Lawyer Limelight: Adam Levitt

When plaintiffs’ attorney Adam Levitt co-founded DiCello Levitt Gutzler in 2017, he wanted to create the sort of firm that he would have wanted to join as a younger lawyer: a firm that respects each of its lawyers, regardless of seniority, makes them valued members of case teams, and puts them in positions to succeed. “One of the problems in so many law firms, on both sides of the aisle, is that senior people feel the need to marginalize or otherwise restrict junior lawyers. We take the exact opposite approach,” Levitt explains.

“We want each lawyer at the firm to succeed as their authentic self. We aren’t asking them to conform to a set of norms. If someone thinks they have to be someone else or code switch in the office, they’re not going to achieve their highest potential in this business or in any business. We’re dedicated to making our firm a mirror of society in terms of embracing diversity and honoring each of our lawyers and staff members as individuals.”

That spirit of trust and respect defines DiCello Levitt’s mission – defending those who have been wronged by powerful defendants and obtaining justice. Formed by close colleagues Adam Levitt and Mark DiCello, the prolific and rapidly expanding trial firm specializes in diverse practice areas, including financial services, product liability, environmental litigation, catastrophic injury, and technology and cybersecurity. The firm has recovered billions of dollars for its clients in high-profile class actions, mass torts, public client, and single event cases.

DiCello Levitt has locations across the United States, each of which was formed with one goal in mind:  to hire the best people and to put them in positions to succeed. “If the talent we want happens to be in Alabama, or California, or Texas, then that’s where we’re going. It really doesn’t matter where you are. If you’re the best at what you do and you want to be part of a firm that strives for excellence every day, then we want you on our team,” Levitt says.

That focus on people is what brought Levitt to the legal field. He sees the law as a tool to help real people with real problems and aims to defeat anyone using the law as a means of obstruction. “My goal is to help people and companies use our legal system to have their voice heard and get the justice to which they’re entitled,” he explains.

Levitt has done exactly that.

He has led many noteworthy cases, including three of the largest agricultural biotechnology class actions in history. In the Genetically Modified Rice litigation alone, he secured a $1.1 billion settlement for U.S. rice farmers whose exports were rejected for contamination with genetically modified rice. His experience in automotive defect cases is also extensive. As co-lead counsel, he secured a $135 million settlement against Navistar for defective diesel engines and a $17 billion settlement in the Volkswagen “clean diesel” case, as part of what one commentator characterized as the “class action dream team.”

Levitt currently represents two large states in multi-billion-dollar remediation and natural resource damages litigations against chemical manufacturers, distributors, and users for PFAS “forever chemical” contamination. He is also building a compelling case as co-lead counsel against Commonwealth Edison and Exelon on behalf of 4 million Illinois consumers seeking recovery of profits the companies obtained by bribing the Illinois Speaker of the House for formula rate legislation that caused billions of dollars in damages to ComEd’s customers.

His firm is additionally seizing opportunities in the pandemic, working on cases holding insurance companies accountable for Covid-19 business interruption coverage and fighting to win back students’ lost fees from colleges and universities.

But the courtroom isn’t Levitt’s only forum for change. During the 2020 holiday season, he was thinking about how the firm could use its success to give back to the community in a meaningful way. “Talk is cheap. It’s what you actually do that matters,” he claims.  Consistent with that thought, in December 2020, DiCello Levitt established DLG Cares, a charitable foundation dedicated to promoting access to justice. DLG Cares made a substantial investment in Justice Defenders, which educates Kenyan and Gambian prisoners to serve as paralegals and lawyers, providing them with a pathway out of the prison system and potentially into the legal profession. DiCello Levitt lawyers will be visiting one of these prisons virtually in early 2022 to coach inmates on the art of storytelling when making your case.

Lawdragon: So, you’re in Chicago, where you first started the firm, right?

Adam Levitt: I am in Chicago. I was born and raised in New York, attended Columbia as an undergraduate, and then moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern Law School 31 years ago. While I’ve been here a long time, I still haven’t been able to lose my accent.

LD: Oh, that’s great. And you just opened a New York office in 2019 as well, right?

AL: Yes. We established our firm in April 2017, with eleven lawyers in Chicago and Cleveland.  Then, we opened our New York office in February 2019, when Greg Gutzler joined us to launch our commercial litigation and whistleblower practice and which we’ve since expanded, most recently with the addition of David Straite, who, along with our partner, Amy Keller, gives us the strongest, plaintiffs’-side technology and cybersecurity practice in the Unites States. Since then, we’ve become a 50 lawyer firm with additional offices in Washington, D.C., Detroit, St. Louis, and, most recently, Birmingham, Ala.

LD: Oh, incredible.

AL: It’s been very gratifying to build such a robust team.

LD: I’m sure, and such a widespread team too. What led you to Birmingham?

