Insights from the Top | Law Firm Leadership: John Quinn

November 29, 2022

David Teece speaks with John Quinn, founder of the global litigation firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. They discuss the firm’s specialized focus on litigation, retention and recent developments at the firm, and greater investment in future leaders within the industry.


[00:39:00] David Teece: Hello. My name is David Teece, and I’m executive chairman of Berkeley Research Group. I’m also a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In this episode, the second in our special series featuring legal industry leaders, I’ll speak to John Quinn. John is the founder of the global litigation firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.

We’ll discuss retention in the face of the Great Resignation and global economic uncertainty. We’ll also discuss recent developments at the firm and how to address calls for a greater investment in future leaders within the industry.

But where I want to begin, John, is with your long-held, specialized focus at Quinn on litigation. You’re known globally as a high-powered litigation—no longer a boutique, but litigation-focused—firm. And you’ve stuck to your guns on that. You’ve not, to my knowledge at least, diversified beyond that. I’d like to hear your view of how that strategy is working and whether that is your “north star” for the next few years.

[00:01:48] John Quinn: David, I think that that’s always been our north star, and it will be our north star forever. We have found that focusing only on one thing—that is, litigation—which is a world unto itself, has been very powerful for us, both internally as a force for cohesion in the firm, and also in terms of our message to the business and legal community.

We, of course, are involved in all different types of disputes, substantive areas. We have lawyers who specialize in patent litigation, antitrust litigation, white collar work, international arbitration, a lot of different disciplines within litigation. For us, it’s all litigation, all the time. And I can’t imagine that we would ever change that.

[00:02:30] Teece: It’s diversified in the sense it’s across practices, but it’s inherently focused in a very narrow way around litigation. So, you would say that you’re diversified while we’re being specialized. Is that a fair summary?

[00:02:45] Quinn: Yeah. I mean, pretty much any type of business dispute—I mean, there are a handful of areas where we don’t practice. Like we don’t really have an international trade practice, like customs and tariffs and the like. We don’t practice in that area. There’ve been times in the past when we did, but pretty much any type of business dispute we would see as being within our purview.

[00:03:37] Teece: How do you get proactively involved, if at all, in the shaping of corporate decisions and shaping decisions whether not to litigate, given the amount of change we’ve got going on right now?

[00:03:50] Quinn: Part of our practice does involve helping to navigate legal risk. A lot of times we’re getting a call on a project or a matter—it might be a fund that does distress investing, and they want to kind of bounce around the idea about how might this play out. Do we read the instrument or the indenture the way they do? Do they have rights they could assert? If they assert them, is there likely to be litigation? What would that look like?

Or in the patent area, does this company have the freedom to operate that they think they do? Is this a good patent or not a good patent?

In the white-collar area, or dealing with regulators, you’re often trying to persuade the government not to start a proceeding. And your biggest successes, the world never hears about. So, there is that element to it, where we’re talking to people about legal risks, helping them avoid legal risk, helping them come up with ways to stay out of a courtroom, actually.

[00:04:15] Teece: There is a little bit of an advisory front end, but it’s all very much under the shadow of litigation and trying to avoid it rather than embrace it.

[00:04:23] Quinn: Exactly.

[00:04:25] Teece: Now, with the pandemic and the changed work environment, and a lot of lawyers wanting to work permanently from home––how is that impacting you? We understand in London that you’ve taken more space, so obviously there is still a demand for in-office activity of some kind. But what’s your take on flexibility with respect to remote versus in the office? And what lessons have you learned from different cohorts in the firm, in terms of what works for them, and also different geographies too, for that matter?

[00:05:32] Quinn: Well, we’ve taken kind of an unusual or different approach to this than most firms, as I understand it. We’ve announced a policy—we announced this months ago––that for the indefinite future, any lawyer can work from anywhere. So, we’re not saying you have to be in two days a week, you have to be in three days a week. We’re saying you don’t have to be in at all. You can work from anywhere.

I mean, the original motivation really was a recruiting one. We thought there might be some great lawyers who would be a good fit for us, but for whatever reason they happened to be in Boise or Charleston or Des Moines. And adopting such a policy would enable us to recruit lawyers who would be a good fit in the firm.

So, in terms of the demand for in-office utilization, it varies very much by locality. In Los Angeles, where I am, even before the pandemic, I would say that at most 40 percent of the offices ever saw a human being in them. And the pandemic has only made the utilization lower.

So, we have given up three floors of space in our offices in downtown Los Angeles. We’ve given up a floor of space in San Francisco. We’re going to be looking closely at space utilization and needs as leases come up. You know, there are people who want to be in the office. So, we also have to think about them and how we create a vibrant and attractive office environment for people who want to come in.

Part of that is having a certain amount of density. It doesn’t help if you have six or seven floors of space with a handful of people on each floor and they still feel like they’re pretty much alone. So, we want to create an in-office experience, which will be attractive to those people who want to have that.

