Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P
Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P
Incorporated: 1938 as Robins & Davis
Revenues: $100 million (2005 est.)
NAIC: 541110 Offices of Lawyers
Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P. is one of the top 20 law firms in the United States, both in terms of its billing and its reputation. Robins, Kaplan is headquartered in Minneapolis, and with 250 lawyers on staff, is smaller than some other leading national firms. Yet Robins, Kaplan has a tremendous reputation as a litigator, winning many landmark cases in the areas of consumer protection, personal injury, and intellectual property and patent rights. A few of Robins, Kaplan’s best-known victories are as the counsel for the government of India in its suit against Union Carbide in the wake of the 1984 industrial disaster in Bhopal and as winner of landmark settlements for hundreds of women injured by intrauterine birth control devices. Robins, Kaplan was propelled to the front ranks of U.S. law firms in 1998 when it won a $6.13 billion settlement for the state of Minnesota against tobacco firms. The Minnesota settlement was a watershed in the history of tobacco lawsuits, with its proof of ongoing consumer deception by cigarette makers going back to the 1950s. Robins, Kaplan serves clients in a variety of industries and walks of life, in many areas such as mass tort, personal injury, medical malpractice, healthcare litigation, business litigation, corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, and licensing and intellectual property rights. Robins, Kaplan maintains offices in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, and Naples, Florida, as well as its Minneapolis headquarters.
Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi was founded in Minneapolis in 1938 as Robins & Davis. Solly Robins was born in 1913 in St. Paul, Minnesota, the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants. His father, a tailor, was in poor health, and the family struggled to make ends meet. Solly began working as a paper boy at age nine, and worked full time throughout high school. He saved enough money for only two years of college, and prepared to quit when his money ran out. By this time, it was the midst of the Great Depression, and the future did not seem bright for the young scholar. However, a helpful college official found Robins a job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which allowed him to stay in school and finish his degree. Then Robins enrolled in law school. He had apparently chosen law because of the opportunities it offered for self-employment. Robins had seen his older brother, trained as a chemist, go without work. This may have been a result of the Depression, and it may have been due to discrimination. Robins, as a Jew, found some avenues closed to him. When he got his law degree in 1936, he worked briefly for a Chicago firm, then returned to Minneapolis and worked for the Minnesota Industrial Commission, where he took on workman’s compensation cases for people injured on the job. Though this work evidently appealed to him, Robins nevertheless felt not quite a part of the established legal community in his city, and in 1938 he formed a partnership with another Jewish lawyer, his former classmate Julius Davis.
The two young lawyers rented a small office, where they worked at back-to-back desks. One secretary handled all the typing on a secondhand machine. Davis was apparently a talented businessman, while Robins flourished in a courtroom in front of a jury. The small practice took on all kinds of work, including wills and estate planning and family law. However, Solly Robins was particularly drawn to personal injury cases, where he felt that it was often difficult for individuals to assert their rights against big corporations. Robins was unafraid to take risky cases to trial. His touch with a jury was legendary, and he was known for being able to communicate with a range of people, regardless of background and education.
Very early on, Robins & Davis established an important legal doctrine in Minnesota with its handling of the 1942 case Hayward v. State Farm. This case affirmed the right of an insurance company to collect payment from a third party for damages to its client. This is called subrogation. Robins & Davis became known for their handling of insurance subrogation cases in ensuing years. The firm grew through the 1940s and 1950s, collecting a new partner, Arnold Lyons, in 1943 (when the name was changed to Robins, Davis & Lyons), and another, Elliot Kaplan, in 1961. In 1957, Robins, Davis & Lyons won the largest negligence verdict in Minnesota history, representing the insurer Factory Mutual in a case involving a fire at the Fuller Brush factory. Ten years later, the firm won an important personal injury case that for the first time established strict standards of manufacturer’s liability. This case, McCormack v. Hanks-craft, involved a three-year-old girl who was seriously burned when she tripped over the vaporizer at her bedside. The vaporizer, filled with hot water, was commonly used at the bedsides of sick children, and Robins argued that the manufacturer should have foreseen such an accident when it designed the product. Robins won $150,000 in damages for the girl and her family, but the manufacturer appealed the verdict.McCormack v. Hankscraft reached the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1967, where the court agreed with Robins and even extended the law to specify manufacturers’ liability in both the design and manufacture of their products.
