All that’s missing from the offices of New York’s 60-lawyer Weitz & Luxenberg is the British accent. They already have the dark wood paneling, the overstuffed leather furniture, the heraldic crest, and the hunting prints–yes, hunting prints–on the walls. The firm took over this space, in a highly desirable downtown building that also houses Goldman, Sachs & Co. and Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, from an old-line defense firm, and made it even more respectable-looking than it had been.
The message here is as obvious as the view of New York Harbor. This is no fly-by-night, ambulance-chasing operation. This is not your father’s plaintiffs firm.
Or, in the case of Perry Weitz, the firm’s cofounder and chief visionary, your father-in-law’s. Weitz, a tall, lean man with slicked-back black hair and a gleaming, almost wolfish smile, began practicing law at the firm of his father-in-law, prominent New York personal injury lawyer Morris Eisen, in 1984, after graduating from law school at Hofstra University.
Weitz had some early successes in court, notably pioneering a theory that landlords are liable for knowingly harboring dangerous dogs, but left the Eisen firm in 1986, several years before Morris Eisen and seven other people from the firm were indicted and convicted for fabricating evidence and bribing witnesses. At Weitz & Luxenberg, the firm he founded with fellow Eisen refugee Arthur Luxenberg, Weitz was determined to reinvent the very idea of a plaintiffs firm.
To a measure unimaginable 18 years ago, he’s succeeded. Weitz & Luxenberg today is no grubby slip-and-fall shop, but a sleek and diversified business with annual revenue well in excess of $75 million. The firm still has a unit practicing negligence and medical malpractice law, almost as a nod to Weitz and Luxenberg’s roots, but it specializes in mass torts: asbestos, pharmaceutical and medical device cases, and environmental litigation.
The firm’s lawyers are deployed in units devoted to specific areas of litigation. Senior litigators are designated as trial lawyers, negotiators, and unit managers. Prospective mass torts are evaluated by Weitz, Luxenberg, senior trial attorney Robert Gordon, and mass tort manager Paul Pennock.
If they decide to enter a new litigation arena, Weitz & Luxenberg generates cases through advertisements whose production is overseen by Weitz himself, and through a carefully cultivated nationwide network of referring lawyers. The firm now has muscle in the courtroom, where its trial lawyers continue to win multimillion-dollar verdicts; at the negotiating table, where its thousands of cases give it leverage in structuring settlements; and in Congress, where Perry Weitz, an early supporter of Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, is one of the principal opponents of tort reform. Weitz refuses to talk about money, but the firm’s size and breadth make it one of the handful of highest-grossing plaintiffs firms not only in 2003 and 2004, but likely for years to come.
Weitz & Luxenberg exists because of two law school classmates of Perry Weitz and the grace of the New York State legislature. In the mid-1980s, after years of lobbying by unions whose members were exposed to asbestos but were barred from suing manufacturers because of New York’s statute of limitations laws, the state legislature finally revised the law, basing the statute of limitations on a victim’s discovery of his injury, rather than the date of his last exposure. Lawmakers also left open a one-year window during which victims whose cases had been barred could sue. Thousands of New York asbestos clients needed to find personal injury lawyers and file cases, quickly.
For referrals, many of them relied on Colleran, O’Hara & Mills, a Long Island-based labor firm that represented the New York AFL-CIO and several building trade unions. Two of the young lawyers at the firm, the son and son-in-law of name partner Richard O’Hara, had gone to Hofstra law school with Perry Weitz, who was then practicing with Morris Eisen’s firm. “We knew he was a bright, young, dynamic guy,” says Christopher O’Hara, who was a couple of years behind Weitz at Hofstra.
“And we knew the Eisen firm had the capability to handle the litigation.” New York came late to the asbestos litigation, which by the mid-1980s was already big business for plaintiffs firms like Provost & Umphrey Law Firm, Baron & Budd, and Ness Motley Loadholt Richardson & Poole. But it wasn’t clear, says O’Hara, that it would be as profitable in New York. “This was very much a fight that had to be won,” he says. The O’Hara firm negotiated a discount for its union member clients–they’d pay a 25 percent contingency fee rather than the then-standard 33 percent–and referred its asbestos cases to Weitz.
Weitz threw himself into asbestos litigation. “I flew out to Ness Motley and to another asbestos firm in Ohio. I read the documents, the trial transcripts. The outrageous misconduct of these manufacturers made me crazy,” he says. Weitz talks extra fast when he gets excited, and his Long Island accent becomes more pronounced. Only politics gets him as excited as corporate wrongdoing. “I always had a Robin Hood thing,” he says. “There’s nothing greater in the world than to help somebody who needs help and doesn’t have the resources to help themselves.”
The Eisen firm, meanwhile, was coming apart. Weitz asked Arthur Luxenberg, who was known at the Eisen firm as a legal researcher rather than a trial lawyer, to start a new firm with him. “He had an uncanny ability to get business,” says Luxenberg, a smiling, round-faced man who still seems shocked to find himself in his cushy office, atop the letterhead of a 60-lawyer firm. “I was the guy who had answers, the guy who could figure solutions.” In 1989 they sublet space from Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferdon and founded what in 1991 was renamed Weitz & Luxenberg. “Those were very tumultuous times. We worked 15, 16, 17 hours a day,” Luxenberg recalls. “If a genie had come down and said, ÔSign here, and you’ll make $75,000 every year for the rest of your life,’ I’d have taken the offer. Perry wouldn’t have. That’s why Weitz and I make a good team.”
Weitz, with counsel from Luxenberg, saw a unique opportunity. In 1989 there was no mass torts plaintiffs firm in New York. The city’s best personal injury lawyers were so successful in their one-at-a-time negligence, product liability, and malpractice cases that they didn’t need to bother with the complexities of mass torts. Weitz and Luxenberg, who were already taking on clients affected by diethylstilbestrol (DES), as well as asbestos clients, believed they could represent hundreds of clients at a time, instead of just a few. “The beauty of this,” says Luxenberg, the legal memo writer, “was that it was all new. Tons of law was flowing out.”