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Behind the Trial: Diane Sullivan

Photo by Laura Barisonzi.

When Diane Sullivan is considering how best to explain an arcane topic to a jury – a typical challenge when handling pharmaceutical mass torts – she sometimes turns to her lifeline.

A “call-a-friend-or-relative-for-help” kind of lifeline. With a family that includes a mechanic, a former bartender and a school-system employee, Sullivan relies on her close confidants  to provide a variety of perspectives and frank feedback on whether her explanation resonates with jury members.

“One of the challenges for trial lawyers is how to make it simple,” Sullivan, a nationally recognized litigator at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, explained in the seventh episode of “Behind the Trial,” a podcast produced by McKool Smith and Benchmark Litigation. “It’s the fun part of what we do, taking the most complicated stuff and making it simple enough for people off the street, who aren’t engineers, to understand.”

Sullivan has also turned to computerized graphics and, once, animated characters to drive her point home to juries, simple techniques that have helped her win verdicts for companies like Johnson & Johnson on claims that its baby powder caused cancer.

“One of the great things about representing pharmaceutical companies is that they do a lot of great work,” Sullivan said. “They discover medicines that have been life-changing for many people.”

Those products, however, come with risks, even if they are often benign, in everyday items like aspirin and penicillin.

“There’s no medicine that’s without side effects,” she said. “You wouldn’t be human if your heart didn’t ache for people who have suffered severe injuries or problems. But that’s separate from the issue of whether a company failed to warn” users about the risks of its products or didn’t live up to other legal obligations.

Listen to learn about what drives this trial attorney, who was named a Lawdragon Legend in 2017 and described by The American Lawyer as a “hired bazooka.”