By Lawdragon News | September 7, 2021 | Lawyer Limelights
When one measures Keller Lenkner LLC’s achievements in product liability litigation, it comes as a surprise that the firm is only in its fourth year of existence.
And yet this ambitious team represents thousands of clients in some of the largest multi-district product liability cases in the country. Keller Lenkner attorneys —mostly top-tier defense lawyers who moved to the plaintiffs’ side — have already landed four coveted court-appointed MDL leadership positions and a reputation for standout law and briefing.
At the same time, Keller Lenkner has established a national presence, with offices in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Austin. And the firm has built a sophisticated operational infrastructure to support its booming practice, manned by a 100-plus-person team of exceptional business and legal professionals.
Even though Keller Lenkner’s attorney headcount was a mere three at the time of its launch in early 2018, its founders have never thought small.
Straight out of the gate, Keller Lenkner pursued the largest, most complex litigation in American history — opioids. The firm represents the State of Arizona, numerous municipalities, and putative classes of millions of insurance ratepayers in ongoing litigation related to the social and economic damage caused by the national opioid epidemic.
“From the beginning, we were involved in high-stakes, nationally prominent matters,” recalls Managing Partner Travis Lenkner, who co-founded the firm along with Partner Ashley Keller and CEO Adam Gerchen. “We have expanded our reach into similarly compelling products cases. But our work across the opioid matters was the springboard to our practice today.”
Partner Nicole Berg, who has helped lead the product-liability practice since she joined the firm in its first year, recalls the early days of that expansion — including how the firm earned its role in litigation over 3M earplugs for combat troops. Plaintiffs claim the devices were defective, failing to protect soldiers from injuries that caused hearing loss and tinnitus.
“One of the attorneys who was launching the 3M matter reached out and asked if our team could help get it off the ground,” explains Berg. “We were involved early in helping to strategize where the MDL would land, and from there, how to address the legal issues that were likely to arise in the litigation.”
Later, when Judge M. Casey Rodgers of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida announced that she would hold interviews for leadership positions in the case, Berg threw her hat in the ring.
“She was hiring people based on their merits. We have significant, relevant experience and wanted to be considered for the law-and-briefing role,” said Berg, who was appointed to the Law & Briefing Subcommittee. “That was our entrance — and, in my mind, the moment our practice really took off.”
As trials began earlier this spring, Berg juggled the responsibilities of her leadership role on behalf of more than 230,000 servicemembers while also managing a team of more than two dozen attorneys, paralegals, and case managers responsible for the 11,000-plus of the firm’s own clients.
Keller Lenkner represents two of the 25 bellwether plaintiffs in the 3M litigation. Four of the first five bellwethers won favorable verdicts: In April, three consolidated plaintiffs were awarded $7.1 million; and in June, a single plaintiff was awarded just over $1 million. Trials will resume in September.
“There are different demands when you think about the work we do for our clients and our role in leadership on the broader MDL. Those roles each require a totally different mindset,” said Berg, whose work recently led Crain’s Chicago Business to name her a Rising Star in Law. “But I think that says a lot about the types of attorneys at our firm: We embrace the challenge, and we perform our responsibilities in each role very well.”
The firm’s early accomplishments in 3M kicked off an accelerated phase of growth for Keller Lenkner’s product liability practice. Firm lawyers now hold leadership positions in the Zantac MDL, Paragard Intrauterine Device MDL, and Onglyza and Kombiglyze MDL. And Keller Lenkner represents tens of thousands of clients in those and other product-liability matters.
The firm’s second leadership appointment came in May 2020, when Partner Ashley Keller was named co-chair of the Law & Briefing Committee in the Zantac litigation, which involves individuals who were diagnosed with cancer after taking the over-the-counter heartburn medication. Recently dubbed a “Plaintiffs’ Trailblazer” by the National Law Journal, Keller is counsel on numerous appeals from the Zantac MDL to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
Throughout its ranks, the Keller Lenkner team has a knack for persuasive advocacy. “We just have incredible legal talent, particularly on the law and briefing side,” said Keller. “We refuse to be out-briefed by the defense bar, and that is an area where we have really brandished our skills.”
But law and briefing is just the start. From legal strategy to client services, Keller Lenkner attorneys hold a unique diversity of experience and ability. “Our team comes from such a diverse set of professional experiences, from defending companies to assessing litigation risk from a finance perspective. That mix of mindsets allows us to challenge one another, test creative legal solutions, and pursue innovation to better serve our clients,” Lenkner said.
Blend the right mix of skills and gusto with prestigious credentials, and you have a plaintiffs’ firm of a whole new caliber. Some 82 percent of Keller Lenkner’s partners and associates hail from national defense-oriented firms.
Additionally, 73 percent of its partners and associates practiced at AmLaw 25 firms and elite trial boutiques, including Kirkland & Ellis, Gibson Dunn, Wilmer Hale, and Jones Day. And 73 percent of the firm’s partners and associates attended a top-ranked law school.
