Photo by Josh Ritchie.
A flair for self-expression and the ability to attract crowds might have led some college students to a career on the stage.
They drew Jason Sultzer down a different path.
As an undergraduate student at The Ohio State University, a campus of some 90,000 students at the time, the New York native joined an informal debate club that held events late at night, with participants weighing in on politics, current events and high-profile issues of the day.
“For whatever reason,” the founding partner of Sultzer Law Group recalls, “I drew the biggest crowds every night. One night, a professor was there. He approached me afterward and said, ‘I don’t know what your plans are after you graduate, but I strongly suggest that you go to law school.’”
The instructor’s recommendation didn’t stop there. He proposed that Sultzer explore trial advocacy and litigation specifically because, as he put it, “You have an ability to communicate with people and explain complicated things in a straight forward way.”
Sultzer took the professor’s advice to heart, earning his juris doctorate from Ohio Northern and becoming in-house counsel at Owens Corning, a Fortune 500 company, before moving to Wilson Elser and, in 2013, starting his own firm.
Lawdragon: Is communicating easily and drawing a crowd natural for you – just part of your personality – or did you have some theatrical training? Do you have any idea where that skill came from?
Jason Sultzer: Honestly, I don’t know where it came from or how it happened. I always just had an ability to be myself and talk to people in a way that captured their attention. And I think that's what helped me connect with a lot of people.
LD: That’s definitely a gift. It sounds like you knew as you completed undergrad and applied to law school that you were focused on becoming a trial lawyer. Did you have mentors or experiences in law school that helped nurture that talent or were particularly important in learning the skills you’ve used in your career?
JS: There wasn't one specific person. It was a cumulative group of people, the entire school. I went to a very small law school in Ohio, and it was a very tight-knit group. The professors really cared about the students, and they gave us a lot of confidence in terms of what we could do after law school. That was very helpful. Together, they pushed me to the finish line in terms of one, getting me ready to take the bar exam and two, becoming a trial lawyer. I took trial advocacy classes, and won an award in a Moot Court competition. They were grooming me early on to ultimately become not just a litigator, but an actual trial lawyer.
LD: Did you go back to New York to clerk during the summer? What was your path to Wilson Elser?
JS: I never had an opportunity to do any clerkships because I was working two different jobs in order to pay for school. But I was very fortunate to become in house counsel for Owens Corning after I graduated Law School. At the time, Owens Corning was involved in lots of different litigations, particularly asbestos cases, so that was my introduction into the mass tort class-action arena which probably prepared me for the future better than any clerkship would have. I worked at Owens Corning for about three years until it went bankrupt.
Afterward, I went to Wilson Elser, a national law firm, where I became one of the youngest equity partners in the history of the firm and started its class-action practice group. I was the youngest chairman of a practice group at that time. I represented large corporations all around the country in all types of litigations. Class actions, product liability cases, commercial litigation: There was a wide, broad range of defense work. And that's what I did at Wilson Elser, for about 10 years.
LD: Impressive. Those are remarkable experiences for a trial lawyer. You really saw law practice from very important, and very different, angles. How did they shape what you do today?
JS: Serving as in-house counsel, you learn a wide range of functions. One, is how to manage outside counsel. Two, as a result of the types of litigation Owens Corning was involved in, it helped me learn first-hand about trials and how they work. I worked with some of the top defense and plaintiff attorneys in the country.. Just watching them in action back in the late ’90s was a great experience. Better than anything you could really get from a clerkship or anything else.
Afterward, Wilson Elser was a fantastic place to continue learning, both on the business side and the trial advocacy side. There were really good people at that firm, high-quality lawyers. Those two experiences, I believe , groomed me to run my own firm today, which has become a nationally recognized firm and one of the fastest growing plaintiffs’ class action firms in the country..
LD: Tell me more about that transition. You were having this great career at Wilson Elser and obviously, as you just mentioned, you had seen both sides, plaintiff and defense work. What prompted you to think about becoming a plaintiffs’ lawyer and starting your own firm?
JS: Ultimately it is just something that gradually happened over time. . Even though the bulk of what we do now in our firm is plaintiffs' work, we don't classify ourselves as plaintiffs’ or defense lawyers. We are trial lawyers who handle a wide range of cases. We still defend companies; we have a very large practice area where we defend companies that are sued or investigated by attorneys general around the country and the Federal Trade Commission.
