The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Brian Stekloff, Founding Partner
Brian Stekloff is a founding partner of Wilkinson Stekloff. He is a dedicated trial lawyer who has successfully tried numerous civil and criminal cases before both state and federal juries across the country. Brian has represented both plaintiffs and defendants in a variety of practice areas, including products liability, sports, financial services, and health care. His client roster is made up of Fortune 500 companies, including Bayer, Eli Lilly, JP Morgan, the National Football League, and Pfizer. Brian clerked for the Honorable Catherine C. Blake and the Honorable J. Frederick Motz in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. He received his J.D., magna cum laude, from Georgetown University Law Center and graduated, with distinction, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Brian is also a member of the Board of Directors of DC Law Students in Court, an organization devoted to ensuring that low-income residents of the District of Columbia receive the highest quality legal representation and to training law students to be committed to public service.
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
I am a trial lawyer, and that means I am always ready to jump into a case heading to trial at any stage. Our firm is a true trial boutique firm where we specialize in litigating cases at trial, rather than in any single practice area. I believe that great trial lawyers can learn about the facts and law associated with any case in any industry and figure out how to best advocate for their client before a jury. What stands out to me about trials is not necessarily the subject matter, but rather the experience of developing the core themes, identifying the key witnesses to communicate those core themes to the jury through the evidence or expert testimony, and ultimately trying to convince the jury and judge.
What types of clients do you represent?
I represent plaintiffs and defendants in a wide range of subject areas. The common theme among my clients is that they are headed to trial and looking for experienced trial counsel. In the past year alone, I have represented Bayer, the NCAA, and FedEx in cases involving different subject matters, including mass torts/products liability, antitrust, and the alleged illegal shipments of cigarettes into NY.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
Cases that are likely headed to trial. This past year, I served as lead trial counsel on behalf of Bayer in a three-week jury trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas regarding allegations that the manufacturer of the blood thinner Xarelto failed to adequately warn of its risks. At the end of that trial, a 12-member jury returned a complete defense verdict. Because cases in products liability/mass tort actions often go to trial, it is an area where I have a great deal of experience, though it’s not my sole area of focus. The next case on my calendar is another product liability case: I am currently slated to lead the second trial on behalf of Monsanto regarding allegations that Roundup causes cancer in its users.
How did you choose this practice area?
At Georgetown, I participated in the Criminal Justice Clinic, which allowed me to represent defendants charged with misdemeanors in DC Superior Court. That work inspired me to become a public defender, following my clerkships and three years working as an associate at Latham & Watkins in Washington, DC. In 2006, I started serving as an Assistant Federal Public Defender for the Southern District of Florida. Over the next four years, I tried 22 felony jury trials and obtained 7 full acquittals for my clients—an acquittal rate far above the national rate of less than 5 percent in federal criminal trials. Those experiences confirmed that I wanted to try cases for a living, and I’m now lucky to do that for some of the biggest companies in the world.
What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
As lead trial counsel in several cases, my days typically involve making strategic decisions in cases with trial in mind. From day one, we work to develop our core themes and to figure out how best to introduce them before a jury. As trials approach, my focus is on refining the core themes and preparing for the numerous steps of trial, including working on key motions, preparing for opening argument and direct and cross-examination of witnesses, and working with our fact and expert witnesses in advance of their testimony. As a founding partner of our firm, I also have management responsibilities. For the past three years, I have served as the firm’s recruiting partner and have been responsible for the development and oversight of counsel and associates at the firm, including staffing and evaluations. On a daily basis, I help mentor the younger lawyers at Wilkinson Stekloff, who are being trained to be the next generation of elite trial lawyers.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
I recommend that younger attorneys who want to try cases take every opportunity to find stand-up time in court so that they can find their voice, practice their techniques, and make mistakes that they can learn from. I do not believe there’s any single path to take this step. For me, I was able to get on my feet in law school in the Criminal Justice Clinic at Georgetown. I also encourage attorneys to continue to seek out these experiences after law school, whether in the government (e.g., as a public defender or prosecutor) or at their firms. At law firms, taking this step may require working on smaller matters or doing more pro bono work. At the end of the day, it takes practice to become a trial lawyer, so younger attorneys should look for any opportunity to hone their skills.
What is the most challenging aspect of practicing in this area?
The most challenging aspect of trial work is the travel. The diversity of our client base and the types of matters that we take on are such that trials are not likely to take place locally. The preparation for trials and trials themselves can take you away from home for long periods of time. I’d never give up trial practice, but it forces you to take advantage of those times when you are at home by carving out time throughout the year to spend with your family and friends—whether through vacations or otherwise. At Wilkinson Stekloff, we work hard and then aim to play hard by taking significant downtime following trial, but there’s no doubt the travel can be challenging. We’re lucky to have clients who acknowledge this challenge, including because they are also traveling and spending time away from home.
What is unique about this practice area at your firm?
At Wilkinson Stekloff, we bring large teams to our trials and give all of our attorneys substantial responsibility. We meet as a group regularly and do not “silo” any attorney into a specific, isolated aspect of a case or litigation. It’s this team approach and the depth of experience across our firm, from the most senior attorneys to the most junior ones, that’s led to our success in trying cases. In developing our core themes and in preparing opening statements, closing arguments, and witness examinations, I rely heavily on the remarkable skills of my colleagues at Wilkinson Stekloff. Every one of our attorneys brings a fresh perspective to what will help persuade a jury or a judge at trial.
What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area?
We rely heavily on our junior lawyers to help us prepare for every aspect of trial. From day one of starting at our firm, our newest recruits can expect to join a team in the middle of a case headed toward trial. Junior lawyers draft key briefs, prepare witness examination outlines, help prepare key fact and expert witnesses, and work on nearly every aspect of trial from jury instructions to opening statements and closing arguments. At Wilkinson Stekloff, we are devoted to training the next generation of trial lawyers, and I take that responsibility seriously. We don’t view junior lawyers as attorneys who can only conduct research or draft legal memoranda; we want them to understand everything that goes into trying cases the moment they join us.
How is practicing litigation in a boutique different from practicing in a large law firm?
Having worked at three large law firms throughout my career, I can say that working at a boutique has many advantages. First, I know every attorney at the firm and can tell you on any given day what matters he or she is handling. That familiarity and closeness with one another not only creates a nicer working environment, it leads to better results for our clients. Second, as a partnership, we are able to be creative and quick in our decision-making. We have been able to add some remarkable attorneys from around the country to our firm because of that creativity, whether in our ability to overcome geographic constraints or in order to accommodate individuals’ needs for part-time flexibility. And finally, at Wilkinson Stekloff, we do not bill hours (yes, you read that correctly). Nearly all of our matters are billed on flat-fee schedules, which not only benefit our clients in many important ways—including certainty—but also our attorneys, who are not living their lives in six-minute increments. This type of fee structure and lack of billable-hour requirements would not be possible at a large firm.