In September 2022 when Blank Rome associate Robyn L. Michaelson stood in New York’s Commercial Division and strode to the lectern positioned equidistant from the bench, the witness stand, and the packed jury box to examine the witness, all eyes in the courtroom were fixed on her. As Michaelson guided the client through his direct examination by allowing him to tell the story in his own voice, the spectators in the courtroom heard a straightforward explanation of reasonable, responsible corporate practices straight from the source. In a complex trial involving aviation insurance for losses resulting from the confiscation of an aircraft by Brazilian tax authorities, the jury returned a verdict in the policyholder’s favor after only 15 minutes of deliberation.
What the jury and no one in the courtroom other than the Blank Rome team knew was that this was Michaelson’s first witness examination at trial. It was flawless. You may be asking how and why an associate examined the client’s corporate representative during a high-profile, week-long jury trial. The answer is inherent in Blank Rome's insurance recovery practice group’s philosophy.
“We’re trial lawyers, not discovery litigators,” says James 'Jim' R. Murray, partner and co-chair of Blank Rome’s Insurance Recovery group and Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. “That’s not a catch phrase we put on bumper stickers. It’s the way we approach cases from their inception, which shapes our entire practice toward efficiency and garnering the evidence necessary to prove coverage as informed by the jury instructions. Our team thinks about the trial from the jump, so when that day arrives, our associates who have been doing the heavy lifting preparing for trial are ready and excited to take center stage.”
Blank Rome elevated Michaelson to partner on January 1, 2024. Jared Zola, a New York-based trial lawyer and partner in the Insurance Recovery group, recruited Michaelson out of law school and has been a mentor to her ever since. “Elevating Robyn to partner was an easy decision. In addition to excellent writing and analysis, which are table stakes, our group puts a premium on sound judgment, poise and keen instincts. Robyn possesses these qualities in spades,” Zola says.
Blank Rome’s Rise to National Prominence
While Blank Rome’s policyholder-only insurance recovery team is now a nationally recognized group, that was not the case just eight years ago when Murray, Zola and the leading insurance recovery team from Dickstein Shapiro joined Blank Rome. Indeed, Dickstein Shapiro then – and Blank Rome now – is one of a very small number of Big Law firms with a pure policyholder practice committed to representing policyholders against their insurers. The idea of a policyholder-only practice started to emerge about 35 years ago, mostly in the asbestos and pollution area. Murray recalls that many at the time thought the practice would be short lived, but as the need for policyholder-only practices continued to expand into other areas, it took off in the decades that followed.
After a career spanning roles in the 3rd Circuit, government, and other top law firms, Murray joined Dickstein Shapiro in 2007. It was at Dickstein Shapiro where he met and immediately began working with Zola on several large trials and the two have been working together ever since. By 2015, many law firms and lawyers, including Dickstein Shapiro, were considering opportunities with other firms, and it became clear that the insurance team had to find a new home due to conflicts with firms that represented insurers.
The upside was that the tight-knit insurance recovery group was able to interview with other firms as a group with the full knowledge and approval of Dickstein, including the approval to move with clients when the time was right. Then, in December 2015, Blank Rome approached Dickstein to discuss a possible move to the firm. At the time, Murray and Zola were skeptical that any large, full-service firm with more than 600 lawyers truly had no insurance industry-related conflicts.
Our team thinks about the trial from the jump, so when that day arrives, our associates who have been doing the heavy lifting preparing for trial are ready and excited to take center stage.
However, Blank Rome leaders assured the Dickstein team that the firm had been looking for a policyholder-only practice and that the firm had not historically taken much insurance coverage work. So, in February 2016, more than 100 lawyers from Dickstein Shapiro joined Blank Rome, including 14 in the insurance coverage group. As part of the move, the insurance team was assured that it would never be confronted with an insurance industry-related conflict of interest and Blank Rome’s commitment in that regard has been dutifully adhered to. Murray says, “Blank Rome has been absolutely sacred in that commitment to our practice group, and it’s really been a cornerstone of our growth and success.”
