Photos by Gregg Delman
Chris Seeger and Paul Geller Have Redefined Mass Plaintiff Litigation. Core to their Success is the Humbling Practice of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Two men head to the gym.
South Florida. New Jersey. Different gyms, same deal.
They’re ready to roll.
Week after week, going on five years now, Paul Geller and Chris Seeger have stood side by side in the trenches, battling the most complex litigation ever conceived – seeking justice for families, cities and states devastated by America’s opioid crisis. Introduced in 1996, OxyContin and its ilk have killed more than a million Americans. For the first time, Americans’ life expectancy dropped. The cause? Opioids.
And for what? So the family that fomented this terror could put their name on a bunch of fancy museums. Unbelievable wealth.
Disgusting. Unspeakable really.
Not so long ago, accountability was a mirage. Those who died rendered addicts. Junkies.
A grieving family could never prove which distributor, which manufacturer, which pharmacy took their loved one.
Tough to make a jury care.
Largely impossible to justify the cost. The life of an addict in America 2023? To family, still priceless. In a courtroom, what, $50k max? And forget it if you’re a city or state trying a novel theory that the opioid scourge was a costly public nuisance. That dog, as they say, had failed to hunt.
Geller and Seeger know the battle all too well. Assembling the right coalition, leveraging the suffering of the many, attacking those who profited where they are most vulnerable.
They have devoted their careers to changing the game.
To taking Corporate America to the mat.
They’ve just finished round-the-clock negotiations to finalize a series of settlements once thought impossible – more than $40B. With their co-lead counsel in the National Prescription Opiate Litigation MDL, they have forced a who’s who of Big Pharma to pay several billion apiece.
Johnson & Johnson, AmeriSource Bergen Drug Corp., McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals, Allergan, Walmart, Walgreens, CVS.
Geller and Seeger are champions. Already headlining news accounts worldwide, with well-deserved honors for their leadership wresting a new level of accountability.
But today, they are just two grapplers. Walking into their gyms to roll.
There’s no place they’d rather be.
Geller and Seeger are both black belts in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, among the highest forms of martial arts and the rarest of accomplishments. It’s an art practiced vertically, mostly on the ground, with an opponent fighting to choke you, going for arm locks, neck cranks and other attacks, any one of which could cause serious injury. Your ear may blossom like a cauliflower, and you will likely feel like a night in the hospital ward.
Peruvian Necktie. Berimbolo. Paper Cutter. Bow and Arrow. Reverse De La Riva. Rubber Guard. Vinnie Lock. Mata Leao.
All moves and positions as much a part of BJJ’s lexicon as stare decisis, nolo contendere and quid pro quo are to lawyers.
Especially, they love walking into their gym, where they are just another fighter. They will warm up for 30 minutes, work on technique, then have a series of matches, or rolls, lasting five to six minutes until they are gassed.
The goal is to choke out or “submit” their opponent. Should that happen to them – rare, but it does – they have learned the wisdom of tapping out.
“Starting out, I got put to sleep a lot because of my ego,” says Seeger. “You learn from it. There’s no losing, only learning. It's a mindset that's very different from what people are used to.”
Jiu Jitsu has a way of taming ego. Or die trying.
“Joe Rogan, who is a legit black belt, says Jiu Jitsu is high level problem solving with dire physical consequences,” says Geller. “And that is about as spot-on a description as I’ve ever heard. That is one of the things I love about it – you make strategic decisions under enormous pressure and the consequences – good or bad – follow. The cases we handle are similar in that the strategic decisions we make have direct and serious consequences.”
Both compete as seriously in Jiu Jitsu as they do in court, competing – and winning – internationally and nationally with some of the toughest fighters anywhere. Seeger won the Gold Medal at the Pan Am Games, and Geller won the Gold Medal at the IBJJF Miami International Open, among many accolades. The fighting is an outlet, of course, but it’s also an embodiment of who they are. Driven to be able to walk into any room with the knowledge they can handle whatever awaits.
