By Alison Preece | October 27, 2022 | News & Features
Federal district court in Delaware, late August 2019. Lawyers from an ambitious new firm stood in front of the judge with an ask: preliminary injunction for their case, in which they were alleging patent infringement and theft of intellectual property. They were representing a small Canadian technology company, Densify, whose life was on the line, facing off with litigation heavyweight Morrison & Forrester.
Preliminary injunction being notoriously difficult to obtain, Judge Leonard P. Stark offered to get the case quickly to trial instead. He set a date for the jury trial to begin in January 2020: just five months away.
The partners at Reichman Jorgensen Lehman & Feldberg – who had been partners for less than a year, were operating in different geographic locations and had only filed this case about four months earlier – said to the judge, “Yes, terrific, thank you.”
Then they looked at each other. The collective talent at the table was considerable. Courtland Reichman, a former managing partner at McKool Smith, had been lead counsel on several IP and commercial cases and had an impressive number of wins to his name.
Christine Lehman was a renowned intellectual property lawyer with extensive experience in patent trials, particularly at the fast-moving U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC). They had a handful of smart, skilled attorneys around them with solid starter backgrounds in clerkships and as associates at major litigation shops, often coming from elite law schools and some with advanced technical degrees.
Still, most of them had never gone to trial together. They had all taken big risks in founding or joining this new firm, which was committed to results-based billing and a flat internal structure. They had big plans, but so far, they were still an unproven entity.
This trial wasn’t just a bet-the-company case for their client: it could make or break the new firm.
Lehman leaned over to Reichman at the August hearing and said, “You need to go get Khue.”
BUILDING THE DREAM TEAM
Khue Hoang, a former semiconductor engineer, was a highly sought-after attorney with two decades of successful patent and licensing cases under her belt. She had represented the likes of Google and Apple and was known for her ability to cogently explain complex technical concepts in a commercial context.
Reichman had been chatting with Hoang for a few months by then, pitching his upstart new firm. With the Densify trial on the horizon, Hoang decided to take the leap.
“I was ready for something different,” says Hoang, who had worked in Big Law for twenty years at three different firms. “At that point in my practice, things were getting unwieldy with billing rates, billing models and conflicts. They had a different model. I’m generally a risk-adverse person, but they had the right philosophy, the right mix of people and practices. It became clear to me that this was a risk very much worth taking.”
Over the course of the ensuing trial, they needed to prove that the defendant, VMware – a mammoth cloud computing and virtualization technology company with billions of dollars in revenue – had willfully infringed on two of their client’s patents.
This trial wasn’t just a bet-the-company case for their client: it could make or break the new firm.
“The case was fascinating,” says Lehman, a founding partner of Reichman Jorgensen and lead in the trial. “We had to show that VMware had met with Densify a number of times. They would inquire about their inventions and talk about possibly acquiring the company. Then, they would go dark. And we had to prove that six months later, VMware would introduce a new product to market that was just what Densify had shown them.”
With a strong set of facts and their team assembled, they stuck to their guns in terms of running the firm how they had envisioned: They had associates handle witnesses and argue motions; they had a non-billable-hour, success-based model; and they deliberately sought input from everyone on the team.
The synergy of the group was perhaps the greatest unknown. While there were some prior relationships – Lehman had gone to school with Reichman, who had worked with Hoang 10 years prior and with Jennifer Estremera, the deputy managing partner, for years at their prior firm – most of them were new to each other. Suddenly they were pulling all-nighters together, in close quarters, with high stakes all around.
“We were in a crucible,” says Hoang. “Being tossed into the middle of a litigation team at trial, it’s a proving ground. You either come out of it lifelong friends, or you never want to work with them again. We are all very much the former.”
It’s a friendship founded on deep professional respect. “I watched Khue argue a JMOL [judgment as a matter of law] motion, and by the end, my mouth was just open,” says Lehman. “I thought, ‘Wow, that was good.’ And when we finally finished that case, I said to Courtland, ‘Hey, you’re actually a pretty good lawyer.’ He was like, ‘You weren’t sure?’ But it was a big leap for all of us starting this firm together.”
After a nine-day trial, the jury returned a verdict of $236M for Densify. The client’s existential threat was thwarted, and the unproven entity of Reichman Jorgensen now had proof: their new business model for a law practice could work.
A CULTURE OF SUPPORT
Shortly after that first big win, Reichman Jorgensen went into lockdown with the rest of the world as Covid-19 surged. Fortunately, in addition to the camaraderie and firm pride that had been forged during trial, they were in good shape logistically since remote work options had always been a part of their ethos.
“We’ve always embraced working from home, and other flexible structures like part-time work,” says Estremera, another founder of the firm. “Above all, we value our people.”
The flexible structure is partly aimed at retaining women lawyers, particularly in the upper ranks where the numbers across the industry are still sparse. Reichman Jorgensen is a majority women-owned firm, and most of the women are mothers.
“Keeping that talent around in the long-term is more valuable than making sure someone is in the office every day from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.,” says Estremera. “Efficiency is central to our model, and we have incredible talent here who know how to get the job done while still taking care of the rest of their lives.”
Estremera is a key steward of the culture of the firm, and speaks passionately about cultivating diversity of thought and encouraging the active engagement of associates in the meatier aspects of trial. She personally speaks with all associates on a regular basis, and connects each of them with partners for more ongoing mentorship. They have weekly group trainings and meetings in addition to fostering one-on-one relationships.