Almost immediately upon joining Blank Rome, the Insurance Recovery group was on a mission to build laterally, which meant recruiting talented attorneys with whom the practice had relationships to bring them in on the ground level for what they knew would be something special. Strategically, Murray notes, it was very important to build a diverse team comprised of the best attorneys in the country. For example, the team recruited partner and now co-chair of the Insurance Recovery group, Linda Kornfeld in 2017, who joined Blank Rome alongside partner David Thomas. The firm has also welcomed partners Lisa M. Campisi, Mary Craig Calkins, Helen K. Michael, Natasha Romagnoli, Robert P. Jacobs, Seth D. Lamden, and most recently Rikke Dierssen-Morice, as well as a number of counsel and associates. Overall, the firm has grown the practice with 19 hires since adding the team, the majority of which are women, and all of whom have some prior connection to the original group. They’ve been very happy with the strength and diversity of their growth nationally.
Zola says of the practice, “I know how lucky I am that I’m able to practice with a group of people who I consider family. When we’re working in the hotel war room at 3:00 a.m. the night before trial closings, being surrounded by a cohesive group of people who I trust and genuinely like is a big part of our success in the courtroom.”
Sustained Excellence Is No Mistake
Murray and Zola make clear that while they are incredibly close, a practice group does not become successful at the highest levels of this profession solely because of close friendships. Every single person in the group shares a passion and a desire to not only be insurance coverage litigators and trial lawyers every day of the week, but to do it on a national and international scale, on a premier level. This group of attorneys exude competitiveness – they play to win for their clients every time. Every person in the group has a national perspective and practice, with representation in major markets like Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago, among others.
Representing some of the biggest companies and entities in the world that are regularly facing complicated issues, the group finds itself brainstorming about issues, talking through them, and helping one another think through strategy and approach on a daily basis. Murray is quick to note that this includes the junior attorneys. They learn early in their careers that there is a collaborative and communicative culture at the firm, and embrace it as they advance within the group. Michaelson recalls being terrified and energized when, as a first-year associate, Murray requested her input on an opening statement he was preparing to present at trial, though she quickly learned that all input is valued at the firm with an eye toward providing the best client service in combination with critical professional development. These collegial and professional relationships enable the group to be completely comfortable reaching out to one another on any given day to say, "Hey, you know, this is an important issue, I want to talk about it." This group puts ego aside for the greater good of client success.
Trials are inherently team experiences, and success depends on the strength of themes and arguments as well as the strength and cohesiveness of the teams.
John A. Gibbons, a D.C.-based partner and co-chair of the Insurance Recovery group, agrees that to maintain its excellence the practice is intentional about training and creating opportunities for attorneys at all levels. For example, Gibbons points to his experience as a “lifer” within the Insurance Recovery group and how the group promotes trial readiness in its lawyers. Gibbons recalls when as an associate, the structure of the group afforded him second- and first-chair opportunities in high-stakes trials. As partner, those experiences prepared Gibbons and others in the group to think backwards when analyzing cases. He notes, “When you start preparing for a trial by first envisioning the presentation of evidence at trial and work back from there, all the preparatory work moves the dispute towards that pivotal moment.”
Over the years, the group has represented countless Fortune 500 companies in their disputes, and guided them through trials and courthouse-steps settlements. “A main driver of our success is the group’s trial prowess, along with the incredible colleagues in the group,” Gibbons adds. Gibbons has represented utilities, Fortune 50 pharma companies, commodities companies, manufacturers and engineering companies in successful trials. He acknowledges that trials are inherently team experiences, and success depends on the strength of themes and arguments as well as the strength and cohesiveness of the teams: “Any trial accolades we receive as individuals or as a firm are due to our incredible team. I cherish the focus and camaraderie of the trial experience, including the late-night and early-morning brainstorming sessions with our junior colleagues who frequently contribute some of the best ideas to the overall approach. When every team member is invested in the outcome, and rowing in the same direction, we are hard to beat.”
Approach to Cases
Blank Rome is more defense-oriented overall, but the Insurance Recovery group’s approach is like a little plaintiffs' boutique practice within a larger firm, which means they aggressively advocate for an early trial date, limited discovery and fast-paced litigation. “It does not benefit our clients’ objectives to get bogged down in discovery disputes. They are ultimately time consuming, expensive, and play into the insurance company’s playbook of delaying the day of reckoning,” Zola says. He continues, “Don’t forget, in our cases, the insurance company is holding our clients’ money and, frequently, it takes a jury or the court to force the insurer to turn it over. In our view, the sooner the better.” So, to that extent, the Blank Rome team thinks like a small boutique does. Often that produces favorable results, which includes settlements driven by trial pressure.