The small firm became known for its expertise in subrogation, personal injury, and then in medical malpractice cases. One asset Robins, Davis & Lyons brought its clients was its own in-house investigative team, and the latest in computer technology. The law firm was always on the forefront of automated database programs, so it could handle bigger and bigger cases involving multiple parties. The firm’s appetite for risk also led it into medical malpractice at a time when such cases were considered very difficult to win. In 1970 the firm won a malpractice case involving an infant who suffered brain damage due to late diagnosis of a nerve condition. This was Robins, Davis & Lyons’ first big win in a malpractice case, bringing an award of $1 million to the child and his family. In 1976, the firm took on another malpractice case, Cornfeldt v. Tongen, which established the principle of informed consent in Minnesota law. The law firm took on more partners in these years, expanded its staff, and burnished its reputation as a daring, committed, well-prepared group of lawyers who excelled at trial. Solly Robins in particular had a strong impact on Minnesota law, with many complex cases he argued enshrined as lasting precedents.
At Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P., we don’t just claim to be trial lawyers, we deliver results. We evaluate and prepare every case with trial in mind—and as if our client’s future hinges on its outcome. Our clients know this, and our adversaries know this. Our overarching goal is to meld trial strategy with business savvy to achieve the result that best serves our client’s interests.
BHOPAL, DALKON SHIELD, AND SEARLE
Robins, Davis added to its staff in the 1970s. Michael Ciresi, later a name partner, joined the firm in 1971, and Alan Miller, another name partner, joined in 1979. The firm opened its first regional branch in 1978, with an office in Atlanta, Georgia. In the mid-1970s, the firm had roughly 40 lawyers on staff. This grew to over 150 lawyers ten years later. Founding partner Julius Davis died in 1979, and in 1980 the firm changed its name to Robins, Zelle, Larson & Kaplan.
During the 1980s, the firm gained national and international renown in several high profile injury cases. The decade began with two hotel disasters, the collapse of a skywalk in the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City, and a fire in the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel, both in 1981. Robins, Zelle represented the victims in both cases. In 1985, a Time magazine profile of the firm called Robins, Zelle “kings of catastrophe” (April 22, 1985). This was when Robins, Zelle, still considered a small midwestern law outfit, represented the government of India on behalf of the approximately 2,000 people killed and 200,000 injured in the toxic gas explosion of a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. The horrific accident occurred on December 3, 1984, and the Indian government moved quickly to secure Robins, Zelle on behalf of its citizens. Union Carbide claimed that fault for the accident lay with its Indian subsidiary and not with the parent company. The case moved from a U.S. court to the Indian legal system, and because of the multinational nature of Union Carbide and the huge number of victims, the case seemed at one point impossibly complex. Robins, Zelle lawyers flew back and forth to India multiple times, and it looked as if the case might drag on for years. Union Carbide eventually offered $350 million, to be paid over ten years, as a settlement. This was far from adequate, and Robins, Zelle managed to get the company to pay $470 million in a single payment. Although still not a happy resolution for many of the victims, the settlement was a significant coup for the firm, which had managed to get what it thought was a fair cash payment within about three years of the accident, in a legal system that typically worked much more slowly.
Also in the 1980s, Robins, Zelle represented women injured by two makers of intrauterine birth control devices. In 1983, the firm won a settlement for over 500 women it represented against the makers of the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device. The case actually involved four different trials, in which the device’s maker, A. H. Robins, repeatedly blamed the women victims’ own sexual promiscuity for their illness and sterility. Robins, Zelle partner Michael Ciresi was lead lawyer in the Dalkon Shield cases, and he turned the corner in the case by getting a witness for the manufacturer to admit that A.H. Robins had destroyed documents that spoke of early problems with the Dalkon Shield. Ciresi focused attention on duplicitous behavior of the manufacturer, rather than on the design of the device itself, and thus was able to take the case into the realm of human motives rather than specialized medical and engineering knowledge. Evidence brought to light during the Dalkon Shield cases was made available to other lawyers, and eventually A.H. Robins had to file for bankruptcy, as it could no longer defend itself against a slew of lawsuits.
