Lawyer Limelight: Derek Loeser

Derek Loeser entered the legal industry to stand up for individuals against wrongdoing by major entities. In his first job as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, he represented people discriminated against in the workplace – his first foray into fighting for individuals against corporate malfeasance. Now, as senior partner at complex class action firm Keller Rohrback, he goes to bat for thousands of individuals at once.

If you take a quick glance at the most high-profile class actions and national litigations in the last couple of decades, you’ll find that Loeser has been involved in a significant percentage of them. He’s taken on big banks as lead counsel in the Wells Fargo unauthorized account consumer class action, where he helped achieve a $142M settlement victory. He’s currently battling Big Pharma in The National Prescription Opioid Litigation. He’s also standing up to Big Tech in his most recent undertaking as co-lead counsel in the consumer privacy MDL litigation against Facebook.

It's not the headlines or big dollar amounts that draw Loeser to these high-profile cases; it’s the people. He’s been litigating against corporations for more than 20 years, but looking back on his time in law school, Loeser only wishes he could have gotten started sooner: “If someone had told me I could spend my time suing corporations for doing terrible things to people, I would have signed up right away,” he says.

Lawdragon: Tell us a bit about the range of matters that you’ve covered in your current practice.

Derek Loeser: I am a plaintiffs’ attorney focusing on mass tort and class action cases. Over my nearly thirty years of litigation work, I have represented individuals, institutions and governments in a broad range of cases in all stages of litigation, including trials and appeals.

LD: What brought you to this kind of practice?

DL: I would say a mix of family background, good advice and serendipity. My grandmother was a lifelong civil rights activist, and I was always inspired by her commitment to her beliefs. A refrain of my dad’s was to find a job I loved since I would spend most of my waking hours working (the wisdom of a neurosurgeon). When I was in law school, I realized that not everyone got this advice (or did but didn’t follow it) when I had my first law firm interview. The hiring partner asked me about my work ethic. I told him when I loved what I was doing, I worked passionately without concern for the time it took to get the job done. He looked pained – horrified, in fact – and said, “What about when you don’t love what you are doing?” That’s when I knew that wasn’t going to be the right place for me.

LD: That’s a great way of thinking. Where did you end up instead?

DL: My first job out of law school was a dream job for me. I was hired through the United States Department of Justice Attorney General’s Honors Program as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division. I traveled around the country with a badge, prosecuting employment discrimination cases on behalf of the federal government.

LD: Why was that a dream job for you?

DL: It gave me the opportunity to help people who did not expect to have a voice. I was also in court and in trial right out of the box, which was a tremendous learning experience.

LD: How does that early experience inform your practice now?

If someone had told me in college that I could spend my time suing corporations for doing terrible things to people, I would have signed up right away.

DL: My work at Keller Rohrback has much in common with my DOJ work. I represent people who have been harmed by foes (typically corporations) far wealthier and more powerful than they are.

This is not the practice for everyone, for sure. It’s high stakes and high risk, and, as the saying goes, defense counsel gets paid per hour, and plaintiffs’ counsel gets paid perhaps. It is both challenging and rewarding work.

LD: What makes it so rewarding for you?

DL: I sue large corporations for lying, cheating and stealing. What’s not to like?

It is professionally satisfying to show my clients that it is possible to right wrongs through the law. To demonstrate to corporations that abuse their power and privilege that they can be held accountable for the damage they cause. And to go toe to toe with corporate opponents who often believe they can outspend, outmaneuver or out-lawyer their victims. Showing them that they are wrong is one of the things that keeps this work exciting.

I also have the pleasure of working with a great group of lawyers and professionals at Keller Rohrback, where I have practiced for over twenty years. We have a group practice – unlike most law firms, it is not “eat what you kill” at Keller Rohrback and is instead a team approach that ensures that help is there when you need it on cases big and small.

LD: What else do you enjoy about Keller Rohrback – what makes it a unique firm?

DL: Keller Rohrback is an exciting place to work. We focus on high profile, public impact cases. We write well, argue well and know how to try a case. We are nimble and choose our battles wisely since our opponents usually are large corporations with enormous litigation budgets. If you want to join a firm where you will feel good about what you are doing, how you are doing it, and want a lot of responsibility early in your career, Keller Rohrback is for you. The group practice concept is also a selling point. We are colleagues not competitors, and a rising tide raises all boats.

LD: Let’s talk a bit about some of those cases – are there any that stand out as particularly memorable to you?

