Ask Hunter Shkolnik to reflect on his career, and he can cite courtroom victories in cases from a helicopter pilot who lost the use of his legs in a crash to the now-infamous contamination of water supplies in Flint, Mich.

The biggest highlight, however, doesn’t involve arguments in front of a jury.

Photo by Damelys Mendoza.
Photo by Damelys Mendoza.

“The number one thing for me has been my daughter coming to work with me,” says the name partner at New York-based Napoli Shkolnik. “I never expected it, and it has been a good thing. Great thing, I should say.”

Rachel Shkolnik-Shaffer joined her dad’s firm in late 2015, and has steadily worked her way up, recently winning appointment to the plaintiff’s executive committee in the In Re: Elmiron multidistrict litigation linking vision loss to use of the bladder medication.

“I’m super proud of her,” says Shkolnik, whose older daughter, Eliza, a graphic artist and designer, got her start putting together trial graphics for her dad.

That fondness for the family business may be inherited: Shkolnik himself came from a family of doctors and planned to practice medicine before learning his grades were just shy of the level required to win a spot in medical school in the U.S.

“That meant I was going to have to go to Europe or Israel or some other place to study, and I had no interest in studying overseas,” Shkolnik says. “I decided, OK, I'll go to law school.”

After earning his juris doctorate at Cardozo Law School, Shkolnik joined the bar as a plaintiff’s medical malpractice lawyer, later switching briefly to the defense side.

“There may be a psychological link to me becoming a medical malpractice lawyer after not getting into medical school,” he quips. “I never had analysis on it, but some people would suggest I should.”

Lawdragon: When you were in law school, were you drawn more to the plaintiff or defense sides of medical malpractice litigation?

Hunter Shkolnik: Neither, actually. Like any young person, I had this idea of what I wanted to do, which in my case, was to use my law degree in something connected to the sea or water, so I thought … why not admiralty law.

I didn't realize that there was no way I'd ever get that job. At the time it was a very tight community, and I would never have fit in, which was the nice way that people explained the situation to me.

Since I didn’t have much money, I needed to work through law school, and I ended up getting a clerk’s job at a small plaintiffs' firm in Manhattan, and it all progressed from there. I started working for this great trail lawyer, Dick Friedman, and he treated me like a son. He just took me to court every day. I would never tell young law students this now, but he was like, “You don't need to go to law school, just come with me to court.” I was with him every day. I'd miss a lot of classes, I'd go to classes late. But I was with him everywhere.

I loved working with him and would have stayed with him my whole career. We were that close. But he died in a plane crash right when I got out of law school. I stayed with that firm for only a couple of months afterward. We had been working on a very big case, and the defense lawyer on the case had said to me, “If you ever look to leave, there's a place for you in our firm.” It was a firm called Rivkin Radler, based on Long Island, and it was a big firm at the time. They said, “Just give us a call.” After Friedman died, there was no reason for me to stay at the firm anymore, so I called them up. I was only out of school a couple of months, and they gave me a job and they promised me my first trial in a year, which was unheard of. The lawyer I worked for, the head of the department, gave me that trial, and let me try case after case after case.

LD: Those two things are amazing: to have someone in law school take enough of an interest in you to let you shadow them, and then in your first year out of school, to be doing trials like that.

HS: Yes. It doesn't happen today. Unfortunately, there are not trials like there were then. I just hit it at the right time.

LD: Does your firm have any sort of formal mentoring programs for younger attorneys to help compensate for that? Because it's true that your generation had more opportunities to do trial work – there were simply more trials.

HS: Today, we have so much mass tort work, so you're not getting the opportunities I had to go out and try, you know, 20 automobile accident cases, just to get the feel in a courtroom, or try a medical malpractice case. We do have some of those, and we have some lawyers that work on those, and we have young lawyers learning from my partners that are doing those cases and giving them a lot more opportunities on their feet and in the courtroom. That's an easier thing to do. In the mass tort area and in our environmental cases, you bring the younger attorneys along at the lowest level in a case, which is what has now happened with my daughter Rachel. You know, “Come along with me.” For her, it was easier because she lived through it with me for decades. You have them take notes, sit in on depositions, go to conferences, until they work their way up. So you take the opportunities where they are.

LD: You must have a good sense of what skills successful attorneys need, given the career you’ve built and the experiences you’ve had. What was it like for you when you switched from defense to plaintiff work the first time?

