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Lawyer Limelight: Aelish Baig

Her parents were artists and teachers, yet there was no escaping the law for Aelish Baig.

Her grandfather, former New York Supreme Court Judge William Lawless, was not only a legendary lawyer, he served as dean of the University of Notre Dame Law School and helped Nixon-era Attorney General John Mitchell’s wife prepare for her deposition during the Watergate inquiry of the 1970s.

Of his 12 children, four became attorneys themselves and some married lawyers. Grandchildren also succumbed.

“Conversations at the big family dinners were always about what was happening in the world: law, politics, elections, whatever was pressing in the news at the time,” recalls Baig, a partner in the San Francisco office of Robbins Geller, where she specializes in federal securities law and consumer class action cases.

“There was vigorous debate at those dinners – everyone held an opinion, and voiced it (often at the same time) – and that has been passed down through the generations,” Baig says. “He used to hold court at the dinner table and present views and ask people to offer opinions and make arguments. I first learned about law at those family dinners, through him and later through his daughters who became lawyers.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree at Brown University and a J.D. at American University, Baig found her first job at the firm established by her aunts, Therese and Barbara Lawless, in San Francisco.

“It was a transformative experience, because when you work for a small plaintiffs’ firm like that, you gain experience fast,” says Baig. “There isn’t a large team to do the work, so you’re it. If there’s a summary judgment that comes in, if there’s a motion to dismiss that needs to be opposed, you’re it. If there’s an important hearing and you’ve written the brief, you know it the best, you argue it. And you take it to trial too.”

After several years at Lawless & Lawless, Baig moved to Robbins Geller, where she won a $67M settlement from Wells Fargo over claims of robosigning foreclosure papers and was part of the team that prosecuted stock-option backdating claims.

She is a critical part of the Robbins Geller team leading the mammoth case against opioid manufacturers on behalf of the firm’s city, county and state government clients around the country, In re National Prescription Opiate Litigation.

Lawdragon: It sounds like your family was a legal community in its own right. Was your first trial at Lawless & Lawless?

Aelish Baig: Yes, my family was and still is a growing legal community. My first trial was a race discrimination case against a major multinational company. It was a true David versus Goliath case where I went in this wide-eyed, true-believing young lawyer and came out successful and seasoned but also bruised and having experienced unique challenges all around, not only from the defense, which was about as scorched earth as I have seen to this day, but also from our own clients who were struggling with the trauma of re-living the discrimination and abuse they had suffered.

LD: Once you get through the first trial or two and you’re still standing on your feet, then you’re becoming a trial lawyer, right?

AB: That’s right. My aunts’ firm tried a lot of cases, so we had plenty. And I was hired at my current firm because of that trial experience, to work on the early termination fees cases that were headed to trial at the time.

LD: Let’s go back a little further. Tell me more about your childhood, how and where you grew up.

AB: I grew up all over, really. I was born in Cleveland. I lived with my mother and step-dad and we moved to Ireland for about a year and a half or so, then to Los Angeles, and then to Cape Cod, Mass., for high school. It was a lot of moves; my parents were young at the time, and still finding their paths. We moved to Ireland when my step-dad was in school, and then he was offered a job in LA, and off we went. When we lived in LA, he was working for the Motion Picture Association of America. His job was to rate movies: G, PG, R, X. When he returned to teaching, we moved from Los Angeles to Cape Cod – quite a move for a teenager. But I think, in retrospect, all the moving around has made me better able to relate to and identify with all kinds of people, which serves me well now. Law, of course, was familiar to me, even though it was more in my extended family than in my immediate family.

LD: Did you like practicing with your aunts? And how did you wind up at Robbins Geller?

AB: Of course. I love my aunts, and I have enormous respect and admiration for their practice, which is employment law. I was there four or five years, and they taught me a great deal about all aspects of litigation from client intake to trial and everything in between.

Then when I came to Robbins Geller, I had an opportunity to work on class cases which by their nature have a broad reach in terms of impact, and I was drawn to that. Whatever is happening in the country, the most cutting edge issues facing the nation, that is what we are working on, and that is endlessly fascinating. Our work crosses so many industries, tech, banks, insurance, pharma – the full gamut. And with each new case we go from knowing very little to almost everything about that company and its business. In 2006 and 2007 we were doing the backdating cases, and then the financial crisis hit and we transitioned to mortgage foreclosure cases and then insurance fraud. We draw upon our past litigation experience, of course, but the work is always changing, evolving, just like the law. It keeps you engaged in issues of great import, and I love that about it.

LD: Are there cases you’ve handled at Robbins Geller that are particularly meaningful, perhaps because of what you learned or the result you obtained?

AB: The opioid litigation. The harm caused by the alleged bad acts is the most egregious I’ve seen in more than two decades of practice. I knew nothing about it at first, but was asked by a state in the Rust Belt to look into Big Pharma’s role in fueling the epidemic about four years ago. So I did. I began by reading “Dreamland” by Sam Quinones, and “Drug Dealer, MD” by Anna Lembke, and then started to investigate.

