Want to be on an exclusive MDL plaintiffs’ steering committee? Then you need to be an attorney in a large plaintiffs firm—the type that generally does not exist in Mississippi. That’s my take away from reviewing the list of attorneys on the Plaintiffs’ steering committee in the BP Oil Spill MDL.
Here is Judge Barbier’s Order rendered Friday with the names of the fifteen lawyers on the plaintiffs’ steering committee. Most of the lawyers appointed to the committee practice with large plaintiff firms. The even more exclusive executive committee is composed of four lawyers: James Roy, Russ Herman, Brian Barr and Scott Summy.
My interpretation of the Order is that the steering committee will run the entire litigation. Lawyers who represent victims—but who are not on the steering committee—appear to be getting squeezed out of the litigation.
The only Mississippi lawyer on the steering committee is former congressman and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, who practices with national plaintiffs firm Morgan & Morgan. Here is Espy’s application for the committee, which emphasizes his political background and firm size, as opposed to achievements as a trial attorney. Being African-American probably helped Espy make the cut. But being a former politician and a member of a large national firm could have been more important factors.
Numerous other Mississippi lawyers applied for a slot on the committee and were not appointed. I can’t help but wonder if the small size of plaintiff firms in Mississippi was a hindrance in lawyers making the committee.
Most plaintiff operations in Mississippi are small as far as the number of lawyers. A large plaintiff firm in Mississippi is a firm with 4 or more lawyers. Many Mississippi plaintiff lawyers are solos, but still find a way to work mostly on big cases. It is common in Mississippi for plaintiff lawyers from different firms to team up for big litigation.
It is a model that I use in my practice all the time. But is it the best model for litigating big cases? Most of the MDL steering committee lawyers are in big plaintiff firms such as Baron and Budd and Beasley Allen.
In the late 1990’s regional defense firms formed and moved into Mississippi. But plaintiff firms remained small and localized. Perhaps more large plaintiff firms would have established a presence in Mississippi in the 2000’s if not for tort reform and the era of the ultra-conservative Mississippi Supreme Court.
It will be interesting to see how plaintiff firms in Mississippi will look 10–15 years from now. My guess is that we are getting close to an era where plaintiff firms in Mississippi get larger. And while this would cause plaintiff lawyers to lose some of their autonomy, it would put them in a better position to compete for leadership slots in national litigation.