MCCA’s Annual List of Rainmakers proves that the profession has talented lawyers who also have valuable business development skills. This list includes attorneys from around the country who practice a wide variety of law. Their success stories offer insight and value to lawyers at every career stage.
ROBERT H. ALEXANDER, JR.
The Alexander Firm
Location: Oklahoma, OK
Years Practicing: 35
Practice Area: Product Liability
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1976 and clerking for the 10th Circuit, Robert H. Alexander Jr. returned to his native Oklahoma City and made partner in a big local law firm to show that an African American attorney could do it. (“Prior to me, firms weren’t hiring blacks,” he says.) And again in 1988, Alexander opened his own firm expressly to demonstrate that he could successfully compete with the city’s most elite trial lawyers, as well as to create a template for other minorities to follow. His five-attorney firm’s national practice focuses on defending clients against complex product liability claims, generally representing pharmaceutical and many other product manufacturers often when an entire product line is under attack. The firm’s first big client was Ford Motor. “The A.B.A. was pairing big companies with minority firms. After winning some small cases, I eventually won a million-dollar case and they took notice. It was then that I learned most referrals are lateral.”
As a child and young man, Alexander experienced segregation first hand. “I was part of a loving family and my parents surrounded me with a positive protective hedge.” Alexander’s father taught his children against rationalizing failure with “excellent excuses.” They were expected to succeed despite any injustices they might encounter. “I’m a rainmaker as a by-product of being known as a great lawyer who both understands and always places his clients’ interests above all else. I protect my clients and over the years word has gotten around. Perceived negatives such as my being from a small city or small firm have become positives. Now clients will say ‘Get me that guy in Oklahoma.’”
Kelley Drye & Warren LLP
Location: New York, NY
Years Practicing: 36
Practice Area: India
Created and chaired by Talat Ansari in New York City, Kelley Drye’s busy India practice group advises U.S. clients who are investing in or expanding to India, and the increasingly large number of Indian businesses coming to the States and acquiring U.S. entities. “Ours is a very specialized group,” he says. “All of us are admitted in both jurisdictions, and have all practiced in India so we know the culture and how the legal system functions there. We have had a robust India practice for more than 40 years, and we continue to expand, having just recently hired a partner in our Stamford, Connecticut office.” Ansari was a litigator in New Delhi when he joined the firm in the 1980s. The firm has become one of the most well-respected U.S. firms to have carved out a niche India practice. In recent years, the team has represented Tata Consultancy in its acquisition of Citibank BPO, and iDream Holdings in its acquisition of Strix Systems. Th e media has also recognized Ansari’s group for its representation of industry leaders such as Novartis Vaccines & Diagnosis and Novartis Pharma, Sprint Nextel, SBI Holdings, and Matheson Tri-Gas.
As an associate in India, Ansari was never instructed in the finer points of business development. “Firms there are very small. Associates aren’t encouraged to bring in clients and add to the workload,” he says. When asked for a rainmaking tip, Ansari responds, “I was lucky. When I moved to New York, I was the only lawyer here who had practiced at a prestigious Indian firm, and my former colleagues referred a lot of work to me. I still go back to New Delhi twice a year to keep those contacts going.”
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP
Location: Los Angeles, CA and New York, NY
Years Practicing: 18
Practice Area: Corporate
Dino Barajas splits his time between Los Angeles, New York, and Latin America, focusing his practice on domestic and international project development and finance, with particular emphasis on Latin American infrastructure projects, debt financings, and mergers and acquisitions. His clients include commercial lenders, institutional investors, investment funds, project sponsors, and public and private companies. Compared to his early days in the profession, Bajaras notes that generating business has become an increasingly bigger challenge. “Where there were once regional powerhouses, today’s multi-national firms have grown so large that they’re often in four or five markets around the world. Branding simultaneously in different regions is not easy. Also the pool of competitors has gotten larger—that raised the bar. No one can rest on his or her laurels. You have to be there pressing the flesh, meeting new people. Marketing is a 24/7 thing—it’s really just nonstop.
