Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan.
Paul, Weiss litigation partner Karen Dunn has first-chaired some of the most consequential trials of the past decade, including, most recently, the much-watched Epic v. Apple antitrust case and Sines v. Kessler, the first and only private lawsuit to take on the leadership of the white supremacist movement. Her client list includes some of the world’s most recognized corporations, including tech titans like Amazon, Apple, Oracle and Uber.
But Dunn’s practice extends far beyond the courtroom. She has become a go-to advisor for the boards and executives of major companies, high-profile individuals and top government officials, as they navigate multifaceted crises, including the most sensitive and complex matters where reputation and business operations are on the line.
Lawdragon: Last year, you tried two landmark cases in five months: the Epic Games v. Apple antitrust trial last May in San Francisco, and the civil conspiracy trial against neo-Nazi and white supremacist hate groups in October in Charlottesville. How do you prepare for each trial, especially when they happen in such close proximity with each other?
Dunn: I once heard a great trial lawyer say that most of the important work of trial takes place during the trial and, in some sense, this is true. The work you do a month in advance is not as important as the work you do a week in advance, which is not as important as the work you do every night during trial to prepare for the next day.
That said, it’s still quite a lot of work. I try to always take it one step at a time and not look out over the next several months and think, wow, how will I get all of this done?
And actually, the best part about trying cases is that it is a team sport. I don’t work alone and, by this point in my career, have found a whole group of people to try cases with. We are like a trial SWAT team. We descend on the law and the facts, distill the core themes and fit the evidence into them. We have years of experience communicating with one another, including under extreme stress, so we are able to minimize the daily transaction costs of getting things done. And most importantly, we genuinely like each other. We have fun. And we are excellent at what we do because we love doing it.
LD: Tell me about Sines v. Kessler. How did you come to be involved in that case? What did it mean to you to be able to find some measure of justice for those victims?
KD: Social impact cases are core to my legal practice. Before private practice, I spent a long time in the government, including as a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia. Earlier in private practice, I was part of the representation – led by my former partner Michael Gottlieb – of the owner of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. He was a victim of political violence when a man drove from North Carolina with an AR-15, believing a false conspiracy theory that a pedophile ring associated with Hillary Clinton operated in the basement.
Following the Unite the Right event in Charlottesville in 2017, I got a call from Robbie Kaplan, a leading civil rights lawyer who had just opened up her own firm, who was familiar with some of the work I had done. We had never met but admired each other from afar. She asked if I wanted to sue the Nazis with her, following the violence in Charlottesville, and I said of course I do. We put together an all-star team, including my partners Jessica Phillips and Bill Isaacson, as well as Robbie’s partners Michael Bloch, Julie Fink and Gabrielle Tenzer, and Alan Levine and David Mills at Cooley.
She asked if I wanted to sue the Nazis with her, following the violence in Charlottesville. I said, of course I do.
I cannot do justice to this case in the space we have here. It was a transformative life event for everyone who was part of the proceeding. It was immensely meaningful as a lawyer, as a person and as someone who cares about our country, to be able to secure some measure of justice for our brave plaintiffs whose lives were forever changed by what happened.
I have always had great faith in our country’s jury system but there was a moment during jury deliberations, after the jury had been out for a couple days, when I thought that I might have to leave the law. I couldn’t imagine that a jury of good faith could overlook all of the evidence of racially motivated violence that we had seen during the course of the trial. The jury sent out a bunch of notes over the course of deliberations, some of which were worrisome.
So when the verdict was read, my primary feeling was relief – the jury found each and every defendant liable for racially motivated violence and had imposed not just compensatory damages but also punitive damages. I had expressly told the jury in closing argument that the point of punitive damages was to send a message beyond just the defendants in the case that there was no place under our laws for this racially motivated violence. The jury had sent that message.
LD: Your examination of former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was a game-changing moment in the Waymo trade secrets case, which the media called a “battle royale.” After your examination, the case settled quickly and very favorably for your client Uber. How would you describe your style in the courtroom, and does it differ when the whole world is watching?
