"In the past three years, we have had two partnership classes that are 100% women." Cravath is changing, though some things will always remain the same. One of its top partners talks progress, and gives us her side of the story.
Chambers Associate: Can you tell us about any developments at the firm over the past year that you would like our readers to know about?
Karin DeMasi: We have had one of the best years in the firm’s history across practice areas, including a number of high-profile deals, litigations and firm developments—going beyond client work to firm culture as well. This year we had a Supreme Court victory in our long running AmEx litigation against the DOJ. That was a victory at the very end of the Supreme Court term in one of the most significant antitrust cases frankly of all time. It set a standard for two-sided markets, making it not only an enormous victory for our client AmEx, but one that will have wide-ranging effects over antitrust law for the future.
On the corporate side, we are doing very significant work. We had a role on every marquee deal in media in 2018, including the Disney/Fox and Time Warner/AT&T mergers, the latter of which included representing Time Warner as trial counsel against the DOJ. We also handled three mega cross-border deals for AXA, Barrick Gold and The Linde Group, as well as significant deals for AveXis in the biotech space and Pinnacle Foods in the consumer products sphere, so it has been a great year across a diverse range of industries.
"We’re in the midst of our bicentennial this year. It’s an exciting time for us to look back on our history and how the Cravath system has maintained its reputation for excellence, as well as the ways the firm has changed and improved."
One thing that makes our firm different is that even a firm as large as Cravath is very focused on our trial practice, and every year we continue to go to trial in state and federal courts. In addition to the Time Warner trial, this year we had two ICC victories on the patent side, and I just finished a jury trial in Delaware with a verdict in the client’s favor. We have had a number of trials this year that have been successful.
Culturally, the first most significant development is that we had the return of alumna Katherine Forrest, former U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. She started her career at Cravath and left to go into public service—first in the DOJ and then she took the bench as a federal judge. She had been gone for almost ten years, but in 2018, she decided to return to Cravath as a partner in our Litigation Department. I think what she said was emblematic of how we all feel: it was like coming home, and while it was hard for her to leave the bench, it was very easy for her to decide where to go. It’s very exciting for clients and for everyone at Cravath, both those who have worked with her before and those who will now have the opportunity to do so.
The second bit is that we’re in the midst of our bicentennial this year. It’s an exciting time for us to look back on our history and how the Cravath system has maintained its reputation for excellence, as well as the ways the firm has changed and improved. We are enjoying this unique chance to celebrate who we are today and where we come from—it’s a very special time to be at Cravath.
"The large trend that came to an end in 2018 is the credit crisis that arose from residential mortgage-backed securities."
CA: Starting with litigation, are there any broad trends that are currently shaping the type of work conducted at the firm?
Karin: Our litigation practice is and always has been very broad, so unlike other firms our lawyers are generalists by and large. We rotate as associates and we promote from within – we very rarely hire laterally – so all of our lawyers are trained to work in any number of areas, and we continue to practice as generalists as partners. Because of that training, we are able to take on a wide variety of matters, and as a result market fluctuations don’t impact our business the same way they do at other places.
I think the large trend that came to an end in 2018 is the credit crisis that arose from residential mortgage-backed securities. That downturn began in 2007 and consumed a lot of firms. We did have two clients in that space, so we’re winding those cases up in other arenas. But that area’s dip hasn’t negatively affected us as the firm always continued to do other types of work.
We have also continued to expand in other areas, like our government investigation practice, for example, which is growing and booming. Evan Norris joined the firm as counsel in 2017 from the Eastern District of New York, where he was an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and has a very active practice. John Buretta, with whom I was an associate years ago, left Cravath to focus on government service, but returned to the firm from the DOJ several years ago. His practice has taken off together with Evan Norris, and our partners Ben Gruenstein, Dave Stuart and Rachel Skaistis. He’s developed a large compliance practice, in addition to his FCPA practice, which was already very active, and he was tapped to take on global monitorships in connection with the airbag issues faced by Takata. Our patent litigation practice is also very active and continuing to develop – it’s largely led by Keith Hummel. Katherine Forrest, Evan Chesler and David Greenwald all have significant experience in IP, so our depth in patent litigation is very strong, notwithstanding being a generalist firm.
CA: What about on the corporate side?