“But pitches are like planting seeds. Reaching out to clients rarely produces fruit immediately. You may have to wait four or five years before an opportunity develops and then client service is everything,” he says. “An attorney becomes known over time. It’s not about immediate gratification.” Does he ever weary from the grind? Never! Not for an instant. For an inner city kid whose mother labored in the canneries and agricultural fields of California, says Barajas, his career is like a Cinderella story. And as a Mexican American he is delighted that his language and cultural skills are assets—something he only fully understood after practicing for several years. And despite his continued success, Barajas adds, “I’m hungry for more. I’m always asking myself: Who is my next client? Where can I improve? What is waiting for me tomorrow?”
O’Melveny & Myers LLP
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Years Practicing: 20
Practice Area: Employment and Labor
“Often lawyers either practice employment or labor law. I do both,” says Apalla Chopra. “I regularly counsel clients in both subject matters and litigate in both areas as well.” On the employment side, Chopra specializes in litigating complex multi-plaintiff and class action discrimination and wage and hour cases. She also represents clients in traditional labor matters under the National Labor Relations Act. Chopra has spent the entirety of her career at O’Melveny & Myers’ Los Angeles office. Even as a still fairly junior attorney, returning clients specifically requested that Chopra work their cases. “Working hard and turning out great work product is a prerequisite to getting a seat at the table,” she adds, “But I was extremely fortunate to have had mentors and people in the firm who were willing to platform me. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Chopra dreamed of one day becoming a professional dancer. “My parents put the kibosh on that straightaway. That path wasn’t consistent with their expectations. Still, as an attorney my interest in performing has served me well. A litigator must be comfortable in the spotlight, whether you’re litigating in the courtroom or working with clients in the boardroom. “For me, the key has been to be unrelentingly client focused. Their problems are my problems. I think about my clients’ problems last thing before I go to sleep at night and first thing when I wake up in the morning. There really is no secret about how to keep existing clients or attract new ones. It requires good old-fashioned hard work, expertise developed over many years, and a complete dedication to your clients’ needs. A sense of perspective and humor can be helpful too.”
Kirkland & Ellis LLP
Location: New York, NY
Years Practicing: 20
Practice Area: Private Equity
“We’re not a lockstep compensation firm,” says Eunu Chun. “You can make a good living without bringing in a lot of business, but if you want to achieve an off -market level of personal income you can make more if you bring in more. I’ve lost more pitches than you can imagine, but if you get a five to ten percent yield rate you’re doing great.” When Chun joined Kirkland as the global firm’s first-ever direct-from-law-school associate, he was very conscious that he was a guy from a non-establishment background going into an establishment place, so he spent a lot of time watching and learning. “Looking back, those years are a blur. I was working way too hard. Eventually, I figured out how to get ahead and found my voice.
“Private equity is run by young people, and early on I had the opportunity to play the principal role in transaction and was working directly with clients. Soon I had my first client. Once tagged as a billing partner I could go out and get more work. Within a few years I was doing all my own work.” Today he represents a handful of private equity funds in leverage buyout transactions. The son of Korean immigrants, Chun grew up in Chicago’s predominantly white northern suburbs where he excelled academically, but always felt a little out of place. During his undergraduate experience at Harvard, and even more so at Columbia Law School, he says, the world really opened up. “In diverse New York City, my confidence soared. People’s first impression of me was no longer driven by my ethnicity which had been the case in high school. The shackles were off , and I realized that I could achieve bigger success than I’d previously imagined.
Gordon & Rees LLP
Location: New York, NY
Years Practicing: 21
Practice Area: Commercial Litigation
“These lean years require ingenuity to get work because of the fierceness of the competition,” says Mercedes Colwin, rainmaking managing partner in Gordon & Rees’ New York office and national legal analyst on the Fox News Network. “It’s important to maintain a constant presence in the marketplace and perform high quality work at all times.” Prior to joining Gordon & Rees as a defense attorney, in 2006, Colwin headed the litigation team for a regional New York firm. Before that she had been a municipal lawyer, an in-house litigator for an insurance company, and a full-time administrative law judge for the New York State Division of Human Rights.
