Megan Cunniff Church, Sara Margolis and Lauren Weinstein
When clients hire the elite litigation boutique MoloLamken, it's often because they've decided to take their case to trial – and all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. Being trial-ready is essential to the firm's business model. It requires the firm to quickly assemble tightly knit, diverse, highly skilled teams.
To ensure efficiency and effectiveness, the firm's trial teams are purposely small. There are no bit players, which demands a high-caliber class of associates. Unlike at many big firms, associates at MoloLamken will take depositions and examine witnesses at trial within their first year or so at the firm.
It's why the firm invests so much time and resources into not only hiring elite talent but constantly developing them. It's why after every brief, for instance, litigation teams review what worked and what could have gone better. For relatively junior associates, it's an invaluable learning experience as they hone their craft.
Those kinds of reviews continued during the pandemic. But while Zoom and other technology allowed business to carry on, three MoloLamken partners – Megan Cunniff Church, Sara Margolis and Lauren Weinstein – recognized that something in the training and camaraderie got lost.
''We noticed that there were some gaps in what associates knew and how they went about learning what they needed to know," says Church.
At another, perhaps larger, firm, that observation may not have led to any immediate change. But at a trial and appellate boutique – where each lawyer's contributions are critical – there is a greater urgency to address any unevenness. The firm's business requires it.
Over several weeks, the three attorneys reflected on the loss of informal teaching moments that had become less frequent since the pandemic. As the pandemic's worst effects had begun to recede but return to office would only mean two or three days per week in-person, they proposed a training summit. They envisioned it as a chance for the firm's lawyers to reunite and give firm leaders a chance to reinforce the MoloLamken way.
"The goal was to provide everybody with a baseline knowledge of how we do things so that when confronted with a particular type of project, they could hit the ground running," says Margolis.
Attorney Training Summit
Over two days in late 2022, nearly every attorney at the firm gathered in midtown Manhattan at the CORE Club. Partners took turns leading presentations on everything from depositions to civil discovery to expert witnesses to the lifecycle of a trial and an appeal.
Margolis led a well-received session that covered handling a complaint from beginning to end. She included substantive requirements – like the MoloLamken rule that every allegation is backed by at least one piece of admissible evidence – as well as details about formatting.
There were two sessions on writing. They covered not only the elements of a persuasive brief but also how to structure paragraphs, write compelling topic sentences, and target an audience.
The goal was to provide everybody with a baseline knowledge of how we do things so that when confronted with a particular type of project, they could hit the ground running.
There was, of course, also time for socializing. For associate Bobby Chen, whose first day coincided with the summit, the timing was especially helpful. The previous month, Chen had completed his clerkship for Judge D. Brooks Smith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Like many associates who come to MoloLamken, Chen was attracted to the variety of litigation the firm handles. Since joining the firm, his cases have ranged over several areas of law – criminal, patent, administrative, and the Federal Arbitration Act. He also is working on an antitrust case set for trial later this year. In retrospect, those early in-person interactions with his colleagues at the summit were crucial.
"This is a demanding job where associates are thrown into these complicated high-stakes and fast-paced cases, so it was very valuable to have that opportunity to build rapport with my colleagues," he says.
No Dead Weight
Today, MoloLamken has 43 lawyers, including 22 associates, across offices in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Its place among the country's elite litigation firms is so firmly established that it's easy to forget it was founded just 14 years ago.
Big Law veterans Steve Molo (Shearman & Sterling) and Jeff Lamken (Baker Botts) launched the firm in 2009 in the shadow of the financial crisis. The duo, who had worked together on a case for Morgan Stanley in which they successfully overturned a $1.5B verdict, saw the economic downturn as an opportunity to bring a new model to the market, allowing them to work on both plaintiff and defense cases, offer clients alternative fee structures, and give junior lawyers world-class training.
The idea of a nimble trial-ready firm with a top-shelf appellate practice has resonated. It's common for the firm to have three or four significant trials and one or two merits arguments in the Supreme Court in a year. And that's on top of numerous other arguments and hearings in appellate and trial courts around the country. In the last several years, it has wins valued at more than $5B. And it represents defendants, too.
Beyond its results in the courtroom, MoloLamken has also distinguished itself through its associate hiring practices, which differ from Big Law in a couple of major ways. For one, the firm does not hire first-year associates straight from law school. Every associate must have a judicial clerkship under their belt. Many have two. Some spend a year or two at a Big Law firm, as well.
The high qualifications mean that every MoloLamken associate is expected to contribute on day one. "There's no dead weight," explains Weinstein. "Everyone comes ready to contribute. To take one example, our associates tend to take and defend depositions within their first year at the firm – typically not something you see at a firm that handles the important cases that we do."
That's not to say that associates are left to learn on their own. New associates at MoloLamken attend a three-day training program and then a week-long trial training program at the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, culminating in a mock trial. They are also given written guides for trial work and writing skills, as well as video presentations from partners. But most of their training is on the job.
