Over the last week, I provided a brief review of the new biography of disgraced (but largely successful) class-action plaintiff’s lawyer William Lerach, and a discussion of some of his psychological quirks that one might encounter in some other plaintiffs’ lawyers. Today, I’m closing out my discussion of Circle of Greed by looking at some of the strategies that class-action plaintiffs’ lawyers employ that may not make it into reported cases. As with the “psychology” post, I’ve included page references to the book for those following along at home.

  • Smaller settled cases fund larger, riskier cases. One business strategy that plaintiffs’ firms employ is to take on a number of smaller cases that may settle more easily (say, because they involve straightforward issues or technical statutory violations). These settlements provide a steady income stream that can fund larger, riskier cases (like Lerach’s pursuit of Enron). (165)
  • Smaller settlements with minor defendants can fund pursuit of larger targets. This same tactic applies within a larger case. In a case with multiple defendants, if some defendants are willing to settle early, the plaintiffs may be able to leverage larger settlements from later settlors. (380)
  • Publicity is a major tool for plaintiffs’ lawyers. Lerach viewed leaking information to the media as a valid tactic for putting pressure on defendants. (177) And often, a sustained publicity campaign would also help him win battles to be appointed lead counsel. (330)
  • Making the fight personal can be an effective tool. Lerach’s teams would sometimes file fraud claims against directors so that they could not invoke their D&O insurance policies, putting their personal finances on the line. (162) He would also seek to make trial as embarrassing as possible for the defendants, in order to increase the leverage in settlement discussions. (116) In one case, he went so far as to retain a fellow trial counsel whom he viewed as particularly obnoxious in depositions, specifically so that he would get under the defendants’ skin, provoking them into making errors in their testimony. (120)
  • The strongest plaintiffs’ cases are often the simplest. Lerach was notorious within his own firm for “the chart”: a simple presentation that contrasted a defendant’s stock price with the allegedly dishonest statements its executives made. (116) It was a compelling trial exhibit, settlement tool, and organizing principle for Milberg’s (and later, Lerach Coughlin’s) stock-drop cases. And the primary reason it was compelling is that it laid out a simple, hard-to-contradict story.

None of these strategies were unique to Lerach. And while some may seem like “dirty pool” to some defendants, it’s important to keep in mind that they serve larger purposes – some are part of the business model, some are part of the competition among plaintiffs’ lawyers, and some are aimed more at settlement than winning an immediate tactical battle. The better a class-action defendant understands the strategies the other side employs, the better it will be able to counter them. And while it may not have been their primary goal, Patrick Dillon and Carl M. Cannon have given defendants a good resource for deepening that understanding.