Photo by Gregg Delman.
In his early days, Chris Seeger never expected to even go to college, never mind end up playing a star role in several of the nation’s most visible and complex litigations. The Seeger Weiss co-founder worked as a carpenter, like his father, and was already 23-years-old before starting college. Though he started on the corporate side of the fence after graduating from Cardozo Law, it wasn’t long before his blue-collar upbringing compelled a switch to the plaintiffs’ side. “When I started representing plaintiffs, I fell in love with the white-knight aspect of it,” Seeger says.
Seeger has come to specialize in leading massive multidistrict litigations, including his negotiation of the global settlement on behalf former NFL players who sued the league over concussion-related injuries. Seeger also has played leadership roles in litigation netting billions in recoveries from pharmaceutical companies and in the $800-million settlement for those damaged by defective Chinese drywall installed after Hurricane Katrina. A former boxer, Seeger likes to start his days training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He won his age and weight class in the 2012 Pan American games.
Lawdragon: How did you end up getting leadership roles in these massive cases?
Chris Seeger: I started Seeger Weiss in 1999 but was out on my own starting in 1993. I was sort of floundering around, getting experience. In 1999, I got involved in two big drug cases, the Propulsid litigation against Johnson & Johnson and the Rezulin litigation against Pfizer. I wasn’t well-known and would try to get into meetings of the plaintiffs’ lawyers but really no one was giving me the time of day – I kept showing up and they kept ignoring me. When the Rezulin litigation came to New York I thought that maybe I’d be on the committee, but I was excluded. And that’s fine – you have to prove yourself and make an impact on the litigation.
But then Dave Buchanan [of Seeger Weiss] and I worked a Rezulin case in state court and got a really big verdict, and then everybody in the plaintiffs’ bar took notice. Instead of crawling under a rock when people ignored us, we really kept at it, put some elbow grease into it and made ourselves noticed more. Then I got invited to the plaintiffs’ steering committee, and the rest is history.
LD: Trying a case is one type of skill, but what does it take to manage this type of litigation – with thousands and thousands of claims and potentially working with something like 100 law firms on the plaintiffs’ side?
CS: You have to be able to compartmentalize. With leadership, a lot of it is personality. When speaking with people you have to appreciate their time and their work, but the other side of it is that it doesn’t matter if an attorney has had a similar role in 10 past litigations – if the person doesn’t deserve to be there, you have to be prepared to make that change. You also have to be looking for new talent and be willing to give people opportunities.
LD: Can you give some insight on how you push the cases toward trial or settlement?
CS: When leading these cases you have to be able to put on your War Department hat and your State Department hat. On the one hand, you have to push these trials, you have to bring the fight constantly to these defendants. They can never feel they can outspend you, or outwork you. But at the same time, you’ve got to be able to become part of the State Department and be reasonable when it comes time to settle. At the time the case is settling, you’re really no longer totally at war. You’ve already gone to war, you’ve won a few battles and lost a few battles but you have to be able to say: “OK, I’ve got a bunch of injured people so I need compensation for them and I need enough of it so everyone is fairly compensated.” Usually on the other side the defense needs global peace, so you kind of start from that point.
Overall, you really have to be able to compartmentalize your life, your thinking, your personality and you need to be able to handle all those different aspects. One of the things that people say is that in the plaintiffs’ bar it seems like the same names keep surfacing and leading cases. I think that’s because these are people who have proven themselves to be very good at it, whereas others have tried it and have not done it successfully. It’s a skill set that not everyone has.
LD: One of your biggest high-profile recent cases is the NFL concussion litigation. What do you take away from that in terms of what the litigation has achieved and will in the future?
CS: Well, that litigation started out to accomplish one thing and we did it. That was to get financial help to retired players who are suffering from injuries related to their concussions – people who could no longer take care of themselves, take care of their families, who had big medical expenses. This settlement does that. We also knew that there are over 20,000 retired players who have been exposed to head hits. Even if they weren’t exhibiting symptoms today of ALS, Parkinson’s or dementia, they could get sick tomorrow, and into the future, so we wanted to get them all tested and into a program where we could track them and see where their heath is, starting today. We accomplished that, and we also got some money for education.
