Despite epic success and a legendary reputation, this BigLaw founder isn't resting on his laurels
If John B. Quinn wasn’t a real person, Hollywood might have invented him. Indeed, his bio reads like the backstory of a legal drama’s main character. One of eight siblings, Quinn worked his way through college baking doughnuts and hanging highway guardrails before heading to Harvard Law School, where he excelled and earned a BigLaw job in Manhattan.
Rejecting the predictable path, he moved to California and in 1986 helped establish a different kind of firm—one focused solely on litigation, growth and, apparently, comfort. The firm dress code is so relaxed that it once included branded flip-flops.
Success followed. Lots and lots of success. Today, the firm he co-founded, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, has 32 offices across four continents, 1,000-plus lawyers and had more than $1.6 billion in annual revenue in 2021. Quinn has been called a legal titan, and his firm has been labeled one of the most feared litigation firms in the world.
Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
No. I am probably traveling about 40% of the time. Our firm only does litigation and arbitration—by definition, it’s all disputes—and I still do this for clients. But I also spend time recruiting, especially lateral recruiting of potential partners from other firms or the government. I am also involved in talking to prospective clients, what you might call business development.
I would also suggest you’re involved in public relations. I’m thinking of your podcast, Law, disrupted, where you interview lawyers from your firm and others about issues ranging from autonomous cars and cryptocurrency to investing in China and legal reform in Saudi Arabia. How do you decide what topic to feature?
Basically, if I’m interested in it! Then it depends on my ability to find someone to interview about the topic. My goal with the podcast is to focus on contemporary issues and to provide substantive, serious information that isn’t dumbed down—so listeners will learn something.
I can definitely hear the enthusiasm in your voice when you’re interviewing the lawyers and discussing the issues. I particularly enjoyed the episode about the Varsity Blues case.
I am glad you liked that one. I thought it was one of the best because it had some inside baseball from the defense lawyers about how they won the case. A lot of that information you can’t find anywhere else.
Speaking of cases, your firm regularly handles high-profile disputes. You’ve represented Victoria’s Secret shareholders in an action against the parent company for creating a culture of sexual harassment and intimidation. You’ve won cases against Wall Street firms during the financial crisis and against Apple. Your firm is currently handling a pro bono case representing Ukraine in a lawsuit against Russia. When you’re thinking about taking on cases, pro bono or otherwise, do you think about whether it’s a David vs. Goliath situation or whether there are issues of right and wrong?
You raise an interesting question about right and wrong. Our system is about trying to achieve just results. Our firm doesn’t do personal injury work, we don’t do family law work. Our disputes are about money, and money in the business world. It’s about what’s a just result under the law. You could say that’s right and wrong, but it’s more like “What does the law require under the circumstances?”
When you founded the firm, did you ever envision it would expand to such an extent?
No. When we started in LA in 1986, we were four lawyers and we were just trying to keep the wolf from the door—to feed our families and pay the rent. We didn’t have any concept of creating a mammoth … firm. All of that happened incrementally over time. We were always opportunistic, and we were good at identifying opportunities for growth over time.
Do you think the fact that the firm is litigation-only made it easier to take full advantage of these opportunities?
I think the model of having a firm that only does litigation work turned out to be very powerful. Our message to the business and legal community was we are not trying to be all things to all people. We only do one thing, and we are if not the best, among the best. It was also a force for cohesiveness. Everyone is doing the same kind of work, so we avoid the tension and division that can occur in full-service firms.
I imagine your lawyers also might be happier because of your casual dress policy too!
People say we were the first firm to adopt a full-time casual dress code in the office, which we’ve had from the founding of the firm. We’ve always thought the only thing that matters is the quality of the results we get for our clients and the quality of the work. As long as you deliver on that, the rest of the things don’t matter.
Your firm also made another important decision: not to represent banks. Why?
It was only certain banks—the world’s largest money center banks, like Credit Suisse. We did that because we thought there was an unmet need in the marketplace. All the other firms wanted to represent these banks, but if a business or another bank wanted to sue these banks, it was hard for them to find a high-quality firm. We felt this was an opportunity.
Is the firm still expanding? Do you have a cutoff point or an end goal for how many offices you want to have or how many more lawyers you can support?
The firm is an unfinished project. We’re still growing. There are lots of parts of the world and areas of practice that we haven’t conquered. We’re always looking for quality people—people who are dedicated, skilled, smart, have great experience and who have inspired the confidence of clients to help us grow our practice. In terms of opening more offices, it all depends on opportunity. We’ve grown the firm by identifying opportunities and being able to act on them. Five years ago, I would not have guessed we’d have as much focus as we do in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, so who knows what may come in the future?
That’s interesting because when I initially tried to schedule this interview, your office told me you were in Dubai. To be honest, I assumed you were there to attend the gala opening of the Atlantis the Royal hotel, which featured a private Beyoncé concert.
I was invited to that, but I didn’t go. I had to work.
This story was originally published in the June-July 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Big-Time Rush: Despite epic success and a legendary reputation, this California lawyer isn’t resting on his laurels.”