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John Keker Burns and then Admires Cravath, Swaine & Moore

Nov. 17, 2016, 3:59 PM

John Keker isn’t a big fan of the traditional Big Law model. And he didn’t mince words when speaking about his firm in relation to those like Cravath, Swaine & Moore, during an interview about a name change at his 85-lawyer Keker & Van Nest.

“We aren’t like Cravath, Swaine & Moore, where the names on the firm are all dead white guys,” said Keker. “We are very much alive and trying cases.”

Starting Jan. 1, Keker & Van Nest will become Keker Van Nest & Peters, after adding partner Elliot Peters to the shingle, the second firm name change in its nearly three decades of existence.

“It started as Keker & Brockett and then it became Keker, Brockett & Van Nest,” said Keker, recalling when he founded the firm with Bill Brockett in 1978. “And then Bill left and died, actually, at a horribly young age [ at 55 of a stroke ,in 1996], and it was Keker & Van Nest for some time.”

At one point in the interview, Keker brought up Cravath and also told an off-the-cuff story about Hoyt Moore, one of the name partners at the storied New York firm whose big client was Bethlehem Steel Corporation. At first, we weren’t sure if the juicy little yarn he told was true; the information couldn’t be immediately verified, but sure enough, we found an account in the Notre Dame Law Review that verifies the authenticity in an article titled “The Lawyer Who Overidentifies with His Client” by John T. Noonan.

Here’s how Keker told the story:

“You want to hear a great story about Mr. Moore?” said Keker. “Cravath has always been known as a hard working firm. One night, Mr. Moore was working and surrounded by associates and the phone rings — this is way before cell phones existed — and he listened for a while and he yells into the phone, ‘What do you want me to do about it!? Call the fire department!’ Then, he hangs up the phone, and tells everyone that his wife called and his house is on fire.”

Keker said: “I thought that was a funny story.” When pressed on how he heard the story, Keker came back with a very Keker-like response: “I’m not sure where I heard it, but it’s a funny story. Some facts are too good to check.”

After some digging, we got a hold of the Notre Dame Law Review article from April of 2001.

On page 834:

Moore’s reputation for ‘hard, driving work’ was legendary. When a partner objected that the office was under such pressure as to need more associates, Moore is said to have replied: ‘That’s silly. No one is under pressure. There wasn’t a light on when I left at two o’clock this morning.’ William O. Douglas, who was a Cravath associate in the late 1920s, recalls being with Moore when Moore got a telephone call from his wife that his house was on fire. Moore’s reply was, ‘Why the hell bother me? Call the fire department.’ This single-minded devotion to his work was manifested in Moore’s meticulouness in drafting documents. An associate who copied a recent document approved by him was denounced for his shoddy work, and when he said that he had merely followed Moore, Moore replied, ‘Haven’t you been here long enough to know that what was good yesterday isn’t good enough today?’

So Keker’s story is pretty much in line with the scholarly article. We shared the anecdote with two Cravath, Swaine & Moore spokeswomen — along with Keker’s comment about the firm’s name — and we haven’t heard back.

One of the advantages to being a mouse among elephants is that you can scurry around quickly.

Asked whether he considers Cravath to be a competitor, Keker said: “No, no... They are a full-service firm. We are a litigation-only firm. That is all we do. If you look at the models, the closest thing I can think of is Williams & Connolly, which is mostly a litigation firm. We are only litigation, so we don’t have any models similar to the big firms. We are not trying to be all things to all people.”

What about John Quinn’s big litigation firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan?

“I’m not going to say anything about John Quinn’s firm,” said Keker.

He also said that his litigation-only model means the firm can weather highs and lows in the market.

“One of the advantages to being a mouse among elephants is that you can scurry around quickly and you can work out pretty well in every business cycle. We are nimble and we are not a huge firm that has to make major adjustments. I have seen recessions in San Francisco, for example, where big firms lay off 200 lawyers. I find that disgusting. We never lay off lawyers. If we need new business, we go out and get it. We typically have more business than we can handle.”

So who’s Peters in the soon-to-be Keker Van Nest & Peters?

That would be Elliot Peters, the white collar criminal defense partner whose clients have included Major League Baseball, the internet activist Aaron Swartz and who is also known also for representing large law firms in legal malpractice cases.

“I’m not sure it’s a promotion,” said Keker, who himself is currently representing the former chief financial officer of Autonomy, Sushovan Hussain, who was indicted last week in San Francisco federal court on charges of mail fraud.

“Elliot Peters has been an important leader in our firm certainly internally for a long time. People look up to him. He has tried a whole bunch of cases and has been a leader.”

So why now?

“We just decided,” said Keker. “The partnership decided it was time to do it and it was unanimously greeted with enthusiasm.”

[caption id="attachment_35032" align="alignnone” width="682"][Image “keker1" (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/keker1.jpg)]Left to right: John Keker, Bob Van Nest and Elliot Peters.[/caption]

[Image “blb newsletter” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/blb-newsletter.jpg)]