Karin: Our corporate associates rotate between our key areas – banking and credit, capital markets, and M&A. We continue to have a wide variety of clients, deals and matters for public companies. We’ve had significant mergers including Disney/Fox, as I mentioned earlier, and on the litigation side, we work very closely with corporate on a number of matters.
The Corporate Department is currently led by Mark Greene, whose M&A practice focuses on a variety of industries, including healthcare, consumer products, energy, financial institutions and technology.
"We're not a firm that follows fads or does pop-up practices or brings in a group because it’s the hot thing to do. We think long-term."
One major area of growth is our financial restructuring and reorganization group (FR&R). It’s a crossover group that leverages our experience across corporate, bankruptcy and litigation matters to handle any financial reorganization work our clients need. It’s led by Jed Zobitz and Paul Zumbro and has been an area of enormous growth recently, with two incredibly sharp and talented partners at the forefront, who’ve done work in M&A, leveraged finance and litigation. Whether clients come to us seeking a reorganization or perhaps they’re an existing client thinking about M&A or leverage finance activity, there is a core group of partners that collaborate across practice areas within the firm to meet these needs. For instance, in this space we represented creditors in the Lehman matters and had a devoted role on the Weinstein bankruptcy matter. I want to commend that group, as it’s a major area of growth for the firm and something we are doing more and more for clients.
CA: Some of our readers may be at quite an early stage in their studies and careers, so we try to give them a picture of what the firm will look like in the next five years. Can you tell me about any specific aspirations the firm has either on the corporate or litigation side?
Karin: Our firm, being 200 years old, has really garnered success through both consistency and approach. There are two overarching goals that have been unchanged since I’ve been here: number one is to provide the best service to clients; and number two is to develop our associates. We don’t strive to be the largest and we never have, so in a world where there are lots and lots of firm mergers, and maybe firms with 2,000 lawyers in 30 offices worldwide, that won’t be Cravath.
That said, our goal is to be the chosen firm for the most significant transactions, and the most challenging, difficult disputes. We focus on long-term relationships with clients in whatever their largest area is, and we do this primarily out of New York, though we do think strategically about whether it makes sense to have offices in other places. We also have a small office in London. We don’t currently have offices outside New York in the US, but we do always give thought to where clients want us to be. We have clients across the country and around the world in corporate, so our footprint has not negatively affected relationships with clients, but we do always think strategically – are we in the areas our clients want us to be? We constantly review that through our strategy board, then discuss it as a group of partners on a very regular basis. Strategically, our goal is to continue on the path we have gone down of being open to the ways the markets are changing. We're not a firm that follows fads or does pop-up practices or brings in a group because it’s the hot thing to do. We think long-term, keeping in mind what is important to our clients.
CA: How do you think the profession has changed since you started out practicing as a lawyer?
Karin: Just asking that question is a reflection of the way the environment has changed. I came to Cravath about 21 years ago, and as I said, Cravath continues to focus on training and has remained as excellent now as it was then. The industry as a whole, and Cravath in particular, however, has had much more associate-focused programming. The changes have been very positive. Cravath has, and I’m sure many other firms also have, been very responsive to the needs of associates in terms of what they want: to continue to receive high-level, challenging work, while at the same time taking a more holistic approach to career development. For example, topics such as diversity and inclusion are now more than ever important to associates, law firms and clients. Women’s initiatives and affinity groups are now much more prevalent at law firms. Diversity and inclusion is rightfully viewed as an integral component to talent development. The results have been promising. In the past three years, we have had two partnership classes that are 100% women. The firm is bringing in more women and people of color, focusing on retention and promotion and implementing a number of associate initiatives that have opened and will continue to open doors for communication. These steps will benefit our associates and firm and thus ultimately allow us to better serve our clients.
"I thought about becoming a professor, then realized it would be much more interesting to answer questions and advocate than be in a law school classroom."
CA: What are the main challenges that law firms and their lawyers will have to navigate/adapt to in the future?
Karin: I think one of the main challenges that law firms face, which is also a benefit, is technology. It’s become incredibly prevalent. Twenty years ago people weren’t communicating, filing, reviewing or dealing with iPhones or emails. In many ways these have been changes for the better. It enables people to do a variety of different things and serve clients in a variety of different ways that have been very positive. It’s also created new challenges in terms of how we work and in terms of how we interact with each other. It's created issues for clients in terms of how they communicate, the types of documents available in litigation, and the types of forensics. That expands to entire areas like cybersecurity, different types of bitcoin currency and entirely new areas. I think that continues to be challenging in an exciting way, this rapidly changing technology that’s changing the way we practice. The effect blockchain has had on corporate governance is going to create shifts in the way clients practice. We have developed programs externally and internally to make sure we’re at the forefront of these areas, educating clients and ourselves, and we take great pride in that.
