Lawyer Limelight: Lynn Lincoln Sarko

Few Lawdragon 500 members have been at the center of as many monumental legal efforts targeting corporate wrongdoing as Lynn Lincoln Sarko. The Seattle-based Keller Rohrback trial lawyer has litigated on behalf of victims of a wide mix of environmental and financial catastrophes, from Exxon Valdez to Enron and Bernie Madoff, among many other high-profile cases. Sarko is now among the nation’s top plaintiffs’ lawyers fighting for recoveries in response to tragedies ranging from the devasting wildfires to the opioid epidemic – continuing a tireless practice that dates to his decision to join Keller Rohrback in 1986. For most of that time, Sarko has also served as the firm’s managing partner.

Lawdragon: How do clients and other lawyers view you?

Lynn Lincoln Sarko: Clients value my counsel for my ability to achieve creative resolutions to complicated legal matters, particularly in multi-party cases. I’ve been told by judges and mediators that my intuition and personality make me especially effective as an advocate.

Parker Folse, an attorney whom I’ve worked with over the years, described me by saying: “While he's vigorous in pursuing his client's interests, he's also charming, non-confrontational, understands people, and tries to be creative in achieving his objectives with a minimum of wasted time and conflict.”  

Still, others have described me as very shrewd, very adaptable. My secret is that people trust me because I’m authentic and I honor my word.

LD: What was your path to becoming a lawyer?

LLS: I now live on Lake Washington in Seattle, but I grew up on a farm near Marengo, Ill. It then had a population of 2,000 and no stoplights. I was fascinated by Illinois native Abraham Lincoln, who is my namesake, and by the small-town lawyers I got to know growing up. My first competitions were showing sheep at local county fairs. 

My formal college education began at the University of Wisconsin, where I earned a bachelor's degree in accounting and finance, followed by an MBA, and then finally a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School, where I was the editor and chief of the Wisconsin Law Review. Following graduation, I clerked for the honorable Judge Jerome Farris of the 9th Circuit. After that, I worked as a litigation associate for Arnold & Porter, then spent a short stint as a federal criminal prosecutor in the District of Columbia. In 1986 I moved to Seattle and joined my current firm, Keller Rohrback, where I segued into the field of complex civil litigation by first getting involved in a case alleging bid-rigging by the builders of nuclear power plants. Shortly thereafter, I had the honor of representing fishermen and local governments in the Exxon Valdez trial. Now much of my practice involves representing victims in fraud and environmental cases.

I went from being a criminal prosecutor to essentially doing the same thing in private practice because our capitalist system only works if those who cheat are penalized. This is a principle on which I have built my career.

LD: Please describe the current mix of work you do within your practice.

LLS: I represent plaintiffs in large-scale, complex cases involving corporate wrongdoing. We litigate against companies that pollute, commit fraud, manipulate prices and take advantage of consumers, employees and investors. I regularly call on my background in accounting, tax, bankruptcy, constitutional law, employment law, corporate transactions, insurance coverage and environmental law.

LD: You’ve also balanced that with serving as managing partner.

LLS: I’ve also served as Keller Rohrback’s managing partner continuously since 1991. I suspect that I am among the longest serving managing partners of any major firm in the United States. It’s been a fabulous ride and only been made possible with a group of talented partners and management staff. We now have offices in seven cities. Our diverse federal and state complex litigation practice has seen exceptional growth over the years with a continuing bright future.

LD: Is your business background beneficial as a law firm manager and practicing lawyer?

LLS: Absolutely, yes. As I previously mentioned, I have bachelor’s and Master of Business Administration degrees in accounting and finance, as well as a JD. This, in addition to my experience in private practice in Washington D.C. serving as an Assistant United States Attorney (and international experience) has given me a solid foundation. All of that experience was supremely beneficial.

However, the 30-plus years of law firm management and litigation experience working with opposing counsel, co-counsel, mediators, judges, experts and institutional, governmental and individual clients have truly given me the skills needed to effectively lead our firm in these changing times. Many of the same skills that are required to handle a complex multidistrict litigation are required to lead a large law firm. These include the ability to listen to and understand the perspective of different stakeholders, the persistence and rigor to do the hard work to evaluate problems and issues, the wherewithal and political savvy to put together a talented and trusted team, and the good judgment to be decisive but not impulsive.

It’s important to play the long game and understand that life can be full of surprises and disruptions. One needs to stay flexible and adaptable.

LD: Is there anything in your childhood that prepared you for your current job?

LLS: Funny you should ask. Growing up on a farm I was the supervisor of hundreds of farm animals on a daily basis. I had responsibility for their care and feeding and learned to relate to them and to always stay calm in, as they say, “their sickness and health.” I learned to be creative as a young boy when I needed to get a 1,200-pound steer to move where and when I wanted it to. Similarly, learning to herd a flock of sheep in the rain or driving snow has some similarities to trying to get a group of lawyers to do anything collaboratively. Being around animals daily for years also made me learn not to show fear or hesitation – while also being gentle and steady. Creative problem solving was necessary on a weekly basis.

LD: Are there any cases that you are especially proud of?

LLS: That is a difficult question as there are so many to choose from. I’ve had the blessing of having been involved in some of the most fascinating and high-profile cases in American jurisprudence. There were the corporate fraud cases involving Enron, WorldCom, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Tyco, HealthSouth and Bernie Madoff. There was also the environmental pollution case of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the devastation of the massive wildfire cases, as well as other environmental contamination cases. 

More recently I’ve enjoyed pursuing the manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies that are largely responsible for creating the nation’s opioid crisis. Being appointed to the plaintiffs’ steering committee by Judge Polster in the massive National Prescription Opiate Litigation, MDL 2804, and representing governments, municipalities and indigenous tribes in many western states has been a true honor.

I’m also proud of the work I did on the Volkswagen Diesel Emissions MDL before Judge Breyer. The lawyers on all sides of that case were truly amazing and it’s an example of how hard-fought litigation and creative problem-solving can result in outstanding results for all those involved. Currently, I am enjoying representing several states and local governments in their litigations against Monsanto over PCB pollution.

LD: Is there one that stands out?

LLS: One does stand out. I was fortunate to be a member of the international legal team that represented the Marshall Islands at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. For our work in that case, the team was nominated by the International Peace Bureau for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, along with the former Marshall Islands Foreign Minister, Tony deBrum. The other two Keller Rohrback lawyers involved in the case were Laurie Ashton and Alison Chase. Our work on that case is most memorable.

But given the current world events, and the pending cases at the ICJ involving Gambia’s request for provisional measures to protect the Rohingya people remaining in Myanmar from genocide and the Ukraine’s case against the Russian Federation under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of genocide, it’s clear that we as lawyers need to continue to use our skills and talents to try to stop suffering in the world as best as we can.

LD: What is unique about Keller Rohrback?

LLS: I believe as a firm Keller Rohrback strives for excellence in representing our clients. We choose cases carefully and we try to make sure we have the same goals as our clients. It truly makes a difference in morale and enthusiasm when you firmly believe in what you are doing. It isn’t “just a job” for our attorneys and staff. We all come from a variety of diverse backgrounds and try to bring a high-caliber, intense approach to litigation. We strive for intellectual and analytical excellence. We are also a dynamic firm in terms of our practice specialties, so over time we have evolved to our clients’ needs and changes in the law and the economy. Our goal is to win, and we achieve that through hard and impeccable work, communication, strong ethics and creativity. We are proud of what we do, proud of our clients and proud of our results.