Brian Vines wasn’t always a lawyer. First, he was an engineer.

As it turns out, the two aren’t so different.

He’s found that true throughout his legal career, but especially when he and partner Matt Minner founded their plaintiffs’ firm, Minner Vines, at the start of 2022. The team’s deep bench of experience in car and truck accident cases, pharmaceutical litigation, products liability, wrongful death and more has yielded impressive results: A year in, the firm has already achieved results including a $14M settlement for the death of a college athlete.

The pair were first together at Hare, Wynn, Newell & Newton, which Vines joined in 2011. There, he concentrated on a range of personal injury matters including nursing home negligence, car accidents and class actions that yielded hundreds of millions of dollars for victims and their families.

But Vines and his partners realized that they had the chance to build something different, and, ever the engineer, Vines had a systematic vision for how to make it happen. And, as a dedicated rock climber, Vines relied on that engineering combined with calculated risk to create a truly new kind of firm. “An opportunity presented itself,” he says. “We all said, ‘Hey, let's do this.’”

Lawdragon: How did your legal career start? Is it similar or different to the path you’ve taken now?

Brian Vines: I went to law school, clerked for a federal judge, and was going to be a white-shoe firm defense lawyer. That was my vision for my career. I interviewed in San Francisco and New York, but my wife and I decided we didn’t want to do that rat race, so we went back to Birmingham.

There, I began working for Bradley Arant, which is a great firm. I was doing pharmaceutical defense, but I kept getting pulled into these smaller plaintiffs’ commercial disputes because I wanted to get experience. My dad was a DA in San Francisco (at one time under Kamala Harris), and he always told me, "You need to get experience; get on your feet.”

He was right. The big lie they sell you in law school is that “sophisticated work” is what you want to do, but that generally means there's so much money at stake that you're just going to be a little worker bee. You actually learn to be a lawyer by working on small cases where the client is only willing to pay the associate, so you take on a bigger role. The cases I had like that were small commercial disputes where my client was the plaintiff.

So, after doing those kinds of cases for a while, I realized being on the plaintiffs’ side was way more fun. You're driving the case. You're picking who to depose. You are driving the strategy of the litigation.

Then, I had a case where we represented an insurance company, and a plaintiff was suing another insurance company. We were the second insurance company. So, if the plaintiff won against the first insurance company, we didn't have to pay. Hare Wynn represented the plaintiff. So, in the first deposition I ever took, the only other lawyer in the room on my side was Don McKenna of Hare Wynn, and that started a relationship.

After that, I got involved in a plaintiffs’ class action while at Bradley. Then, Don called me one day and said, "Hey, would you be interested working for us?" So, I went over, and I loved it immediately.

LD: What did you love about it?

BV: Right away, they got me involved in matters like representing the state of Kentucky in the Vioxx drug litigation, up against defense firms like Skadden, Baker Botts, Decker and Goldman Ismail. Working against those lawyers, at the top of the defense bar, taught me so much. Because of the work we did for Kentucky, Alaska and Montana hired us. The litigation was rolling along, but we had some removal issues which slowed it down for a bit, so I started working in single-event cases with Matt in Kentucky. Again, going back to my philosophy of getting experience through the small cases.

More and more, plaintiffs’ cases just sat better with me and my view of the world. Doing some of the big pharmaceutical litigation, I could really see that plaintiffs’ firms do good for society and hold companies accountable. No matter your politics, our market economy only works when you have to pay the full freight of what you do.

So, I was still in Birmingham, but coming up to Lexington a fair amount, and I saw an opportunity in Lexington. This is a great town and Kentucky is a great place to live.

With the office in Lexington, Matt and I had the chance to build something from scratch. Plaintiffs’ firms can become siloed. You've got these great plaintiffs’ lawyers who have their cases, but then can only handle so much on their own. The vision I had centered around the need to get away from the silo – to bring a business approach to the plaintiffs’ practice of law. I call it scaling excellence. So, when I came up here seven years ago, it felt like we had this blank slate to build something different.

LD: And what did you want to do with that blank slate?

BV: My vision for change – and it's coming to fruition – is handling cases with a team approach. I'm an engineer by training, so I always think systematically. It's not Matt's case or Brian's case. It's the firm's case. We all bring our own expertise, and we want to bring that expertise to bear on as many cases as we can. Right now, for example, we represent 800+ coal miners in Eastern Kentucky in a products liability litigation.

I want us to bring a level of sophistication of representation to individuals on a broader scale than we have before, while still staying in touch with the fact that for every plaintiff, this is their most important case. Whether it's a $50,000 car wreck or a $500,000 nursing home case or a $10M traumatic injury case, it’s the most important case to them.

The vision I had centered around the need to get away from the silo – to bring a business approach to the plaintiffs’ practice of law. I call it scaling excellence.

LD: Right – and you’re creating systems where you can help more people more effectively.

BV: Exactly. In five or 10 years, I hope this firm is helping even more people than it is today. I also hope that it doesn't need me. I'm not saying I don't want to be here, but I want to build an organization that has principles and systems so that it's not dependent on a personality.

LD: So, you’re building something that will last as a business and as a way to help people.

BV: Right. If we build an organization that doesn't need us, that means we will have built an organization that's representing people on the highest level. Our business is successful when our clients are successful. So, if we can build a successful business, by definition, we're helping more people.

LD: How do you and Mr. Minner complement each other in your styles – how are you similar or different?

BV: Matt is very detail-oriented. He asks questions that I hadn’t even thought of. Matt is very intense – if he wants something, it’s going to get done.

I like to think of myself as the operations guy, asking, "Okay, now how are we actually going to do it?" All my cases go up on my whiteboard so I can see how it’s going to happen. I'm a whiteboard guy. I can't think without one.

For every plaintiff, this is their most important case.

LD: That sounds like your engineering background coming into play.

BV: Yes. One thing I particularly enjoy as a lawyer is getting involved in cases where there's some level of complexity that my engineering background allows me to figure out.

In my first year of law school, I went to my writing professor saying, "I'm scared to death. I've never written a term paper. And now I'm in this degree where my grade depends on one paper written over four hours.” She looked at me, and said, "You'll be fine. Engineers are fine. It's the history and English people that always have trouble with legal writing because they try to write a novel.” And she’s right. Engineers write systematically.

Engineering also allows you a unique look into the math and science of cases. For the Vioxx litigation it was statistics, and I worked with David Madigan, the head of the math department at Columbia. For another case it was working with a top scientist around sound, and in another case it is understanding the science of respirators. Any big litigation comes down to science or math. And while I may not know the particular subject, my background gives me the ability to figure it out (with the help of brilliant experts…of course).

LD: What are other keys to running a successful firm?

BV: Leveraging talent. Talent is going to end up being the critical path, whether that's a great assistant or great paralegals or great young lawyers. People want a reason to work, and here we hope young lawyers will say, "I want to work there because I know I'm going to learn a system to be a great lawyer to help people." That’s outside of any monetary component because you should make money if you're successfully representing people.

So, the goal is to build a great organization that uses systems properly and in a way that leverages talent. And here in Lexington we’re right near the University of Kentucky, which has a great law school, so talent is right here.

LD: Looking outside your practice – it seems like all three of you have that “go for it" approach to life in your lives out of work. You’re a rock climber, right?

BV: I am. The thing about rock climbing is it doesn’t make me a daredevil. Like my practice, it’s very systematic. It's calculated risk. So, it's funny, the older I've gotten, the more I realize my personal and professional lives are really just manifestations of who I am.