Photo by Josh Ritchie.
Peter Prieto has always had a broad-spectrum view of the legal profession. His focus for the last 30 years has been complex commercial litigation, and he’s fascinated by and dedicated to all aspects of the legal profession – the thornier and more arcane the problem, the better.
Meticulous and driven by an endless hunger for problem-solving and advocacy, Prieto’s professional journey has spanned from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, to Washington, D.C., to large law firms, as well as boutique firms like his current firm, Podhurst Orseck, where he is a partner and represents both plaintiffs and defendants. His recent cases cover an array of matters, from multi-district litigation proceedings representing plaintiffs, to defending law and accounting firms from malpractice claims.
In addition to his private practice work, Prieto recently served on the ABA’s Standing Committee in the federal judiciary, where he extensively vetted the qualifications of federal judge nominees. He also spent eight years as a member of the Judicial Nominating Commission for the 3rd District Court of Appeals and served on Florida’s Commission on Ethics.
Prieto’s litigation work has earned him wide-reaching recognition. Admitted to the Florida Bar in 1985, Prieto is a member of multiple other Bars including the Cuban-American Bar Association, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court of the United States. Prieto is a graduate of the University of Miami School of Law where he served on the Law Review, and is in the Lawdragon Hall of Fame.
A native of Cuba, Prieto moved to the United States with his parents when he was seven years old. Though neither of his parents completed high school, they were determined that Prieto receive a higher education. He remembers that his parents always told him that the most important thing you can give a person is an education, because, they believed, “Education is the only thing nobody can take away from you. They can take your house, they can take your money, but they can never take an education away from you.”
That early advice has served Prieto well. Even after more than 30 years in the legal profession, he continues to strive for success in every aspect of the law he tackles, eager and curious to learn more from each new case he tries.
Lawdragon: I always think it’s interesting when I see someone with a mix of plaintiff and defense work. How did that develop in your career?
Peter Prieto: Well, right now I do mostly plaintiffs work, but that wasn’t always the case. I’d say my career has basically been divided into three phases, from private, to government, then back to private.
I started at Holland and Knight, which is a large, national law firm. After two years there I went into the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, where I spent about eight years. And then I spent one year in Washington, investigating Ron Brown, who was then the Secretary of Commerce under Bill Clinton.
After a year of that, Secretary Brown's plane crashed over Bosnia, he perished and that investigation came to a screeching halt. So, then I went back to my old firm, Holland and Knight, and I spent about 13 years there doing almost exclusively defense work. While I was there, I was the managing partner for the Miami office and then I became the head of litigation for the entire firm.
Then in early 2010 I joined Podhurst Orseck. The firm focuses on plaintiffs work and is roughly evenly divided into two categories: commercial litigation, including class actions, and personal injury work, including aviation, which the firm has done for half a century now. So that plaintiffs work takes up most of my time.
When I do defense work, I primarily focus on defending law firms and accounting firms in malpractice cases. That concentration developed out of the blue. I got a call from a large law firm once to represent them, and from that I was recommended to represent an accounting firm. And that's sort of how I developed that niche practice at my firm.
Again, that defense work is maybe 30 percent of my practice currently, but it's a focus that I enjoy. Once, somebody asked me, "Why do you still do defense work even though you're primarily a plaintiffs’ lawyer?" My answer was that I think it makes me a better lawyer. I’m able to understand the other side. When I'm a plaintiffs’ lawyer, I understand how the defense works and when I'm a defense lawyer, I understand how the plaintiffs work.
LD: That makes so much sense. Do you prefer one to the other?
PP: That's a tough question. I enjoy both, honestly – they have such different facets. I think when you work for a good corporate client, which is usually on the defense side, you’re engaging with a client that is sophisticated and understands the issues. It’s interesting work, even if it can be more demanding.
But I also really like representing plaintiffs because there's a more personal satisfaction in representing a human being, or a family. It’s more satisfying on a personal level.
LD: That makes sense. As you said, you've had such a variety of work in different types of cases so this might be a tough question, but are there one or two cases that stand out as a career highlight for you?
PP: Well, one is from when I was a prosecutor. I prosecuted an organized ring of credit card counterfeiters from Hong Kong. They would manufacture counterfeit credit cards in Macau, then ship them to the States and several Hong Kong nationals would use them all over the country to buy high-ticket items, including dozens of Rolex watches.