You know, it very much depends on locality. Our New Yorkers say they like getting back to the office and that more people are coming back. There are some offices where we’ve taken on new space. Chicago, we’ve taken on new space. As you say, in London, we took on an additional space. So, it seems to be like a local, cultural issue.

[00:07:03] Teece: Well, that’s interesting. It actually aligns a little bit with our own experience at Berkeley Research Group. We’re not homogeneous. And some people like to come in the office, some don’t. Here in Northern California, much to my surprise, it’s the young folks who want to come in and they want the more senior people to come in, because they realize that there’s learning and mentoring that takes place.

Many of us are crafting ways that allow for choice, both geographically, within different practice groups, and so forth. So that’s really quite hard to do. And it seems like you’re doing it successfully.

While we’re talking about learning and training, how are you managing with the associates and their needs and requirements for training and ensuring that there’s opportunities for young lawyers? Have you got structured programs for advancing people or is it, once again, an office-by-office endeavor?

[00:08:26] Quinn: That, of course, is the biggest challenge to remote working. We all learned by sitting in offices next to other people, maybe sharing offices in my case with a more senior associate at Cravath many, many years ago, hearing that person talk on the phone. “That’s how a lawyer talks. That’s what it must be to be what I am—an associate in a big law firm.” And the water cooler conversations and the drop-ins.

How do you replicate that? I’m not sure that you fully can, but what we can do is create a network of mentorships, check-in calls, and in our case we’ve developed something we call the Quinn Emanuel Academy, where basically we have scores of programs which we’re rolling out. Educational programs, seminars—they are entirely voluntary—that people can dial into on different subjects.

So, we’re very conscious that we need to have offerings like this. It serves two purposes: one, help people to stay connected; and also, the mentoring, the substantive education aspect of it. But clearly this is a challenge.

[00:09:30] Teece: Oh, that’s great. You’ve actually got some structure around it. Perhaps you’ve given us an idea at Berkeley Research Group to start our own academy. We have elements of that, but I think it would be good to formalize it, so people know that this is a way to learn, and that we’re all investing in it together.
Now, in recent years, you’ve grown a fair amount in Europe, John, as well as migrated southward in the United States, and east. What drives your geographic expansion? Particularly the international side, inasmuch as international is often a “sticky wicket,” as the British would say. How have you navigated it, and what learnings have you got to share with respect to global expansion?

[00:10:12] Quinn: Well, the expansion has always very much been opportunistic. We never had a grand plan. It’s very much been driven by the opportunities that we thought we saw, like our largest office outside the US is in London. And we decided over twenty years ago that there was an opportunity, an unmet need to represent parties, counterparties who had claims to bring against the world’s largest money center banks. We decided we wouldn’t represent any of those banks, so we wouldn’t be conflicted. And that turned out to be a really good calling card. I mean, there was an unmet need.

We were doing that in New York and then, about the third time somebody said to us, “You know, you really should be in London, because it’s even harder to find counsel to go up against Royal Bank of Scotland, or HSBC, or Lloyds. You really should look at that.” And so, we did, and that was the beginning. I think that was our first international office, and it’s about a hundred lawyers now. So that was driven by an opportunity we thought we saw. There’s a different story behind each of them.

Now, you know, the second most important intellectual property jurisdiction in the world is Germany. A lot of people don’t know that. And it came to our attention that there was an outstanding lawyer in Germany who had an enormous reputation. He was a young guy by the name of Dr. Marcus Grosch. And we met Marcus and felt like it was a great match. And so, he joined us, and we opened an office in Germany.

So, we had a thriving patent litigation practice in the US. Any major technology dispute, you’re going to have a case in the United States District Court somewhere. Often in Texas or the Northern District of California—or these days, Delaware. And you’ll probably have a parallel case somewhere in Germany. And maybe in the ITC too, since most things are imported. So, there was an opportunity there to tack on to an existing practice the ability to offer one-stop representation under one roof in the most important litigation forums.

In Paris, it was a story about the growth of our international arbitration practice. We started to grow that in London. It seemed to be a natural thing for us to be doing in London. Solicitors, of course, don’t do what American trial lawyers do. But the closest thing seemed to be international arbitration. So we thought, well, we should look into doing that. And we recruited some international arbitration practitioners in London, and then Philippe Pinsolle—who was then with Shearman & Sterling in Paris—heard what we were doing in London and contacted us: “Would you ever think of opening a Paris office?” So that was an opportunity to grow our international arbitration practice. With each one of these, there’s a different story behind it.

[00:12:48] Teece: You’ve got a lot of agility. I’ve always been impressed by how quick you can respond to new situations. Tell us a little bit about how your partnership works. And I’m inferring that the partnership cedes a fair amount of discretion and authority to yourself and other leaders, and that enables you to respond quickly and move forward. Is there any comment you’d like to make about how your governance works compared to other law firms?

