Lawyer Limelight: Kosta Stojilkovic

This year’s Lawdragon 500 contains an impressive crop of younger stars, and front and center in the trial space is Kosta Stojilkovic. The Serbia-born partner of Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz cut his chops in the courtroom as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Before that, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, whom he credits as his most important mentor. In addition to his courtroom skills, Stojilkovic thrives in the entrepreneurial spirit of a litigation boutique founded in 2016.

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers what your practice is like?

Kosta Stojilkovic: I’m a trial lawyer. Trying cases is its own specialty. A lot of litigators think of themselves as trial lawyers, but unless you are doing it on a consistent basis, it’s not really your main expertise. In the three years since I joined Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz, I’ve done a trade secrets trial for Facebook, a defamation trial for the NCAA, and a white-collar criminal trial. The substance of each of those cases was completely different. But the pressure and the unpredictability were similar, as was the challenge of trying to persuade a jury and a judge.

LD: How did you first become interested in being a trial lawyer?

KS: After my clerkships, I was pretty sure I wanted to do trial work. I liked appellate work intellectually, but I found it a bit isolating. I wanted to be closer to the facts, to have the chance to mold the story, and to interact with non-lawyers on a regular basis. Once I started working on trials – first as a law firm associate, then as an Assistant U.S. Attorney – it became clear to me that the most critical skills were not subject matter expertise, but the ability to get to the core issues and present them clearly, to know and speak to your audience, and to keep your eyes on the big picture while mastering the details.

LD: In law school what did you think you’d be doing?

KS: Initially I thought I would be one of the things that law school teaches you to value the most – a professor or an appellate lawyer. But you have to have a certain mentality for either of those jobs, and they were not the right fit for me. Plus, I learned that you don’t need to be a brusque, confrontational person to be an effective trial lawyer. There is more than one way to capture the attention of a jury or a judge, and a great part of trying cases is finding and developing your own voice.

LD: What are some aspects about trial work that keeps you excited about it?

KS: It gives me the chance to represent people and institutions in different walks of life. Most people go to law school because they want to engage with a world broader than their own. I get to do that in every case. To be sure, it happens under the stress of trial, but that’s where focusing on the people involved can make the biggest difference. If you get to know your client, your witnesses, even the opposing party, and can put yourself in their shoes for a moment, you will do a better job trying the case. And you will get more out of it.

LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?

KS: I first chaired a defamation jury trial for the NCAA in 2018. The plaintiff was Todd McNair, Reggie Bush’s former running back coach at USC. The issue was whether the NCAA defamed McNair by implicating him in its investigation of USC and Bush. It was an uphill climb, like a lot of matters that my firm takes on. Most of the rulings prior to trial went against the NCAA, public opinion in Los Angeles was strongly on McNair’s side, and L.A. Superior Court is a plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction. But we came in and won a complete defense jury verdict.

That wasn’t the end of the story: The trial judge whom prior defense counsel had unsuccessfully tried to remove from the case ordered a new trial and issued another post-trial ruling against the NCAA, both of which are currently on appeal. So we may have to do it again. But to me, the trial had a bit of everything. I’m a sports fan and it was a chance to see the sports world up close. USC fans and media were present and visible at trial, which added to the experience. We treated Mr. McNair with respect and he did the same for us. There’s a big difference between being adverse to someone and being acrimonious, and I’d like to think we were always the former.

LD: Can you describe another recent matter that you’ve handled?

KS: I just finished a four-month criminal trial in Boston. I’ve never had another experience like it. The case is still very active, so I can’t comment about it extensively. But I can say that I never cross examined more than 20 witnesses in a single trial before this one. Some of them were alleged cooperators, others were alleged victims. All of them were challenging cross-examinations. I’ve never had jury deliberations span four weeks, like they did in this case. The subject matter of the trial – pharmaceutical opioids – was about as hot button as any these days. And having been a federal prosecutor myself, it was eye opening to see how other federal offices approach certain issues differently than the office where I had practiced.

LD: Why did you pursue a career in the law in the first place?

KS: I’m a first-generation immigrant. My parents and I moved to the United States when I was in elementary school. We came from Serbia, and the early 1990s was a tough time to be from that part of the world. My dad is a scientist and his advice to me was to stick to science and stay away from current events, but that wasn’t me. I learned a lot by growing up in two different countries, which at one point were hostile to each other. It made me appreciate that there are two sides to every story, and it made me want to engage with the world. I think that’s why I chose to go to law school in the first place.

LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?

KS: Enjoy law school for what it is. So much of life is spent looking ahead, and law school is probably one of the most extreme examples. What grades will you get? What journal will you be invited to join? Where will you clerk? All you’ll accomplish by looking ahead that much is to drive yourself up a wall. So take a step back and appreciate where you are right now.

LD: Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?

KS: I probably wouldn’t be answering these questions without the involvement of Chief Justice John Roberts in my career. I was a good clerkship candidate, but there are many, many of those every year. I had nothing political on my resume, but that didn’t matter to him. I clerked for him for two years – his last term on the DC Circuit and his first term as Chief Justice – so I had a front seat to history.

He did not wear his status on his sleeve or approach his clerks from a height, and that is what impressed me the most. We have a system of independent judges doing critically important work, yet the only legal staff most of them have are several whippersnappers who recently graduated from law school. I’m not sure any other line of work creates comparable opportunities for mentorship at the start of your career, and I will always be thankful for mine.

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer? Or, how do you think others see you?

KS: I come across as studious and respectful, and those are good things. But I tend to surprise folks at trial with my engagement and personality. Sometimes natural introverts make good public speakers, and I’d like to think I’m one of those.

LD: What do you like about where you currently practice in terms of culture or other characteristics?

KS: I love working at a young, enterprising law firm. We have less than fifty lawyers and have only been around since 2016. Yet we’ve had as many high-stakes, nationally-prominent trials in that time as any law firm in the country, if not more. The combination of the inter-personal relationships of a small business and a trial docket that any firm would love to have is hard to beat.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

KS: These days I’m mostly chasing after my kids. They are eight and six, and their interests have become my own. So right now I’m into swimming, lasers, and “How to Train Your Dragon.” In six months, it will probably be something completely different.