It goes without saying these are not your grandfather’s lawyers. There is not a golf course within 10 miles of their gyms, nor any exclusionary memberships. Well, that’s not exactly true. While anyone can come and fight, you will suffer real harm if you are not a serious student. If you want to earn a black belt, it may take you 10 years.
Still, all are welcome to come and get pummeled – and maybe, just maybe, learn a discipline that is life changing.
“Most people’s hobbies don’t involve severe pain and discomfort, but we share a love of this practice. There’s just something about it,” says Geller. “Once that door closes and you're on the mat, you’re just focused on the here and now – totally present and in the moment. We slap hands, bump fists, and then it's on.
“In our Jiu Jitsu academies, it's all shapes, all sizes, all religions, all colors, all political ideologies. You just share this profound bond of training and sweating and, as Chris said, learning. It's really an amazing community of people who want to improve not only themselves, but also each other.”
“People who go the distance in Jiu Jitsu are kind of spiritual people, whether you're religious or not,” says Seeger. “There is a spirituality to it, a peace with it. Jiu Jitsu folks are connected through some special channel to the universe. That's kind of a cool thing.”
Geller and Seeger talk about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with the exuberance of freedom. A home for spirits hardened by years waging war as the underdogs on behalf of former NFL players, car purchasers, duped investors, Facebook users, combat veterans harmed by 3M combat earplugs. Each excels at law and persuasion, of course, but is equally adept at amassing coalitions and financing battles required to take on big business.
Both grew up tough in and around New York City. Seeger was an amateur boxer who fought 16 bouts and worked in construction before attending Cardozo Law School, graduating in 1990. Geller graduated from Emory Law in 1993. As a boy, he fell hard for Bruce Lee and all things martial arts. Geller’s grandfather had been a Brooklyn boxer, and he was inspired by Tae Kwon Do, Vietnamese Cuong Nhu, Chinese Kung Fu, and – ultimately – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Early on, each spent time in a corporate law firm. And, as one does, each left. The twist is each left to become a plaintiff lawyer. Not unheard of, but not the usual path either.
They ascended the cutthroat-slash-collegial plaintiff bar in incendiary fashion, both notching lead roles and big tallies from the jump. While still young firms, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd and Seeger Weiss turned the table on defendants and their armies of lawyers transforming vast numbers of plaintiffs into a new type of battle.
Geller and Seeger met early on; their friendship took deeper hold in 2015 on the leadership team in the Volkswagen diesel emissions multi-district litigation. They battled side by side for six years, winning nearly $15B for consumers and environmental impact from the auto manufacturer, which had rigged its cars to show they were compliant with pollution standards while emitting up to 40 times the allowed amount.
It was the beginning of a bromance that puts the original “When Harry Met Sally” to shame. That film made $93M at the box office. Geller and Seeger productions? Well over $50B.
One day, Seeger noticed Geller’s ear was inflamed. He asked whether he sparred.
In a world of powerful lawyers working together while jockeying for individual position, they found a kindred spirit. One who had achieved a similar level of extraordinary professional success, who also appreciated the discipline and humility represented by a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt. For every 10,000 students who begins the study of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, only one will become a black belt.
“It's an eight, nine, 10-year road, and there's only one way to do it. The sparring is live, and it's real,” says Seeger. “There's no dishonesty on the mats.”
They’ve learned so many lessons in their thousands of hours on the mat – all of which apply in their professional and personal lives. Much like their black belts, which can never be washed because of the blood, sweat and tears they hold.
“Jiu Jitsu makes me a better lawyer, a better husband, a better father, and a better friend. Being a plaintiffs' lawyer and running a firm is stressful – we have to win to get paid and this is complex litigation that involves sophisticated clients, smart adversaries, looming deadlines and lots of tedious briefing. It is never lost on me that we have hundreds of employees whose families rely on the success of our firm to put food on their tables. We take that responsibility really seriously – and I don’t believe I could do what I do without the physical, mental and spiritual benefits that Jiu Jitsu provides me,” Geller says.
Make lemonade out of lemons
One bad move doesn’t necessarily end a fight or a case; shake it off, move on, and figure out a way to turn lemons into lemonade. Like complex litigation, Jiu Jitsu requires strategic decision making while under tremendous pressure.
