A couple of weeks ago Jackson personal injury attorney Rocky Wilkins announced that he will join the Jackson office of Morgan & Morgan on May 1. It’s my understanding that the plan is for Rocky to try all of the firm’s Mississippi cases.
Wilkins’ late father was a well known criminal lawyer in Jackson. Before starting his personal injury practice, Rocky was an associate at Daniel Coker in Jackson. For the last several years, Wilkins has sponsored and co-hosted the TV show Law Call with Tim Porter of the Porter & Malouf Law Firm. He has tried many cases to verdict including numerous seven figure verdicts, some of which I covered on this blog. It’s no secret that he likes trying cases.
Many people I heard from were surprised by the news. While I certainly didn’t predict the move, I was not very surprised. In fact, I would not be too surprised about any successful plaintiff lawyer joining a large plaintiff firm. It’s a sign of the times.
Plaintiffs law is moving away from the lone-wolf model that John Grisham writes about in his novels. There are now many large national plaintiff firms such as Morgan & Morgan, Baron & Budd, Beasley Allen and Lieff Cabraser. These are just a few examples. The large plaintiff firms are monopolizing big litigation from the plaintiff side.
When I started my own practice in 2002, it was still common for a small plaintiff operation to lead a huge plaintiff case. Those attorneys were my role models. It’s now a dinosaur model. Pull up the plaintiff steering committee on recent MDLs and you will see the vast majority of slots held my attorneys in huge firms. Most of the rest were grandfathered into the club.
I haven’t discussed it with the principals, but I suspect that this dynamic has a lot to do with the Mississippi lawyers who started the Johnson & Johnson talc litigation (Allen Smith and Porter & Malouf) associating Beasley Allen in the litigation. With Beasley Allen involved, they don’t have to worry about a judge handing their inventory to another group of lawyers.
And that’s basically what happens in today’s world of MDL litigation. The presiding judge handpicks who will be the point lawyer(s) on the case. Those people have a huge amount of control over all the cases. A lone wolf attorney may intend to handle his own cases. But the reality on the ground is that the lead attorneys control.
There is a huge amount of money at stake in these cases. In the NFL Concussion litigation, a handful of firms will split $112 million in attorney’s fees. Hardly any of that will go to the Pittsburgh attorney (Jason Luckasevic) who many credit with starting the litigation. Most of it will go to New York attorney Chris Seegar who represented only a handful of NFL players, but was picked by the judge to chair the plaintiff steering committee. Best I can tell, Seegar got the job because he had a similar role in earlier MDL’s. That’s great for the Chris Seegars of the world. I’m not sure the Rocky Wilkins of the world can get there without a big firm backing them up.
Rocky Wilkins is a smart guy. I suspect he sees industry trends and is moving to a large firm so that he has a better chance of litigating and trying large cases and cases outside Mississippi. It’s no secret that many Mississippi litigators–plaintiff and defense–are either already litigating cases outside the state or trying to do so. It will be interesting to see if Rocky is given the opportunity to try cases for Morgan & Morgan outside Mississippi.
Morgan & Morgan has invested a ton of money into developing a Mississippi practice. It had some initial growing pains, but has appeared to steady the course. It is the largest plaintiff law firm in the nation and it just hired one of the most well known young plaintiff lawyers in the state. All Mississippi litigators–plaintiff and defense–should think about what the current trends mean for the future of their practice.