Hueston Hennigan LLP: Breaking The Mold

Hueston Hennigan
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Commemorating their first, and eminently successful year in practice, the firm of Hueston Hennigan LLP unquestionably has ample reason for celebration. What began as an almost idealistic vision for seven partners who decided to launch a business litigation and white collar boutique has taken root and flourished furiously over the past 12 months.

In just its first year, the firm has established a litany of notable successes, including arguing the unconstitutionality of Malibu’s restrictive land use ordinance, Measure R; obtaining dismissal of all felony counts against a subsidiary of Waste Management; prevailing in a long-running wine fraud case brought by billionaire William Koch; delivering a victory for Sempra Energy in a suit relating to its liquefied natural gas terminal; and taking on matters for Kaiser Permanente, Electronic Arts Inc., T-Mobile Inc., The Navajo Nation, the State Bar of California, and the city of Santa Monica among others.

Based in Southern California, Hueston Hennigan serves clients locally, nationally and around the world. The name has become synonymous with achieving historic results in some of the most complex and challenging cases. Certainly, there is no dearth of trial and litigation firms, with literally thousands in California alone, so what makes this boutique practice unique?

“We are creating something new and different both for our clients, and for the attorneys who work in our firm,” says founding partner John Hueston. “For our clients, the goal is to offer them high-caliber services with greater speed and agility, lean staffing and attention to both their legal matters and financial concerns. It’s a model that’s been thriving, and one that I think will be a model for the future. We’re moving in a different direction than the mergers of firms and mega-firms, which has taken place with great frequency in the last decade.”

The firm also has a specific strategy for its attorneys.

Every lawyer at Hueston Hennigan is expected to develop top-notch trial skills. There is no bureaucratic padding at the firm, only trial lawyers who are trained to prevail on matters at every stage of litigation – from pre-trial motions to appellatelevel work.

“Increasingly, I and other trial lawyers have found, it is getting more difficult for lawyers to get trial experience, particularly newer lawyers,” Hueston says. “As a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers, it’s acutely apparent that we are a shrinking organization on a national basis, due to this phenomenon. When Brian Hennigan, a partner and fellow member of the American College of Trial Lawyers, and I put together our firm it was with the idea to create a practice that handles high-impact public cases and trains its team differently.”

To do this, they recruit the best former law clerks and law students to come into the firm, and make sure they get trial experience within their first couple of years. This is a practice that is virtually unheard of. Traditionally, newcomers to a firm have little hope of gaining any real trial experience, but rather are relegated to research and other duties supporting the work of the partners. Indeed, this is one of the primary reasons for firm-hopping or launching solo practices.

Hueston Hennigan acquires talented individuals ideally suited to the firm’s philosophy, and who will blossom under the rigorous training and mentoring. As any newly graduated law student will tell you, they have a burning desire to step into that thrilling arena known as the court room, and test their mettle. It’s the dream that keeps the exhausted law student going in the darkest days, and while wading through the driest tort. Unfortunately, these hopes are usually dashed by reality, when they discover they are low man on the totem pole, and the best they can hope for is to sit quietly at the lead attorney’s table.

“One of the things that really compelled me to think about making this change was the fact that it’s become a law firm model,” said co-founding partner Brian Hennigan. “You go out and recruit the best and the brightest, and then within two or three years, you start losing them left and right. You, as a partner have to acknowledge that it’s true, this person has never had any deposition work, never appeared in court, and has never actually argued a motion. Yet, it’s incumbent on the people running the firm to make sure that every associate has opportunities to shine, and that’s what we are committed to doing here.”

“We creatively do this,” explains Hueston, “by screening our pro bono cases that are more likely to go to trial, and working our associates into the trials that we have for our commercial clients.”

Hennigan says he sees the results.

“The thing is, you can’t tell until you’re actually in court, in a speaking role and have the responsibility for putting on the case, if you have what it takes and if you really enjoy it,” Hennigan adds. “So, we have really been active in making that happen for our associates. It’s been a great feeling knowing that our associates are getting that sense of accomplishment, getting firsthand trial experience and making those kinds of trial decisions. And, because of the type of training and preparation we provide, they are having tremendous success.”

Under the guidance of the firm’s pro bono coordinator, Courtney Black, associates have worked on many of the firm’s 20 victories, taking depositions, crossexamining witnesses and appearing before judges as counsel for victims of domestic violence and immigrants seeking refugee status.

Known for the significant amount of pro bono work it provides, Hueston Hennigan utilizes these opportunities to prepare new associates with actual, on-thejob experience.

“We’ve tried to create a culture, in which the provided training ensures success at trial for all of our associates,” says Hueston. “It isn’t always easy, but we seek out opportunities. For example, at our expense, we send our attorneys to government agencies, such as district attorneys’ offices for months at a time, so that they might quickly gain some trial experience. We also, have relationships with certain pro bono legal service agencies that have a high proportion of cases that go to contested hearings or trials. We put our most junior associates into those, so that within the first six to 12 months at this law firm, they’ve already cross-examined witnesses, presented opening arguments, and made arguments on their feet, before judges, and sometimes juries. We believe this is markedly different from the type of training and cultivation associates receive in traditional large firm formats.”

The result of this ladder-of-success training approach, in conjunction with the firm’s commitment to public service, guarantees at least one trial in the first two years for each of their incoming associates, with a goal of at least five trials by the fifth year.