Because MoloLamken litigation teams are small, associates receive a lot of attention from more senior colleagues. For a typical brief, litigation teams will circulate multiple drafts internally and with a client, generating ample discussion and feedback along the way. The learning often continues after the brief is filed through what the firm calls "after action reviews."
That level of attention is partly what attracted associate Swara Saraiya to the firm. After clerking for U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Saraiya wanted to join a firm where she could gain responsibility and experience driving strategy. She had practiced at Cravath, Swaine & Moore and would have happily returned to the firm. But she had heard about the opportunities other associates had at MoloLamken.
This is a demanding job where associates are thrown into these complicated high-stakes and fast-paced cases, so it was very valuable to have that opportunity to build rapport with my colleagues.
After meeting with several of the firm's partners, she quickly recognized that they could help her grow. Her intuition has borne out.
"I'll often have an hour-long conversation with a partner after I've submitted a draft for a brief," notes Saraiya. "They'll go through it sentence by sentence, which is pretty extraordinary given how busy they are."
The MoloLamken Way
The firm likes to describe itself as "brains and brass knuckles," a term Jeff Lamken coined. The combination of aggressiveness and intelligence is deeply embedded into the MoloLamken way. But what does it look like in practice?
For one, as Church explains, it means always keeping the legal issues at the forefront of a case – a point she reinforced at the training summit during a session over trials. "So, when you're developing facts, when you're prepping witnesses, when you're writing jury instructions and things like that to prepare for trial, you're keeping those legal issues at the forefront and preserving them for an appeal," she says.
Another MoloLamken point of emphasis: storytelling. As Church notes, many attorneys – especially young ones – get so bogged down in tangential details that they lose the big picture. They forget that real people – who judges and juries can observe – are more effective in telling a story.
Documents are not unimportant. But litigators emphasize the importance of looking at them through the lens of supporting a narrative. That may mean supporting witness testimony or undermining it in preparation for cross-examination.
But while there is a MoloLamken way of litigating, that doesn't mean there are no opportunities for individual expression. The firm emphasizes the need for authenticity in front of a jury.
"We have this great, diverse group of lawyers, from the most junior associates up to Steve and Jeff," Church explains. "We're all different. So, part of the training is ensuring associates have the basics, but then allowing them to express what makes them unique. Being authentic at trial is so crucial. I would not be authentic if I tried to stand up in court and be like Steve Molo. But when I stand up as Megan Church, juries believe me."
Excellence Over Perfectionism
While much is expected of MoloLamken associates, perfectionism is not. At the training summit, the three event organizers made that point explicit. Each told stories about their own mistakes – some more serious than others – that made it plain they are human. The bigger message, however, was that what you do after a mistake matters most.
Most junior attorneys naturally don't want to disappoint their supervisors. But mistakes will happen. The key is to let your team know as soon as possible.
"We wanted to convey that you can be successful here and still make mistakes," says Weinstein. "The other message we wanted to send was that if you're not feeling uncomfortable and making a mistake every once in a while, you're not trying hard enough."
That message resonated with Saraiya. "Perfectionism can be oppressive and used as a yardstick to punish people when they fall short of that standard," she says. "Instead of perfectionism, the goal at MoloLamken is excellence. We're focused on improving and producing the best quality product we can."
Big Law veterans Steve Molo (Shearman & Sterling) and Jeff Lamken (Baker Botts) launched the firm in 2009 in the shadow of the financial crisis.
Chen also appreciated the message. "It was helpful to hear that we shouldn't let the possibility of making a mistake consume us. When you're so worried about what could go wrong, at some point it becomes counterproductive, and you start missing other things," he says.
How to Succeed at MoloLamken
Maintaining an elite trial-ready firm requires more than just lawyers with high-level litigation skills. It requires people with an unyielding commitment to the success of the firm and its clients. At the training summit, associates learned about some of those intangibles in a session titled "How to Succeed at MoloLamken," led by Church, Margolis and Weinstein.
The latter two, who both rose through the ranks from associate to partner at the firm, had special credibility with their audience. For her part, Margolis emphasizes soft skills like emotional intelligence and judgment. "All the attorneys at MoloLamken have impeccable legal credentials," she notes. "To distinguish yourself, you must show something more." In her rise, that has meant the ability to manage a team, inspire people to work hard, and adapt to different personalities.
"Those are the same skills I'm using when I go into a courtroom and find a connection with a judge or jury," she says.
Weinstein also spoke about non-legal skills. She recalls a conversation with Steve Molo when she was a junior attorney at the firm.
"To become a partner at this firm, he told me you have to act like a partner," she says. "We talked about what that means. And as I learned, it's about stepping up to manage your cases, not just addressing issues as they arise. It's anticipating them and coming up with a plan for dealing with them."
Anticipating has also been the key to MoloLamken's success. While the firm may not know what case is coming next, one thing is for sure: It will be ready.
Originally published by Lawdragon, September 5, 2023.
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