The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Claire DeLelle, Partner—Commercial Litigation
Claire DeLelle is a partner in White & Case’s Commercial Litigation practice, based in Washington, DC. She has litigated cases in federal and state courts, at the trial and appellate levels, for 20 years. Her team recently achieved an 8-1 victory for a foreign sovereign client at the U.S. Supreme Court. She has an active international disputes litigation practice that focuses on complex cross-border issues. Her cases routinely concern U.S. foreign policy and international comity matters. She specializes in representing foreign and foreign-sovereign clients, particularly clients based in the Middle East and Africa, as well as international financial institutions in complex commercial litigations brought under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act. She also advises clients on U.S. economic sanctions issues and leads global investigations under U.S. sanctions and export controls laws and regulations.
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
My practice involves representing foreign entities in U.S. litigation. While I occasionally appear on the plaintiff’s side, my practice has largely focused on representing named defendants. My practice typically involves moving to dismiss complaints against my client and continuing to represent them at trial, when necessary, and through any appeals process. (At White & Case, our attorneys see their cases all the way from the trial court through to final appeal.)
What types of clients do you represent?
Although my litigation practice involves a diverse group of clients, I have a strong focus on representing the interests of foreign sovereigns and their state-owned entities in U.S. litigation. These cases often involve analysis of foreign laws and legal systems and can also implicate questions of foreign sovereign immunity and sensitive issues that touch on U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. The majority of my non-sovereign clients are multinationals and include technology companies, mining companies, and financial institutions
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
As a generalist with some particular areas of specialization, I have defended clients on a vast array of subjects, including alleged expropriation of artifacts, bank fraud, reinsurance scams, material support of terrorism, securities fraud, and violations of the antitrust laws, to name a few. Currently, my docket comprises, among other matters, representation of foreign sovereigns in various federal trial and appellate courts, including in the U.S. Supreme Court, a federal antitrust case brought under the Sherman Act (Sections 1 and 2), an Anti-Terrorism Act litigation, and even a global economic sanctions and export controls investigation.
How did you choose this practice area?
I worked as a law clerk at a mid-sized litigation firm in DC while I was completing my LL.M., and I recall being inspired by the creativity and drive to win that one of the partners I worked with brought to his cases. In one case, he was defending a civil RICO action, and the law on a particularly critical issue appeared unfavorable to his client. He enlisted my help to deep dive that issue, and my work helped ensure that the brief carried the day for our client. It was very gratifying to see the adversarial system play out and know that I had contributed to a win for the client. I always knew I wanted to be a legal advocate, but the experience I had with this partner solidified my determination to build a similar career for myself. I am happy to say that I am surrounded by colleagues at White & Case who are incredibly creative and driven to win.
What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
I rarely have typical days! I start my week thinking that it will follow a particular path, and, invariably, new issues emerge that take the week down a very different road. This keeps things interesting, to say the least. Common tasks include analyzing case law, drafting and editing briefs, drafting advice in response to client questions, and getting on conference calls to discuss that advice; checking in with my teams on case-management issues, preparing for and taking depositions, and preparing for and arguing hearings; participating in conferences with courts and opposing counsel and witness interviews; and responding to new business opportunities.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
I encourage aspiring litigators to find any opportunity to hone their public-speaking skills. Moot court, legal clinic, and trial advocacy classes are obvious choices to do this, but there are so many other ways to improve public-speaking skills. For example, offer to introduce a speaker at your school, give a presentation, or present your views at a book club. In addition to the numerous litigation training opportunities we offer at White & Case, we hold a monthly litigation luncheon for our U.S. offices where our junior associates are encouraged to present on a variety of topics of interest. Similar opportunities are undoubtedly available to anyone aspiring to become a litigator. I also would encourage students to take an international law or transnational litigation course, if available, as well as evidence. Aspiring litigators should also consider pursuing a judicial clerkship or internship with a prosecutor’s or public defender’s office.
What is the most challenging aspect of practicing in this area?
Litigation does not necessarily come with a predictable schedule. Clients can appear with emergent litigation problems without any notice, requiring that our teams spring into action quickly. This can require some flexibility. It also requires that our team members work collaboratively and effectively together under time constraints. I am lucky to work with amazing colleagues who are not only collaborative and extremely effective, but a pleasure to work with under any circumstances.
What do you like best about your practice area?
I enjoy the numerous opportunities we have at White & Case to work on novel legal issues and, in many instances, to play a key role in creating new precedent regarding those issues. An excellent example of this aspect of my practice is the cutting-edge work we have done for the Republic of the Sudan. Foreign sovereigns are presumptively immune from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts unless a statutory exception to immunity applies. Sudan was sued by victims of terrorist attacks and their families who alleged that a number of U.S. courts had jurisdiction over Sudan under the “terrorism” exception to immunity. The plaintiffs alleged that Sudan had provided material support to the terrorists who carried out those attacks because those terrorists had lived in Sudan years before the attack and had allegedly received support there. Sudan did not defend these cases, which meant that the plaintiffs were able to obtain sizeable default judgments. We were engaged not only to defend new cases that were being filed against Sudan, but to vacate the default judgments and convey our client’s desire to defend on the merits as necessary. We won decisive victories for our client in the new cases, successfully vacating billions of dollars of punitive damages in other cases and vacating multimillion-dollar default judgments through a U.S. Supreme Court decision, giving our client the opportunity to defend itself. In many of these cases, we advanced novel legal arguments that U.S. courts had never addressed before because foreign sovereigns subject to this immunity exception do not typically appear and litigate these types of cases.
What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area?
I am often asked this question by aspiring summer associates, and I tell each of them that the tasks a junior lawyer can perform in my practice area can vary depending on their capabilities and the lawyer’s desire to be involved. Junior lawyers in my area can perform any number of tasks, including drafting research memoranda to highlight strengths and weaknesses of claims, identifying legal arguments to dismiss complaints, drafting sections of court pleadings, and second-chairing depositions. Junior lawyers on my team contribute substantively in the team’s preparation for meetings with U.S. government officials and for oral arguments in court, including before the U.S. Supreme Court. While a junior lawyer’s tasks do not typically follow a “one-size-fits-all” approach, we do maintain benchmarks that junior lawyers should strive to meet, and our senior lawyers are committed to providing junior lawyers with the opportunities and training necessary to meet, and hopefully exceed, those benchmarks.
What do you feel are the benefits of taking a generalist approach in litigation versus pursuing a more specialized practice?
One of the key benefits I have experienced as a general commercial litigator is the sheer diversity of subject matter to which I am exposed. I thrive on immersing myself in new subject matter within the context of a U.S. litigation or counseling our clients to avoid or prepare them for possible litigation. The opportunity to constantly learn new subject matter keeps the practice fresh and engaging. Of course, as invariably happens, you do form particular areas of focus, but it is exciting to complement those areas with new subject matter.