This is not to imply that the pro bono cases and others staffed by new attorneys are taken any less seriously than every other client. After all, regardless of the client, the case, or circumstances the results ultimately trace directly back to the name and reputation of Hueston Hennigan. While encouraged to test their wings, they are not pushed out of the nest and left to fly solo. Not only have they been carefully trained to exacting standards, typically a partner will serve as a mentor.

“In the last three months I’ve mentored two associates, watching them in action in court,” says Hennigan. “It’s not like a sink or swim; they have someone by their side offering support and encouragement. And, people really do rise to the occasion. This is why they’ve gone to law school, this is why they’re doing what they’re doing, and they are ready for this opportunity.

“In law school, I might not have been clear on who my ultimate employer would be, but I knew I would have clients and that I would be in court,” Hennigan continues. “That’s a model frankly, that we as lawyers have gotten away from.

“People are not getting that kind of courtroom experience early on, and long term it has an impact on the firm and its clients,” he adds. “If you have a lot of attorneys who are really skilled at going through documents and engaging in discovery, but not in showing up in court, you end up with people who have highly developed skills in one area. But, from the law firm perspective, you want to have people you can move around more freely. So you need to make a point of getting them into those cases, and not be wondering, ‘Gee, how are they going to do when they actually end up standing up in court?’ We know how they are going to do because they have been gaining that invaluable experience on a pretty regular basis over the past few years, and they have a number of trials under their belt. We have a confidence level in that.”

It was the high skill level of the firm associates that particularly appealed to noted entertainment attorney Robert Klieger when he joined the firm as a partner six months ago.

“Right at the start, Hueston Hennigan assembled some of the very best talent in the legal community,” Klieger says. “I was drawn to the skill of the attorneys, the roster of A-list clients and the energy of the firm. I couldn’t think of any place I would rather practice law.”

Associates also speak highly of the quality and quantity of their experience.

“As an associate at Hueston Hennigan, I have had the opportunity to work directly not only with our partners, but with clients, witnesses and experts in all phases of litigation,” says Tristan Favro. “This exposure has enabled me to quickly develop and hone the tools I need as a young litigator, from conducting witness interviews and drafting dispositive motions to developing case strategy and representing clients in court.”

It is a fast-paced environment, but the partners say they value collegiality as much as they do the firm’s vaunted results for clients.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of founding a new firm is having the opportunity to create a work from scratch,” says founding partner Alison Plessman. “We work hard, and we expect a lot from each other, but we came together in a way that was really organic. We have the same philosophy about cases, the same ideas for working with associates, and we genuinely like and respect each other.”

Associate Steven Feldman adds, “What makes working at Hueston Hennigan truly unique is not the fact that we work on the highest-stakes cases for the highest-profile clients, but that we do so in an environment that truly fosters creativity, early responsibility and respect. Everyone here has a relentless passion for both the work and the culture.”

In addition to creating a great esprit de corps, this approach effectively develops teams that clients are confident are delivering quality from top to bottom. This team structure is an integral component for Hueston Hennigan, and one that has resulted in an astounding number of big wins and historic settlements for its clients.

“We’re building efficient teams that are developing a winning narrative that focuses like a laser, in discovery and preparation for trial, on how the case would unfold at trial,” says Hueston.

“Our strike teams, as we refer to them, are comprised of some of the best trained lawyers in the country,” notes Hennigan. “These are lawyers who have achieved historic results in a variety of complex and challenging cases.”

According to the partners, the result of these elite teams is that they are not only always prepared to try a case, but avoid unnecessary pretrial disputes, minimize discovery costs, and obtain superior outcomes. Drawing on their combined experience as trial lawyers, the firm of Hueston Hennigan approaches cases differently than those firms who merely seek to litigate.

“Our approach to every case is to assume it will go to trial,” explains founding partner Doug Dixon. “We counsel clients, help conduct internal investigations and provide a full slate of services. But right at the start, we stay focused on the essential facts, documents and witnesses that are likely to decide the outcome should a matter go to trial.”

A law firm that has proven repeatedly that its focus is on developing associates and successfully representing clients, Hueston Hennigan is also one that clients know is sincerely looking out for their best interests, in every way. Simply stated, this means that the firm aligns its interests with those of the client.

“When we tell them that we will win and that we have a winning strategy, and that we will be able to derail a case, for instance, in motions work, we put our money where our mouth is,” says Hueston. “We take alternative fees for our work, and only get success fees when we achieve the various milestones and victories the client wants. We have been hired by a number of Fortune 500 companies on that basis, and they have been very pleased with the way the litigations have gone, and our approach.”

Not surprisingly, nurturing and encouraging new associates is a win-win proposition for everyone involved – the firm, the associates and the clients.

Breaking away from the traditional big-firm model has proved to be an innovative and profitable path for Hueston Hennigan.

The boutique also breaks the model by declining to bring in lots of junior, minimally trained lawyers to do, for instance, document review and other low-wattage tasks that larger law firms have built their profit models on.

“We have no structural incentive to do so, because we simply don’t hire staff in our law firm to accommodate those arrangements,” Hennigan says. “Instead we’ve used outside resources to bring those costs to much more reasonable levels. So, what clients are paying for is the highest level of counseling, trial preparation and trial work. Our junior partners are practicing law, not buried in paperwork for one of the partner’s upcoming trials.”

Since first opening its doors with about a half dozen attorneys, the firm has expanded to 40 associates, including nine partners. As it celebrates its first year, Hueston Hennigan has only to look at its burgeoning client list, number of associates and historic wins to know the experimental venture is a triumphant success.

Susan Cushing

Susan Cushing is the associate editor of Attorney at Law Magazine as well as a staff writer. She has been contributing to the magazine for more than eight years.

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