It’s time for our monthly Litigation Leaders feature, spotlighting the litigation practice heads of Am Law 200 firms. We kick off 2020 with Richard Spehr, who leads Mayer Brown’s global litigation and dispute resolution practice.
Based in New York, the complex commercial litigator has tried more than a dozen cases to verdict. His clients include Bank of Montreal, HSBC, AIG, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck.
Spehr shared his thoughts on Mayer Brown’s litigation practice with Lit Daily.
Lit Daily: Tell us a little about yourself—beyond what’s in your law firm bio.
Richard Spehr: Most of my time out of the office is spent as a proud husband and father. My wife is an accomplished lawyer. We have three children: 16-year-old daughter/son twins and a 12-year-old daughter. Lately, most of our quality time is spent college hunting. In between campus tours, my entire family enjoys scuba diving. I grew up diving. My wife and kids are all now certified and we’ve experienced some incredible dives together as a family.
When I’m not spending time with my family, I also play a little piano. About 10 years ago, I formed a band with a good friend who is a banker. The band, which is comprised of lawyers and bankers, regularly performs all genres of music—from rock to funk—in several NYC-based venues.
How big is your litigation department and where are most of your litigators concentrated geographically?
Mayer Brown has one of the largest litigation and dispute resolution practices in the world. The global practice is comprised of more than 500 litigators spread across 26 offices and four continents. Our largest concentration is in our larger U.S. offices—particularly in Chicago, New York and Washington D.C.. Outside the U.S., we have sizable groups of litigators in Hong Kong and London and a growing group in Paris.
Our global platform of litigators is built to serve the complex needs of our clients, whose businesses and matters are increasingly multijurisdictional in nature. No matter where in the world our litigators are located, we are all on planes traveling to our clients, collaborating across offices.
In what three areas of litigation do you have the deepest bench? (I know it’s tempting to list more, but please just name three.)
We pride ourselves on our extensive litigation capabilities, including our impressive roster of first-chair trial lawyers and our renowned Supreme Court and appellate practice. I’m especially proud of the world-class capabilities we’ve built in three areas:
Regulatory, Enforcement & Investigations: The practice is spread across all three of our regions (the Americas, Asia and Europe). Our firm’s ability to respond effectively to investigations by regulators throughout the world fits perfectly with the needs of our international clients, who must contend with vastly different rules in a global regulatory framework.
We’ve met our clients’ needs by recruiting seasoned regulatory experts from the public and private sectors, including Dan Stein, former chief of the Criminal Division for the Southern District of New York, Raj De, former general counsel at the U.S. National Security Agency, and Audrey Harris, former chief compliance officer of BHP, among others.
International Arbitration: The global team has extensive experience handling complex litigation matters throughout all of the major arbitration centers, including London, Paris and Singapore. We handle matters ranging from high-stakes commercial disputes to investor-state arbitrations. Our lawyers have acted in many of the world’s largest and most complex international arbitrations—worth billions of dollars to our clients. This is a significant practice for the firm and its multinational clients.
Class Actions: Mayer Brown has cemented its reputation for handling precedent-setting class action litigation for clients across industries on a range of matters. These include some of the most important U.S. Supreme Court rulings in class action disputes, from AT&T v. Concepcion to Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins.
In addition to our high-profile securities and consumer class action work, within the last five years we’ve become a go-to firm defending technology companies against the onslaught of data privacy class actions. As an example, we recently secured a major victory for a leading technology company in a class action alleging that our client violated users’ privacy by collecting information about their browsing activities on various websites and using that information for targeted third-party advertising.
As head of the department, what are some of your goals or priorities?
The business of law has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Clients are scrutinizing their legal spend as never before. They expect outside counsel to know and understand the pressures and challenges that in-house counsel face every day. Accordingly, clients expect a high level of collaboration at a reasonable and predictable price. It’s not just about advising clients—it’s about partnering with them.
Mayer Brown’s commitment to client service will always remain our number one priority. Therefore, I’m always focused on encouraging collaboration between practice groups throughout our 26 offices. Clients aren’t interested in absorbing ramp-up costs, particularly when matters cross borders. Good communication across regions and practices substantially reduces those inefficiencies. With that in mind, we have three primary practice priorities:
–Growing our global regulatory, enforcement and investigations practice: There is an increase in parallel proceedings by government agencies around the world and we have enhanced our ability to manage multiple regulatory agencies and mitigate global risk, which are critical in serving our clients. Another key to a dominant regulatory enforcement group is having significant strength in New York and Washington D.C. Whether the action is a congressional inquiry or a matter brought by the DOJ, CFTC or the SEC, we’ve expanded our capabilities in both offices through top-notch lateral hires, including several former government officials and an in-house chief compliance officer.
