Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan
Brian Timmons thought about becoming an economist or a physicist, but once he decided to become a lawyer, the type of law he would practice was obvious: complex commercial litigation.
The Quinn Emanuel partner had long been adept in both math and science and, having attended Duke University on a football scholarship, he was naturally competitive.
“I considered pursuing a Ph.D. in econometrics and my interest in that field definitely impacted my legal career,” says Timmons, who studied at the London School of Economics before graduating with honors from Harvard Law.
In the end, he chose a career in law over a more quantitative path because it offered something that appealed to him – a more personal, human element.
“I have always found joy in helping people,” says Timmons, a member of the Lawdragon 500 Leading Lawyers in America. “As a first-generation college graduate, I didn’t have any lawyers in my family, but I had an impression – from watching movies and reading books – that lawyers in our country possess certain skills, knowledge and understanding that empower them to help other people.”
When Timmons envisioned himself as a lawyer, he says, he consistently imagined leveraging his study of math and economics to better serve his future clients.
It was a vision that has led him to this point in his career at Quinn Emanuel, where he serves as the Global Head of Complex Litigation. He also chairs the firm’s Private Investment Firm litigation practice.
Timmons has gained national recognition, trying cases in jurisdictions from New York and Delaware to California, and many places in between. He also has represented clients internationally, in venues like Hong Kong, England, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, the Cayman Islands and throughout much of Europe.
Earlier in his career, he served as court-appointed counsel to criminal defendants, through the federal indigent defense program, and was an associate at Latham & Watkins, where he was elected an equity partner in just seven years. He joined Quinn Emanuel in 2004, after a brief stint as CEO of a tech start-up during the peak of the dot-com boom.
Lawdragon: You’ve really had a variety of experiences. How has that shaped your career?
Brian Timmons: Life experience is perhaps the greatest of all teachers. Looking back on my life, even before college and law school, I had so many different jobs and unique experiences growing up. I was raised by a young, single mother with limited means in rural Idaho. We moved around a lot. I attended over 11 different elementary schools before age 12. I found my first job when I was only 8 years old. And from then on, I never had any trouble finding work after school or during the summer. I worked in so many different settings – on farms and ranches, paper routes, restaurants, construction sites, automotive repair shops, etc. – doing so many different tasks. Many of these jobs required hard physical labor, unimaginable by young people today. But these experiences taught me the value of hard work. They also taught me a lot about people and human behavior.
My training to become a trial lawyer really began in those rough and tumble days of rural Idaho.
And because we moved around so much, I was often confronted by bullies as the new kid in town. I was forced to learn how to defend myself. I was an outgoing, friendly kid with a kind disposition, but still gained a reputation as one of the schoolyard brawlers. I never picked a fight, but then seldom backed down from one either, even when I should have ... and I instinctively came to the aid of others, often to my own demise.
My training to become a trial lawyer thus really began in those rough and tumble days of rural Idaho, long time before I ever even attended law school.
LD: Even after law school and a successful early career in Big Law, you took a foray into the tech world as a senior executive. Why?
BT: By then I was married and had a growing family. The personal sacrifices required to be successful in Big Law can be taxing at times. I wanted to try something else for a while and to spend more time with my family.
It was also the middle of the dot-com boom. So many friends and clients were becoming wealthy overnight, without working the long hours I was accustomed to working. So when the opportunity arose, I decided to take it.
LD: How did you end up back in Big Law and at Quinn Emanuel?
BT: That’s a good question. I enjoyed the experience as a tech entrepreneur, and I was also able to spend more time with my family, but the dot-com bubble burst not long after I had taken the job. It was a short two-year run, and I learned a lot. In the end though, there was too much risk and volatility given the needs of family, and I missed practicing law. This time, however, I wanted to work for a law firm that was focused on litigation instead of deal work. After two years in the tech world, I was also smitten by the entrepreneurial spirit. Going to a firm that was smaller and more innovative, a place where I could have a greater personal impact, was a big draw.
Quinn Emanuel was the ideal place. At that time, there were only about 125 lawyers in the firm, mostly based in California. We had just opened a New York office, but the firm was still relatively unknown in New York and the rest of the world. Today, New York is our largest office. We have more than 1,000 lawyers and 33 offices around the globe. We consistently rank among the top law firms in the world in nearly every category, including profits per partner, and we are the firm most fear to face in court, according to an annual survey of in-house counsel.
We have come a long way in the last 25 years since I joined the firm. To watch and participate in this rapid growth has been an incredible experience.
LD: Was your practice affected by Quinn’s global expansion?
BT: Yes. Almost immediately upon joining Quinn, I focused on developing a national and international practice. Given my specialization in litigation matters involving corporate governance, broken deals, complex corporate finance and accounting, I spent a lot of time litigating in New York, Delaware and other places around the country. I am a member of the New York and Washington, D.C., bars, in addition to California, and work from our offices in all three locations. My practice also includes representing clients from around the globe in U.S. courts and representing U.S.-based clients in disputes throughout the world.
Mastering the facts is critical to achieving a successful outcome.
LD: Going back to your early years as a lawyer, what are some of the cases that stand out to you?