Another benefit is that we have made the game safer. If you’ve noticed since we’ve filed this litigation, the NFL has limited the amount of helmet-to-helmet hitting. If a player suffers a concussion, he is going to be out until he is cleared by a neurologist. We have improved the health of the players, we’ve helped make it safer and at the same time we’ve provided significant compensation and benefits to the retired players who all have been exposed to this. I think I’ve got at this point in my career a nice resume, but this is one of the most satisfying cases I’ve worked on. It’s also, in some respects, one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented.
LD: Can you talk a bit about the concern over the initial scope of the deal, and then some of the changes that were made?
CS: Both sides hired doctors, experts, actuaries, economists to forecast how much we would need to compensate retired players who would come down with serious injuries like ALS, Parkinson’s, dementia and conditions like that. Even though we had that, the court was concerned that, well, what if you got it wrong? What if the numbers are higher? At the urging of the court, we went back and renegotiated and both sides decided the better way to approach this is rather than have a cap – a set amount that we try to fit into the fund – that compensation for compensable injuries would be uncapped. So now it’s an uncapped deal with an unlimited amount of money for any player who develops a compensable injury.
LD: What about the deal is misunderstood?
CS: The part that has been manipulated by professional objectors who are now coming after the deal is the whole controversy involving Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE is a pathological finding in the brain. The only way you can diagnose CTE is upon death because you need a tissue sample, and you don’t go cutting people’s brains open to take tissues out while they’re alive. These objectors are going around saying that the deal does not compensate CTE. But it’s irrelevant, and wrong, because we compensate the serious diseases associated with CTE. If a player developed dementia and he’s a retired player and he doesn’t have a pathology finding of CTE – which we won’t know because he is alive – it won’t matter. All he has to do is develop symptoms of the disease and he gets compensated.
What we’ve done is actually compensate the symptoms and diseases, the things that interfere with peoples’ ability to live their lives and do certain things like maintain a job, feed themselves, bathe themselves. So we’ve handled all of that, and that’s the part that’s been misunderstood. The real injustice here is the attorneys objecting to this settlement are now delaying badly needed benefits for thousands of retired players.
LD: In some of these litigations, such as Vioxx and Chinese Drywall, and you mentioned the Rezulin case earlier, you’ve also won trials before the settlement phase. Obviously a lot is at stake in those cases. How do you prepare for trial? Do you still get nervous?
CS: I do. As an athlete, I boxed up until I was in my mid 20s and even as an adult I train in a sport called Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which I compete in. For that I get very nervous and what I do – what I’ve always done – is over-prepare. I get in fantastic shape and then I’m always extremely nervous, but the minute the bell rings or the whistle blows, I’m ready to go.
I’ve always analogized trials to that aspect of my life because I try to over-prepare. You have to be absolutely prepared for everything because these trials are complicated, and every time you turn a corner, there’s a new obstacle. You’re also up against the absolute best defense lawyers in the country. The best money can buy. So I want to be as prepared or better prepared than they are. If I’m up at midnight and I have a sense that these guys may be getting a little tired, or I start getting a little tired, I keep saying to myself, “I’m going to put a little bit more time in because while he’s sleeping, I’m preparing.” I’m 55 now, and that’s still the way I prepare.
The next part is that, once it starts, once the judge says, “OK, go ahead, give your opening statement,” the nerves go away and it’s just work. And then we just keep working until we’re done.
LD: I was going to ask about the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. How did you get into that?
CS: I have five kids, four boys and one girl. I wanted my boys to wrestle. I didn’t want them to box like I did because, well, I know a lot about concussions now. I wanted them to wrestle, and they were going to a school that didn’t have a wrestling program so I found Jiu Jitsu when looking around for them. I took them to it not thinking that I would do it. But I was there watching the classes and I kind of said, “Hey, you know, I think I can do that. I’d like to give it a try.” And I’m still doing it. I did it at 7:00 this morning. It’s my therapy. The sparring sessions are 100%. You don’t pull anything, you’re actually wrestling and trying to submit your opponent even in the training sessions.