A Secret Service agent stumbled upon two of them in a very high-end mall in South Florida. He arrested them at the mall, which led to us investigating that ring, and eventually we indicted seven individuals under RICO, which is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. We even extradited a defendant from Thailand. They all pled guilty and most of them ended up with significant sentences.
PP: The rewarding part of that case was the amount of investigative work involved, including 24-hour surveillance of some of the defendants and finding fingerprints on receipts, credit cards and licenses, and tying those fingerprints to the defendants. It was really a worldwide ring that was focused on using counterfeit credit cards here in the United States.
LD: Oh, that's so interesting. I could see a really good crime movie out of that.
PP: It was fascinating, especially because it started as an arrest of two defendants, and we eventually developed a pretty significant case involving seven defendants.
LD: That must have been a lot of fun. What about private practice – is there a case that stands out?
PP: I think the biggest highlight, so far, might actually be the case that I'm currently working on, which is the Takata Airbags multi-district litigation.
I was appointed to be the chair lead counsel for the plaintiffs by Federal District Judge Federico Moreno. The case involves the largest automotive recall in U.S. history – tens of millions of cars. So far, we’ve settled with seven automakers, totaling $1.5B.
LD: Wow. So, obviously this is a major public safety issue. You're literally saving lives with this litigation. What part of the case for you is the most interesting?
PP: Well, the case is a multi-district litigation. In a multi-district litigation, where you're assembling a large number of cases before one judge, the judge makes the appointment on the plaintiffs side. So, from a personal perspective, one of the challenging things as the lead counsel for the plaintiffs is dealing with a group of lawyers who are not part of your firm. Some of them you’ve only just met. You have to ensure that all of the lawyers are working in unison, which can sometimes be challenging given the different personalities.
And then the second interesting part is how sophisticated the case is. So, Takata supplied an airbag and inflator to the automakers, but there was a defect in the inflator. When the airbag was activated, the inflator would explode, hitting vehicle drivers or passengers with fragments of metal in the neck, the face, the body. That defect has caused around 21 deaths and hundreds of injuries.
But it was a challenging matter because Takata pled guilty, and all the automakers were claiming, and continue to claim, that they weren’t at fault because Takata had lied to them about the performance of the airbags.
Then, Takata filed for bankruptcy. So, we had to defend our case in bankruptcy court because usually bankruptcy courts have the ability to stay civil litigation.
PP: So, we were concerned that the bankruptcy court would stay our cases, and not permit them to move forward. There were just a lot of issues and moving parts, both on a professional level and on a personal level. It's been a very interesting ride.
LD: Do you have lessons or takeaways from your time as a federal prosecutor, perhaps that you’re still using in your practice today?
PP: I’d say there are two really important things I learned by being a federal prosecutor. The first is, do the right thing. The second one is, only focus on what’s important.
So, diving into that first point – when you're a prosecutor, if you're in front of a judge and jury and you make a mistake, you own up to it. You gain so much credibility that way, and you should just do the right thing.
Well, and aside from the personal aspect, when you’re a federal prosecutor representing the government, the judge and jury simply expect you to do the right thing. Judges will come down on you really, really hard if you are there representing the people of the United States and you do something that's deceitful or you don't speak plainly and truthfully.
One example I have of that lesson was actually in private practice. After I left the U.S. Attorney's Office, I was a young partner in a large law firm litigating a pretty significant case where doctors were suing a hospital system. And the opposing lawyer, a well-known lawyer, mistakenly sent me a memo that was meant for his clients discussing his plan and strategy for the case
LD: Oh, my gosh.
PP: I know. But when I saw what it was, I didn’t read it and I closed it up. I put it in the envelope, called the lawyer and I said, "Listen, my friend, you made a mistake here. You sent me this memo and I'm sending it back to you."
LD: Wow. Good for you.
PP: The opposing lawyer was grateful. In fact, he even told the judge presiding over the case that I had done the right thing and returned the document. So, that's the first thing I learned, that if you do the right thing, everything takes care of itself.
And then the second lesson, the one about focusing on what's important, comes from my transition from private practice to being a federal prosecutor. In federal criminal law, there are no depositions or interrogatories. You focus only on the important evidence in the case. That’s it. In civil litigation you get millions of pages of documents, and only maybe 20 to 50 of those documents, are really what’s going to make the case for you. Nevertheless, civil lawyers will fight over the most unimportant things.
