Welcome to the Big Law Business Section on the evolution of the legal market written by me, Roy Strom. Today we look at how court closures led first to a drought and now to a glut of trial work for Bartlit Beck. Register to get this column delivered to your inbox on Thursday mornings.
Jason Peltz runs a law firm that has made a name for itself handling major lawsuits for the nation’s biggest corporations. With many courtrooms closed and trials postponed indefinitely, the past two years have been a test for Peltz and the nearly 80 attorneys at Chicago-based Bartlit Beck.
The company only managed two trials in 2020 and only three more in 2021. The work hasn’t stopped, but it has changed. Bartlit Beck’s lawyers have been handling far more depositions than usual during the pandemic, thanks to the move to video which has cut costs.
As litigation traffic jams begin to ease, the nearly 30-year-old firm returns to the courtroom.
Bartlit Beck has just completed its busiest first semester in company history. The company managed nine trials in the first six months of the year, nearly double the figure for the previous two years combined.
It’s the kind of pace that Peltz says would be great for business in a normal year.
And the work is far from over: Bartlit Beck still has seven trials scheduled before January.
“A Covid backlog is definitely one of the big things we’ve seen,” said Peltz, the firm’s managing partner. “We have had so many previously scheduled trials suspended due to the pandemic. When the courts reopened and things got back to business, it led to an inordinate number of trials being scheduled.
Federal civil lawsuits have long been in decline since various reasonsincluding the expansion of discovery, the increased use of summary judgments and the rise of alternative dispute resolution methods.
But after the pandemic hit, the volume of federal civil lawsuits plunged in 2020 to what is likely a modern-era all-time low of around 2,500, down more than a third from last year. ‘last year. The figure recovered only slightly last year to around 2,800, according to the US Courts Administrative Office.
Although official data is not yet available, Bartlit Beck’s experience suggests trials are making a comeback.
The company scored its biggest win of the year in a July ruling for aero-engine maker Pratt & Whitney. A Florida federal jury has sided with the company in a lawsuit brought by landowners alleging Pratt & Whitney was responsible for a cluster of cancers they say was caused by contamination from a rocket factory. This is the first lawsuit in a series of similar cases that involve potential liability of more than $1 billion.
The company also handled three lawsuits to defend Walgreens against opioid allegations. The drugstore chain eventually settled the first case, brought by the Florida attorney general, for $683 million, with payments to be made over 18 years.
A judge ruled Wednesday against Walgreens in another lawsuit in San Francisco, holding the company liable for “substantial contribution to public nuisance” in the city resulting from the opioid epidemic. A subsequent trial will determine how much Walgreens must reduce the nuisance, the court said.
Bartlit Beck handled a third lawsuit for Walgreens in federal court in Cleveland in May and is awaiting a judge’s decision.
Lawyers for the firm represented FedEx in a May trial in federal court in southern Illinois regarding a 2019 traffic accident that killed three people. The case settled during the trial for an undisclosed amount.
This month, the company won a pro bono Voting Rights Act case in Georgia that went to trial earlier this year. A federal judge has ruled that Georgia’s statewide election of civil service commissioners has diluted black voting power, ordering the state not to prepare ballots for two races scheduled for November. . Georgia is appealing the decision.
Bartlit Beck handled three other lawsuits in private arbitrations over commercial disputes for clients that Peltz declined to disclose.
“It’s been a crazy time for the company with people working beyond hard,” Peltz said. “But the bottom line is that it allows us to get a critical trial experience.”
At a time when trials are increasingly rare, Peltz believes the courtroom experience has become the coin of the kingdom for law firms looking to attract the highest-profile cases.
This is why the firm tracks the type of experience acquired by its lawyers over rolling 12-month periods. On average, 80% of the firm’s attorneys achieve a “substantial role” on a trial team within a year. Four out of five lawyers receive or defend a deposition in any given year.
Peltz said 30 different attorneys at the firm have been involved in the nine lawsuits so far this year, representing about 40% of the firm’s total number of attorneys. Five of those lawyers worked on two separate trials in the first half alone.
“There are fewer opportunities to gain that experience,” Peltz said. “And sophisticated clients demand in many cases, especially in high-stakes litigation, to have a lawyer who has that trial experience.”
The workload may increase. Nearly 85,000 civil cases over three years old were pending in the 12 months ending in July, according to Federal Court data. This is the highest total since 2018.
One of the reasons the caseload has increased is that lawsuits often lead to settlements. With return trials on schedule, the firm has already settled nine other cases this year, Peltz said. He doesn’t know how many of the remaining seven scheduled trials will go the distance, but he’s making sure his lawyers are ready.
“It will definitely be a banner year,” he said. “It’s already basically.”
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It’s all for this week ! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, criticisms and advice.