Similarly, in 1988, the firm won another watershed case against G.D. Searle, manufacturer of the intrauterine device known as the Copper 7. Michael Ciresi again was lead lawyer, and by that time his name had been added to the firm’s (now Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi). Searle had successfully defended itself in 15 out of 18 previous suits brought against it by women who had become ill or sterile while using the Copper 7. Only 18 suits had gotten as far as trial, while perhaps a thousand others had been dropped or settled out of court. Robins, Kaplan spent four years preparing for the Searle case, which generated over a million pages of evidence. Again, the Robins, Kaplan team discovered Searle documents that showed that the company had doubts about the safety of the Copper 7 as far back as 1974. Robins, Kaplan won $8.75 million for its plaintiff, Esther Kociemba. This included $7 million in punitive damages. This case led Searle to settle hundreds of other cases brought by women who had used its Copper 7.
- Firm is founded in Minneapolis.
- Company wins important case establishing insurance subrogation law.
- Robins, Kaplan case appealed to Minnesota Supreme Court establishes strict product liability standards.
- Medical malpractice case establishes principle of informed consent in Minnesota law.
- Firm wins significant victory over manufacturer of birth control device Dalkon Shield.
- Robins, Kaplan is retained by government of India in case of Bhopal disaster.
- Firm wins historic $6 billion settlement in tobacco litigation.
- Company wins large patent infringement case for Eolas Technologies against Microsoft.
In the 1990s, Robins, Kaplan began a string of impressive wins in patent infringement litigation. In 1992, the firm represented Honeywell in a suit against the Japanese camera manufacturer Minolta. Honeywell asserted that Minolta had unlawfully used technology it had developed for auto-focus cameras. Here again, the Robins, Kaplan team showed its trademark style and won. The lawyers focused on the human elements in the story, interviewing Minolta’s engineers at great length. They found internal Minolta documents that established a time line for the development of auto-focus, with Honeywell clearly there first. Also, the firm’s technological panache was effective in the courtroom, where a series of computer animations explained the minutiae of auto-focus to the jury. The strategy paid off when the jury awarded Honeywell over $96 million as compensation for Minolta’s infringement.
In 1995, Robins, Kaplan took on a similar case, representing the Fonar Corporation against General Electric in a patent infringement suit involving magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. This led to General Electric paying Fonar some $128 million. At the time, this was one of the ten largest awards ever given in a patent litigation case. The law firm had won several high profile patent infringement cases for big money, and was ranked one of the leading firms in the country for this kind of problem.
The Minnesota tobacco litigation, however, really put Robins, Kaplan on the map. The firm won an unprecedented judgment against cigarette manufacturers, at a time when many of these cases were hung up in the courts. The state of Minnesota was attempting to recover its welfare costs associated with smoking-related disease and deaths of its citizens. For years, the tobacco industry had claimed that there was no direct correlation between smoking and illnesses such as lung cancer, and these cases had been notoriously tricky. In fact, the tobacco industry had so far never lost a suit claiming health damages.
Robins, Kaplan began compiling documents, both in the United States and in England, which ran to millions of pages. Meanwhile, 40 states had combined their suits against cigarette manufacturers, and in June 1997 the tobacco companies agreed to a combined settlement of $368 billion. Minnesota refused to join the other attorneys general in the group settlement, however, and Robins, Kaplan took the state’s case to trial. The Wall Street Journal (May 11, 1998) called the Minnesota case “the most thoroughly prepared legal assault on the tobacco industry,” not only because of the $20 million the firm had spent in discovery, but because Robins, Kaplan found previously secret documents that definitively showed the industry had targeted consumers as young as 14. Minnesota won $6.1 billion in the settlement, about four times what it would have gotten if it had taken the 40-state settlement a year earlier.
Robins, Kaplan’s cut of the settlement propelled it to the very top rank of U.S. law firms. It outranked every other law firm in the nation in 1998 due to the $550 million fee the tobacco settlement earned it. Individual partners made more than $3.5 million each. That year the firm established a charitable foundation, and Michael Ciresi became one of the biggest political donors in the country. Founder Solly Robins died in 1999 at age 86.
