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Dechert Ups Litigation Profile, Adding ‘Queen of Torts’ Birnbaum

July 19, 2018, 8:14 PM

Dechert has decided to broaden the scope of its client offerings in a big way.

It has added the entirety of product liability and mass torts litigation team headed by Sheila L. Birnbaum, one of the country’s leading lawyers in the field. Birnbaum brings a formidable book of business and 28 other lawyers and legal staff with her from Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.

“This is a dramatic step forward in our strategy to develop core global practices and compete at the very top of the industry in priority litigation,” said Matthew L. Larrabee, chair of Dechert’s global litigation practice.

Over more than five decades, Birnbaum—sometimes called the “Queen of Torts”—has racked up a notable list of victories for some familiar corporate names.

Most recently, she scored a big win for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., fending off more than 3,000 claims alleging a link between Pfizer’s statin medication Lipitor and type 2 diabetes. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit sided with Pfizer in June.

She also won a high profile victory for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, getting the U.S. Supreme Court to toss a $145 million judgment against the insurer in 2003.

This is one of the largest lateral moves among Big Law firms, which have been on a veritable spree of lateral hiring in recent years.

“It was one of our largest moves short of a merger with another firm,” Larrabee told Big Law Business. “It’s made our New York office a lot more crowded.”

With the Birnbaum team’s transition, Dechert has increased its global litigation practice by more than seven percent, bringing the number of lawyers in the practice to about 350.

The move positions Dechert as a market leader, Larrabee said. “We wanted to know we were representing clients with cutting edge problems, like Pfizer or Purdue Pharma Inc., which is defending itself against multiple lawsuits accusing them of responsibility for the widespread opioid crisis.”

Dechert is now national co-counsel for Purdue, the Stamford, Conn.-based drugmaker, in more than 1,000 federal and state lawsuits brought by state attorneys general, cities, municipalities, hospitals, and others arising out opioid medication marketing.

“We are serving as the tip of the spear in defending allegations in the opioid area. If you’re doing that, you’re at the forefront of that legal area,” Larrabee said.

Birnbaum’s move was first announced in March, but the firm waited until the transition was complete before announcing it today.

She brought several Pfizer matters with her. One involves more than 600 claims alleging that use of Zoloft during pregnancy caused birth defects. Dechert is co-lead counsel in the matter.

Joining Birnbaum at Dechert are long-time colleagues Douglas Fleming III and Mark Cheffo. Birnbaum and Cheffo will be co-leaders of the practice. They previously worked with Birnbaum at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where she built up her practice.

Hayden Coleman, Douglas Dunham, and Bert Wolff also move with her as partners; the rest of the team includes of counsel, associates, project attorneys and paralegals.

High-profile, bet-the-company cases have become more common, and product liability and mass tort litigation practices have grown and matured to keep pace, Birnbaum said. She’s a New York University School of Law graduate who has been practicing in the product liability area since 1965.

“Earlier, individuals brought cases, and causation involved questions of individual responsibility and addiction,” she said. “There was one plaintiff, one defendant and one judge.”

Now litigants are more sophisticated and including state attorneys general and other legal offices; causation is more complex; the law is more complicated; and there are many more ways, including television and mass media, to gather plaintiffs, she said.

Although she has scored some big wins in litigation, she is not averse to settling. She negotiated a $765 million concussion settlement for the National Football League, and a $330 million settlement for Pfizer over its hormone-replacement drugs.

“There can be two ways to a good outcome—to win or to pay,” she said.

Her team’s departure from Quinn Emanuel follows the departure of 10 other partners to form their own firm. Founder John Quinn reacted angrily to that move, but had no comment regarding Birnbaum’s departure.

To contact the reporters on this story: Elizabeth Olson in Washington at egolson1@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com