[00:13:15] Quinn: I do think we’re relatively nimble. We haven’t historically had a lot of committees. We check with people and try to act quickly to seize on opportunities as they present themselves. We have changed the leadership at the top a little bit recently. I was the only managing partner in the past. I’m now managing partner and chairman, and there are two other managing partners, Mike Carlinsky and Bill Burck. But I don’t think it slowed down our flexibility and our ability to react to opportunities as they present themselves.

It’s true. Many other firms have a number of committees and a lot of hoops that people have to go through before they make a decision about, should we open an office? Should we bring in this lateral partner? We haven’t had so much of that. We do try to run our traps, try to make sure people are on board for a change or an extension of our practice, but there’s not a lot of formality at our firm in that respect.

[00:13:35] Teece: And if there’s a successful venturing out, or possibly an unsuccessful one, does it fall equally on the entire partnership, or are there ways in which risk gets mitigated by various groups, so that you have a broader operating freedom, if you will?

[00:14:23] Quinn: No, we’re one firm. We are one firm with thirty offices. It all is one pot. Risk is not allocated differently to any pod or group of partners.

[00:14:06] Teece: Now back to a bit more about employment, particularly the young ones wanting more than good compensation. Are you adjusting your bonus program to recognize that, or is it pretty much business as usual inside the existing structures that you have in place?

[00:14:51] Quinn: Well, of course, we’re always looking at it. The goal is to try to recognize the many different ways that partners can contribute to the success of the law firm. In terms of associate compensation, that’s very much market driven. We try to stay on the top of the market. We think we are. We think our associates deserve that, and we need to offer top of the market to get the kind of stellar talent that we want to have at our firm.

We’re always looking at compensation, refining it, trying to do a better job. There’s no one system that’s perfect. There is no formula. There’s nothing in the Old Testament, or the Talmud, or in the constellations that you can look to say, this is the right answer. This is what this person should be compensated. It’s a discussion. It’s an effort to try to get numbers that will generally be perceived as fair. And that’s an ongoing project.

[00:15:45] Teece: So, John, I remember when you got started, I think it was in 1986, and I was working with the late Bill Urquhart and Dale Oliver, and some others there. And you’ve clearly come a long way from a single-office firm.

When you look back, what are the key pivot points, if any? Or has it been a gradual, steady evolution along the same trajectory? Have there been surprises? Have there been critical decision points? Is there anything that’s salient over the last two or three decades that you would identify?

[00:16:20] Quinn: I think it’s been a pretty consistent progress. Once we decided not to be a single-office firm, we opened up in Northern California. And then, one pivotal point was deciding to open an office in New York. Both Bill and I started our careers in New York. We knew a lot of people there, and it just dawned on us one day, “Maybe we should have an office in New York.” And, of course, that’s been fabulously successful. It’s our largest office—has been for some number of years—and it’s the biggest legal market in the world. Certainly, I would say that opening New York was very important.

And then, taking the leap to open in London, and being open to the different opportunities as they presented themselves. And then in Asia, it’s gained momentum. As we developed a reputation and were known as a very high-end, successful litigation firm, opportunities came our way. People started to come to us.

It was key that we were always willing to entertain those kinds of opportunities. We had no preconception about how big we ought to be or where we ought to be, just that everything should contribute to our goal of being successful and getting great results for our clients.

And then I would say, Bill Urquhart. He joined us when we were maybe fifteen lawyers, I think, a couple of years after we started, was clearly a pivotal event, because Bill was so talented and inspirational, and did so much to inspire people and help us recruit people. It’s really hard to imagine our firm without Bill.

[00:17:54] Teece: Yes, indeed. And my final question, I suppose, is [that] the pandemic was a pivot point: Is it too soon to tell, or was it just another small step in the evolutionary growth of the firm?

[00:18:13] Quinn: Well, I think it was a pivot point for everyone. It was a pivot point for the civil justice system. I think people who do what we do—litigators, judges, courts—learned some things about what can be done remotely that, once learned, cannot be unlearned.

The day when, in Los Angeles, for example, you’d have a law in motion day, Monday morning, you’d have a calendar of fifty matters, and fifty lawyers sit in the courtroom waiting for their number to be called, and they’re there up at the podium for fifteen minutes or less? I think those days are kind of behind us.

The day when it was assumed that if a deposition’s going to be taken, everybody’s going to have to get on an airplane or a taxi and travel and sit across a table––that that’s the only way to do things? That’s no longer true. We’ve learned that you can take depositions and defend depositions very, very effectively not in person.

So, I don’t think it’s any different for us in terms of an inflection point. For the system and for the profession, I think it’s been a profound inflection point.

[00:19:26] Teece: Well, thank you. It’s a great and significant note to end on, and we look forward to talking again sometime in the future. Thank you again.

[00:19:34] Quinn: Look forward to it, David. Thank you.

[00:19:35] Teece: Take care. Bye-bye.

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, position, or policy of Berkeley Research Group or its other employees and affiliates.

BRG Experts

Related Professionals

David J. Teece

Executive Chairman

San Francisco Bay Area