CA: What made you did you decide to become a lawyer?
Karin: When I was in college, I thought it would be academically challenging. I was a communications major from Northwestern University In Chicago. It wasn't a job-oriented major and it wasn’t clear what I could do with it, but I was very much focused on debate, forensic studies, and legal argumentation. I grew up in Vermont and I don’t have lawyers in my family so it was not an obvious choice for me. But I thought law school would be academically challenging and interesting. It really wasn’t until I came to school and was working in a law firm that I thought I would like the pace of law. I thought about becoming a professor, then realized it would be much more interesting to answer questions and advocate than be in a law school classroom, so it was when answering questions that I was really enjoying myself.
"What we need are creative minds that want to take all of their intellectual curiosity to make recommendations to clients, to disagree with the people they work with when it makes sense to bat around issues, and come to a reasoned decision."
CA: What do you consider to have been your big break?
Karin: I came to Cravath from a clerkship in the fall of 1997, so I was clerking and living in New York. I was really very focused on where I would be best trained. One of the things I liked about my clerkship was that I had a point person, a judge, who I interacted with regularly, got feedback from, who was very invested in me, and in developing me into a good legal thinker and writer. He happened to depend on the work I did as his clerk, and I depended on learning from him. When I interviewed with Cravath and learned about the rotation system, it had that very same feel to me. Coming to New York, which I’m not from, it seemed like a very big environment, and I was very focused on not starting my law firm career in a place where I would be one of 100 people who may rise or sink. I felt strongly that being assigned to a partner who has every incentive to invest and to train and to work closely with me was going to be very positive. That’s how I chose Cravath.
When people ask me about my big break, as students do sometimes, I do think of a moment as an associate when I was working for Paul Saunders, one of our senior partners here. He’s now retired but he was a long time trial attorney. As a second year associate, here I was assigned to Paul and we had a trial together. It was my second trial, a contract case about surface-to-air defense missiles and how they operate at cold temperatures. One had failed at a cold temperature – it’s seared in my head that it was at -38 degrees Fahrenheit. Paul had said to me that I was going to cross-examine the expert on solid rocket motor. I had this moment, and I think I said, ‘Paul you’re a great trial lawyer, I would love to watch you. I’m going to put together good materials.’ He said, ‘No, I know how I’m going to teach you and you’re going to cross-examine.’ That’s how it went, and I physically remember being very nervous the night before getting ready. Paul sat with me for endless amounts of time helping me get ready, teaching me how to be patient, asking questions to box the witness in so I would only get the answer I needed. The moment that Paul sat next to me, the other side produced a whole bunch of documents, and I panicked and I said to him, ‘Let’s take a recess, I need to look through these.’ He said, ‘Karin I’m going to look through while you question,’ and I remember thinking in that moment that Paul had so much confidence in me. I was sick to my stomach with nerves, and I don’t know if it was my ‘big break,’ but we won and I remember it as a time that I realized I’d come to a place that was going to give me every opportunity to succeed.
CA: Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to students who are about to enter the legal industry?
Karin: I would tell students to realize they’re a lawyer from day one. People often ask what makes associates who do well off the bat different from those who may take a while to find their footing. The thing I say is: you are not a helper – you are a lawyer. You’re here from day one to practice law. We look to our associates to advise clients. We’re not a firm where the partner is doing legal work with support staff around. We are a group that practices law together. As soon as any attorney can begin to see themselves providing legal advice, the better off you are. My husband, who’s also a lawyer, sometimes says that the first thing to do is to learn to make decisions, and the second thing to do is learn to make the right decision.
A lot of what we do is gray. Clients don’t come with easy questions. They come with difficult problems that typically don’t have clear answers. What we need are creative minds that want to take all of their intellectual curiosity to make recommendations to clients, to disagree with the people they work with when it makes sense to bat around issues, and come to a reasoned decision. Our lawyers, from day one, begin to make decisions – that’s certainly who we’re looking for here.