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Lawyer Limelight: Paul Geller

Photo of  Paul Geller and his dog Bob by Starla Fortunato.

Paul Geller’s strategy for earning massive recoveries for consumers and investors in complex cases might be boiled down to a simple mantra: always over-prepare. It’s a philosophy the founding partner of Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd has employed throughout his life, from his outstanding career in the law to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitions. The Boca Raton-based litigator started out on the defense side in the courtroom after graduating from Emory University School of Law. The perennial Lawdragon 500 member has since excelled on the plaintiffs’ side, earning billions across a regular stream of high-profile cases – including the $15B-plus settlement with Volkswagen over its attempts to dodge emissions standards.

Lawdragon: As someone who started on the defense side, what drew you to the plaintiffs’ side? Was there a particular case or experience that triggered the switch, or was it more of a slow accumulation?

Paul Geller: As a second-year law student, I fell prey to a phenomenon that exists at law schools across the country: The top students, those with the book awards and on the Law Review, tend to interview with and join large defense firms. Part of it may be due to a shortsighted attraction to the structured summer programs and impressive starting salaries of the large firms, and part of it may be that the top plaintiffs’ firms seem to hire more laterals than brand new lawyers.

In any event, I started at a defense firm called Steel Hector & Davis that at the time was regarded by many, including my law school’s career services adviser, as the top litigation firm in Florida. I was assigned to work under some fantastic lawyers, including some who are now federal judges, and I learned a great deal. But we were representing large corporations in cases brought by groups of individuals, including defending drug companies against claims by hemophiliacs, many of them children, who were given HIV-tainted blood treatments. I felt early on that I was on the wrong side. I wanted to help the kids, not the company. I wanted to fight for David, not Goliath.

LD: Has your undergraduate work in psychology played any role in your success as a lawyer?

PG: Definitely. At bottom, psychology majors have an interest in two things: human behavior and helping people. There are a lot of smart lawyers out there and a lot of hard-working lawyers. There is a smaller sub-set of smart, hard-working lawyers. If you have a smart and hard-working lawyer who also has insights into understanding or even predicting human behavior and an internal drive to help others, that is a recipe for a successful lawyer. My interest in people, my desire to connect with others and to empathize with and understand them – from clients to co-counsel to opposing counsel and even to judges – has absolutely contributed to my success as a lawyer, and more importantly, to my personal fulfillment in doing what I do.

LD: What does it take to succeed in this type of practice, in which you are going against large corporations and bigger law firms in cases that can last several years?

PG: Just today, I had calls with opposing counsel in three different cases, and they were, respectively, senior partners at Sullivan & Cromwell, Skadden, and Boies Schiller. This is our world – we are always challenging the largest corporations, and those corporations have the ability to hire the biggest and best law firms. To succeed in this practice, which in my mind means maximizing financial recoveries for the classes of defrauded investors or injured consumers that we are entrusted to represent, a firm must have the human and financial resources to go toe-to-toe with the top defense firms. And to do that, a firm must have an appetite for risk and must excel at every aspect of complex litigation: the research, the briefing, the strategic vision, the oral advocacy, the desire to try cases to a jury, and the ability to defend or bring appeals.

A telling example is a case we recently concluded after more than 14 years of hard-fought litigation. My firm alone represented the class – not just “sole lead” counsel, but literally “sole counsel.” The defendants, the mortgage servicing arm of HSBC and several of its officers and directors, were represented by a plethora of mega-firms including Cahill Gordon; Skadden; Bancroft; Williams & Connolly; Wachtell Lipton; Milbank Tweed; McDermott Will; and Katten Muchin. My firm spent over 130,000 hours on the case, took more than 85 depositions, won a six-week jury trial, briefed and argued appeals to the Seventh Circuit, and spent over $35 million in actual out-of-pocket expenses. The case started as a run-of-the-mill securities fraud case but our trial team turned it into a record-breaking $1.575 billion recovery. Trust me when I tell you, having been a founding partner of both a relatively small class-action boutique and the largest class-action firm in the world, the reality is that a small firm with limited resources can’t truly compete in this space.

LD: How would you describe your style as a litigator?

PG: I think I do a pretty good job of seeing both the forest and the trees in my cases. By that I mean that I always try to keep a big-picture perspective and develop an overarching strategy for the case. But I also think it’s imperative to understand the details; to appreciate the nuances; to know the documents; to take certain depositions; and to read every word of every transcript carefully. I over-prepare for court. That’s just who I am – I used to over-prepare for exams in school, I over-prepare for martial arts tournaments, and I over-prepare for every court argument, whether it’s a discovery dispute, a dispositive motion, or a trial. I am a very competitive person by nature and I really do want to win, both for my clients and for my ego, but I will never compromise my ethics or my integrity. I form and maintain very good relationships with my opposing counsel, many of whom have become friends. More than anything else, I want them to know they can trust me. But I also want them to know that when they see my name on a complaint, they should tell their client to buckle up because it’s going to be a rough ride.

LD: What do you think sets the firm apart from other firms that practice in the large securities and consumer litigation areas?