AL: Well, I think it speaks to the way that we’ve grown our firm. Our goal is to expand with the most talented legal professionals available. Diandra Debrosse Zimmerman – everyone calls her Fu –is someone who I wanted as part of our team for a very long time. It was the right fit for her and the right fit for us. She’s in Birmingham, so it made sense for us to open an office there. Since she joined us, we’ve more than doubled the size of our Birmingham office, with no signs of slowing down. Between new case opportunities and trial settings, Birmingham, and Fu, have quickly become a vital part of our firm.

LD: Fantastic. Do you have plans to expand to any more offices, or are you keeping it here for now?

AL: We’ll go where the work and talent dictate. We’ve expanded for two reasons. First, because of the volume and quality of professional opportunities available. And second, because it’s been very important to us to put together the strongest possible team that reflects our firm culture. DiCello Levitt is building a nationwide firm founded on excellence, trust, and respect.

LD: That’s fantastic. One thing that struck me about your firm is that it seems you strive to be very non-hierarchical. Why is that important to you?

AL: Well, I think that when you bring people on board, you want to hire very talented and creative people. You want them to thrive, to know that their contributions are valued, and to become the best lawyers and people they can be. You only get there through positive reinforcement and giving team members maximum responsibility as quickly as possible. I’ve worked at firms where the senior partners had this view that their answer was the only right answer and there wasn’t a conversation. That’s a very limiting and short-sighted approach, and one that we wanted to avoid at all costs. The fact is that that’s not the way to create a successful firm.

When Mark and I started DiCello Levitt, one of our goals was to build an environment where people can disagree without fear of judgment. Making mistakes is key to learning, and sharing your ideas is essential to finding the best solutions. As I tell my colleagues, I’m wrong all the time and I’ve been known to have some terrible ideas, mixed in with the good ones.  I want friends and colleagues who are ready and willing to tell me when they think I’m wrong or proposing a strategy that may go off the rails.

LD: We all have bad ideas sometimes.

AL: Exactly. But in a collaborative environment, we’re able to work through disagreements and ultimately develop the most effective strategies to accomplish our goal of achieving justice.

LD: That’s so important. So, tell me about how you started the firm.

AL: Mark DiCello and I met working on the Imprelis Herbicide multidistrict litigation, where I was co-lead counsel, back in 2012. We began speaking at conferences and doing more work together. We had a shared outlook and a shared vision, and we became really close friends. And it got to the point several years later that it made sense for us to open a firm together because we had mutual ideals on creating a thriving law firm.

We always wanted to have what I’ve characterized from the outset as a fully-hedged plaintiffs’ firm. We didn’t want to focus solely on class actions or commercial litigation or public clients or mass torts. We set up strong practice groups in several practice areas.  Our fundamental goal, however, is to be a firm that’s known for taking and resolving – by trial or otherwise – the most complex, meaningful, and socially significant cases.  We’ve been doing that since we opened our doors – and our partners have been doing that throughout their careers, long before we formed DiCello Levitt.  Since we’ve opened, however, the market knows what we’re doing and how we do it, a fact that’s confirmed on a daily basis through the clients and potential clients who contact us, the opportunities with which we’re presented, and the attorneys who want to join us.

That goes back to your question about hierarchy. It’s very important to us to make sure our younger lawyers get out there early and explore their options. If someone shows the desire and aptitude and wants to be in a lead role, we’re going to do everything we can to push those people into those roles. A great example of that is our partner Amy Keller on the Equifax case. Amy was 34 years old when she was appointed co-lead counsel in the Equifax multidistrict litigation. She was the youngest woman ever appointed co-lead in an MDL case.

Then, we supported Fu’s leadership application to the Paraquat MDL. We have other senior partners like Mark available to handle Paraquat, but Fu is a great lawyer, and we wanted her to have this opportunity. We were proud when she was appointed to the Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee from a pool of more than 80 qualified candidates.  Since her appointment, she’s consistently been proving us right, by effectively leading important facets of that litigation while overseeing, with my partners Mark DiCello and Mark Abramowitz, DiCello Levitt’s entire Paraquat docket, which is the largest docket of Paraquat cases in the United States.

LD: That’s a fantastic philosophy. And what about you? What sort of matters are you handling right now?

AL: Well, first of all, Mark and I manage the firm. And as we’ve been expanding, that’s been taking up a lot of our time.

LD: That makes sense.

AL: I don’t sleep very much. Mark doesn’t either. But in terms of the cases I’m working on these days, we represent two of the largest states in the PFAS water contamination litigation. I also represent the state of New Mexico in a number of cases, one of which is going to trial early next year, involving the false marketing of AndroGel, which is a testosterone replacement therapy. As we allege in our complaint, the manufacturer fabricated a disease called “Low T” in order to sell more drugs.

LD: Oh, wow.

AL: Yes. Other than that, I’m co-lead counsel in the ComEd case, I’m working on our GM 5.3-liter defective engine litigation, which is headed to trial in August 2022, and I’m also co-lead counsel in the Society Insurance multidistrict litigation, which was the first COVID-19 business interruption litigation that the JPML created.  I’m also working on a broad range of still-confidential matters involving a series of sovereign wealth funds and other institutional investors that will likely become public in the upcoming months.