KD: I think the most important asset you have as a trial lawyer is your authenticity. So I don’t think about creating a particular style; I am just myself. I think when lawyers try to be someone they are not in real life, it undermines credibility and trust, which is the worst thing you can do. And no matter how many people are watching, I am focused on the only audience that will matter at the end of the day: the jury or, if it’s a bench trial, the judge.
LD: You’re one of a few trial lawyers with a very active crisis management practice. How is advising CEOs, board members and other C-suite executives in reputation-threatening public crises different than trial practice? What skills and experience do you need to have to advise on crisis matters?
KD: Trial work and crisis management are more similar than many people realize. Both require you to play three-dimensional chess strategically. Both require you to be extremely quick on your feet and act decisively in the moment. Both require you to be a clear communicator who can break down complicated concepts and make them accessible to people. And both require expertise in preparing witnesses who are under extreme stress.
One critical difference between the two is that trials inherently deal with a fixed set of facts – once you get to trial, the parties have agreed on an exhibit list and the rules of evidence control what is admissible. In crisis management, the considerations are wide-ranging, often affecting every part of a business or political situation, and new facts or curveballs can come at you all the time. My prior experience on campaigns and in communications conditioned me to thrive in that kind of environment, but I completely understand why it’s not for everybody.
LD: You've prepped the likes of Jeff Bezos and other executives and important witnesses for their biggest "hot seat" moments. Can you share any top-level tips for staying calm and effective under that kind of pressure and scrutiny?
Trial work and crisis management are more similar than many people realize. Both require you to play three-dimensional chess strategically.
KD: Most of the strategies I use in witness prep I picked up doing debate prep for presidential candidates and confirmation prep for Supreme Court and Cabinet nominees. There are two general principles: First, every witness is different and you need to spend the time to earn their trust and understand the way they learn and assimilate information. Second, running a professional process is important because it gives the witness confidence and increases the likelihood that they do the work necessary to be a success on the stage or in the witness chair when the day comes. There is nothing I can do to remove the stress from the situation entirely, but I can reduce it by making sure the witness is well prepared.
LD: How did you first decide to become a lawyer? What do you enjoy the most about the profession?
KD: My mother went to law school when I was six years old and then became an associate, and later a partner, at a law firm. Predictably, as a kid who never wanted to do the thing anyone expected of her, I vowed for years never to become a lawyer. Instead, I worked in television news, then as a staffer for Representative Nita Lowey, and then as press secretary to Hillary Clinton when she ran for Senate in 2000 and as her communications director in the Senate.
I truly loved my job in the Senate. It required me to engage in constant advocacy with nearly every news outlet in America. I loved putting together our case and figuring out how to communicate it most persuasively. I also really loved working for the government, and the mission-driven nature of public service. That all caused me one day to have an epiphany – I should go to law school to be a federal prosecutor. If I didn’t like it, I figured I could return to politics having learned something about the law and about myself.
Turns out, I love trying cases and standing up for the government in court. I found the law challenging and interesting and, along the way, met colleagues who made the work fun. Ultimately, I created a legal practice where I can still work on important social impact cases while wrestling with some of the most challenging legal issues of our day, and working with colleagues who have become close friends. I am grateful for that every day.
LD: Out of all the litigation you've handled in your career, is there one case that stands out as a "favorite" or is particularly memorable for some reason?
KD: The Charlottesville case was the most transformative but since I already spoke about that case, I will talk about another favorite: working with my husband to secure budget autonomy for the District of Columbia in Council of the District of Columbia v. Gray.
Budget autonomy is the ability for the District of Columbia to spend its own locally raised taxes and fees without congressional approval. It sounds very technical but was actually a long-standing civil rights issue in the District, which was perfectly capable of deciding how to spend its own money. In 2012, the D.C. Council passed the Budget Autonomy Act but the Attorney General at the time advised the Mayor, Vincent Gray, not to enforce the act.
My husband, who at the time was an appellate specialist, teamed with me and we litigated this case pro bono for two years in district and federal courts. Most people thought it was a lost cause but in the end, we won, a victory that turned in part on key legislative history my husband found one night. For years, we talked about this case so much at home that I used to joke the biggest opponent of budget autonomy was not Mayor Gray; it was our daughter.