LD: What are some of the cases that you’ve worked on recently that stand out to you?
JS: Not one case stands out more than others. The are all equally important to us. We’re involved in a wide range of consumer fraud cases involving food products, dietary supplements, cosmetics, data breach cases, mortgage fraud cases, employment discrimination and auto defect cases. We also handle significant catastrophic personal injury cases where we're helping families get back on their feet because a loved one may have died in a workplace accident or a car accident. We have had a lot of success in these areas and have recovered hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of our clients.
Really, all of our cases are important, so there’s not one that sticks out over another. We work on each one as hard as the other.
LD: When you’re handling a case, is there a particular aspect you consider a sweet spot in terms of your skill set? Opening statements, maybe, or cross-examination or negotiation?
JS: I wouldn't say there's one sweet spot. Every component of a trial is important, from picking the jury, to opening statements and cross-examination. When we prepare for trial, one key thing is developing a theme. We always have a theme during the trial, and we try to stick to that theme. Because no matter what happens in the trial, if you always have your theme and you believe in the theme and you have the facts to back up the theme, that theme could carry the day and give you a pathway to connect with the jurors. And that has worked for us.
We try cases the old-fashioned way, really. We usually don't have PowerPoints and all these fancy presentations that a lot of firms use today. We take a butcher-paper pad and a black marker, and if we have to explain something, we'll just do it that way. We try cases in a very simple and elementary way. I think ultimately, if you can break it down in a very simple way, which requires significant preparation , that gives you the best pathway to win a case.
LD: I like that. It's funny, both from having observed trials and being a juror before, I know there are cases in which firms wouldn’t enter the courtroom without a PowerPoint. Being able to make points with a marker on a piece of paper, though, can be more engaging for jurors.
JS: It's effective. It works. Because sometimes, the technology isn't great. The PowerPoint can get stuck or you start fumbling around looking for different things and sometimes you lose control of the technology. Jurors don't want to sit and watch you fumble around trying to get something ready. So our way is very efficient.
LD: What do you most enjoy about the clients that you help?
JS: What's great about it is that our practice is very diverse, handling class-action cases and catastrophic personal injury cases as well as complex commercial litigation. Mostly, we're representing consumers who were defrauded in some fashion. Maybe they bought something that didn't work the way it was supposed to, like a car or a supplement or a type of food. The significant part of that is that in those cases, we're changing corporate conduct -- the way companies advertise or make their products, for example. There's nothing harder to do than changing the way a company does business.
And we've been very successful at it, which is satisfying because it means consumers won't be defrauded in the future. So, we're helping society and keeping everything on a level playing field.. In terms of the catastrophic personal injury cases, there's nothing better than helping a family. It's not just getting money back to a family in a settlement. You become part of their family. You're helping them through very hard times. We talk to our clients every day and help them with all sorts of issues that may pop up. And it’s very rewarding to develop those relationships. We have long-lasting relationships from cases that settled years and years ago, where we're still very close with our clients and they call us with any kinds of issues that pop up or just to say hello.
In our commercial litigation practice, it's always satisfying to help a company that was defrauded, because companies can be victims of fraud, too, or victims of an unfair contract. Since the types of cases we handle can put companies out of business we have no room for error in handling any of these cases. And it is very satisfying that we’re able to help really good, solid companies survive and get their businesses back on track. We have great relationships with a number of companies we represented over the years. So that's always rewarding as well.
LD: It sounds like you love what you do.
JS: I really do. And we have a great group of lawyers. They're just really good people who are very smart and everyone's dedicated to not only the firm but more importantly to the clients.
LD: That's wonderful. Can we talk about your community activities a little? Especially the ones that are particularly close to your heart?
JS: We always are extremely invested in our community, mainly focusing on ways to help children. We just got involved in a new organization that really caught my attention. It’s called Ride to Revive. The group owns various exotic car dealerships in South Florida, and they bring the exotic cars to the track and let terminally ill children ride in them. It's a little like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but with exotic cars.
LD: That's so cool.
JS: For years, we've been involved in an organization called Be Like Coach that helps children throughout the country essentially become better people through sports. So it's not about the X's and O's of sports, it's about the psychology of sports and how coaches are mentoring and teaching the children through elementary, high school and college, ultimately making them better people. There's a real science behind that. Being involved in our communities, even those where we don’t personally live, and helping children is a home run to us.