The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
William K. Pao, Partner—Litigation
William K. Pao is a seasoned commercial litigator whose diverse practice focuses on three main areas: securities litigation, financial services litigation, and complex commercial litigation involving Chinese companies. Will works with companies across a wide spectrum of industries, including banking, technology, automotive, agriculture, education, fashion, and apparel. As a secondee to one of the nation’s largest banks, Will managed a large portfolio of high-exposure, high-stakes consumer banking litigation. He also possesses domain expertise in securities litigation and regularly writes and speaks on securities issues. In addition, Will has substantial experience advising and representing Chinese companies and US companies that operate in China. He speaks Mandarin, and has spent considerable time in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Please provide an overview of what, substantively, your practice area entails.
My practice focuses on securities litigation, financial services litigation, and complex commercial litigation. I also leverage my experience and fluency in Mandarin to advise clients on China-related litigation. All of these cases tend to be large and complex, and as an advisor and advocate, I help my clients navigate these extremely high-stakes cases in state and federal courts at all stages, which can encompass pre-litigation counseling, trial, and appeal.
What types of clients do you represent?
A significant portion of my clients are in the financial services industry, including banks and mortgage servicers. But practicing both in securities litigation and complex commercial litigation gives me the chance to represent clients of many different stripes. The industries have been as diverse as technology, automotive, agriculture, education, and apparel. That’s both challenging and exciting because there’s a learning curve for each industry. One of the most important parts of our job is to cultivate in-depth industry knowledge and really understand a client’s business model, competitive landscape, customers, and strategic goals.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
At a given time, my active matters might include a mix of defending companies and their senior management and directors in securities stock-drop cases and M&A litigation, defending financial institutions in consumer-banking related putative class actions, or defending clients in other complex commercial litigation, including cases involving breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duties, or fraud.
How did you decide to practice in your area?
I was a general commercial litigator in my first few years and worked on a broad range of matters—from wage-and-hour and product liability class actions to copyright suits and white-collar investigations—and loved all of it. As I progressed in my career, my mentors advised that I should develop a specialty, and so I decided to focus. At the time, I had just started working on securities cases and found them interesting. One securities case soon led to another, and I got hooked. Then, a couple of years later, I was offered a secondment opportunity at Bank of America. I hadn’t thought about a secondment, but I decided it would broaden my horizons and jumped at the opportunity. Not only did I learn a lot about the role of in-house counsel while I was there, but I also developed an expertise in consumer finance litigation.
What is a typical day or week like in your practice area?
Lots of emails and phone calls in the morning, followed by whatever surprise the day has in store! Being on the West Coast, I always feel like I am a few hours behind and need to catch up on emails and calls as soon as I get into the office. Sometime during the day, there will likely be a surprise or two, whether it is an unexpected filing or a fire that needs putting out. And then there are the tasks that I had intended to do that day, e.g., review and revise a brief, prepare for a hearing, brainstorm with my colleagues on strategy, or catch up on developments in the case law. Before I know it, the day has flown by, and if it’s a good day—and most days are—I feel like I have accomplished a lot.
What is the best thing about your practice area?
Securities cases are usually very procedurally complex and writing intensive, which I really like. I was always a civil procedure nerd, and given the heightened pleading standards and other safeguards that Congress and the courts have erected to curb abusive strike suits, securities cases usually present numerous procedural issues right from the get go. Also, motion practice is much more intensive in securities litigation than in other practice areas, and, thus, good writing is critical. At O’Melveny, I have been very fortunate to train under some very good writers, and we are very lucky to have a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who helps us polish our briefs. And developing a deep understanding of consumer finance has been rewarding personally as well as professionally. For example, I felt well prepared when we bought a house!
What is the most challenging aspect of your practice area?
I have always believed that to win in litigation, you need to show that your position is not only right but also fair and just. In securities cases—where issues are oftentimes dense and esoteric—that requires getting to the crux of the issues and framing them in a way that is clear and understandable to everyone, even the average person who knows nothing about securities laws. And there is no way to do that without really knowing the facts and the law. But that is also what I like about securities litigation. You can’t fake it; the complexities of the issues force you to really dig in. But once you do, the issues are usually so interesting that if you enjoy legal analysis, you will be rewarded.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
Beyond always honing your core litigation skills like writing, and staying on top of developments in the law, I’ve discovered that one of the most effective ways to grow as a lawyer is simply to embrace whatever comes your way. One of the best pieces of advice that I received as a young lawyer is “never say no.” At the time, I was amazed by how much one of my mentors had accomplished in her career, and I asked her for the secret to her success. She told me that she just said “yes” to every opportunity that came her way, and that she always made it work. I have tried my best to live by that advice, and there have certainly been times where I have felt overcommitted or something didn’t pan out. But there have also been times where an opportunity opened a door to something completely unexpected, and I gained a lot from that experience.
What misconceptions exist about your practice area? What do you wish you had known before joining your practice area?
In my experience, most junior attorneys’ first impression of securities litigation is that it is very niche and math or numbers heavy, which, of course, is what many of us wanted to avoid when we signed up for law school! But while securities litigation involves reviewing financials, it doesn’t require math, or, at least, there are experts that help us with that. What it does require, however, is a basic understanding of how companies and, in particular, public companies work. If you are fascinated by what makes a Fortune 500 company run, for example, and you want to be a litigator, securities litigation could be for you!
What is unique about your practice area at your firm, and how has it evolved since you have been at the firm?
When I describe O’Melveny, I tell people that it is like U.C. Berkeley, where I went to law school. Both are full of smart people from diverse backgrounds and every walk of life, whose common denominator is their dedication to their work and each other. And that is particularly true of the securities litigation group. I am constantly amazed by my colleagues, both junior and senior. Over time, both securities litigation in general and the practice areas covered by our group have evolved, but because of the camaraderie that we share, we continue to work seamlessly together to tackle the most of difficult of issues.
What activities do you enjoy when you are not in the office, and how do you make time for them?
Foremost, I enjoy spending time with my wonderful wife. She is also a lawyer, but we rarely talk about the law—in part because her practice is international tax, which I know nothing about! We love to travel, try new cuisines and restaurants, and take classes from Pilates to improv to art. I also love long distance running, which I find therapeutic, and I try to run half-marathons and marathons from time to time. As for how I make time, I’ve discovered that the problem is not that I don’t have free time but that I don’t always know when I will have it. And so the key for me has been to learn how to enjoy the down time whenever it comes along.