Photo by Greg Endries.
Steven Molo acknowledges that it may have appeared a little crazy to start a law firm in the wake of the financial crisis, a venture he took on with appellate specialist Jeffrey Lamken. But it turned out to be a shrewd move for the talented litigators and entrepreneurs – building a thriving practice that has allowed them to take on the cases they want. For Molo, a perennial Lawdragon 500 member, that can include anything from plaintiff-side work over mortgage-backed securities to defending corporate executives or politicians in criminal cases.
“I am one of the very lucky people who can say I love what I do and believe this is the career I’m supposed to have,” Molo says of being a trial lawyer.
A graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law, Molo cut his teeth as a prosecutor and then at the Biglaw firms of Winston & Strawn, where he served on the executive committee, and Shearman & Sterling before co-founding MoloLamken in 2009. The firm has offices in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Lawdragon: Your recent high-profile cases – the defense of New York politician Sheldon Silver, the NFL concussion litigation and mortgage-backed securities cases – point to the broad diversity of the types of criminal and civil matters you handle. Can you talk a little bit about how you decide what cases to take on? Is it just what happens to really draw your intellectual and subject matter interest?
Steven Molo: We look for matters – and it seems like matters look for us – in which we provide the greatest value. Sometimes it is about a case having our intellectual or subject-matter interest, but it is also about what we can bring to a matter.
We bring highly experienced courtroom advocacy skills and a strategic approach. Clients tell us that is not all that common. We work very hard at that – including in our recruiting and training of associates.
And, of course, we will share risk, investing in cases we believe in alongside our clients. While many clients – companies, foreign sovereigns, investors, executives, inventors – come to us directly, we take great pride in the fact that much of our work is referred to us by other lawyers. We often partner with other firms and, recently, one of the truly great global firms retained us as its counsel in a significant matter.
LD: As a lawyer for players who opposed the NFL concussion settlement, do you have any comment on recent developments?
SM: The 3rd Circuit recently affirmed the settlement. We are grateful that District Court Judge Anita Brody, who devoted tremendous time and thoughtful effort to the matter, gave us a voice in the case. A number of substantial improvements were made in direct response to our objections. They likely increased the value of the settlement by over $100 million and brought additional relief to class members suffering severe injuries. It is our sincere hope this gets resolved in short order and class members can begin benefitting from the relief the settlement can provide.
LD: The Sheldon Silver case seemed to present a tough challenge with public opinion so overwhelmingly negative toward politicians – especially those in office a long time. Do you have a shot on appeal?
SM: Absolutely. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in the McDonnell case will be a major factor. We have raised a number of other significant issues and believe the law is on our side.
LD: From an outsider’s perspective, it seems a little counterintuitive to have started your own firm not long after the start of the financial crisis, given that you and Jeff were both doing well at big firms. Why start a new firm then?
SM: Counterintuitive? Many people thought we were crazy. Both Jeff and I had established careers with excellent firms. But we also both had an overwhelming desire to create a firm that would be first, grounded in excellence in advocacy, and second, entrepreneurial and able to turn that excellence into financial success.
The timing actually was great because many clients were in the midst of re-thinking their relationships with outside firms. The crisis also provided a lot of opportunities to get hired on complex financial-services-related litigation and investigations. And, of course, if you were willing, as we were, to sign your name on a lease in Midtown Manhattan or Foggy Bottom, real estate was reasonably priced.
LD: If you had to give one or a few pieces of advice to lawyers considering starting their own firm, what would you say?
SM: First – have a well-defined vision of what you want to be. Commit to it and let it drive every decision you make – hiring, compensation, client selection, office location and design, what your website looks like. Define your culture, build it, and live by it.
Second – recognize execution is as important as strategy. That often means basic blocking and tackling – billing and collecting, moving along the interview process, being sure the team has the technology and other tools needed to do the job well.
Third – take calculated risks and be prepared to adjust and move forward if things don’t go as planned. You can always find a reason not to do something that involves risk – adding a new partner, experimenting with a different fee structure, undertaking a new marketing initiative.
If you think things through, some risks will pay off and you will profit and grow. Yet, others won’t and you cannot beat up yourself or, more importantly, others in the firm when that happens. We are big on what the military calls “after action reviews.” We try to take the time to evaluate what occurred and learn from our failures as well as our successes.
