Jake Holdreith, Trial Lawyer at Robins Kaplan

When it comes to his career, Jake Holdreith sees variety as the spice of law. Holdreith is the head of the Health and Life Sciences Industry Group and managing partner of the Minneapolis office at Robins Kaplan, a firm with an impressive legacy in trial law – and one that the decorated litigator is proud to have been a partner at for the past twenty years. Widely known as a virtuoso strategist, Holdreith has the ability to see the multifaceted inner workings of both sides of a dispute. For him, it’s the key to a successful career in litigation.

“My recipe is to be humble, be curious, be honest, and be a trustworthy guide,” says Holdreith. “Work as hard on the other side's case as you work on your own. Because if you don't know what they're going to do, you're not going to be effective.”

Holdreith happens to know a thing or two about being effective. Not only has he resolved countless complex matters before trial, he is also known for huge verdicts. Holdreith is continually captivated by his practice, which includes a pro bono portfolio centered around immigration cases.

Lawdragon: Can you describe the mix of your practice?

Jake Holdreith: I am a trial lawyer first and foremost. I always have been. Currently, my diet is mostly patent litigation for pharma companies and medical device companies. I'm usually either trying to help somebody get a new product to market, or I'm helping somebody to protect their innovation. I do a little bit of antitrust and some diligence work, supporting life sciences deals and evaluating how litigation issues could impact companies when they're thinking about buying or selling.

I also do some out-of-the-box cases and even some “cats and dogs” because I'm happy to take trials across a broad spectrum of industries and legal areas. I’ve done antitrust cases, constitutional litigation, a historic preservation case under the environmental rights act, and others. My pro bono interest is primarily in helping immigrants. I've worked with Afghans who supported the U.S. during the war and who are eligible for a special program to come here. I've worked with Tibetans, I've worked with folks in Central America and Mexico on asylum cases or trying to help them if they have gotten tangled up in deportation problems.

LD: Oh, that's fascinating. Why immigration?

JH: I kind of backed into it. We have a really strong pro bono tradition here at the firm. As partners, we mentor associates and like to give them the opportunity to figure out what they are passionate about. I got recruited to be a supervisor on an immigration matter and quickly found I loved doing it. It makes a huge difference in people's lives. And it’s a nice contrast to working on big tectonic forces in these trials for my business clients. This work is so personal, and it happens in a fairly short timeline. You can really see the impact you're making for a real person and that person's family. It's very rewarding.

LD: Is there a particular pro bono immigration case that you’d be willing to share?

JH: Sure. Our client Ezat was referred to us through the Volunteer Lawyers Network here in Minnesota. He was a truck driver in Afghanistan whose job for the U.S. Government was to deliver supplies to American soldiers at their base. He also pulled some guard duty at the inside gate. He is a beautiful man who lived up in the incredibly beautiful mountains in Afghanistan in a small village with his family all around him. He went to work for the U.S. military to help support his family. He also believed in some level of freedom for his country, and for himself and his family. He wanted his daughter to be able to go to school.

I understand that people don't come to me with legal problems, they come to me with problems. The law is a tool for them to solve their problems.

He worked for the U.S. for 10 years. He was one of the guys who left Kabul at the crazy chaotic departure at the airport that we all watched on TV. He got in a plane of 600 people, but he couldn't get his family there, so he came to the U.S. just by himself. Then he had to navigate getting the green card he’s eligible for and getting his family over here. The problem is that they're in the mountains in Afghanistan, where there are no consular services. They have to get out of Afghanistan, get to American Consular services somewhere, have their consular interview – only then he can get them over here. It’s not easy. And he hasn't seen his family for three years. His daughter was nine when he left – she's 12 now.

The first day I met Ezat I thought, "I don't even know if I'm going to be able to get this guy a green card." But now he has his green card, his family is getting their papers, and if everything goes as it should they're going to be reunited. It's incredibly rewarding work.

LD: Did you always want to be a litigator?

JH: I did not start out thinking I'd be a lawyer at all. There were no lawyers within my family. My dad was an English professor. My mom was a book editor, and then a cheese importer. I had a couple paper routes and worked in a deli and worked construction. I thought I was going to be a language and literature professor. I changed my plan after I went to the Modern Language Association meeting to look for jobs as a language professor and discovered it was a time of change in academia. In my dad’s time, a literature professor could have a good life as a tenured professor, but all of my friends who were ahead of me in academia were working on contract year to year and moving every year under really difficult conditions. I decided to go to law school, and I figured out pretty quickly that the courtroom was what excited me.

LD: How did you come to Robins Kaplan?

JH: I came to Robins Kaplan through Bob Harmon at the end of the 1990s. Bob was the author of the leading treatise on patent law who had testified as an expert in one of my trials. Robins Kaplan was just bursting at the seams with patent cases. Our most recent chair, Ron Schutz, (he just recently stepped down), had more cases than he could try. Ron is a fantastic trial lawyer. He needed a young trial lawyer to come in and take some of those cases. He asked Bob who might fit the need, and Bob put my name forward. The firm reached out, and it was a wonderful opportunity to get a lot of trials in an area that really interested me.

LD: And what were those early days like at Robins Kaplan?

JH: When I started, I spent a couple of months just figuring out which way was up. We were doing a lot of contingent fee work for patent owners, and I was handed three files with proposals to take on different contingent patent cases. I was told, "One of these is a case you're going to try. Plow through them, figure out which one it is." I spent three or four months digging deeply into these files, and I recommended a case that ultimately came to be known as the St. Clair Camera litigation.