All in all, I would say it’s really a mix these days of my public client work, my financial services litigation, automotive litigation, and environmental litigation work keeping me very busy.

LD: I can imagine. Then, looking back on your career a bit, what would you say have been some of the most memorable cases you’ve tried? I know, for instance, that you were involved in several of the largest biotechnology class actions in history.

AL: Certainly, the StarLink corn case (In Re StarLink Corn Products Liability Litigation), which is now more than 20 years old. That case was important to me for several reasons. First, it was the first large crop contamination class action in the United States. Second, it was my first really big case. I was 31 when I got appointed to leadership in that MDL. Third, working with a very talented agricultural economist and drawing on our securities litigation experience with the efficient market hypothesis, we created the damages model for crop contamination cases that has been used in every similar case since then. So, that was a really gratifying experience all around.

But, despite the many high-profile litigations that I’ve successfully led, or in which I’ve otherwise been involved, the most memorable case in all my years of practice was when I represented my grandparents to obtain justice for them when they were hurt in one of the universal life insurance “vanishing premium” scams.  My grandparents, who were not wealthy people, had their life insurance with Columbian Mutual, based in Binghamton, New York. They got duped into this scheme when their Columbian Mutual agent came to their house and showed them a schematic explaining why they should switch from their safe, whole-life insurance policies into purportedly “vanishing premium” universal life policies. Unfortunately, my grandparents were fooled by the agent’s representations, and they made the switch.  So, you know what happened. They got their universal life insurance policies, for which the projections depended on high interest rates, and, suddenly, interest rates decreased and their premium payments, rather than “vanishing,” actually quadrupled. They couldn’t afford that undisclosed increase, so Columbian Mutual cancelled their life insurance policies, just when they needed them the most.  This was an unexpected and crushing blow to them, doubly so because it was caused not by their own missteps, but, rather, because of the insurer’s greed and deception.

They asked me to represent them, and I did.  While the settlement that we ultimately entered into was confidential, let’s just say when they each passed away, they were each fully insured with fully funded Columbian Mutual life insurance policies for which no additional premiums were ever paid.  I still have a framed card in my office from my grandfather, thanking me for the work that I did. My grandparents were first-generation Americans; emigrating here from Poland in the early part of the twentieth century. To have their grandson, two generations later, be able to use the justice system of their chosen country to represent them against a powerful corporation was very meaningful for them and for me.

LD: I can imagine. That’s so moving. Oh, absolutely. Can we talk about some of your trial successes? DiCello Levitt is a “trial-first” firm. Tell me about how that works in practice. You have the DiCello Levitt Trial Advocacy Center at your firm – can you share a little of what that is?

AL: Sure. We work up every case that our firm takes with the assumption that we’re going to try it. We have an in-house focus grouping and mock trial practice. It informs the way we evaluate and structure and litigate every single case we have.

Every word that comes out of your mouth, every phrase that comes out of your mouth, and the way you frame a story is vital. It’s about proper, clear communication, and making sure your message resonates with people. That’s something that we work on every day. For example, our partner Bobby DiCello got a record $50 million verdict in Arnold Black’s police brutality case against the City of East Cleveland. We have all seen how police brutality cases have played out in recent years. But because of the horrific facts of the case and Bobby’s ability to tell Arnold Black’s story in a way that resonated with the jury, Arnold got justice. We are proud of that accomplishment and that result, which culminated in Public Justice naming my partners Mark and Bobby DiCello the 2021 Trial Lawyers of the Year.

LD: Absolutely. And you really keep those lines of communication up with the whole legal world, don’t you? Tell me about the work you and your partners do outside your firm. How is that informed by your practice, and vice versa?

AL: Well, we take a broader view of our standing and our responsibility to the bar. Both Amy Keller and I are elected members of the American Law Institute. I’m an elected member of the Economic Club of Chicago, Mark is leading the Summit Council, and Amy is on the Executive Board of Public Justice.  The fact is that unless you’re involved in shaping the future of the law, you’re a part of the problem. We strive to be a meaningful solution.

LD: Well, it certainly sounds like you’re doing just that. So, moving back to the present, how do you see the firm moving forward in the coming years?

AL: We want to fulfill our mission to create a firm that truly supports its lawyers. We support our people, we respect our people, and we put our junior lawyers in important roles very early on, unlike the hierarchy of an AmLaw 100 firm. We provide a platform to support the book of business new hires bring with them and support them in expanding their practice within our firm.

That’s why our phone rings all the time with people who want to work with us. Lawyers recognize that we’ve created something special – support without interference. And, as far as how successful that model is? Within four years, expanding from 11 lawyers in two offices to 50 lawyers in seven offices, the billions of dollars in recoveries and settlements, our trial successes, our current caseload, the way we get a look on every important case out there – I’d like to think it speaks for itself.