Deconstructing John Quinn: What Makes A Litigator Great?

While analyzing briefs for our recent California law firm ranking we noticed something unusual. Although most of the firms in our ranking were internally pretty consistent with the quality of their briefs — scoring similarly overall and across the dimensions that our Clerk software evaluates — there was one firm that was a little different: Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.

We discovered this while identifying the lawyers behind the best briefs at each firm. At most firms there was a single, clear, best brief. At Quinn Emanuel, that best brief was by John Quinn, a founding partner of the law firm.

We thought it interesting that the firm’s first-named founding partner was behind their highest scoring brief. But we didn’t think much about it until we noticed that John Quinn was also behind the firm’s second highest scoring brief — and the firm’s third highest scoring brief as well.

On John

John Quinn is an extremely well-regarded litigator and Quinn Emanuel regularly places within the top three of The American Lawyer’s list of firms with the highest profits per partner. So it was interesting to see our Clerk software identify Quinn’s briefs as the best ones coming out of Quinn Emanuel.

John Quinn scored quite well across all his briefs, including both easier cases like the Clemmy’s v. Nestlé ice cream litigation, and tougher ones like the Brown v. Snapchat founder litigation.

For the latter, Quinn was fighting an uphill battle and wrote a strong demurrer, despite Clerk’s predictive functionality suggesting that it was likely to lose. (It did lose on the core causes of action and the lawsuit settled shortly after for $157.5 million.)

The most impressive thing about Quinn’s briefs is that when considered on their own, they rank #1 overall in our law firm ranking. This confirms something the world already knows — John Quinn is one of the best litigators in California, and in the United States more broadly.

Lessons Learned

We’ve discussed before our strong belief that what you can measure, you can improve. Clerk’s analysis is interesting because it sheds some objective light on what makes John Quinn such a great litigator.

While most of Quinn’s skills aren’t measurable by Clerk (maybe we’ll have software to analyze oral arguments and witness cross-examinations by 2025?), there are lessons to be learned by lawyers looking to build successful, respected, and impactful law firms.

These include:

  1. Drafting matters. John Quinn’s briefs score an average of 1.5 points higher on drafting than the top-ranked law firm in our analysis, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, and 7 points higher than the bottom-ranked law firm, Sheppard Mullin. This is because Quinn’s briefs are great at: (1) supporting their arguments with cases that go their way, (2) quoting cases accurately, and (3) citing cases properly. While it may seem like these basics aren’t worth spending time on, the basics in law matter, just as they do in life. Increasing your odds of winning by executing better — even by a small amount — can have a big impact over the long run.
  2. Be aggressive. Quinn’s briefs are aggressive in relying on precedent where their side wins. It’s important to both present your argument and attack your opponent’s argument — being too one-sided is generally not a good idea. But it’s far better to be too aggressive than not aggressive enough.
  3. Instill and maintain a high standard of excellence. Quinn Emanuel has a strong focus on litigation excellence. As Peter Calamari, Managing Partner of their New York office, told Forbes, “Everything we do — our mentoring programs, our training programs, our pro bono programs — everything we do is focused on enhancing litigation skills.” Most of the drafting and research that goes into these briefs is not performed by a partner, but rather by associates. So it’s clear that the lawyers working with Quinn are performing at a consistently high level. This is certainly a reflection on John Quinn and the standard of excellence he instills in his team.

Becoming The Best

It’s increasingly clear that great lawyers and great law firms produce measurably great work. For lawyers with a focus on excellence and winning, there is power in being able to measure the quality of legal drafting and argumentation. It offers the possibility of improving. Just as athletes improve across generations, with new records being made and broken, litigators are improving over time, with advances in data, training, and technology moving the field forward.

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