The cases involved patents that were developed by a startup company called Personal Computer Cameras, founded by three men who had worked for the United States Government doing digital image sensing and processing. They knew a lot about remote sensing and electronic sensing – what we think of today as digital cameras. But they were doing this work before consumers knew anything about digital cameras. They retired from the government and tried to create a business making the first digital cameras for consumers – that was what their patents related to. Ron and I tried a bunch of cases together on those, the first one was St. Clair against Sony. It was the first case I tried at Robins Kaplan and also one of my first large verdicts – $25M, which was big, especially for a young lawyer like me. I remember it for the size of the verdict, but also because it was a hard-fought trial. I like patent cases because the patent trial bar tends to be filled with smart and hard-working lawyers. It's a worthy challenge.

I like patent cases because the patent trial bar tends to be filled with smart and hard-working lawyers. It's a worthy challenge.

LD: How was it working with Ron Schutz?

JH: Ron taught me a lot about how to think about trial and how to be effective at trial. One piece of his trial wisdom I like to remember and share is something he taught and lived. He would put up a cartoon of two dogs sitting at a bar in suits, drinking martinis. The one dog says to the other dog, “It's not enough for dogs to win, cats must lose.” The lesson is that lots of trial lawyers spend all their time thinking about why they're right. But both sides usually have lots to say to the jury about why they are right. If you want to win a case, you do need to explain why you're right, but you also need to explain that the other side is wrong. It's critical. Otherwise, you risk leaving your jury lost at sea with two conflicting answers that both sound pretty good.

LD: Last year Robins Kaplan secured a verdict against BMO Harris Bank that's now worth over $1B with interest. What can you tell us about that case?

JH: I’m very proud of our colleagues for that outstanding trial work. It is a real demonstration that the incredible trial legacy at our firm is living and breathing. BMO is the largest verdict in Minnesota history. It came out of the Petters Ponzi scheme – one of the largest Ponzi schemes in the country. Tom Petters was a Minnesotan who used a bank now owned by BMO Harris to run money supported by fraudulent transactions through. We represented the trustee who was appointed to try to get money back for people who had lost money through the scheme. That case was essentially about, at a high level of generality, the bank's willingness to assist Petters and its refusal to act on known warnings of the Ponzi scheme. That case really underlines to me the amazing trial talent at the firm.

LD: How do you tackle being a leader at the firm?

JH: It is a worthy challenge to lead trial lawyers who are fiercely independent and value that independence. Good trial lawyers need the freedom to try cases the way they want to. Which is fundamentally a leadership challenge. We have a great new chair of the firm, Tony Froio. Tony is one of these people who is on your side from the minute you meet him. He can look deeply into a person, see the greatness in them – whether they see it themselves or not. He can articulate it, and then ask them for it and hold them accountable to it. It's a really incredible skill. My job as managing partner of Robins Kaplan’s Minneapolis office is to support Tony's vision, and we’re very aligned. It's clients first. It's maintaining the legacy of trial lawyering. It's trusting and supporting our colleagues, making sure that we're all in and building the firm with our hearts and souls.

LD: What's some of the advice that you have for younger lawyers?

JH: I’m a trial lawyer, so I’ll skew my advice to trial lawyering. In law school, do trial stuff: clinics, pro bono work, moot court. It’s important to get up on your feet in law school. Then try for a district court clerkship, try for a trial court clerkship. That experience is invaluable. Try cases any way you can as early as possible in your career. Even if they seem simple or insignificant, getting in the courtroom early – learning how to talk to a witness, learning how to listen to what's happening and adapt on the fly – is invaluable. It doesn't matter if you're doing traffic tickets, just get into court. If you can go work for the DOJ or a U.S. attorney, that’s incredible trial training – do it.

In terms of how to be a great trial lawyer, my recipe is to be humble, be curious, be honest and be a trustworthy guide to the jury. Work your tail off so that you know everything there is to know about the case and you've absolutely thought of everything that might come up as best you can. Work as hard on the other side's case as you work on your own. Because if you don't know what they're going to do, you're not going to be effective.

He would put up a cartoon of two dogs sitting at a bar in suits, drinking martinis. The one dog says to the other dog, “It's not enough for dogs to win, cats must lose.”

The fact is, I don't get to decide my case – the jury does. Knowing you are right doesn't mean you're going to win, and it's not your decision. You have to be persuasive. You have to understand what the jurors want to know and what they need to know in order to see the case the way you see it, so you need to bring a lot of empathy and think about things from their perspective. You see a lot of trial lawyers get stuck arguing a case as if their audience was their client or their law partners. That’s not the audience. It is the jury.

LD: What defines your style as a lawyer?

JH: I understand that people don't come to me with legal problems, they come to me with problems. The law is a tool for them to solve their problems. I can look at it as a lawyer; I know how to get from this side of the chessboard to that side and get the legal win. That's important, but I’m also able to zoom out and look at the real problem this person is trying to solve. I can focus on putting the client first, not just being a hammer and seeing a nail. Not what's simply a win for me as a lawyer, but what's a win for this person and what's the best way for me to get there?

I very much believe in the trusted guide theory of trial lawyering. I think clients want you to put yourself in the client’s position, think about what they want and need, and give them the tools to make an informed decision about which risks to take. I think juries really want to get it right. I think my job is to be straight with jurors – to teach them what they need to know in order to get to the right decision. They say credibility takes a lifetime to build and a moment to lose; boy is that true in the courtroom. If jurors are convinced that you are being straight with them, they will reciprocate and decide the case based on what you teach them. You better have a good theory of the case and be able to back it up with proof, but if you are genuinely interested in helping people learn the subject matter and do the right thing, that goes a long way.