With every stone unturned, it became increasingly clear that a complaint had to be written. The fraud was so pervasive and caused such destruction, the breadth of the harm, unimaginable. So we wrote the first complaint, and then we wrote about 40 more for government clients across the country, all suffering as a result of the alleged false marketing and failure to report suspicious orders by defendants. Virtually every person I encounter, even now, if I tell them what I’m working on, they’ll tell me about a person they’ve lost or about someone they know who’s struggling with addiction. I’ve heard countless stories. There isn’t anyone who’s not touched by this, if not by one, then two or three degrees of separation. To me, that alone makes it a worthwhile endeavor.

Interestingly, this case has brought me back to my birthplace, Cleveland, as that is where the case is venued. Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is, was among the first bellwethers in the opioid litigation, a county devastated by the epidemic, and I still have deep family roots there who have experienced the impacts of the opioid epidemic first hand. I hope to be part of the solution to the opioid crisis, in Cleveland, in San Francisco, and nationwide.

It is such a massive and complex case; and while the evidence is overwhelmingly in our favor, there are many challenges to resolution, hopefully surmountable sooner rather than later, as people continue to overdose every day.

LD: It’s like Big Tobacco at a certain point. You get to a tipping where it’s like, “What were we even thinking?” How did opioids come to be in every household and everybody thought that was OK?

AB: Once you begin to grasp how Big Pharma has infiltrated all aspects of medical education, then you can see exactly how that happens. It has become a systemic problem: the people who are making decisions about what medicines ought to be prescribed receive much of their information from pharma sales reps, or from industry physicians or associations funded by pharma to disseminate messaging. And who creates the messaging? The marketing department of the pharmaceutical company whose compensation is directly tied to maximizing sales. And those pharma employees charged with reporting suspicious orders to the DEA, their compensation is also tied to maximizing sales. All of this is deeply problematic.

Once you realize that, you don’t walk into a doctor’s office the same way again. There has to be some self-advocacy and access to information from independent sources, information that is not coming from someone trying to sell you something. And that’s hard to do. Pharma is controlling medical associations, for example, where you see what presents as an advocacy group for people in pain, but actually operates to promote drugs for Big Pharma. So is their information unbiased? Not really. Not even close.

This blurring of the lines between science and medical marketing, between physicians and sales reps, results in the spread of false information about drugs to the public. And that’s how you wind up with the masses believing that opioids are safe and effective for everyday use … for all kinds of pain … that they’re mostly non-addictive. That messaging was masterfully designed and disseminated by the marketing departments of Big Pharma – to great success, they made billions – and yet, nothing could be further from the truth. This creates incredible problems in our health care system, and that is, frankly, tragic.

LD: That’s where firms like yours make an enormous difference in our country and in our legal system, because you have to have the wherewithal to tackle those issues. You have to have the endurance. You have to know the skills of continuing to climb the mountain.

AB: It’s true. You need immense resources to fund this sort of litigation against some of the wealthiest corporations in the country, and you also need a deep bench of lawyers and staff with which to prosecute it. Fortunately, Robbins Geller has both. We have invested millions into this litigation already and will see it through to the end – no matter how long that takes.

Even with Covid-19. One of our opioid clients, San Francisco, was recently remanded for trial here in SF, and we are moving forward full steam, despite the fact that the city is grappling with coronavirus issues, and despite the shelter-in-place orders. We are all working from home and preparing responses to a full round of dispositive motions which will be filed next week. This litigation doesn’t stop – even in a global pandemic.

LD: Can you tell us a bit about your work with Legal Aid at Work, which is a great nonprofit. I’m sure that’s keeping you busy with the layoffs and furloughs that occurred when the economy was more or less shut down to address the coronavirus.

AB: I feel honored to be on the board of Legal Aid at Work. I have enormous respect for the work it does. Their mission is to help low-wage workers, a group among those hardest hit by Covid-19, so there’s perhaps more need now than ever before with the devastation to our economy in recent weeks. The vast majority of the people we serve live paycheck-to-paycheck and are without any support network. So for anyone that’s sitting around right now feeling like, “OK, what can I do to help?” a donation to Legal Aid at Work would be a great starting point.

LD: You definitely have a passion for making a difference. Were there people who inspired you in that regard, or in other ways? Who were your mentors?

AB: In terms of making a difference, first and foremost was my mother; I derive much of my strength from her. And she’s not a lawyer, she was a teacher. She is an artist. But even now, she knows the ins and outs of the opioid litigation. She reads all the articles and sends me those she thinks I may have missed. She provides endless encouragement and, even during quarantine times, she’s reminding me and my brother, “Hey, if quarantine is getting you down, go do something for somebody else.”

I draw enormous support as well from my loving husband and children who are 11 and 16. My husband is as solid as they come. We’ve been together for more than 25 years. Litigating at this level with children, and both parents working, is uniquely challenging, but he is a rock, and holds everything together when litigation takes over.

And then, of course, there’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg – her unrivaled intellect, and wit, and steadfastness. A true inspiration.