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by Vault Law Editors | March 26, 2009

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In case you missed Katie Couric’s riveting (and thorough!) investigative piece, yesterday marked the score-year anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. This would mean that 20 years ago Friday, an Exxon flack reassured a pitchfork-wielding mob seemingly civil assembly of locals that “you have had some good luck, and you don’t realize it” while issuing the worst prognostication since Lord North’s evaluation of that ‘hullabaloo in the colonies’:

Our guy’s wild underestimation of both the appellate system’s powers of prolongation and his employer’s yearning to appease bottom-line shareholders through legal stonewalling, of course, proved a boon to many a law firm. According to this relic from the days of microfiche, the Valdez breach prompted a modern-day reenactment of the Klondike Gold Rush:

Legions of lawyers from at least 120 firms flew into Anchorage in 1989 and raced the oil out of Prince William Sound and down the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island, all the way signing up thousands of clients.

From that swarm of lawyers evolved a confederation of 15 firms, which have invested roughly $20 million in direct expenses and twice as much in unpaid time preparing motions, gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. They represent about 15,000 fishermen and other Alaskans.

Among those firms, Faegre & Benson emerged as the defense’s headliner, with partner Brian O’Neill garnering the spotlight. On the other side, meanwhile, Exxon placed O’Melveny’s John Daum on cleanup duty (oy); Daum got to work whittling down the list of potential claimants, successfully arguing that certain types of residents (some cannery workers, for example) were ineligible to sue.

In any event, the ordeal’s output of billables appears to be dwindling: The Supreme Court, as Ms. Couric astutely noted, settled the keynote argument last summer. (So yes, Exxon Flack’s assurance that the Alaskans wouldn’t have to wait 20 years to resolve their claims proved technically accurate, if you play by the same hyper-literal rules as the cable guy who shows up at 5:59 when your window is “between 10 and 6.”).

Despite the ongoing drainage of the largest sheeny pool of legal work, however, there’s still work to be done on the plaintiffs' side, it would appear.

- posted by ben fuchs

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