HS: To me, it didn't make a difference if it was plaintiff or defendant trials. I was doing great work. I was winning cases I wasn't supposed to win. I was on track to be the youngest partner in a firm that had 300-plus lawyers. And then I realized, “Let me go try the other side.” Someone offered me an opportunity as a plaintiffs' lawyer, and I did well on that side, too.

I was good in the courtroom, I could try any case thrown at me, whether it was at the last minute or I had six months to prepare. At that point, it was better financially for me to go to a plaintiffs' firm. They asked me to go back to the defense firm, and I almost did. But I started realizing the upside opportunity for me, my family, on the plaintiff side was much better. The lifestyle probably would have been better as a defense lawyer. You have more of the 9-to-5 and golf mentality, to some extent. The plaintiff side was more Wild West, gunslinger.

Right around that time is when I met my current partner, Paul Napoli. We crossed paths and said that one day, we were going to work together. It took a while, but 20 years later I ended up being his partner.

LD: Tell me about some of the cases from your career that are particularly memorable for you.

HS: A couple years ago, I represented a family in Arizona against a company that did maintenance on a helicopter after a crash that left the pilot – who’s really just a good man – a paraplegic. Usually, I’m more of a tactician in cases, where I come in and I'm like a machine. My goal is to win the case. My team would work closely with the client while I would focus on the defendant on how we will win. This case was different, we bonded. This was a very big win for that family, though, and I developed a camaraderie with the client that I hadn’t often had in the courtroom. Which was very interesting, and you know, I made a difference in the family's lives. You never make anybody better, you can only help them financially, but his helicopter-flying business was going downhill because he could no longer fly. That was a big win for me.

There was another helicopter crash in Arizona, too. A young woman the same age as my daughter went for a helicopter ride with this older, rich guy who collected vintage planes and helicopters. They crashed, she died.

I represented the family, who were quite wealthy. They really had no interest in a lawsuit. They didn't need the money, it wasn't going to change their lives. The owner of the helicopter was the ne'er-do-well son of a very wealthy family, he basically lived off of a trust fund. He was in his 40s and was a playboy, just bought toys, race cars, planes, and there was no insurance on the aircraft, which is highly unusual. He had caused the family some embarrassment over the years, and this was just another example of what can go wrong in these wealthy families when they're handed money down generation after generation and no one cares about working, their life is to play.

We started talking to their corporate counsel and their estate counsel, and I made it clear, early on, that my clients didn’t want the money for themselves, but they were not going to give up on this case. This was a matter of principle. My clients had all the money they needed and more. They didn’t care about that; they wanted something done right for their daughter, who should never have been lost because of this playboy's stupidity.

Once we got over that hump, dealing with high-level lawyers, we realized charity was the perfect option. Ultimately, in a short period of time, in months versus years, we got to the table and negotiated a very substantial settlement where the estate of the deceased owner and his trust, the family trust, paid substantial money to a foundation set up in the name of my client's daughter.

LD: I love that pursuit of justice for justice's sake. How about in the pharmaceutical or medical device areas, do you have any cases that stand out as particularly interesting there?

HS: Going back to the days of fen-phen, which was one of my earlier mass torts, when I first did the crossover from being a regular personal injury trial lawyer to going to the mass torts field, that was a true wake-up. It made me realize how much I enjoyed doing this, and helping people. There were two injuries primarily in the fen-phen diet drug litigation. There was heart-valve injury, and there was another one called PPH, Primary Pulmonary Hypertension. And PPH had no cure. It was a death sentence. The women who got it, died. Since then, I think they've developed some treatments for it, and people last longer. But back then, you got it and the question was, “Are you going to die in weeks or are you going to die in a year and a half?”

So I was handling about 50 of these cases, getting them ready for trial. I went from city to city, taking depositions of the women before they passed away. Many of them were in hospice settings. Some people were in their homes because they had no money, no resources, and they were living their last days on their couch because they couldn't even get into their bedrooms. We could only do the depositions for an hour or two a day. They didn't have the strength to do more than that, so you'd be there for upwards of six, seven, sometimes 10 days. You really form a bond with the family, watching someone slowly dying like that. On many occasions, I'd fly back home for a weekend, and I'd get off the plane and I'd find out that the person I was just with a few hours earlier had died.

