It's been a little more than nine years since David Sanford and Jeremy Heisler founded their class-action litigation boutique Sanford Heisler. Since then the firm has grown from three partners to well over 30 attorneys in New York, Washington and San Francisco.
For Sanford, chairman and founding partner, the road toward owning his own firm has been a progressive one. He started out as an associate at what was then Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue. He left there in 1997 to join David Boies' start-up Boies & Schiller. A year later, Sanford helped start the Washington office of Gordon, Silberman, Wiggins & Childs, later renamed Wiggins, Childs, Quinn & Pantazis. In January 2004, Sanford made the dream of running his own firm a reality.
Among the firm's most noteworthy matters is the class-action discrimination case Velez v. Novartis. The firm won a $253 million jury verdict on behalf of more than 7,000 female employees of the company, the largest employment verdict to date. The case was ultimately settled for $175 million.
Legal Times sat down with Sanford in his office, which overlooks Connecticut Avenue N.W., to talk about the firm's business, the Velez v. Novartis case and civil rights.
What influenced you to start your own firm?
Sanford: The primary impetus for doing my own thing is the great autonomy one has to do whatever one wants to do. You can take on whatever case and not have to answer to anyone but oneself and one's partners. Ultimately if you are successful, you can continue to do whatever you want to do.
Right now we have a firm that still focuses on civil rights matters and employment discrimination. We have cases throughout the United States, class actions, multi-party matters, individual matters. We have wage and hour suits, typically on behalf of low-paid earners. We also have a good number of lawyers focusing on qui tam work.
There are just opportunities that come up every day in this practice that we have to analyze and decide whether or not we take the case. A lot of our work right now remains in employment but typically involves more and more lawyers in law firms. Lawyers around the country are coming to us to represent them in their disputes, whether they are associates or partners. We like to bring cases that are challenging, cutting edge and many times, cases of first impression.
What are the challenges of being a class-action, litigation-based firm?
We have over 30 attorneys nationwide and these are attorneys who could be at any top ranked defense firm in the country. They come to our firm because they are committed to what we do. They want to do meaningful work committed to social justice. We couldn't do the work we do without having exceptionally talented people. To do what we do is not easy. To do what we do successfully is harder still. We have to be successful in order to stay in business because we don't have paying clients. At the end of the day we have to win. In order to win we have to be smarter and work harder than the other side.
What did Velez v. Novartis case mean for the firm, its clients and yourself?
It was a significant case in the history of class action litigation. Not very many class actions ultimately get to trial. Very few historically have gone to trial in part because so many of them settle and in part because trial management is a complicated issue for courts. Courts are overburdened. The idea of having a two-month trial while you have 300-plus active cases, a criminal docket and a lot of other things is not something that most judges would welcome. There are a lot of institutional, inertial pressures that ultimately mean cases don't get tried, individual or class cases.
This was a case that we litigated for seven years and for a variety of reasons culminated in a two month trial. Thinking about that case as a seminal case in so many ways is important for the plaintiffs bar. Most notably for me it is a good example of how to manage a class case, both from the perspective of the clients, the counsel, but perhaps especially for the court.
More important than that was the outcome. From our side of things, the outcome vindicated the rights of thousands of people. There were systemic problems that we alleged were evident in Novartis' pay and promotional practices. The United Nations recognized the Novartis case as one of the top 10 cases in the world to vindicate female rights and gender equality. It was the only case recognized in the United States. It serves as a model for what's possible. For all those reasons Novartis turned out to be an exceptionally important case.
What other cases have proved important for you?
I was class counsel in a case against Cracker Barrel. We represented the NAACP as well as many African American employees and African American customers alleging race discrimination. We developed evidence in litigation that showed that Cracker Barrel had trained its hostesses to mark who was African American and who was white so that when the manager came over to seat people he or she could see at a glance who was white and who was black, based on the note. Quite often they would seat the white folks first even if the black folks had been waiting longer. Quite often they would seat the African Americans in what they called the back of a house, behind a screen which was reserved ostensibly for non-smokers, where African Americans were put out of sight. There was a lot of evidence that developed during the course of that litigation which suggested that this was not just a random occurrence, but something that was really a systemic problem.
Ultimately, the Department of Justice investigated that case. We had given the department over 400 witnesses in over 200 cities in 31 states. They determined our allegations were truthful and compelling. For the only time during in the [George W.] Bush administration, the administration actually intervened in a class action civil rights matter. Once the Bush administration intervened the case settled. But that was after five years of litigation. It goes to the issue of how far we have to go in this society. This litigation occurred from 1999 to 2004.
Why did it take so long for the government to intervene?
It took a lot of effort to get the Bush administration to pay attention. Even though people in the civil rights division wanted to intervene, John Ashcroft, who was then attorney general, said no. It was only as a result of Senator [Edward] Kennedy's hearings when they were considering a new civil rights head at Justice where Kennedy asked questions about the Cracker Barrel case. That new civil rights head committed under oath to investigate and to take responsibility for that investigation. Up until that point, Ashcroft was not in favor. It really took something extraordinary like Senate confirmation hearings to get this front and center publicly.
This is part of a series of Q&A sessions Legal Times is conducting with D.C.-based law firm managing partners. Photo by The National Law Journal's Diego M. Radzinschi.