

Khoury didn't want to be at a big firm doing document production, so he looked for a practice that would give him a lot of litigation experience fast. "In California, 95 percent of cases settle before trial, but I learned that at Howarth and Smith, about half are disposed of by the courts," he says.

Howarth & Smith has an unusual practice, headed by founding partners Don Howarth and Suzelle M. Smith. They represent both plaintiffs and defendants in extremely complex civil actions, especially business cases, legal malpractice and law partnership disputes, class actions, toxic torts, and catastrophic personal injury, specializing in "bet the company" cases, serious social concerns and groundbreaking legal issues. Routine litigation is referred to other attorneys. It is the only firm in the U.S. to have been selected by the National Law Journal for both "Top 10" plaintiff and defense verdicts in a single year.

"He had lots of offers," says Howarth. "He writes well and thinks well and he understands the board room and economists. He also has a passion for the underdog and that was a good fit for us." Howarth adds that Khoury is one of the "rare people who is a complete self-starter—you can give him the assignment and let go of the reins."

Smith says that the characteristic that distinguished him from a lot of superb candidates was his "calmness and quiet self-confidence. That is a huge benefit in high-stakes cases where everyone is showing signs of stress and anxiety—it's crucial to have a steady hand at the tiller when you face tough legal challenges."

His first year was a baptism by fire, "the equivalent experience of being two or three years at another firm," he says. He began taking expert depositions, drafting motions and jury instructions, and taking an important role in negotiations, at both Howarth's and Smith's sides. "I think I do well in negotiating because as an Arab American I have a lot of experience trying to see each side in arguments," Khoury adds. "I try to formulate settlements that work for everyone involved and are airtight, so that the client won't be exposed to future problems."

Later this year, he will be second chair at a trial. H&S is an intense place, he says. There are three partners, three associates and one of counsel, handling 20 to 30 cases at a time. Each associate is assigned to focus on a few specific cases, rather than doing a little bit of all of the cases.

"Don and Suzelle have a lot of intellectual firepower and really go directly after the witnesses," observes Khoury. "He has a great deal of charm and can distill complicated legal matters so that jurors can understand them. She sees all the issues and inevitably points out several that have been overlooked." 

"Najeeb Nabil is really brilliant at strategizing," says Lee Boyd, the of-counsel attorney and an adjunct professor at the Pepperdine University School of Law, who specializes in international high-stakes cases. "He tracks the most esoteric details of the law and does the deepest analysis possible." Equally important, she says, is that he's unpretentious, humble and a great team player.

One of the signature trademarks of H&S's work is painstakingly thorough preparation, since it often faces defendants who have retained large law firms.

In an anti-compete case last year involving a temporary employee servicing company, H&S represented the plaintiffs. Khoury took and defended valuation expert depositions and helped in the examination and cross of the experts. The arbitrator found in favor of the plaintiffs.

"I received a call from the opposing attorney, Joel Kelly, who told me just how strong Najeeb Nabil was," says Howarth. "It's really rare to get a compliment from the other side like that."

Kelly, of Jackson Lewis in Los Angeles, says he had assumed that, given the stakes involved, one of the name partners would take the deposition of the defense's forensic economist. But Khoury showed "a competent understanding of the complex math principles of the statistics and regression analysis that were involved," says Kelly. "I knew he would be going places."

John Edmunds of Edmunds Verga & Omonaka in Honolulu, who has worked with Khoury on an ongoing unlawful merger action representing plaintiffs that include a former governor of Hawaii, agrees. "He's incredibly quick, stands his ground, and presents extremely well," he says. "He's definitely on his way up."

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