• 09.01.08

Caffeinated, Aggressive & Brash, Esq.

Startup attitude can shake up a stodgy industry. Just ask the fastest law firm in the country.

Caffeinated, Aggressive & Brash, Esq.
Quinn Emanuel | photo by Bryce Duffy

“I suspect we’re hated,” says John Quinn, flashing a small but satisfied smile. Quinn is exaggerating, but not by much. He’s the lead partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges, an offbeat Los Angeles — based law firm that has been stepping on a lot of white-shod toes in its ascent to — some might say assault on — the highest stratum of the elite corporate legal community. “It’s sort of a mix of disdain and jealousy,” says partner Patrick Shields.


The disdain stems from the firm’s unconventional way of doing business. Quinn Emanuel has adopted the strategy, attitude, and accoutrements of a Red Bull — fueled startup. It focuses only on business litigation: no tax, real estate, or other common corporate practices. Even more galling to the tradition-bound large full-service firms that are its competitors, the firm takes some cases on contingency, meaning that it doesn’t get paid if it doesn’t win. That forces Quinn Emanuel to cast the wary eye of an investor on potential cases, in search of the ones that can strike gold, and it’s unafraid to use litigation’s nuclear option — a jury trial — >to get outsize results.

Those big paydays are the root of the jealousy. The 109 partners at Quinn Emanuel took home, on average, a shade over $3 million last year, according to rankings compiled by The American Lawyer magazine. That’s a 23.9% jump from the previous year — and nearly $2 million more than in 2003. Only three other law firms went over the vaunted $3 million mark in profits per partner, a metric that lawyers follow the way movie moguls scrutinize the weekend box office. Total gross revenues were $384.5 million.

Quinn Emanuel’s different attitude is evident the moment you step into its L.A. offices. The unfinished ceilings and airy minimalism are the opposite of the hushed, wood-paneled dens where most corporate consiglieri ply their trade. Many of the partners and associates dress in T-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops. Off the main reception area is a Starbucks-style coffee room, complete with staff barista.

The firm isn’t shy about trumpeting its success and the reasons for it. “Justice may be blind,” its Web site crows, “but she sees it our way 90% of the time.” (Technically, the firm has a 92% winning percentage.) “We’re prepared to bet on ourselves,” says Quinn, 57. He believes that the odds of victory go up by being aggressive during the pretrial phase, and then being ready to go to a jury trial. That’s what all lawyers say, but Quinn Emanuel’s bring-it-on bravado is an especially terrifying prospect for the other side because trials are expensive and unpredictable.

Enjoying a morning cigar outside his roomy Pasadena home, Quinn imagines his adversary: mid-forties, partner in a name-brand firm, successful — and yet he has never tried a jury case. “You see those courthouse steps looming, and I think on some level that may affect the advice you give your clients,” he says. Quinn Emanuel’s contingency business makes up less than 10% of total hours, but because of the huge paydays, the firm’s profit margin was 62% last year, near the top of all U.S. law firms.

Quinn attributes some of the firm’s success to its decentralized structure. “Good lawyers don’t need to be managed,” he says, figuring that the best way to run a law firm is, in effect, not to run it. Meetings are rare; the firm’s only committee is for determining contingency fees. Decisions among the senior partners regarding partnerships, hiring, and compensation are all handled through email with Quinn, whom several attorneys described as a “benevolent dictator.”

That intensity, Quinn says, derives from a “Depression-era mentality” that goes back to his early years as a lawyer. The Harvard Law School graduate started out at New York’s venerable Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and then ventured to L.A. to start up a small litigation practice that quickly went bust. A New York firm took him on as its only L.A.-based partner, and to get work, he had to cold-call. “I was shameless,” he says. In 1986, he took another crack at his own litigation-only practice. “Two years of misery” is how cofounder Eric Emanuel describes the early days. A jury trial on behalf of Lockheed was a turning point — not only because the client won but also because everyone had a hand in preparing the case. (An associate devised the winning strategy.) Such teamwork has become a Quinn Emanuel hallmark, in contrast to the more hierarchical competition.


Casual office attire and light-touch management notwithstanding, Quinn Emanuel has forged a hard-driving culture for its adversarial work. It’s the kind of place where lawyers shoot off a firm-wide email at 2 a.m. asking if anyone wants to take a break at the Denny’s across the street — and get plenty of takers. Even the off hours are intense, punctuated by the firm’s annual summer hikes, dubbed death marches. Quinn has led the firm’s lawyers through Olympic National Park in Washington State, up Half Dome in Yosemite, and into the Swiss Alps.

Peter Zeughauser, a California-based law-firm consultant, is convinced that Quinn Emanuel’s growth will force it to do more managing — dealing with staffing shortages, conflicts of interest, and recruiting. Quinn and the other senior partners shrug off such conventional wisdom. Not having any extra management layers, they say, is what makes the place so exhilarating.

And besides, the money keeps rolling in.