DL: I have worked on fascinating, large-scale litigation throughout my career, from major retirement plan cases against Enron and Countrywide, to multibillion-dollar mortgage-backed security cases against Wall Street and international banks on behalf of Federal Home Loan Banks. Over the past several years, I have been part of the team of outstanding lawyers leading the national opioid epidemic litigation. I helped manage the litigation against a major manufacturer defendant (Mallinckrodt) and the work of several medical and public health experts in the case. The opioid litigation has been described as the largest, most complicated litigation in United States history. It has been an opportunity to tackle a massive public health disaster caused by egregious corporate misconduct, and help communities devastated by the opioid epidemic.

Another fascinating case was the Wells Fargo unauthorized account case. The case started small, with a couple of plaintiffs who realized Wells Fargo had opened accounts in their name without their consent, and snowballed into a front-page story, with congressional hearings, fired CEOs and all. The case is a great example of a successful class action case against a major corporation, settling at $142M. The victims of the fake account scandal were compensated for their losses, including with first-of-its-kind credit damage reimbursement, and the company was taken to task in a public and prominent way for its abuse of its customers. Objectors delayed the disbursement, but after two 9th Circuit arguments (on the same day) affirming the settlement and overruling the (mostly professional) objectors, the victims were compensated.

We focus on high profile, public impact cases. We are nimble and choose our battles wisely since our opponents usually are large corporations with enormous litigation budgets.

I am currently co-lead counsel in In re Facebook Consumer Privacy User Profile Litigation, the MDL that grew out of the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. The case has been a monumental undertaking.  I’ll leave it at that for now.

LD: Speaking of recent matters, are there any trends you’re seeing in your practice area lately?

DL: Companies keep getting bigger and the cases continue to get bigger with them. For example, big tech and social media companies have hundreds of millions of users, and when they break the law, that scale means a case with an enormous class. Many cases against big tech companies are working their way through the courts now, with closer scrutiny of big data practices and their impact on our society.

LD: Looking back, how did you first become interested in a career in the law? Did your undergraduate work put you in that direction?

DL: I was an American Literature major with a minor in politics, philosophy and the law at Middlebury College. Somewhere in there I started thinking that I should be a lawyer. I didn’t love chemistry (too early in the morning, too many precise measurements) and found my place in classes that were heavy on writing, arguing and examining the American experience from multiple perspectives. These are crucial skills that lawyers need. Literature majors out there, take heart. The law needs you.

LD: Once you entered law school, is this the type of practice you imagined yourself having?

DL: I’m not sure I knew there was such a thing as a plaintiffs’ class action attorney when I was in law school. It took me several years to stumble into the practice area, and then it was love at first sight. The first case I worked on at Keller Rohrback was the Enron case where we represented employees whose retirement savings were decimated when Enron collapsed. I was hooked.

LD: Did you have any early mentors when you were first starting out? Someone early on at Keller Rohrback?

DL: Lynn Sarko, the managing partner at Keller Rohrback, has been a friend and mentor throughout my time at the firm.

Most lawyers are linear thinkers. Lynn is not. I have learned enormously from his creative, multi-dimensional approach to litigation and negotiations. It’s just plain fun watching him confound our opponents. Lynn has given me the opportunity and the space to develop my practice and flourish. This is something I have always appreciated. As a senior Keller Rohrback partner (time flies), I have tried to do the same for my younger colleagues.

LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?

DL: Go get a job and then once you are out there amongst all the lawyers in the world, work on developing a practice that suits you and makes you smile when you tell people what you do.

LD: That’s great advice. Other than loving what you do, how would you describe your style as a lawyer?

DL: I learned long ago that there are no short cuts to success in the court room – the lawyer who is better prepared usually wins.

I’m reminded of the typical Loeser family dinner when I was growing up. Thick skin and perseverance were key to making a point. This made for animated family dinners that weren’t for the faint of heart but were early lessons in how to be persuasive. I sometimes advise young associates nervous about their first argument to treat the experience the way they would an argument with their parents at the dinner table – sometimes that advice is well-received, other times I get blank stares. It turns out not everyone enjoyed arguing with their parents at dinner.

I also try to avoid needless animosity and bickering and stay focused on what matters most. Over the years, I have seen lawyers destroy relationships with co- and opposing counsel over petty disputes and, for that matter, major, substantive disputes. I have always believed that it is critical to maintain good relationships with colleagues on both sides of the V. Life is short, and I suspect that being angry and bitter makes it shorter. Litigation is intense, but it does not require animosity. All cases come to an end eventually and being on good terms with my opponents is an ambition I take seriously.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

DL: I am old ski racer, with many injuries to show for it but I enjoy many outdoor pursuits in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with my wife, Katie, and my no longer small children, Zach and Matthew. I also make a mean latte – coffee art and all – for anyone who visits me at home. It’s important to have at least one useful skill outside the law.