“We were in a crucible,” says Hoang. “Being tossed into the middle of a litigation team at trial, it’s a proving ground. You either come out of it lifelong friends, or you never want to work with them again."
The firm also is participating in the Midsize Mansfield Rule initiative, which sets quotas for considering underrepresented lawyers for leadership roles. In addition, the firm teaches and promotes business development skills, including speaking and publishing opportunities, to combat the lingering (white) boys’ club of traditional law firms.
“True inclusivity comes from intentional and deliberate outreach,” says Estremera. “That means reaching out to people who might not speak up as readily in a larger group setting, and keeping open channels of communication so that they feel like they can bring up any concerns they have.”
Estremera learned the impact of a good mentor early on: She grew up in a Mennonite community, and when she was 17 years old, she met a female lawyer who took her under her wing. It was her first exposure to the industry, and she was entranced.
“I enjoy the excitement and the energy of trying cases,” she says, “and I love being a mentor, supporting others and giving them opportunities.”
INTO THE MAIN ARENA
Laura Carwile can attest to the outstanding opportunities given to worthy associates at the breakout boutique firm – she worked side-by-side with firm partner Michael Feldberg, a renowned white collar defense and commercial litigation attorney, in a recent antitrust case brought by the Department of Justice.
The DOJ had accused a group of executives at various poultry production companies of conspiring to fix the price of chicken sold to grocery stores and restaurants. Reichman Jorgensen’s client, Roger Austin, was a former vice president of Pilgrim's Pride who was being accused, along with nine others, of criminal violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The case went to trial three times – yes, three. The first two juries were hung, but the DOJ persisted against five defendants, including Austin. In the final trial, Feldberg, Carwile and the rest of the trial team was able to secure a complete acquittal for their client.
“The facts bore it out – this was fair competition,” says Carwile, who was one of three lead attorneys on the case. “The marketplace was dictating the prices. Our clients maintained their innocence from the beginning and they were ultimately vindicated. It was one of my proudest professional moments so far, and I'll never forget it.”
Carwile came to the case with significant courtroom experience, having served six years as an Assistant District Attorney in San Francisco before joining Reichman Jorgensen. Still, the scope and stakes of this case were huge.
“From the get-go, I felt the weight of that privilege to be in that role, to be defending someone's freedom,” she says.
With her experience as a prosecutor in multiple units, and degrees from Stanford and Harvard Law, Carwile had plenty of options for private practice. She chose Reichman Jorgensen because she saw that it was a proper trial firm (the partners were in the Densify trial when she was interviewing) and she thought she would be able to jump in and practice at a high level in a collaborative, non-hierarchical environment.
“From the get-go, I felt the weight of that privilege to be in that role, to be defending someone's freedom,” says Carwile.
She wasn’t disappointed: “Everyone here works together for the client, for the greater good,” she says. “There’s no self-interest, no egos.” In the chicken price-fixing trials, her talent was quickly put to use: In the first trial, she was cross-examining witnesses and spear-heading arguments to the judge directly about evidence, rulings, jury instructions. By trial three, she was cross-examining one of the government's main fact witnesses, as well as another witness who presented all of the summary evidence against their clients.
“Michael treated me like an equal,” she says. “My ideas were just as valid as his, we would argue as equals behind the scenes. He listened to me as many times as I listened to him. And I know that's how all the partners at Reichman Jorgensen are. If you have an opinion, if you have an argument and you bring it to them, they actually listen.”
THE LAWYERS’ LAW FIRM
Contention in the legal industry over the billable hour goes back decades, and can make it seem like the needs of the firm and the client are at odds. Firms like Reichman Jorgensen are burning through that old narrative and forging a path forward that works well for everyone.
“When Courtland approached me about joining the firm,” recalls Hoang, “he said, ‘Isn’t it time we practice law the way we want to practice law?’ And I honestly had not thought that was a possibility, working in these large, established environments. Here, we’re really able to put the client first and do our best work.”
Whether it’s their boutique size, their high numbers of female partners, their lack of billable hours, or their deliberate fostering of inclusion and collaboration, the firm avoids the trap of hierarchy and competitiveness that can throttle promising talent at bigger firms. They’re keeping their lawyers happy – which is good for clients, too.
“Our whole mission is to have a practice that really serves clients and is enjoyable for the lawyers,” says Estremera. “We started with the notion that there would be no billable hour. Because nobody likes the billable hour. Not partners, not associates, not clients. It's bad for mental health. It's bad for client alignment.
“Using a fixed fee, on the other hand, unleashes our lawyers to right-size the amount of work they're doing. If you think a project will take five hours, but it ends up taking 20, there's no incentive to stop before you find the answer. The incentive is to find the right answer and to win.”
The fixed fee arrangements are discussed and agreed to ahead of time with clients. A summary judgment motion, for example, will typically cost within a certain range, and they take into account variables including the facts, the case, and who is on the other side. If the scope of the case changes to a great magnitude, which sometimes happens given the unpredictable nature of litigation, then they have another discussion with the client before moving forward.
The firm set out to change the practice of law for the better, and a big part of that is placing value on work output rather than hours-based measures of success.
“We’re not asking ourselves, what are the limits on billable hours?” says Estremera. “The only question is, what do we need to do to win?”