PG: Results. There are a number of firms that practice in this space, but plaintiff class-action law firms are not fungible. One of the frustrations I have is that some clients – even sophisticated institutional investors – and some judges – even well-respected brilliant judges – seem to think that class-action law firms are interchangeable. But they’re not. All of the lists I see that rank firms based on the sizes of recoveries, whether in absolute dollars or as a percentage of recoverable damages, consistently rank Robbins Geller at the top. Not only do we have a very deep bench of talented attorneys, but we have a sort of “chip on our shoulder” culture. We want to litigate against the biggest and best Wall Street firms and we want to beat them. To do so takes great lawyering, tenacity, and the resources to match wealthy corporations and their large defense firms.

We’re also not shy about trying cases. We make it a point to try cases. We have former federal prosecutors who joined our firm after leaving the government specifically because they want to continue trying cases. There was a period last year where we had four trial teams simultaneously ready to go. Prior to jury selection, we settled cases against Pfizer in New York for $400 million, Psychiatric Solutions in Nashville for $65 million, St. Jude in Minneapolis for $50 million, and the fourth went to trial. We won $148 million for the class in the case against Dole in Delaware. That was an exciting time for our firm.

LD: You’ve handled a diverse mix of high-profile cases in recent years. Is there a case that you think will continue to stand out as very memorable years from now, either because of the challenge or the impact it had?

PG: I had the privilege of representing a class of shareholders who bought the stock of a coal extracting company called Massey Energy. The company’s SEC filings always talked glowingly about safety ratings and awards. Well, the stock tumbled after a horrific explosion at a coal mine that took the lives of 29 miners. The company had been lying about its safety ratings, and had sacrificed safety to maximize profits. In fact, we learned that when government inspectors, those who provide safety grades, showed up to inspect the mine, a guard would use a special signal to warn supervisors, who in turn instructed miners to hide accumulated coal dust and quickly throw up missing roof supports. Although we recovered nearly $300 million for shareholders, that case still leaves me with a pit in my stomach. It was about much more than just money. Lives were lost and families were destroyed as a result of corporate greed.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the Volkswagen clean diesel case that I have the privilege of being a large part of. That case is meaningful because of its scope and the brazen nature of the deception. It is also special because it enabled me to work closely with a “who’s who” team of lawyers that I respect and admire, lawyers like David Boies, Elizabeth Cabraser and Chris Seeger, along with the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, and so many others to achieve a nearly $16 billion settlement, the largest consumer class action recovery in U.S. history.

LD: Did you have a mentor who was instrumental in the course of your career?

PG: I’ve been lucky to have worked under many exceptional lawyers, and as a young lawyer, I tried to learn as much as I could from them. Someone that really sticks out as a mentor is Howard K. Coates, who is now a state court judge here in Palm Beach County, Florida. I was Howard’s associate for a number of years and was essentially attached at his hip for a good three or four years, whether in the office, in client meetings, in depositions, in mediations, in trial, and unfortunately even in karaoke bars; Howard loved karaoke. Howard was a particularly gifted writer and was in all aspects a perfectionist.

He was also very demanding of his associates. I think in many ways my leadership style with younger lawyers mirrors Howard’s, and I share his mantra that the goal of brief writing is not only persuasion, but perfection. Howard and I tried cases together both for plaintiffs and for defendants, and I believe it is under Howard that I really matured as a litigator. In fact, it was after winning a very large probate litigation trial in 1996 or 1997 that I told Howard I was leaving to become a plaintiffs’ lawyer. Howard was disappointed and a bit hurt, and he told me I was committing career suicide. Several years later, my old boss, Howard, sent me his resume and subsequently joined my then 30-lawyer firm, Cauley Geller, as a partner. That was a gratifying moment for me.

LD: As you handle a range of cases, do you expect any type of case to be taking up more of your time in the years ahead? Or are there any other practice trends you wish to comment on?

PG: As advances in technology occur at a record pace, data breaches and privacy invasions will lead to more class actions. I was lead counsel in one of the first successful privacy cases over a decade ago, and it had to do with a violation of a federal law protecting private information held by the division of motor vehicles. That law was passed after the actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by a stalker who obtained her home address from the California DMV. Since that time, we’ve been involved in a host of other privacy cases and we are currently litigating a case against Yahoo! involving the largest data breach to date, as well as a cutting-edge case against Facebook regarding its use of facial-recognition technology in its “tag” feature.

LD: As someone who went to school in the South and has practiced there, did you ever consider going to one of the larger coastal cities?

PG: That’s an interesting question. If you haven’t been here, Boca Raton is very much a suburb of New York. It’s certainly not Small Town, USA. A fly on the wall of my office here in South Florida would never confuse my practice with that of a slow-paced country lawyer in a charming southern town. And I’m not knocking that type of practice; in fact it certainly has great appeal. The reality is that my practice is national in scope, and where my office is has very little to do with where my cases are. I also spend quite a bit of time in New York, where we have two offices, and California, where we also have two offices.

LD: What do you do away from the office to relax or blow off steam?

PG: I’m a big proponent of the mental and physical benefits of intense exercise. For the past 15 years I have been very serious about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve trained in Rio de Janeiro and have competed at a pretty high level. Though I still love it and think it is the most effective martial art for self-defense, as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that “self-defense” must also include defending oneself against stress, fatigue, and illness. So in addition to Jiu-Jitsu, I am now studying Taoist meditation, Qigong and Tai Chi for their spiritual, calming and restorative benefits. I also try to spend as much time with my family as possible. If I let it, my job can really take over my life. Being a class-action lawyer is what I do, but not who I am. While I strive to be the best lawyer I can be, I won’t do it at the expense of failing to be the best father and husband I can be.

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