“Sometimes we make the wrong decision or at least our opponent or the judge make it feel wrong after we’ve already committed and it’s too late to reverse course. In Jiu Jitsu, I may go for a submission attempt – but if I miss, if I’m off by inches, if my opponent anticipates it and defends it well, not only did I fail to get the submission, but I’m often in a more vulnerable position than before I went for it,” says Geller.
The key is not to panic, not to give up, but to adapt and try to find a way to use the opponent’s momentum against him.
In the Opioids litigation, Seeger and Geller, with others including Elizabeth Cabraser and NYU’s Sam Isaacharoff, sought approval of a “Negotiation Class” under Federal Civil Procedure Rule 23. The novel idea was the subject of a law review article by Harvard Law’s William Rubenstein and the late Duke Law professor Francis McGovern, but it had never been attempted in an actual case.
“There was no such animal,” Geller says, and Judge Dan Polster approved it. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the certification.
“In one fell swoop, the negotiation class was eviscerated. Easy come, easy go,” said Geller. “We didn’t sulk. We continued litigating, and ultimately settled the first round of multi-billion-dollar settlements.”
Further down the road, they needed a fair and equitable way to allocate the abatement money among the states, cities and counties. “Guess what we used?” says Geller. The metrics they devised in the effort to get the negotiation class certified, the lynchpin of which was an allocation calculator that used factors including opiod use disorder, opiod deaths and population to try to achieve some measure of justice.
“Although the negotiation class was ultimately rejected, its underpinning proved to be the key to reaching the allocation agreement that allowed the settlements to move forward. So we packed our bags after our loss at the 6th Circuit - we pivoted, we remained calm, and we used our attempted submission to get a different submission.
“In Jiu Jitsu terms, we lost the triangle choke but ended up with a tight arm bar, and we got the win after all,” says Geller.
It takes a very long time to get proficient and a longer time to get good at Jiu Jitsu. It takes longer to get a black belt in BJJ than in any other martial art. So if you are going to start this journey, you have to know it isn’t going to be quick.
Put your seatbelt on, fill up the gas tank, and get ready for a very long, often bumpy, life changing ride.
“In litigation, at least the type that we do, you can’t be looking for the quick hit. These are very complicated cases against wealthy corporations with high-powered, high-priced lawyers who bill by the hour and want the cases to go on and on and on,” says Geller.
In 2011 Seeger Weiss launched an unprecedented series of cases against the NFL, claiming former players had suffered head trauma leading to long-term neurocognitive disease associated with concussions. It was a blistering battle for many reasons, including the power and popularity of the NFL. Among the 4,500 plaintiffs were former stars including Tony Dorsett, Jim McMahon and Junior Seau, who had committed suicide. Proving a causal connection was especially challenging, as the illness caused by the trauma – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – could only be confirmed after death.
Despite the hurdles, Seeger achieved a groundbreaking settlement that provided funds for more than 18,000 players and changed the game. More than $1B in former players’ claims have been approved in the decade since.
“It was the honor of my career to represent the players and their families,” said Seeger.
Robbins Geller’s case against HSBC Finance Corp., underscores the merits of fortitude. In August 2002, the firm filed the case alleging predatory lending practices in Chicago – and settled it in June 2016.
“That’s 14 years of intense, hard-fought litigation, including one, and very nearly two, full-blown jury trials and many trips to the appellate court, with over $35M in actual out of pocket expenses – no litigation funders – our money,” says Geller. “We were patient, we kept our eye on the ball. And the final settlement – $1.6B – is the largest settlement ever following a securities fraud trial.”
The firm continues to litigate a case against Visa and Mastercard alleging antitrust violations over credit card swipe fees that it originally filed in 2005. “That one has been going on for almost 18 years – it had been settled, we thought, for over $5B – but because of appeals, we are still not at the finish line,” Geller says.
“But this is what sometimes happens in large, cutting-edge cases against mega corporations. If you don’t have patience to stay at it, keep going, and avoid premature exit ramps, then this flavor of litigation, and this martial art, are not for you.”
