John Quinn, managing partner & co-founder of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, spoke with Christopher Bogart, Burford’s CEO, in February 2022. An edited transcript of their conversation, which touched on various areas of innovation in the business of law, appears below.
CB: You have a reputation as an innovator in an industry that isn’t known for a whole lot of innovation, and you’ve been doing it for years and years. Can you tell us a little bit about what innovations you see in the business of law right now and where you see the need for more innovations?
JQ: Well, I don’t know if I’m an innovator—I guess that’s a nice thing to be. The legal profession is whatever the opposite of a first adopter is. It’s a very conservative profession. Just look at how we decide cases in the common law world. We decide what we’re going to do and what the law is by looking backward at what we’ve done in the past. Law firms and the legal profession are not as responsive to developments in the business world, certainly not to new technology and the like. The structure of firms basically hasn’t changed in a hundred years.
There’s a lot of room for change and innovation in law firms. To begin with, I have some questions about the whole division between associates and partners. Why really does that make sense? By contrast, investment banks have partners, but there are gradations in the hierarchy. People can hold any of several different positions and have very successful careers. Why isn’t that reflected in law firms?
CB: When you started Quinn, that in itself was a level of innovation. Law firms had tended to use litigation practices as service practices for the corporate business. By going pure litigation, you were going out on a limb. What made you do that? What kind of risks and opportunities did you see when you went down that road?
JQ: I was pretty young when I first started my own firm, just three years out of law school. It wasn’t this firm. My first attempt didn’t work out because we couldn’t stay busy. But then we started Quinn in 1986. I wish I could say that I had the idea from the beginning, “Gee, let’s have a 900-lawyer litigation-only global law firm”. I could say that, but it absolutely wouldn’t be true. There were four of us, and our focus was keeping the wolf from the door and keeping bread on the table. We didn’t have any preconceptions about what the law firm might become.
Innovating the business of law (part 1 of 4)
All four of us happened to be litigators. Our concept was to do whatever we could to attract clients and get them to entrust us with their matters and get the best possible result for them, with the goal that they’d come back. It turned out that happened, and we were able to grow. Although there were times when we wondered, “Should we be looking around for a transactional lawyer?”, since it was the model that law firms would have multiple disciplines. We never acted on that. We came to realize that a litigation-only model is powerful in several different ways.
CB: And I always thought it was just because you didn’t want to do T&E.
JQ: Well, I started out as a corporate lawyer at Cravath. I spent my first two years working for the then head of the department, Sam Butler, who was a very distinguished, famous and highly regarded corporate lawyer. When I interviewed at the firm, I wanted to be a litigator, but Cravath needed corporate lawyers at the time. So, I worked as a corporate lawyer my first two years, but I got that out of my system.
CB: It didn’t take long. Quinn takes on risk more than some of its peer law firms do. Obviously, you still have an enormous billable hour business, but you do take on risk and do so all over the world. Why do you think that some of your peers simply don’t do that? And what makes it attractive to Quinn when you do it?
JQ: The perception in the marketplace of how much contingent fee work or work where we’re being paid on the basis that we’re assuming risk is probably exaggerated. For the overwhelming bulk of our practice, we’re being compensated on a conventional hourly basis, though the fee structure might be modified in some way.
To adopt alternative fee arrangements in full-service firms, you must get corporate and transactional lawyers and others on board who don’t understand litigation risk and how to assess the potential upsides or downsides in a case. You and your colleagues at Burford know better than anyone: It’s all about assessing litigation risk. A pure litigation firm is in a better position to make those assessments and assume risk because we don’t have to persuade folks who are not in a position to evaluate risk.
CB: I think that’s exactly right. Often, the reason that law firm litigation partners come to us for risk deals is because they can’t persuade their corporate colleagues to go along. Not having the corporate colleagues in your model in the first place is pretty valuable.