LD: You mentioned that you do go up against the best defense lawyers in these cases. Can you share a few opponents that you’ve come to admire?
CS: I’m going to leave some names off. One that comes to mind just from recent experience in the NFL litigation is Brad Karp from Paul Weiss. I think he is extremely honorable. A fierce competitor, a fierce advocate for his client but when he says something you can rely on it. He’s very good at expressing what he needs out of the deal, which gives me guidance as to what I can deliver. Other fierce competitors – they’ll try to blow your case out of the water, but they are fair, honest and have the highest ethical standards – are Doug Marvin from Williams & Connolly, Ted Mayer from Hughes Hubbard and Nina Gussack of Pepper Hamilton. There are a number I could mention.
The guys at the very top of the game on the defense bar don’t get there by being unethical or dishonest. They need to have credibility. You have to believe the other person is ethical. When that doesn’t exist, if I can’t rely on something a defense lawyer says, we are going to litigate a lot and that’s going to cost their client more money. I want to eliminate transaction costs as much as possible to get maximum value to my clients. Rather then spending billions of dollars from a defendant litigating, I want that defendant to put the money into settling.
LD: What do you look for in lawyers joining your firm?
CS: It’s not a hard and fast rule, but we have a number of people at our firm who started out at big defense firms. I’m a blue-collar guy who didn’t go to Harvard or Yale, so I don’t really care that you come from a white-shoe law firm, but it can be helpful because typically you learn really good practice mechanics at those places.
But overall I’m looking for somebody who’s smart and hungry, and who cares. I tell lawyers that start at my firm, and I tell law students this, and it’s really something I’ve felt my whole career: Your client in any particular case might be just another case to you, but to them that case is everything. You have to remember that when you’re dealing with your clients. It’s not just with our lawyers but also our staff. If I were to ever hear – and in a long time of doing this there have been a few instances – a person not answering the phone or dealing with a client the way I think is appropriate, I’ll let that person go. Clients come first. You have to be smart, you’ve got to be hungry and tenacious, but you’ve got to care.
LD: You mentioned having five kids. With your practice, how do you do that?
CS: My family comes first. I’ll be really honest with you. There were years with my three older kids when I was on the road all the time and I would not be telling you the truth if I didn’t say that I regret that. I regret that I was the kind of guy who needed to be at every meeting and every place and to begin every case. I regret it because I think I would be at the same place I’m at right now if I maybe got home for dinner a little bit more often. So with my two youngest I do my best to travel less. There are days when I have to go to California, and I’ll get up early in the morning, fly out go to my meeting, and fly back that day just so I can wake up the next morning at home. My kids and family come first, and I’ve done a better job as I’ve gotten older, spending even more time with them. I’m lucky, I’m close with all of them and they are close with each other. I’ve been really fortunate in that respect.
I do tell people starting at my firm, and I tell law students, that you can’t lose track of what’s important in life. Your kids, your wife, your husband, that’s number one. The job is great, work hard but make time for them. Just figure out how to do it. Maybe you don’t need to go to every convention or every CLE or every meeting, or use the phone a little but more. There are too many stories about families breaking up and husbands and wives splitting up because of time on the road, whatever the profession. I think we have a lot of control over that
LD: Do you ever fantasize about life after law practice, or have any big plans for that?
CS: No. I’m really one of those lucky people who can’t wait to get up in the morning. I love what I do. You can think of a guy who’s a carpenter or a plumber who has to work out in the cold in the winter time, or do heavy work and break his back. A guy like my father, who did that for his whole life basically up until the time he died. That’s real work. But I have a fun job. Everything is new. I get to think every day, recreate myself, get new ideas and learn new things with every litigation. I can do this job until I’m 100.
And I know that my cases have made a difference. They’ve made a difference in football, they’ve made drugs safer, they’ve made labels more accurate. They’ve successfully redistributed money from big companies that, in my view, care about nothing but profit to people they have hurt and taken advantage of. I have no doubt about that. With that kind of motivation, I’m going to do this for a long time.