Jiu Jitsu is a team sport
It looks like an individual sport, right? One person versus another on the mat. But “your academy is a family, a team, and, without them, you’d be terrible at Jiu Jitsu,” says Geller.
Similarly, it may look to the outside world like the lawyer appointed to the leadership position, or the one who made the opening or closing statement at trial, is achieving an individual litigation success.
“But those who know, know. Success in both worlds requires a team of selfless, hardworking, dedicated teammates. In the match or at the podium in court, what appears to be an individual performance is actually the culmination of an immense amount of teamwork behind the scenes,” says Geller.
Take Robbins Geller’s role as one of the lead counsel representing the City and County of San Francisco in a bench trial against Walgreens in the opioid cases. Partner Aelish Baig stood out in court, delivering parts of openings, closings and examining witnesses. The firm achieved a great verdict from Judge Charles Breyer.
“But the success in that trial was the result not just of Baig’s excellent effort, but an entire team of Robbins Geller lawyers and lawyers from many other firms who worked around the clock helping the trial team get ready,” he says. Among them Seeger and his partner, Jennifer Scullion, along with lawyers from Lieff Cabraser; Simmons Hanley Conroy; and Levin Papantonio among others.
You’re gonna lose some
You train hard and prepare, but on the mats, you aren’t going to win every roll.
“There is an old Jiu Jitsu saying that you either win or you learn,” says Geller. “In high-stakes litigation, no matter how much you prepare, no matter how good you are, you have to know that you are going to lose sometimes, even when you think you should win,” says Geller.
Take the firm’s lawsuit on behalf of Tesla investors against the one and only Elon Musk. They claimed he failed to act in the best interests of the shareholders when he spent $2.6B of Tesla money to acquire a struggling solar panel business (SolarCity) that was founded by two of his cousins.
The six members of the board of directors who went along with the Musk-driven sale settled the lawsuit for $60M. But Musk went to trial. The presiding judge, Delaware Vice Chancellor Joseph Slights, agreed that there were pervasive and blatant flaws in the process that Musk used to make the acquisition. Yet, he ruled in favor of Musk. (Among his super powers is winning litigation. No word if he practices Jiu Jitsu …).
The firm has appealed Slights’ decision.
“And that’s okay. We lose sometimes. Tap out. Don’t let your pride end up resulting in a broken bone,” says Geller. “Congratulate the winner. Be gracious. Losing is okay so long as you learn from it."
Go for the knockout.
Seeger started Jiu Jitsu late, in his 40s. While he had 16 amateur boxing matches, he had sparred hundreds of rounds between the age of 16 to early 20s. As his kids were getting older, he wanted them to wrestle, rather than endure the striking he did.
“The beauty of being a grappler or a wrestler is, if you’re in a fight, you get to decide where you’re going to be – are you standing up or on the ground? If you’re a grappler, you know how to do takedowns,” he says.
Watching at the gym one day, Seeger called the sensei over and asked if he was too old to try. The sensei pulled over a 51-year old Newark Police Department captain. Seeger tried it and fell in love with the discipline. “It’s so hard. People quit in those first six months because you are getting the shit kicked out of you by people you would have walked by on the street.
“I thought I was a tough guy, and I was getting killed by 140-pound little guys,” he says.
“You have to want to be good and learn it more than you fear the process of getting there,” says Geller.
In the process, you learn to always be prepared, no matter what the adversary looks like. Because what you can control is you. Not entirely a BJJ lesson, but one from the world of pugilism and especially MMA fights.
“Fighting taught me the value of preparation and my competitive nature causes me to over-prepare in every situation,” says Seeger.
“Don’t leave it in the judges’ hands! You want to get the decisive win – a knock out or submission,” says Geller. “When the judges decide, it’s out of your control. Of course, in litigation, we don’t have a choice. Absent a settlement, it’s in the hands of the judge or jury. And you hope to win a lot more than you lose, and you do all you can to win. But you’d be naive to think that losing isn’t possible, and there is always something to learn from your losses.”
