Photo by: Antonelli Maria Laura (AGF/UIG via Getty Images)
Photo by: Antonelli Maria Laura (AGF/UIG via Getty Images)

No Retirement: 71-Year-Old Lawyer Leaving Weil, Wants More Trials

James Quinn, who spent more than 40 years at Weil Gotshal & Manges, trying some of its biggest cases, serving on its executive committee and acting as the head of its litigation department, announced on Tuesday he is leaving to join a small Houston-based plaintiff’s firm.

Quinn, 71, will remain in New York but work as an of counsel at Berg & Androphy, the firm started by his old friend, David Berg, who is 74. 

Earlier in his career, Quinn said he helped create a mandatory retirement age of 68 at Weil Gotshal as a way to ensure a younger generation of lawyers could rise up. Even though the firm waived its retirement policy for him several years ago, Quinn said law firms should “rethink” such rules, or at least apply them “judiciously” for lawyers that aren’t ready to leave.

Both he and Berg said retiring is out of the question for them, and that their goal is to try at least a couple cases every year.

“Look at David Boies, the Energizer Bunny,” said Quinn, “Boies is like 76 and Ted Olson is around my age — sure you can keep going!”

(A quick search on the Internet suggests Boies is 75 and Olson is 76.)

Berg was more adamant about continuing to work and threatened to slap anyone who tells him he has reached retirement age. “I have no intention of retiring, ever,” he said.

To drive home the point, he told the story of his mentor, the plaintiff’s lawyer Joe Jamail, who was 90 when he died in 2015 but still practicing. “Two weeks before, he was absolutely sentient, telling me about a deposition he had just taken where he absolutely destroyed a witness,” said Berg.

“I want to die in the courtroom,” he said.

Berg recalled first meeting Quinn in 1995 when they spent about six months in trial together in Bayside, Texas, defending Westinghouse Electric Corp. against claims it had provided a nuclear power plant there with defective steam generators that were leaking radioactive material.

It was a heavily Hispanic, largely Catholic region, he said. And during jury selection, Berg said he realized Quinn had an easy way of connecting with people when he started flipping his Notre Dame ring around for everyone to see, and then going on and on about a nun he knew in high school, Sister Theresa.

Afterwards, the pair stayed close friends through the years even though Quinn generally defended big corporations like Disney, Exxon, and Johnson & Johnson and Berg generally represents individual plaintiffs.

“There’s no bonding experience like a jury trial,” Berg said, adding, “That’s all I do.”

But he bemoaned the fact that jury trials seem to be disappearing: Acknowledging that great data isn’t readily available on the subject, Berg nonetheless pointed to “The Vanishing Trial,” a 2004 study by a University of Wisconsin Law Professor Marc Galanter that found the percentage of federal cases that reached a jury declined from 11.2 percent in 1962 to 1.2 percent in 2002. He speculated that the rate is even lower today.

One report that cited federal criminal court data nationwide, published in the New York Times last August, found that 3,200 of 63,000 federal defendants were convicted in jury trials in 1997, but that there were only 1,650 jury convictions of 81,000 defendants in 2015.

Berg blamed the U.S. Supreme Court for erecting “procedural hurdles,” including elevating the importance of summary judgment motions, and giving judges greater fact-finding power, which knock out cases that could otherwise be decided by a jury.

Part of the reason his firm opened an office in New York in 2015 is because judges there tend to be open to jury trials, whereas in other parts of the country, judges are so hostile to jury verdicts that they’ll find a way to throw them out, he said.

In the past three years, Berg said only two of his cases reached trial. He’s already told Quinn that could change as a handful of his cases appear on track for trial or arbitration in the next year or two.

“I sure hope I can do some more trials,” Quinn said.”It’s addictive.”

He also added that he’s using his exit from Weil Gotshal to branch out, and recently opened  J.W. Quinn ADR, a separate mediation company. Now that he’s no longer affiliated with a big law firm with corporate clients, Quinn said he hopes more parties are amenable to letting him mediate their cases.

“Weil, it’s a great firm, I have lots of friends there,” he said, “but it’s got to the point like everything else in life it’s time to do something else.”

For young lawyers just entering the profession, he offered two pieces of advice:

  1. “If they’re really serious about doing trial work, they have to get into a courtroom even if it’s pro bono. Get onto a team. Go down and watch trials being tried.”
  2. “Try to develop a specialty in some area. When I started I did everything. Today, clients are focused and want to know, ‘what’s your particular expertise?’ Is it relevant to my case? So developing some expertise, whether it’s securities, antitrust or intellectual property is going to give you a leg up.”

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