–Building upon our data privacy and tech litigation capabilities in the United States and Europe: Within the last five years, we’ve concentrated efforts to expand our presence on the West Coast. Our litigators have built a reputation for defending data privacy class actions under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the Illinois Biometric Privacy Act (BIPA). Technology giants, including Google, Twitter, Spotify, eBay, Shutterfly and Lyft, turn to Mayer Brown in high-stakes privacy and other types of disputes.
–Leadership succession: This is both a firmwide and litigation department priority. We have new managing partners in three of our largest offices in the United States: Britt Miller in Chicago, Matthew Ingber in New York and Raj De in Washington D.C.. All three lawyers happen to be litigation partners who represent the firm’s successful efforts to diversify leadership through a new generation of leaders.
We’ve prioritized this at the practice level as well as through lateral hires and partner promotions. It has been incredible to witness the talent of some of our younger lawyers by giving them the space to grow professionally. Not only has our succession plan enabled us to retain top-tier talent, but also it has deepened relationships with longstanding clients.
What do you see as hallmarks of your firm’s litigators? What makes you different?
Mayer Brown approaches complex disputes not just in terms of wins or losses but also as long-term campaigns to reshape the law to our clients’ benefit. The firm has orchestrated landmark results in priority areas for businesses, particularly in preserving access to arbitration—few law firms have done more to defend arbitration clauses, both in the U.S. Supreme Court and nationwide, than Mayer Brown—and protecting banks against claims arising from the 2008 financial crisis and allegations of LIBOR manipulation.
We are also not afraid to take on matters with limited precedents in order to change the law, and we have achieved past successes by promoting developments in legal theory. Reshaping the law in areas of critical importance to the business sector can take several years.
In The American Lawyer’s profile of Mayer Brown as an Litigation Department of the Year finalist two years ago, D.C. litigation partner Mike Lackey said it best: “We try to focus on the long game.” We know when to take the long view—planning for future litigation by crafting favorable test cases, modifying business practices or pursuing legislative changes. Mayer Brown’s ability to devise and execute long-term litigation strategies truly sets the firm apart.
Due to this experience, we are often retained to handle the most complicated and technical cases. You can’t see the big picture when you’re looking at an issue for the first time. Our litigators are substantive practitioners who know their areas of law inside and out. That know-how is what’s needed to have the strategic vision to chart the way forward.
Another hallmark of the firm’s litigation capabilities is our marquee Supreme Court and appellate practice. Mayer Brown innovated the practice of appellate law; we were the first global law firm with a team dedicated to pursuing big ideas in the highest courts and blazed trails by bringing to private practice the focused experience and collegial structure of the solicitor general’s office.
Our lawyers have argued more than 250 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. The group’s impact has been just as far-reaching in federal and state appellate courts throughout the U.S.. In the intermediate appellate courts, 25 different litigators have argued nearly a case each week for the past two years. The team is a terrific mix of appellate veterans and a newer generation of talent.
How many lateral litigation partners have you hired in the last 12 months? What do you look for in lateral hires?
Mayer Brown is always looking to expand its litigation capabilities to meet client needs. Since January 2019, we have added nearly a dozen lateral partners in key areas of importance to the firm and our clients, including international arbitrators, class action litigators and regulatory, enforcement and investigation lawyers. We expanded our diverse roster of talent across the firm’s offices in Brazil, Chicago, Dubai, Frankfurt, London, Los Angeles, Paris and Washington D.C.
We do not look to hire “books of business.” Instead, we look for lateral candidates who sync seamlessly with our current client base and can deepen our relationships with the firm’s most important clients. Our lateral partners are highly skilled and collegial, with sophisticated commercial instincts.
Today, any successful partner must understand our clients’ business. With this dynamic in mind, we have increasingly looked to lawyers with impressive in-house experience. Notably, at the tail end of 2018 we added three high-profile women who previously served as in-house counsel.
More recently, we’ve hired former government officials and partners from peer firms. We truly value diversity—litigators from diverse backgrounds look through different lenses and see problems more holistically.