JQ: Working with Burford—and I don’t want to sound like a kiss-up here—you have sophisticated people on your staff who really understand litigation risk and how to assess cases. They don’t always see it the way we do, for sure, but they get it and they’re in a position to take their own opinion.
I’ll also add your firm is remarkable, in my experience, in choosing to deal with a counterparty who can close and close promptly. It’s going to happen. It’s reliable. I remember commuting to my office one morning and calling you. I said, “We’d like to have X dollars more on this deal.” It was a significant sum. You said, “Done.” There aren’t many litigation finance firms that could have done that. The ability to assess risk and the predictability and ability to close deals promptly are absolutely key in your industry and something that Burford does very well.
CB: Thank you. I appreciate the vote of confidence. What do you think is going to happen with law firm equity? Do you think you’re going to see law firms in any significant way turn themselves into alternative structures in any sort of foreseeable future?
JB: Maybe in 500 years. You and I have talked about this. There has been some inching toward alternative structures in Australia and in the UK, even in Arizona, though it’s unclear whether a multi-office, multi-state firm headquartered in Phoenix might go public. I doubt it. There is no reason why ownership and sharing of equity in law firms can’t be like any other professional service organization. It seems inevitable, but like everything else in the legal profession, it’s going to take a long time.
CB: I’ve seen your firm’s artist-in-residence program when I’ve been in your LA office. How did you come up with that idea, and how’s it going?
JQ: We have five or six floors that have basically been empty for the better part of three years. I’ve always been interested in contemporary art and enjoy it as a hobby. It occurred to me that we have all this space, and wouldn’t it be cool if we had some artists working in it? I had it in the back of my head that maybe it would be more attractive for people to come back to the office. The lawyers might want to check in and see what the artists are creating. That didn’t happen, but the artists come in every day.
We sent out word to people we know in the art community that we were interested in doing this. Quinn would offer a small monthly stipend and pay for some supplies. The artist would get a corner well-lit office that we would turn into a studio. We ripped up carpet and put linoleum down. Applicants sent in 125 portfolios, which was fun but also a challenge. Our original idea was to sponsor one artist. When we sorted through the portfolios, we came down to two finalists and chose both. They were here for four months, and then we did a show. We got some space in West Hollywood for a pop-up exhibition, and they sold some art. Quinn bought some. Then we wanted to do a second edition of the Quinn Emanuel artists-in-residence program, and this time we got over 250 applications.
CB: Wow. That’s amazing.
JQ: We have two working now who are really interesting, completely different and brilliant. We’re really glad to have them.
CB: That is fantastic. Burford doesn’t have office space to spare. We don’t have lawyers who stand up in courtrooms, so we don’t do pro bono work. Our approach has been to take our stock in trade, which is money, and not only put it to work commercially but put it to work in ways that might advance diversity in the legal profession through The Equity Project, which funds commercial litigation and arbitration led by female and racially diverse lawyers. As you know, Nadine Herrmann, a partner at Quinn, is one of The Equity Project Champions. In March, Burford was proud to announce that we topped $100 million of Equity Project funding. That’s a significant milestone. What else do you think that companies and law firms can do in this area?
JQ: That’s a big subject. Diversity has been on everybody’s radar screen. The #MeToo movement’s visibility heightened everybody’s awareness about abuse and harassment toward women. The tragedy of George Floyd renewed the focus on addressing racism and inequality in our country. There have been attacks directed at Asian Americans, as well.
At Quinn, we’re very interested in promoting diversity within our firm. I’ll be candid with you; we need to do a better job than we’ve done. Our numbers are not where we would like them to be, and that’s something we’re very much focused on. We’re also doing things internally to promote career advancement, including engaging coaches and counselors and providing firmwide diversity training. There is such a thing as implicit unconscious bias; I know I’ve caught myself in it. We’re trying to raise people’s consciousness about such bias. It’s an ongoing project.