I think being a prosecutor was an important training ground for me. When junior lawyers ask me if they should go to the U.S. Attorney's Office, I tell them unequivocally that they absolutely should.
LD: I noticed, too, that you recently served on the ABA's Standing Committee on the federal judiciary. There's been so much talk in recent years of packing, so to speak, the federal courts with judges that are on one side of the political spectrum and might tip the scales of justice in unfair ways. Do you think there's any merit to that concern?
PP: So, the ABA Standing Committee on the Judiciary, they’ve been vetting all the federal judges since Eisenhower was president. More than half a century. But the committee, based on my experience, doesn't look at politics at all. The focus of the committee is on professional competence, temperament and integrity. Those essentially are the factors they consider. It’s their mantra.
And you’re right, they have been criticized in the past by both parties for that claim of bias in favor of one party or the other. But, like I said, the Committee, based on what I experienced as a member, is apolitical. It only looks at those three things. So, does each party try to put as many nominees on the courts as possible? Absolutely. . But that’s been happening since the founding of our country. The famous case of Marbury v. Madison, which established the principle of judicial review, was about President Adams trying to pack the federal judiciary with Federalist judges as he was about to leave office.
Now, in some instances, the President has nominated someone even though the ABA has deemed them unqualified.
LD: Did that happen with President Trump, an out-sized amount? I have to ask.
PP: I think it happened a few times under President Trump. Although there was one nominee that the ABA rated as unqualified who was not confirmed because he performed so poorly at his confirmation hearing. I mean, he was asked basic questions about his experience and procedure, and he didn’t have the right answers. From what I remember, he had never taken a deposition or knew what a motion in limine was.
LD: You've had such an outstanding career both in public service and private practice. Do you have any advice for new or younger lawyers?
PP: It may sound trite, but you need to work hard, enjoy the job you have, and do the best you can. On top of that, you need to learn about your profession. Learn about the lawyers who are involved in it. Learn about the judges. I love reading biographies on judges and lawyers who enjoy and have been successful in the profession.
Then, when you’re working, use every case as a building block because you never know where it could lead. Almost every single lawyer who has succeeded in one practice or another fell upon it by chance. Some client might call him out of the blue, and they learn about that practice area or they work with an older lawyer and that older lawyer teaches them about a certain practice area. So, my advice is to always build upon everything you do because you never know when a case might lead you to a particular practice or what you’re really skilled at doing.
My third piece of advice is to treat all people decently, whether they're your opposing lawyer, the court’s staff, or an opposing client. I've gotten work from lawyers that I've had cases against because I was decent to them.
LD: I love that. A lot of people can listen to that advice, and not just in law.
So, you’ve had this incredible career, but tell me a bit about your early life and what brought you here. You’ve mentioned that your parents, who, like you, immigrated from Cuba, believed firmly in the power of education to shape your future. Did that philosophy impact you?
PP: Oh, absolutely. Education is so important, and I've really tried to stay true to that mindset in raising my own children, as well. I’d say my kids have gotten a better education than I did, and I’m proud of that. I have a 19-year-old, who's still in high school, my daughter is in undergrad at NYU, and my oldest son is a second-year law student at Miami Law.
LD: Oh, cool! Following his Dad’s footsteps.
PP: You know, I've never encouraged my kids to be lawyers. They grew up with a lawyer as a father and they would hear stories about my cases and the judges and laywers involved. . And my oldest son was always interested in the law and in the cases that I talked about. He’s going to be a good lawyer. My daughter would be too, but I haven't really pushed it, and she doesn’t seem interested in the law. I just want her to find something she enjoys doing. That’s all that matters.
LD: That’s fantastic. And then, one more, fun, final question. Do you have a favorite book or movie or television show about the law?
PP: That's a really good question. My favorite movie about the law is pretty easy for me: “The Verdict,’' with Paul Newman, who's my favorite actor of all time. That film has so many dramas within one movie. The down-and-out lawyer facing this big firm with half a dozen lawyers representing the Archdiocese. The ethical issues where he doesn't communicate an offer of settlement to his client’s family, which is an ethical violation.. And then the dramatic ending. That’s definitely my favorite legal movie.
As far as my favorite book, I've read so many judicial biographies it’s hard to chose. There's a great biography of Justice Hugo Black, who was basically self-educated. He was an amazing judge and man. Very inspiring person.