All books of business present challenges regardless of size, says Colwin. Colwin emails, texts, and calls clients around the clock to keep them in the loop on all their litigation matters. “Without a doubt, lawyers with the most accessibility and responsiveness have the advantage.” Growing up in Rego Park, New York, Colwin was inspired to achieve. “My mother was the first woman in her college to graduate with an engineering degree and was adamant that education was critical to anyone’s success.” Today, Colwin continues to be motivated by her mother’s example. “As a litigator, I measure my success by whether I’m doing the best for my clients in every case. I follow my mother’s golden rule: When you’re lucky enough to have people put their trust in you, you must move heaven and earth to fulfill their expectations and work tirelessly in perfecting your craft.”
ELDORA L. ELLISON, PH.D.
Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein, & Fox PLLC
Location: Washington, DC
Years Practicing: 12
Practice Area: Intellectual Property
As a rainmaking attorney at a D.C.-based boutique IP firm, Eldora Ellison spends a lot of time on business development. “I do the usual: make presentations, write papers, and meet people. Also I work hard at keeping existing clients happy and that requires addressing their uncertainties. Lately, I’ve been helping them to understand the sweeping patent reforms contained in the America Invents Act enacted in September.” Prior to becoming a lawyer, Ellison earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry, molecular, and cell biology. She then joined a law firm, became a patent agent, and attended law school at night before moving to Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein, & Fox. Today, she is a director in the biotechnology/chemical and litigation groups focusing on patent litigation, particularly in the life sciences. Her clients have included large multinational corporations, small start-up companies, universities, and other not-for-profit organizations.
Ellison first considered a career in law while working on her Ph.D. in biochemistry at Cornell University. “My adviser was trying to patent a protein that we were studying. It was a frustrating, drawn-out process. We could have used someone with more knowledge of both science and law to bridge the communication gap. Around this time I also began thinking that a law career seemed less narrow than being a professor, which is the route I would have most likely followed otherwise. “I’d say playing well in the sandbox is one of the hallmarks of my success,” she says. “I’m a good team leader who has been privileged to work with some first-rate teams. I enjoy fostering an atmosphere in which people work hard to generate great results, and I think clients take notice and appreciate what we do for them.”
M. DAVID GALAINENA
Winston & Strawn LLP
Location: Chicago, IL
Years Practicing: 26
Practice Area: Finance
“The idea that you rise to rainmaker status by yourself is incorrect,” says David Galainena. “You’ve got to know what you can and cannot do, and you’ve got to build a good team. It’s wise to surround yourself with smart lawyers.” Traditionally, bringing in new clients and generating business has often been a measured and thoughtful process, says Galainena, but since the 2007 market meltdown, the legal business has changed. There is now greater pressure to produce revenue immediately. Over the past four years, Galainena’s practice has changed as well. “Some clients from before have disappeared while others are moving in new directions. It’s no longer a pure-finance practice. There’s definitely a private equity component involved now. And this is driven by the fact that we’re working with active clients and that’s where the market lies today—it’s not in traditional structured market finance.
“Building and retaining a large book of portfolio clients requires connecting the dots between clients and clients’ needs. If somebody wants to buy a business and you know somebody who’s selling and you put them together, you gain a lot of credibility. And while the last several years have been very different, they’ve also been my most successful to date.” Prior to joining Winston & Strawn (where he chairs the firm’s finance practice), Galainena was a finance partner at Chapman & Cutler in Chicago. He also worked as an investment banker for CS First Boston. “Today things are volatile. There are no guarantees. I miss the stability of when you didn’t have to search out clients so aggressively, but I don’t know if those days will ever return.”
DANIEL JOHNSON JR.
Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP
Location: San Francisco, CA
Years Practicing: 38
Practice Area: Litigation
Colleagues describe Daniel Johnson as a rainmaker but he balks at the expression. “I’m a lawyer who handles very big cases that generate a lot of fees. To me, rainmakers are relationship people. They bring in the business and let others do the work, whereas I’m selling a skill set that requires me to assemble a good team and be there.” Johnson’s practice includes IP litigation (patents and license disputes) as well as general high-stakes litigation. Throughout his career, Johnson says he has “consistently but randomly” attracted big cases mostly due to his willingness to take risks. And because he got good results, it became increasingly easier for him to get the next case. Prior to joining Morgan Lewis in 2005, he was a rainmaking partner at Fenwick & West. He also served as a deputy attorney general to the State of California. Johnson graduated from Yale Law School.
He closes deals primarily by providing instant strategic analysis of the client’s problem to demonstrate that he and his team have that ability, and presents a list of past accomplishments. “When I go to pitch, I like to say the things I can do rather than run down the candidates I’m competing against.” For a long and successful career, Johnson says “flexibility” and “adaptability” are the words to live by. “Attorneys must be able to adjust and handle current matters, and they need to be able to assess their skill set and figure out how to make it match what is going to sell. An attorney litigator is a rainmaker so long as he or she is trying a big case. Nothing is guaranteed.”
Thompson & Knight LLP
Location: Houston, TX and New York, NY
Years Practicing: 10
Practice Area: Bankruptcy
Demetra Liggins’ bankruptcy practice focuses on Chapter 11, liquidation, out of court restructuring, and litigating commercial disputes stemming from debtor/creditor relationships. After ten years in the profession, she has been a rainmaker for awhile. Was there ever an exact moment when Liggins suddenly realized that she had reached the envied strata of rainmaking? “It was more like I suddenly understood that I possessed a talent for maintaining multiple professional and personal relationships. It’s important and interesting for me to know my clients and their businesses, and once I obtain that knowledge I use it to help them move their businesses forward. In turn, I also get more business from existing clients and new client referrals.
“My grandfather always used to say ‘a bald man can’t sell me hair tonic.’ That means you don’t buy into the sales pitch of someone who doesn’t have the goods to back it up. So as a young associate I began looking to partners and other successful attorneys and realized they all had a big book of business. I very much wanted that to be a part of my career too, so I began doing what they do.” For Liggins that translates to a lot of business development including being active in national bar associations, bankruptcy Inns of Court, presenting, and writing. “Because I’m practicing in an era of large and complex bankruptcy cases and the marketplace is filled with skilled and competent practitioners, it’s imperative that I keep my skills up and achieve greater client outcome.” Do rainmakers flat-out work harder? She replies, “I’m not sure about that, but we do have to keep on top of things.”
Greenberg Traurig, LLP
Location: Atlanta, GA
Years Practicing: 20
Practice Area: Labor and Employment
As labor and employment department head for Greenberg Traurig’s Atlanta office, David Long-Daniels, who has taught labor and employment as an adjunct law professor at both the University of Alabama School of Law and the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University, is responsible for keeping lawyers busy. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed with a nationwide practice, but you can’t allow it to keep you from devoting some time to business development every single day.” Long-Daniels’ first brush with rainmaking took place when he was just a three-month lawyer at his first firm. While attending a routine seminar he connected with a contact from a large pharmaceutical company that became his first client and resulted in several hundred thousands dollars of business. “Granted, I wasn’t your typical 24-year old fresh out of law school. I’d been a military officer and went to law school a little late, so at 30 I appeared more seasoned than I was. Still, I got the case and we won it.”