By this time an undisputed leader among the nation’s law firms, Robins, Kaplan continued to win big cases in the 2000s, particularly in the area of patent litigation. The firm helped Pitney Bowes win a $400 million settlement in its suit against printer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard in 2001, and won another significant settlement in 2003 in a patent case involving Dutch computer maker Tulip against giant computer maker Dell.
In a profile of Robins, Kaplan partner Ronald Schutz in IP Law & Business (June 2003), Schutz explained the firm’s strategy for pursuing patent litigation. The idea was to take the patent case against the biggest player in the market first. With this case won, the plaintiff would be able to enforce its rights against the other smaller players in the market as well. For example, Robins, Kaplan secured a $25 million award in 2003 against camera-maker Sony on behalf of a five-person Detroit firm that had pioneered digital picture storage software. Once this case was won, Robins, Kaplan’s client was able to defend its patent against eight other smaller camera manufacturers. The IP Law profile also brought out a familiar Robins, Kaplan theme: telling the human story rather than the technology story in order to persuade a jury. In the camera case, Schutz focused on the difficulties the inventors faced as they came up with their digital picture software, and why they thought such technology was necessary and helpful. Rather than overwhelm a jury with technological data, the Robins, Kaplan lawyer in 2003 used the same tactics founder Solly Robins had back in the 1940s, and found a way to get through to jurors on a human level.
In 2004, Robins, Kaplan secured the second biggest patent verdict in U.S. legal history, representing the Wheaton, Illinois, company Eolas Technologies against computer behemoth Microsoft. The case involved technology developed in the early 1990s, and so the court was entertained with a demonstration of a “vintage” 1993 computer. Microsoft’s lawyers attempted to demonstrate that the 1993 computer could work with Microsoft’s own 1993 software, in this case a program called a “plug-in” that embedded interactive content in web pages. The idea was that if Microsoft’s own technology worked, then it would not have needed to borrow Eolas’s technology, and Eolas’s case would be gone. However, Robins, Kaplan’s lawyer showed that the Microsoft computer was actually using a newer program, and the whole dramatic demonstration did nothing for Microsoft’s case. The jury then came back with a verdict of $521 million for Eolas.
By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi was riding high as a repeat winner in complex patent cases. It was also a leading firm in terms of revenue. The firm had spread to several regional offices and had some 250 lawyers by 2007. In addition to its lawyers, the firm kept some 400 other staff on payroll, including investigators, nurses, and technology specialists. In 2006, Robins, Kaplan considered a merger with a Santa Monica, California, firm, Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan. Negotiations broke off, however, and the firm remained independent and centered in the Midwest. Robins, Kaplan continued to focus on its known strengths, including personal injury litigation and intellectual property law.
Dorsey & Whitney L.L.P.; Townsend & Townsend & Crew L.L.P.; Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
“Alschuler-Robins Merger Talks Stall,” Recorder, March 27, 2006.
Braverman, Paul, “Happiness Is a Jumbo Verdict,” American Lawyer, January 2004.
Carlson, Scott, “Twin Cities Law Firm Wins Patent Litigation Case,” Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, May 30, 1995.
Carr, David, Rewriting the Odds: The Law Firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P., Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P., 2005.
Connors, Philip, “Lawyers Turn Tidy Profits As Clients Make Deals,” Wall Street Journal, July 2, 1999, p. B1.
Geyelin, Milo, “Minnesota, Tobacco Firms in Settlement,” Wall Street Journal, May 11, 1998, p. 1.
“Minnesota Says Tobacco Papers Prove Deception by the Industry,” New York Times, January 27, 1998, p. A8.
Nelson, Rick, “Why Robins Partners Flew the Nest,” Corporate Report-Minnesota, September 1995, p. 127.
“Schutz Takes a Shot at the Camera Market,” IP Law & Business, June 2003.
Serrill, Michael S., “Kings of Catastrophe,” Time, April 22, 1985, p. 80.
Siler, Julia Flynn, “Drug Maker Told to Pay $8 Million over Birth Device,” New York Times, September 10, 1988, pp. 1, 35.
________, “Winning with Hard Work and Histrionics,” New York Times, October 9, 1988, p. F6.
Sullivan, Joseph F., “High-Tech Trials,” New York Times, January 14, 1992, p. B5.
“Tobacco Lawyers Seek to Crush Notion Smoking Bad for States,” Wall Street Journal, September 6, 1995, p. B8.
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