No matter a lateral’s career background, he or she must be a fit for our “one-firm” culture.
Our 2019 lateral litigation partner hires were: Daniel Fenske (Chicago); Jason Linder (Los Angeles/Washington DC); Glenn Vanzura (Los Angeles); Alain Farhad (Dubai); Chris Chapman (London); Ulrich Helm (Frankfurt); Emilie Vasseur (Paris); Francisco Todorov (Brasilia); Lorena Nisiyama (Brasilia); Mauro Pedroso (Brasilia); Adriana Giannini (São Paulo) and Luiz Gustavo Bezerra (Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo).
What were some of your firm’s biggest in-court wins in the past year?
We secured dozens of trial victories and appellate wins in 2019. I’ll highlight some of our significant wins for the business community.
In April 2019, the firm secured one of its biggest U.S. Supreme Court wins of the year in Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela in which SCOTUS held that under the Federal Arbitration Act an ambiguous agreement does not provide the necessary contractual basis to compel class arbitration.
Our litigators secured noteworthy wins in high-stakes class action litigation for a range of industries. In September 2019, the firm won a victory for Columbia Pipeline Group (CPG) and its directors and officers when a federal judge in New York dismissed a would-be class’ challenge to CPG and TransCanada’s 2016 $13 billion merger.
The firm also secured a dismissal for Shutterfly in a data privacy class action before the Northern District of Illinois in which the plaintiff alleged that Shutterfly violated BIPA. Additionally, in a matter before the Ninth Circuit, the firm stopped a class action against Nestlé and its iconic “Coffee-mate” brand in May 2019. We also secured victories for global banks, including a set of important wins for Société Générale in sprawling multidistrict litigation over alleged manipulation of USD LIBOR in the Southern District of New York. In March 2019, a U.S. district judge issued rulings that dramatically reduced our client’s legal exposure.
A trial victory that stands out is our favorable verdict for longtime client Weldbend Corp. after a hard-fought nine-day jury trial in Houston federal court over foreign competitor Ulma’s false advertising and unfair competition of its carbon steel flanges—critical components used in the oil and gas industry.
On the pro bono front, in addition to our immigration-related wins, a dedicated California-based team obtained the release of Ken Oliver, a non-violent offender who was convicted for joyriding in 1997 and sentenced to 52 years-to-life under California’s controversial “three-strikes law.”
Can you give an example or two of tactics that exemplify your firm’s approach to litigating cases?
“Winning” doesn’t always look the same for each client, and we take into consideration the real-world circumstances facing companies. In one instance, Paris-based Société Générale (SG) faced a multi-pronged legal threat from authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. SG was under investigation by the U.S. DOJ and CFTC for allegations of manipulating LIBOR. SG also faced a DOJ investigation for certain transactions involving Libyan counterparties. Finally, SG came under investigation by the Parquet National Financier, a French agency, for the same activity in Libya.
The three investigations posed not only the prospect of enormous fines and related sanctions, but also the likelihood of separate resolution announcements with attendant reputational consequences. In response, we partnered with two other prominent Am Law 100 firms to help SG negotiate simultaneous resolutions in June 2018, all while containing the financial and PR fallout.
In addition, as I noted earlier, we take the long view on complex litigation. Nowhere is this long game more evident than in fending off assaults against individual arbitration, a valued means of resolving disputes for businesses. In 2011, Mayer Brown engineered a landmark ruling protecting individual arbitration in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. After securing two more Supreme Court rulings preserving arbitration, we confronted yet another attack in the past Supreme Court term. The firm came through yet again when the court issued a ruling in April 2019 that preserved individual arbitration.
The firm’s U.S. Supreme Court victory in Lamps Plus not only builds on a larger body of work the firm has produced in defense of arbitration clauses, but also it further enhances the firm’s track record in SCOTUS rulings concerning class action disputes, exemplified by the 2016 Spokeo ruling.
Where are you looking to build or expand in the next year?
I’ve pretty much outlined our expansion plans in my previous responses. But I should add that growth in specific practice areas or on the West Coast, in New York or D.C., doesn’t come at the expense of growth elsewhere—it’s not a zero-sum game.
2019 was a phenomenal year for our litigation practice. You can expect exciting announcements from us in 2020!
See the full collection of our prior Litigation Leader profiles here.
Reprinted with permission from the January 14, 2020 edition of The Litigation Daily © 2020 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.