As a student athlete in a small Alabama town, Long-Daniels was affected after a teammate was wrongly arrested and jailed for a hit-and-run. Eventually his friend’s name was cleared, but the experience stayed with him. From that moment forward, Long-Daniels’ goal was to one day become a trial lawyer. Before graduating cumlaude from Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law, he attended college on an ROTC scholarship and served in the U.S. Air Force as a logistics officer. He also obtained an M.P.A. from Valdosta State University prior to going to law school. “There is no full proof formula for rainmaking. One thing for sure—you have got to be willing to knock on doors. A lot of the time you’ll meet rejection, but if you don’t knock you’ll never get inside.”
ALAN K. MILLS
Barnes & Thornburg LLP
Location: Indianapolis, IN
Years Practicing: 30
Practice Area: Bankruptcy
Alan Mills has been with one firm throughout his career. When he joined Barnes & Thornburg in 1982, he was their first African American attorney. “At the time, a partner who would become my longtime mentor matter-of-factly said, ‘I can’t guarantee you a full and fair opportunity, but I guarantee that you’ll have an opportunity.’ Today it’s an outrage. Back then, it sounded like a fair deal. “Because I’m a minority, I knew traditional firm rules weren’t necessarily going to apply, so I began building something for me, a practice that I could lead.” He concentrates his national practice on complex commercial litigation and bankruptcy matters. He also represents lending institutions in regulatory matters and secured or unsecured creditors in bankruptcy proceedings as well as numerous special servicers throughout the U.S. Over the years, Mills has witnessed a lot of changes in the profession. Not only has the firm grown in stature nationally to more than 550 legal professionals throughout 12 offices, but also the number of minority partners and associates has increased accordingly. “Things have improved dramatically,” he says. “That’s why I’m still here.”
Mills’ approach to rainmaking is multi-layered: “It’s a given that the firm is good, so I sell my own expertise and loyalty. I’m their link to the institution.” He continues, “The best way to meet a new client is to do a good job for an existing client and then ask for an introduction. Th e next best way is to be part of the organizations that cater to the client’s industry. Clients want to know that you understand both what they do and how they do it. Likewise, knowing as much as possible about your client is key when introducing them to companies that can give them business.”
President and Founding Partner
Murthy Law Firm
Location: Owings Mills, MD
Years Practicing: 23
Practice Area: Immigration
Twenty-five years ago in India, says Sheela Murthy, law was not the favored career track. “Growing up I was encouraged to be a doctor or an engineer, but I insisted on doing what I loved most—fighting for justice and rights for the downtrodden which meant being an attorney,” Murthy says. After graduating from college and law school in Bangalore, she headed to the U.S. for an LL.M from Harvard Law School. Happy with her new home and valuing the freedoms and opportunities here, Murthy decided to remain in the States where, despite the lawyer jokes, legal practitioners were generally appreciated. Murthy’s practice area is exclusively U.S. immigration law. Her very successful 20-attorney firm represents small- and mid-sized companies, Fortune 500 companies, as well as individuals going through the immigration process. She credits her success to a genuine passion for the work. “When I’m with a client it’s as if I’m focused on a family member who’s in trouble. It’s not about the business, and I think clients can sense that dedication.”
Prior to founding her eponymous firm, Murthy practiced corporate and real estate law at large firms in New York and Baltimore. During those years she was most happy when she was occasionally given an immigration case. “When I’m doing immigration, I feel that I’m making differences for people—opening doors for them and providing them with opportunities. Th is is why I went to law school in the first place.” As a young associate, Murthy was mystified by all the schmoozing and backslapping. Intuitively she realized that for her success would come by finding meaning in her work: “I didn’t go into law for the money. Becoming a rainmaker has been one of the biggest surprises of my life.
Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell LLP
Location: Denver, CO
Years Practicing: 23
Practice Area: Product Liability, Mass Tort, & Commercial Litigation
A third-generation lawyer born in India, Habib Nasrullah grew up in Mumbai before moving to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California where he graduated with a B.A. in international relations. After considering a career in business, he succumbed to the call of the family business and earned a J.D. from Georgetown Law Center. “My father was a very successful trial lawyer in Mumbai,” says Nasrullah. “He had doubts that I was suited to practice.” Th e younger Nasrullah proved otherwise. Since his earliest associate days at a full service firm, Nasrullah has determinedly strived to bring in work. As a licensed pilot, he used his interest in aviation to meet clients. “In the beginning, I began representing airmen and flight schools and later went on to representing aircraft manufacturers and airlines in big product liability and personal injury cases.”
