The Talent

February 13, 2012 11:44 AM

Litigator Diane Sullivan Bolts Dechert for Weil

Posted by Sara Randazzo

By Sara Randazzo and Zack Needles

Veteran trial lawyer Diane Sullivan has taken her practice from Dechert to Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York. Sullivan officially joined Weil on Monday along with fellow former Dechert litigator Kathleen O'Connor.

Sullivan, who jumped to Dechert in 2001 from Lowenstein Sandler, says, "I thought I'd retire at Dechert." But after two years of brushing off calls from Weil, she changed her mind.

The American Lawyer named Sullivan a Litigator of the Year finalist in January based, in part, on two trial victories for major clients. In the first, Sullivan led a Dechert team that secured a complete defense verdict in May 2011 for Philip Morris in a lawsuit brought by the City of St. Louis and a group of hospitals seeking $455 million plus punitive damages for treating tobacco-related illnesses. The second notable win came on behalf of Astra-Zeneca in the first products liability case to go to trial over the company's popular Seroquel antipsychotic medicine.

O'Connor and Sullivan first started working together when Sullivan led Merck, where O'Connor worked as in-house counsel at the time, in a 2005 trial victory in litigation over blockbuster pain-relief medication Vioxx. O'Connor joined Dechert as a partner the following year.

In a statement, a Dechert spokeswoman said the two lawyers "have been valued members of our firm for many years. We understand that they would like to change the focus of their practice and we wish them well."

James Quinn, cochair of Weil's litigation department, says Sullivan's strong reputation led the firm to keep calling until she decided to make the leap from Dechert.

"Her track record is great," Quinn says. "She wins cases. She has extensive experience in front of juries. And if you meet her, you find she's a delight."

Quinn says Weil already has some overlapping clients with Sullivan in the pharmaceutical industry, including Merck and Pfizer. Quinn insists, however, that attracting new work wasn't Weil's main objective in wooing Sullivan. "We didn't hire her because she would bring a lot of business," he says. "That'll either come or not. We weren't worried about that."

Philadelphia-area legal recruiter Frank D’Amore told sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer that it's difficult to gauge the financial impact Sullivan's departure will have on Dechert because it's unclear who controls clients at the firm. Nonetheless, D'Amore said, the move is "hugely significant" because Sullivan is a "top-tier" litigator.

Recruiter Robert Nourian of Coleman Nourian in Philadelphia told the Intelligencer that Sullivan's move could specifically affect Dechert's ability to attract products-liability work.

"For a firm like Dechert—they're so strong and have a great client base—they'll of course be fine," Nourian said. "But when you drill down into products liability, it's definitely a loss to the extent that they wish to promote their products practice at Dechert. She certainly helped win assignments because of her reputation and success."

Robert Heim, a partner in Dechert's litigation department, told the Intelligencer he did not foresee Sullivan's move hurting the firm's ability to bring in business.

"That was not Diane's role at this firm," Heim said. "Diane was and is an excellent trial lawyer, but we're not expecting to see any diminution in business."

Quinn says recruiting Sullivan is part of a broader push by Weil to bring more trial-ready talent to the firm: "We have a number of people, myself included, who try cases a lot, but to have one of the top trial lawyers in the U.S., particularly a woman, is just—it doesn't get any better than that."

In explaining why she decided to switch firms, Sullivan told the Intelligencer that Weil offers a larger international presence and more chances "to do big trials across many different industries" than Dechert did. She added that she is interested in trying more large employment, antitrust, and commercial contract cases.

Heim said Sullivan had expressed a desire to expand her practice beyond mass torts products liability work. "Diane wanted to try her hand at commercial cases, which she has never done here, and as I understand it, Weil, Gotshal has an opening there and she wants to fill that opening," he said. "I think that fortunately we have a stable of excellent trial lawyers to put in the field."

The additions of Sullivan and O'Connor are the latest in a string of hires by Weil since 2012 kicked off. Earlier this month, Weil announced the hiring of Christopher Garcia, formerly chief of the securities and commodities fraud task force at the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan. The firm's recent nonlitigation hires include capital markets partner Jennifer Bensch from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York and finance partner Mark Donald from Hogan Lovells in London.

Weil has also seen its share of losses since the market for lateral hiring began to heat up at the start of the year. The defectors include litigation partner William Burck, who jumped to Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan's six-month old Washington, D.C., office; patent counsel Michael Eisenberg, who moved to Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman; restructuring partner Dominic McCahill, who joined Skadden's office; and the cohead of Weil's antitrust and competition practice, Helene Jaffe, who is now with Proskauer Rose in New York.

Dechert, too, has been active in making lateral hires lately. Among the firm's notable additions: Jonathan Streeter, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan who helped win the conviction of onetime hedge fund billionaire Raj Rajaratnam in the Galleon Group insider trading case. Dechert has also brought on four new partners in various international offices so far this year. 

Sullivan's old and new firms both saw moderate growth in 2011 after slipping financially during the economic downturn, according to The American Lawyer's early Am Law 100 reporting on firm financials for 2011. Weil saw its gross revenue rise 3.8 percent to $1.229 billion last year and its profits per partner jump 8 percent to $2.44 million. Dechert’s gross revenue rose 3.5 percent to $677 million, with profits per partner increasing 5 percent to $2.11 million.

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