These were not old, ill people. These were young women, very often with young families. They were wage earners, helping make ends meet in their families. It's not like you're dealing with a 90-year-old person who's passing away. You're dealing with depositions of 35-year-olds, 40-year-olds, sometimes people in their upper 20s, with young children. I really realized how important it was to continue those cases and get the compensation, because these people would have nothing once mom was dead. That, to me, was probably the most impactful. I've had a lot of them over the years, but I really felt that. I was on the road for two years, with these families.

It prompts you to try to put a wall up between yourself and the suffering. Because it's hard to do your job sometimes when you become too close. You want to understand, and you want to feel it, but then you need to find some separation in order to turn on the machine to win the case for them.

LD: Like armor for the battle. I get that for sure. Can you talk about some of the opioid litigation you’ve been working on?

HS: With the opioid cases, we’re focused on bringing help to whole communities. We were on the eve of opening for the first opioid trial in the multi-district litigation up in Cleveland, and that case settled for somewhere in the vicinity of $320M. The money went to Cuyahoga County. There was some payment, some minor settlements leading up to the final $320M, and we saw money being funneled into programs immediately. There was a piece of a settlement, around $15M million, and we wanted to funnel that money immediately to provide some type of real change. It went to pregnant women in emergency rooms, whose babies were being born with this addiction in their bloodstreams.

Over the next couple months, we were able to keep figuring out different programs to help the community. More beds for addicts. More treatment options. Maybe we're not curing the world, but if there were 50 Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome babies – infants who are suffering withdrawal because their mothers were users – delivered in those emergency rooms in that county or the two adjoining counties, we know they were getting special care because of the money that we recovered.

LD: Such important work. Do you have other opioid cases now, outside of Ohio?

HS: Yes. In fact, we'll soon be selecting a jury for the first trial since then, which was scheduled in New York, for the State and two counties, one of which I represent. We were in the courtroom on March 12 last year, when the world shut down for Covid-19.

It's taken over a year, with a couple of false starts due to ongoing Covid concerns. We expect trial to commence on June 8. I’m one of the lead trial attorneys in that case for Nassau and Suffolk counties, and we're trying it alongside the state of New York, against the manufacturers that are not bankrupt, against the big three distributors, and a couple of pharmacies. So that's the next big one to go to trial. I'm scheduled to be part of the trial team for the next one in the multi-district litigation, which got bumped from May to October.

LD: You’re really frontline with those cases. I know you’ve also been heavily involved in the Flint, Mich., water crisis litigation.

HS: With Flint, as soon as it happened, we knew, myself and Paul and Marie Napoli, this was something we had to get into. It smacked of environmental racism at its worst. This water change affected the poorest of the poor people, and for some reason, none of the more affluent areas immediately surrounding are affected by this. Poisoning a whole community. Children lead-poisoned. It just cried out for a case. We weren't the only ones looking at it at the time, but we realized this had the hallmarks of not just a disaster, but of a story of greed. And we were right.

For the last five years, if I was not working in opioids, I was working in Flint. We just got a partial settlement of $640M from the state, the City of Flint and a couple of other players in the tragedy. It's not easy to get money from the state of Michigan or any state, to settle a case like that. There's a lot of protection built into the law for governments. We plan on proceeding to trial this Fall against a major international engineering company as well.

So that is a huge, huge win. And it's a huge win for the people of Flint. There were a lot of people who said, “There's no way we'll ever give money to the people of Flint.” We proved them wrong.

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer, in the courtroom? How do you think other people see you?

HS: That's a hard one, and I'm sure you could get a lot of different opinions. I try to be honest. I try to be myself. I want the jury and the court to know that if I get up and say something, not only do I mean it, that I can back up what I'm saying. Because by the end of the case, if they don't believe me and they don't think I'm trustworthy, I lose. I'm not saying I won't lose the case anyway. I mean, sometimes they just don't like the case, they don't like the client or what have you. But I have never come out of a courtroom where they have not said that I've done my best, I've made as good a presentation as I could and was honest and honorable on the point that I was bringing forward. I'm only as good as my name and my word, going into the next case. That's something that I've always worked with. No one's ever going to say that you can’t take Hunter Shkolnik’s word or you can’t trust what he says. Because I can do a handshake on a billion-dollar deal as easy as a dollar deal. I'm going to stick to the deal that I cut.