Murray echoes these comments, telling us, “We approach each case with a plaintiff’s mindset and advance the case toward trial. We begin thinking about, and crafting, an opening statement very early in the case and continue to develop and refine the theme of our case until trial. It is not just enough to ‘identify’ a theme early in the game. Every word of the theme has to be constantly tested and adjusted.” Gibbons adds, “Trials highlight the power of storytelling and the convergence of intellectual arguments with common sense approaches that are digestible by judges and jurors alike.”
Substantively, the insurance recovery practice area is ever-evolving. New and not-yet-charted issues arise all the time. The team’s perspective and approach to tackling these new issues includes group brainstorms and determining who the right person is to respond and formulate a strategy for the client, as opposed to living in silos where the person who responds is always the person who received the phone call. Additionally, staying true to the core fundamentals of being trial lawyers who formulate themes and locate the key evidence from the outset allows the Blank Rome team to address any “hot” and “new” issue with the same measured precision as they would an issue that they have faced a hundred times.
Discovery disputes are ultimately time consuming, expensive, and play into the insurance company’s playbook of delaying the day of reckoning.
It is clear that this team is adept at moving from one matter to the next with ease. By way of example, during the past 18 months, the Insurance Recovery group has worked on a wide array of matters:
Zola was quick to add that it is fun to be the person to stand up in court, but Murray and Zola note that it would be impossible to do so successfully without a team of stars who know the evidence and its application to law as well as, if not better than, they do. “I feel like a newscaster standing in front of the world’s best teleprompter, at times. Our team is second to none and the information that they feed me is invaluable to our success in court,” Zola says. His experience is not unique within the Blank Rome insurance recovery team.
Expanding on the group’s trial experience, Gibbons adds, “The practice group members appear in courts across the country, and internationally counting arbitration matters. Every week we find ourselves in multiple proceedings, from pretrial mediations, to court appearances, trials, to appellate arguments.”
Michaelson shares her trial experience as being an “ah-ha” moment when everything clicked. “Being at trial when an interrogatory response that you helped draft is read into the record or a witness is impeached with testimony you elicited at deposition and seeing the impact on the jury – those are the moments when you realize how important every step is and why we focus on trial from the very beginning of the case,” Michaelson recalls.
In Murray’s 40+ years of experience, he notes that, “The practice is more varied today than I have seen,” and the practice has a bright and busy future with accomplished rising stars among its ranks.
A Profession First and Drop the Fancy Words
Murray tells us that he is focused on the practice group maintaining the “profession.” The practice of law today is described simultaneously as a “business” and a “profession.” “We treat our adversaries with the utmost civility. We have a zero-tolerance policy regarding unprofessionalism within our group. A balanced approach of zealous advocacy and civility directly corresponds to successful results for our clients,” Murray says.
Providing business-oriented, successful results for their clients is the group’s primary, constant goal. They accomplish that, in part, through striving to perfect the art of trial work, including providing junior lawyers with the opportunity to take on meaningful roles early in their insurance cases.
As for advice to younger lawyers, Murray gives the following: “Strive for simplicity. Speak and write clearly. Use short sentences. Cast aside legalese and scrap insurance-speak.”
Zola agrees and recalls a memory from a trial early in his career when, during preparation, he suggested to the team that the insurance company owed coverage “under” the insurance policy. Just then, the senior trial lawyer on the team (Murray swore it wasn’t him) picked up the stack of paper on the table and looked under it for what felt like an eternity while Zola’s cheeks blushed. The point was made. Just speak like a normal person having a conversation with a friend and drop the legal lingo.
While it seems obvious, Murray gives a final piece of advice: “Try to be likeable.” He notes that almost everyone has a redeeming trait that can be embraced. “Be yourself and lean into it. Perhaps it’s modesty, or shyness, or an undeniable earnestness. You have to be you, so you better figure out at least one likable trait and take advantage of it!”