CB: It’s an ongoing project and a long-term challenge. Finally, what do you think is going to stick after we get past the acute phase of this pandemic? Quinn has made several changes in how your people are working. What do you think is going to stick both at your firm and in courts?
JQ: Really interesting question, and I have some views on that. We’ve learned some things in the judicial system and in the practice of litigation that we can’t unlearn. A deposition can be done remotely and very efficiently. You can share an exhibit up on screen and call the witness’s attention to the very page you want the witness to read. He’s not there fumbling around with a physical exhibit and wasting your time. Once you’ve learned that you don’t have to get on airplanes and travel across the country—not even for a daylong deposition—it’s hard to unlearn that. This is bringing about permanent changes. Many people don’t agree with me on this, but I don’t think the in-person deposition is coming back.
For example, if you say you want to take a deposition in person and the other side says, “I just don’t feel it’s safe. I feel it’s a waste of time and I’m not leaving my house.” What are you going to do? Are you going to go to court, and is a judge going to say, “No, he’s got to go across town and show up in your conference room like we did in the old days.”? I’m not sure many of those orders will be entered.
In Los Angeles, we have so-called long motion days in courts, and other jurisdictions do as well. All motions—discovery motions, motions to dismiss, summary judgment motions—are teed up for a certain day. There will be a docket of 30 or 40 items in the morning. The lawyers all show up and sit in the audience, meters running, for several hours until you get up for your 15 minutes of fame. We haven’t been doing that, and I don’t think that’s coming back. Now, you do it remotely. You call in at your time and open the Zoom. Then you can you sit at your desk and work on something else until it’s time for your matter to be heard. That’s a permanent change, and the judges I know are very comfortable with that.
At our firm, we made the decision and announced that anybody can work from anywhere for the indefinite future. Our experience has been that that works. Certainly, when there is trial preparation and a war room, then people need to come together. However, when there’s not a need to be together, we’ve shown that we can continue doing what we’re doing. Now, we’re going to have to change other things in terms of developing new modes and ways of mentoring people and developing cohesiveness and community. We have to create replacements for the way that you and I were raised and trained and learned to practice law. That’s going to be different.
I don’t see office space utilization coming back to the same degree. People should not be coming into the office to sit in their own cube or four walls with a door. Why would you do that? If people are going to come to the office, it’s got to be to come together. You’re going to need less space, and the office design has to reflect that.
CB: I don’t know about depositions. It depends a little bit on how much you value them, doesn’t it? Would you like to move to cross-examining witnesses at a trial remotely? I was deposed by video during Covid, and it was a less effective deposition for the questioner. The video made it harder for the questioner to take ownership of the deposition and pin me down.
JQ: I worried about that at the first deposition I took. Because, as litigators, we all like to think that we can use our body language and personality to either charm or influence the witness and affect the answers that we get. Let’s say there’s something to that, and that bothered me.
But then I realized the following: The witness is alone in a room. The first time I realized that was when my client, who was a very important witness in his own case, was being deposed and wouldn’t leave his house. We had spent a lot of time preparing him, and then the deposition comes—and there he is on his own, alone, just another face on the screen. I’m not there, and I felt so powerless. I almost think that’s a fair trade, Chris, to tell you the truth.
Widely regarded as one of the top trial lawyers in the world, John B. Quinn founded Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP with three other lawyers in Los Angeles in 1986. Under his leadership, the firm has grown to 29 offices on four continents, with over 900 lawyers generating more than $1.3 billion in annual revenue. Described as a “master strategist” by The American Lawyer, he has been hailed for his unique vision in building a litigation-only global firm.
Christopher P. Bogart co-founded Burford Capital in 2009 and serves as its Chief Executive Officer. Burford is now the world’s largest provider of commercial legal finance, significantly larger than its closest competitor, with more than 140 lawyers and professionals working with clients around the globe from offices on four continents. He was previously EVP & General Counsel of Time Warner Inc., where he managed one of the largest legal functions in the world, and a senior litigator at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.