LD: I would assume that hiring and staffing is of extreme importance for a lean firm like yours, given the types of cases you handle, and that the opponent law firms will often be much larger. What has been your philosophy in terms of the type of lawyers you have looked to build with, in terms of both skill set and personality?
SM: Our firm begins and ends with our people. We look for people who are bright and have had some accomplishments in terms of academic success, a judicial clerkship, maybe government service. But that’s only the beginning. We’ve spent a lot of time – working among ourselves and with consultants – to develop an interviewing regimen designed to identify people who will thrive in our culture. That means a demonstrated interest in the kind of work we do, an ability to communicate well, a commitment to teamwork, an appropriate level of confidence and presence that will play well with clients and other lawyers, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Candidates interview with every partner and associate. We are open and direct with them about who we are and how we work, and we encourage them to be honest with themselves and with us in response. It takes a lot of time but it’s worth it.
LD: Backing up a bit, was this the type of practice you envisioned having while in law school? Did you always want to be a trial lawyer going back even farther?
SM: Yes. I am one of the very lucky people who can say I love what I do and believe this is the career I’m supposed to have. I am fortunate that Jeff Lamken, a tremendously talented lawyer, shared a vision to form the firm and that we have an outstanding team devoted to making MoloLamken a world-class litigation firm. I feel the firm provides a tremendous vehicle for the full employment of my talents and I hope that that’s true for every lawyer who joins us.
LD: You are known as a great courtroom advocate. How does a younger lawyer today develop those skills?
SM: Getting on your feet in court, of course, is the best way to learn. It is not always easy to get the opportunity. Our people have no choice. They all attend NITA [National Institute for Trial Advocacy] when they start with us and then they're off to the front lines. One of our mid-level associates cross-examined seven witnesses in a criminal case I tried to a jury in federal court in Chicago earlier this year. But you can learn a lot from watching great lawyers, reading transcripts, and reading books about trials. You have to be committed and seek out opportunities, and be ready to run with the ball when it is handed to you.
LD: Is there a single tip for successful advocacy that you can share?
SM: To quote Mies van der Rohe, “Less is more.” Too many lawyers wallow in the minutiae and lose perspective. In the end we are there to persuade rather than to prove we are right – if that makes sense. As humans we communicate through narratives. Great advocates – at both the trial and the appellate level – are great story tellers who are able to clearly and simply set out a path for a jury or court to follow and decide in their favor. That means intellectual honesty and editing. Having the confidence and good sense not to introduce eight documents because the point is better made with two, or to drop a final argument in a brief because there’s no way it will carry the day is the mark of good advocacy. Fortunately for our firm and for me, it’s far less common than you might think.
LD: Was there a mentor in the prosecutor’s office in Chicago, or perhaps in your early days at Winston & Strawn who was particularly influential in your development as a litigator?
SM: Wow. There’s always a risk in answering a question like this that you will forget to mention someone or their name will be edited out. I’ve had some wonderful people generously provide me with insight and guidance throughout my career. Paul Biebel, who just retired as the Presiding Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court Criminal Division, was an early mentor who let me learn by doing. Winston & Strawn’s Chairman, Dan Webb, has been an important influence. I worked for him for about five years as an associate and a junior partner – we tried several major cases together. Judge Joel Flaum on the 7th Circuit and Ty Fahner at Mayer Brown have been there throughout my career. Gary Naftalis, Greg Joseph, Bill Pratt, and Bob Fiske all have been terrific influences since New York became a bigger part of my practice. And when we started the firm, people like Steve Susman, Mark Kasowitz, Fred Bartlit, Mike Lynn and others around the country were supportive and helpful.
LD: Can you share a fellow trial lawyer you have come up against in court whom you admire, and why?
SM: Another risky one. Rather than a lawyer, I will give you a firm – Jenner & Block. They have been opposite me more times than any other single firm throughout my career. We’ve had some great battles – the Ron Perelman case against Morgan Stanley; Paul Smith and I spent a day arguing some of the key issues early in the RMBS litigation; the last case I tried at Winston & Strawn had [former Jenner chair] Jerry Solovy representing a hedge fund suing my client, UBS. As a young government lawyer I dealt with Bert Jenner on a case. He then sponsored my admission to the U.S. Supreme Court bar. We’ve also been on the same side in some important matters. They are smart, tough advocates. Well – now I have irritated my friends at the other great litigation firms throughout the country.