BT: One is my former firm’s representation of Sallie Mae, which back then was a government sponsored entity created to facilitate and service the federal student loan program. Sallie Mae had issued very exotic, structured notes that were purchased by the elected Treasurer of Orange County, Calif. The Treasurer had made a bunch of rogue, risky investments using taxpayer funds. As interest rates began to rise, the County experienced massive losses and it was forced to file for bankruptcy. At the time, it was the largest bankruptcy ever filed by a municipality and it made national headlines.
The taxpayers were going to have to fund all the losses. To help recover some of those losses, the County sued several parties including our client, Sallie Mae. In order for us to represent Sallie Mae effectively and to get the right outcome, we needed to find a way to explain these incredibly complex structured notes – a type of financial derivative – in simple terms. And to do that, we needed to understand them thoroughly. I was just a mid-level associate when staffed as the second chair on that case, and yet it really piqued my interest and played into my strengths. We achieved an early and great outcome for the client.
LD: What was your takeaway from that experience?
BT: I learned that in complex commercial disputes – really any legal dispute – mastering the facts is critical to achieving a successful outcome. When the stakes are high, those facts are usually complex and technical. It is not easy to master them, especially in the limited time frames within which we operate. But it’s essential.
LD: That knowledge must be extremely useful in your role as the Global Head of Complex Litigation. Tell me more about that role.
BT: A big portion of the work we do at Quinn Emanuel is to represent clients in high stakes, fast moving disputes that arise from agreements involving complex financial products, complicated financial transactions, technical accounting or financial reporting problems, and battles over corporate governance.
Although each of these may be the subject of their own discrete practice areas within our firm, they all fall under the broader category of complex commercial litigation.
Our practice groups are organized by the voluntary association of lawyers who specialize in these areas rather than a top-down formal management and reporting structure. As a result, the focus of every lawyer in the group is to improve their skills and experience and the quality of our service, rather than to jockey for power within the firm. We collaborate and share work product with one another, across many industries, jurisdictions and fact patterns. We spot trends on the cutting edge and then share that information with one another and with our clients. I see my role as basically trying to help facilitate all of this.
The other thing I try to do is to ensure that our younger lawyers who wish to practice in this area are given the opportunity to do so. I try to help them link up with the partners working in this realm, wherever the need may arise in the world.
LD: Are there any pieces of advice that you find yourself giving younger associates particularly often?
BT: My recurring advice to associates these days falls under two themes – communication and ownership. That is especially true in the post pandemic world of more virtual (or hybrid) work experiences.
I am constantly reminding associates of the need to communicate with their supervisors – to express their interests, their challenges, to speak up if they're drowning in work, not getting enough work, or are not getting the right kinds of opportunities, to ask questions when they don’t understand, and to express their skepticism or alternative views when so moved. This is the best way to learn. And the key to any well-functioning relationship is communication.
I also encourage associates to take ownership and control of their careers. They should proactively seek assignments that interest them and that will serve their career interests, look for ways to improve their knowledge, skills and training, to market themselves to partners within the firm and eventually learn to market themselves – and the firm – to clients and potential clients outside the firm. Instead of seeing themselves as employees, waiting for the law firm to cater to their unique needs and preferences, they should think of themselves as individual entrepreneurs – small business owners – working within a larger business organization. Too many young lawyers wait for their law firms to provide them with a career path rather than striving to make their own.
LD: Is your practice devoted exclusively to complex commercial litigation for large businesses and financial in institutions?
BT: Well, they comprise a big part of my client base. But my clients also include high net worth individuals – celebrities, tech billionaires, investment firm founders, sports team owners, professional athletes, philanthropists, etc. They call upon me to help them navigate a variety of thorny legal and strategic challenges.
They know they can trust me to put their interests above my own.
LD: But the names of these individuals are not included among your published list of clients?
BT: Exactly. They know they can trust me to put their interests above my own. They know I won’t trade on their celebrity or financial status.
LD: You mentioned trends earlier. What developments are you seeing in your practice and across the firm?
BT: We are very fortunate in that the demand for our services has never been higher – around the globe. The number of high stakes disputes that are being filed in Delaware Chancery Court has increased significantly. Also, as markets cool and we head into a recession, we are starting to see an uptick in business failure litigation, financial reporting and restructuring litigation, and other financial litigation typical of cyclical downturns. Rising interest rates and market volatility has strained certain financial products and trading strategies and we can see the storm clouds of litigation gathering on the horizon. Many of my corporate and private investment fund clients are gearing up for battle.
LD: Even though you mostly represent large investment firms and corporations today, do you still feel that you're able to find that human element and connection?
BT: Absolutely. I wouldn't be doing this today if I didn't feel a personal human connection. Behind every business and investment firm client, is a person – or group of people. Given the gravity of the situations we encounter, the level of trust and commitment becomes very profound and personal. Although the context may be business, the needs become very human. More than anything else, that’s what motivates me. Helping people – employees, members of management, stakeholders and the stakeholders’ stakeholders. Ultimately, up and down every inanimate organization, these complex legal problems come down to real people with real lives involved. For me, there’s a human story behind every case.