Be creative and open to new ideas
“Litigation essentially begs to evolve and have creativity applied,” says Geller.
Which is another way of saying don’t get in a rut or routine of doing things the same way you always have.
Seeger is at the helm of a first-of-its-kind case with critical ramifications for society and medicine. He is co-lead counsel with Ben Crump in representing family members of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman being treated for cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951, whose cells were taken and cultured to create a cell line known as HeLa, which is used to this day. Seeger is suing Thermo Fisher Scientific for profiting off of biotech products made using those cells, which were taken without her knowledge and for which she was not compensated.
“Even the cells that they took are known in the scientific community as “HeLa cells” – after the person from whom they were taken. This case is important not only for the Lacks family, but to shine a light on the years of unethical treatment of African Americans in the U.S. medical system,” says Seeger.
Despite their success, both Geller and Seeger are busier than ever, in part because of their focus on what’s next. For Geller, that means looking at the dark side of technological advances. He’s representing hundreds of small, local newspapers that he believes are being strangled out of existence by the tech giants’ anticompetitive digital advertising and publishing platforms.
“Nothing is worse than when I hear an associate or partner tell me, ‘this is the way we always do it.’ I think it’s really important to always think of ways to do things better. More efficiently. Be creative,” says Geller. As a Black Belt, he’s still eager to learn. Currently he’s learning a new BJJ system called 10th Planet. “It’s eye-opening. It is still Jiu Jitsu, but with a fresh and creative approach to positions and submissions.”
Seeger is also seeking to protect children, taking on Meta, Snap, TikTok and YouTube for using algorithms intended to attract and addict kids in the Social Media Adolescent Addiction/Personal Injury Products Liability Litigation.
“These companies deliberately designed and developed their platforms to addict children, precipitating a youth mental health crisis," he says. According to polling from Pew Research Center, social media addiction has soared among children and teens, with 35 percent of all teens saying they are on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat “almost constantly.” At the same time, scientific studies consistently show that heavy social media use creates serious mental health issues, including self-harm, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, sleep deprivation and suicide among teenagers.
Robbins Geller is also focused on the harms of social media, suing Facebook for privacy invasion through biometrics – a case they settled for an astounding $650M. The firm broke new ground finding ways to ensure the recovered funds actually went to class members. The firm hired a Duke University behavioral economist named Daniel Ariely to look at the typical form of “notice” sent to class members and to suggest ways to increase the likelihood that class members would participate in the settlement rather than delete or throw away the notice. Ariely ventured a number of ideas that no firm had thought of or utilized before – in terms of the words used and the options provided. They also used Venmo and Zelle for class members to receive their share of the proceeds.
The result was the highest “claims rate” (the rate at which class members submit claims) the firm had ever seen in a consumer class action.
Geller’s childhood idol, Bruce Lee, spoke about evolving, learning and growing, and he tries to implement that philosophy in the courtroom and on the mats.
Be water, my friend.
Specialize But Not Too Much
BJJ is just one of the pillars of mixed martial arts, along with other combat disciplines like kickboxing and wrestling.
“To be successful in MMA, you have to cross-train,” explains Seeger. And the two friends take the lesson to heart. Seeger still actively boxes, and Geller trains with legendary kickboxing coach Henri Hooft.
The two apply the same philosophy to their litigation practices. Working together, Robbins Geller and Seeger Weiss have successfully handled billion-dollar securities class actions, antitrust cases, and mass torts. “We don’t think of our firms solely as securities specialists or consumer protection specialists, but more broadly, complex litigation specialists with experience in many areas,” Geller says.
Whether going to court or the mats, there is uncertainty – about which way a judge will rule, what arguments a defense lawyer will make – or about who will come up and ask for a match.
“In life, the source of apprehension or fear for any of us is unpredictability. If you know exactly what is going to happen, there’s nothing to worry about,” says Geller, which is far from the situation in large, complex litigation.
When you go to open mats – no matter what school you’re from, what gi you wear, what patch is on it – there’s a lot of eyeballing.