Today, his practice focuses on product liability, mass tort, and complex commercial litigation. He mostly represents pharmaceutical and health care companies, aerospace product manufacturers, and financial institutions. And while product liability comprises the larger piece of his practice, commercial litigation remains a significant part of what he does. Because he competes with firms on both coasts for clients, Nasrullah is often traveling, sometimes on his own nickel if necessary. In an interesting, latish career move, Nasrullah served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (District of Colorado) from 2004 to 2008. “My motivation was to both serve my country and to gain frontline experience in the courtroom. When I returned to private practice, I noticed that I’d acquired a certain cachet. Though not my intention, it’s helped in generating new business.”
BRYNDA RODRIGEZ INSLEY
Insley & Race LLC
Location: Atlanta, GA
Years Practicing: 26
Practice Area: Personal Injury Defense
A founding partner of Insley & Race (an Atlanta-based civil defense litigation firm with fifteen attorneys), Brynda Rodriguez Insley credits her success to hard work and opportunity: “When we opened the firm almost fifteen years ago, my name partner and I were both business administrators and attorneys for the entire first year. There was no furniture and files were lining the walls, but we were not deterred. It was our time and eventually things came together.” Prior to striking out on her own, Insley’s primary practice area was medical malpractice and catastrophic injury defense. For 12 years, she worked as an attorney at Sullivan Hall Booth & Smith. From the beginning, they allowed her independence and a presence in their fi les. By her second year, she had tried her fi rst case. “A lot of claims professionals are women,” says Insley, a Mexican American doctor’s daughter who grew up in St. Louis, “And once they took notice of a young female lawyer trying her own cases they began to send me work.”
Insley was already a rainmaker at her former firm, but when its then-principal partner left she decided it was time to follow her dream and put out her shingle. “He promised that I’d realize success beyond my wildest expectations. I wasn’t so sure, but when we opened the firm, the work came. Being female and a minority with a dozen years of successful practice under my belt made me very attractive to clients. “In the baseball movie Field of Dreams they say if you build a field they will come. Well, that’s how I feel about practicing law—don’t fret about a specific client or making a lot of money. Just do excellent work and the rest will follow.”
CHARLES J. VIGIL
President and Managing Partner
Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, P.A.
Location: Sante Fe, NM
Years Practicing: 22
Practice Area: Employment; Commercial Litigation & Professional Liability
New Mexico is a small state, says Chuck Vigil. A lot here depends on reputation and word of mouth referrals. As a rainmaking employment defense attorney at the same business and litigation firm for the entirety of his career and a past president of the State Bar of New Mexico (2005), he has proven himself to clients. “I came to Rodey in 1989 and never left,” says Vigil. “I have benefited from the help I have received from my partners. Also, the firm has a flat and broad management structure. It’s a team effort and most business development is done at the practice group and department level. And because we work as teams, everyone gets to know the clients. “As president and managing director, my job is to look at the bigger picture, to work on the strategic level. As the face of the firm I engage in a lot of activities that help generate business for the firm as a whole, and, of course, I strive to generate business with regard to my own practice.”
Vigil’s New Mexico roots reach back over two hundred years. His father was the first in the family to attend college and made certain his children did the same. After earning a B.A. in business, Vigil (whose siblings include a neurosurgeon, neurologist and a Ph.D. professor in chemical engineering) went on to graduate from the University of Michigan Law School. Sometime in the future, Vigil would like to serve as an appellate judge or teach at a law school, but he has no certain plans. Typically throughout his career, opportunities have presented themselves and Vigil has made sure to seize them. He expects he will know when the time is right.