Innovative Lawyer Profile: Chris Wimmer
May 9th, 2014 by Briana Cummings
Chris Wimmer graduated from Columbia Law School in 2005 and opened his own practice, Emergent Legal, in 2013. I spoke to him in March 2014.
“A good lawyer has to have a genuine desire to relate to his clients in order to advance their interests. He has to be genuinely interested in understanding who they are and what motivates them.”
Tell me about the path that led you to start your own legal practice.
I went to law school to be a human rights lawyer. But I had a daughter not long after I graduated from law school, and I had to think about how to support a family. So after I finished my clerkship with Judge Jack B. Weinstein in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, I went to work in commercial litigation and white collar disputes, first at Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP and Friedman Kaplan Seiler & Adelman LLP in New York, and then at Brune & Richard LLP and Taylor & Company Law Offices LLP in San Francisco.
Did you learn anything at these previous jobs that has helped you strike out on your own?
Every firm taught me something important. Boies Schiller was my trial by fire—they gave me opportunities out of the gate that I would never have seen anywhere else. Friedman Kaplan showed me it was possible to manage high-stakes cases without running your attorneys into the ground. Brune & Richard exposed me to practice in courts all over the country and in widely divergent industries. Taylor & Company gave me a very personal, hands-on model for handling clients and cases from the first meeting through resolution.
“I saw over the years that there are a lot of good cases that don’t get pursued….”
Who are your target clients at Emergent Legal?
First, Emergent handles traditional commercial litigation for small to midsize businesses, the kind of business that has 150 or fewer employees and is probably not publicly traded. I’ve targeted this segment in part for practical reasons – general counsel at larger publicly traded companies tend to avoid hiring small new firms – but also out of personal preference. I like the human dynamic in dispute resolution, and if a case is too big, the individual personalities become more obscure. Representing smaller entities makes it easier to understand the human relationships involved in a dispute and to use these relationships to reach a resolution.
Second, Emergent handles business contingency litigation. Few business lawyers do contingency work because it is expensive and risky. But I do it when I think a case has merit and value because if a client needs a contingency fee arrangement, it often means she is being taken advantage of simply because she doesn’t have a lot of money. It kills me to see people like that left out in the cold. I love being a plaintiff’s attorney in these cases. My background working on the defense side for large companies gives me the experience to move quickly on these kinds of cases. It also appears to be the best opportunity to represent early stage companies in litigation, because these companies generally lack the money to fund a lawsuit.
Some cases are so small that it doesn’t even make sense to take them on contingency. For example, even in cases where $70,000 to $100,000 is at stake, the damages are too low to justify the cost of litigation. I’m trying to develop new technologies to make it easier to take on these low-damage cases. Not just in the model of Rocket Lawyer, which helps you find low-cost legal assistance, but rather to find a way to package the highest level of practice in a way that makes it accessible to more people.
I saw over the years that there are a lot of good cases that don’t get pursued, so that’s the gap I’m trying to fill.
In addition, I like to help artists with any type of legal need they may be facing – a gallery dispute, attorney fee dispute, whatever it may be. It’s my way of showing how much I value what artists contribute. And, I’ll help anyone else, really, if it’s a compelling case to me.
“I expect that I take cases that a lot of other firms in the city wouldn’t look at because their overhead is too high.”
What sets you apart from your competition?
It’s always difficult to say what I do differently from other firms in the area, because there are a lot of great attorneys in the city and only limited information about their practices. But I expect that I take cases that a lot of other firms in the city wouldn’t look at because their overhead is too high. For example, the contingency fee cases are opening up a lot of opportunities for me. A lot of lawyers won’t even look at business contingency cases.
Another thing that I hope characterizes Emergent is its attention to relationships. The ultimate goal of the attorney-client relationship is to advance the client’s set of goals, even if the attorney would prioritize those goals differently. A good lawyer has to have a genuine desire to relate to his clients in order to advance their interests. He has to be genuinely interested in understanding who they are and what motivates them. And he has to be equally interested in the other side. A personal sense of having been wronged can loom larger than economic harms for some, and you had better understand what your client is really after before you dig into a case.
“My ambition is for Emergent to practice at a level comparable to some of the biggest firms in the city….”
How are you able to compete with bigger firms, especially in how you handle large-scale cases?
You can do a lot in terms of managing a large case by just focusing on the issues that really matter. For example, in drafting the complaint, you might have fifteen possible causes of action, but if you look closely you can eliminate the ones that don’t provide additional relief, say, or that would require a lot of discovery to prove. If instead of listing all fifteen causes of action, you just focus on the core nucleus of the case, this saves a lot of work. It also shows the judge and the other side that you’ve really thought about what the case is all about and are not just throwing everything at the wall.
There are some basic practical things, like going paperless and eliminating busywork, that can help you make effective use of your time and limited resources. And there’s always the opportunity to scale up quickly by partnering with other small firms and looping in contract attorneys.
My ambition is for Emergent to practice at a level comparable to some of the biggest firms in the city, with just me and a couple of other people. I’d like to believe that it just takes a couple of good heads and good instincts to win. Time will tell.
How else do you improve efficiency in your practice?
Efficiency demands not going through the same 18 steps with every case you get. I am much more efficient when I can step back and think about what I need to achieve in a case at a very high level. I try to think about the particular goals of the case, distill the central narrative of the case, and use my instincts about what angles will resonate with my eventual audience. I find that, once I have this vision established for a case, the work seems to prioritize itself.
How do you use technology to improve efficiency?
Google Drive has been tremendous. It’s wonderful being able to store documents somewhere where they can be easily indexed and searched. Multi-sheet scanners are also great. They help me stay paperless. I use Dropbox and Box to share files with clients. This improves not only efficiency (for example, you don’t have to re-answer the same questions over and over for the client) but also risk management. By keeping clients up to date, they stay invested and involved in the case, and they understand why it took you so many hours to do a particular task.
What about case management tools?
I don’t have any faith in the big case management tools. I have never seen them to be useful. Most cases come down to 15 documents – especially cases involving smaller companies, but even in bigger cases. Especially since most cases never go to trial. If you’re trying to think about what 10 to 15 documents really make your case, categorizing every document doesn’t get you there.
What about tools for document review?
The most recent generation of technology-assisted review (TAR) has been tremendous, but there’s still a lot to figure out there: how to categorize by type, create a relevancy profile, etc. TAR might be useful for a huge case where you need to go through a lot of documents, but at my last firm, the TAR we used didn’t really add a lot of value.
I have an idiosyncratic idea of what document review should look like. If you’ve practiced long enough, you get a feel for what documents there will be. You can see who the key players are, how they manage their document system on the other side, etc. So you know where to look. A lot of it is just spending time sifting through the documents in a non-linear fashion to see what catches your eye. For example, in one case we had some documents with gibberish titles that turned out to be chat logs; they ended up being some of the most important documents in the case. Maybe TAR is backing into this nonlinear review in a more methodical way, but any review tool from the past five years is probably enough to allow you to do this sort of investigation.