“Tomorrow I’ll go to Clifton [N.J.], which is 20 minutes away, and there will be some young MMA guys there training. I’m going to do well against some, and ok against others,” says Seeger. “Every day, it’s humbling. It should be every time you train, frankly.”
Every time a fighter points at them, and says, “Wanna roll?” a lesson is learned.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, and overcoming that and saying, ‘Sure, let’s go,'" says Geller. “Going through that unpredictability and coming out ok, whether I win or lose, I learned something.”
You train hard. You work hard. You want to win, but you don’t necessarily know who you’re up against, what tricks they have up their sleeve.
You learn the respect of preparation.
“Preparation is everything,” says Seeger. “The scariest thing for anybody who has ever done combat sports or fighting is being tired in a match, so tired that you can’t do what it is you know how to do.”
As a boxer, Seeger was never afraid to get punched. But he never wanted to get so tired he couldn’t defend himself. Fighting on the mat, in court, same difference. “I’m not going to get caught with a lucky shot by anybody.”
He will know every document, be ready for anything thrown at him, and have his endurance in top form. “I’ll be able to go for 10, 20 weeks of trial if you want and just keep going,” says Seeger. “That mentality I took from boxing, Jiu Jitsu into what I do for a living.”
Because someone is always on the line.
On the mat, who they are.
In court, a client, sitting at home, depending on them.
“I always put that extra hour in if I’m doing something, because I say to myself, ‘Those people are counting on me, hoping I’m ready to be there. The person fighting their battle for them,'” says Seeger.
Seeger remembers all too well hauling Sheetrock up 10 flights of stairs as a carpenter.
What they do now is an honor.
“We get to represent people who need our help. We’re lucky,” he says.
The Jiu Jitsu mentality. Take no one for granted.
You’re no better than anyone else.
Geller and Seeger return to that time and again as we discuss their passion for Jiu Jitsu. On the mat, they’re just another guy at the academy.
“They don’t care,” says Seeger. “It took years before people even knew I was a lawyer, and then probably longer than that before somebody got the idea to Google my cases.”
Oh yeah. Lead lawyer against the NFL in the historic concussion litigation. Seeger took on one of the toughest franchises on the planet – almost by definition – and won accountability for its players for head injuries that caused horrific brain trauma resulting in death and other serious harms.
“’You handled the concussion case?’" Seeger recounts a fellow fighter asking.
“Well, yeah, what difference does it make? Are you going to stop trying to choke me?” he asked.
“No. I’ll try harder to choke you now,” he said.
Seeger, 62, appreciated the response.
“Is the Geller in that Robbins Geller firm your father?” an impressed fighter asked, not considering that it could be the 54-year old he was sparring with. “It just didn’t seem possible to him it could be me.”
To be able to walk away from the law, even if all paths intersect, coming together somewhere near a field far away.
“There is a brotherhood, a sisterhood,” says Seeger. “When I meet another jujitsu player, even a junior starting out, male or female, there's a little bit of a bond there.” A man was doing work at Seeger’s house not long ago and found out he was a black belt. “He didn’t want to charge me,” says Seeger.
“I just want to be known as someone who trains really hard and who's a good guy. It's the nicest group of people,” says Geller. “Half the people that Chris and I hang out with ... I mean they're monsters. They are killers. But on some level, they're the sweetest, nicest, warmest people. It's really incredible.”
Young grapplers ask them why they still roll. They shake their heads, and give a wizened grin. With apologies to clients, colleagues and others, both have days they’d be happy to never set foot in a courthouse again. “When I think of my future, I’m okay knowing that one day I’m going to stop practicing law. But I am not okay with the thought that one day I may have to stop practicing Jiu Jitsu,” says Geller.
“People say Jiu Jitsu builds character. I think it’s more accurate to say Jiu Jitsu reveals character,” says Geller. “It is so easy to quit and the number of people who start BJJ and quit is huge. But sticking with something that is difficult and physically and mentally taxing and that takes years to gain proficiency in, really does say something about those who make it to black belt and beyond.”
“A black belt is just a white belt who didn’t quit,” Seeger repeats of an oft-made observation. “We’re all the same.”
Keep rolling until it turns black.
And it will.