“We’ve built a firm that attracts the best and brightest,” Keller said. “We pursue complex, prominent cases. We offer a work environment that’s intellectually challenging and rewarding. Our attorneys have flexibility and autonomy. Ultimately we’re reshaping the way the plaintiffs’ bar is viewed, and that means the best lawyers see Keller Lenkner as an attractive option relative to any defense firm.”
In building an unrivaled plaintiffs’ shop, Keller Lenkner also deliberately seeks clerkship experience in the attorneys it brings on — and for good reason. “From clerkships comes a deeper, behind-the-scenes understanding of federal courts, judicial decision-making, and in some specific cases, the MDL process itself,” Lenkner said.
The majority of Keller Lenkner’s partners and associates were law clerks at a federal appellate or district court, and four of its partners were law clerks at the Supreme Court of the United States.
Associate Kathryn Couey is one of the firm’s many former clerks. She also previously litigated at Kirkland & Ellis, and joined Keller Lenkner after serving as a law clerk to Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
“In my clerkship, it was so important to see how MDLs operate in court,” said Couey, whose current work focuses largely on the 3M MDL. “That experience across our team inspires a commitment to always put out exceptional work product, and an appetite to constantly expand our role on these cases.”
Constant growth seems to be a running theme at Keller Lenkner. In December 2020, Associate Ashley Barriere was appointed to serve on the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee for the Onglyza and Kombiglize MDL. Like Couey, Barriere is also a former law clerk, having worked for Judge Eldon E. Fallon of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Louisiana.
Judge Fallon, who was presiding over the Chinese Drywall Products Liability MDL, Vioxx Products Liability MDL, and Xarelto Products Liability MDL during Barriere’s clerkship, “could not emphasize preparation enough,” she said. “He truly loves the law and that inspired me. I got to see the MDL process from the start of its formation, learn how organizationally things are set up, how plaintiff leadership appointments work. That was a real education for me, and now I use it in my practice.”
Among the drivers of Keller Lenkner’s momentum is the team’s genuine passion for its work. The firm’s mentality appeals to talented young attorneys who are interested in plaintiffs’ law but want the level of complexity and sophistication that has traditionally come with the defense side.
“What I love about working at Keller Lenkner is that the firm is approaching plaintiff litigation in a really different way,” said Hannah Roberts, an associate who supports litigation in both Zantac and 3M. “Not only is there a really strong commitment to excellence and the need to be the best at what we’re doing, but there’s also this really strong startup mentality and spirit of innovation. We never ask, ‘How can we do this?’ We ask, ‘What’s the best way to do this?’”
For younger attorneys, the firm offers chances to grow by diving into complex litigation that would be off-limits to them at large defense shops, limited only by their own entrepreneurialism.
“We do not stand on ceremony based on years of experience. We all pull up our sleeves and we do it. The firm is really generous about giving us all opportunities,” Roberts said.
The payoff from that approach is clear. In February 2021, Berg landed her second leadership appointment — on the Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee in the Paragard IUD litigation, centered on claims that the device is prone to breaking upon removal, causing injuries and complications, including infertility. She is one of eight lawyers who will lead the effort on behalf of plaintiffs who suffered injuries as a result of the contraceptive device.
With two women at Keller Lenkner now holding three MDL leadership roles, the firm’s support and promotion of women leaders — not only in the product-liability world, but in the plaintiffs’ bar at large — is evident.
“Women are making great inroads and I think at Keller Lenkner, we’re one step ahead,” Barriere said. “But on a broader scale, I definitely think the equality there is improving amongst the MDL world and that judges recognize that. There is a huge pool of talented female plaintiffs’ attorneys and I’m glad they’re getting recognized in these leadership positions.”
Keller Lenkner, meanwhile, credits its entire team as the firm’s most critical resource. “We’re choosy in who we bring into the organization, because that investment in human capital — from the attorneys we hire to the professionals who manage client relationships — is ultimately the most important thing for our clients,” Keller said.
The team’s high bar of credentials may facilitate litigation, but its success is amplified by dedication to those it serves. “I knew in law school that I wanted to help people,” Roberts said. “The firm has given me a platform to do that, but to also visualize the goals I’ve always had for my legal career.”
Accelerated by a well-curated culture of entrepreneurialism, excellence, innovation, and service, Keller Lenkner has undergone a head-turning evolution. From its start with just three people, it has become home to a bench of top-tier attorneys who lead litigation across some of the biggest MDLs in history on behalf of tens of thousands of plaintiffs across the country.
As for the next stage of the firm’s product liability practice, we can only expect another wave of innovation and impact. “We set enormously high standards for ourselves,” Keller said. “And we’re not going to be satisfied until we’re beating our own expectations.”