Karen Dunn is one of the nation’s top trial lawyers, widely recognized for securing courtroom victories in difficult cases. She also helps companies, public figures and boards of directors navigate reputation-threatening investigations, government inquiries and media scrutiny. Karen speaks with Managing Editor Michael Rafalowich about her recent headline-making trial wins and the future of trial practice. Karen has consistently placed in the Top 100 Trial Lawyers lists for the past several years and has taken home three impact case awards since 2019.
You went from a maverick litigation-specific outfit to a blue-chip full-service firm with a historic pedigree and one that is synonymous with “Big Law.” What drove the change, and what attracted you to Paul, Weiss specifically?
Truth be told, having grown up in politics and on campaigns, my personality is probably best suited to a litigation boutique – I never thought I would work in a big law firm. That said, the transition was seamless and now I am able to offer my clients the best of a litigation boutique and the best of a larger, full-service firm. Our firm’s hallmark is that we take on the hardest, most impactful, and most challenging matters, apply an unparalleled work ethic, strategic mindset and creativity, and deliver great results for our clients.
Besides being best in class for trial work, I also felt immediately comfortable with the people. People at Paul, Weiss genuinely like each other and look out for one another. There is an ethic of mutual support, which is special. I also felt immediately comfortable because I knew several partners already from other times in my life – from my work on Capitol Hill, from law school, and from the White House.
Finally, I would never go to a firm without a genuine commitment to social impact. I showed up with a major social impact case – the case against the white supremacists in Charlottesville – and the firm gladly took it on. When we won that case, it meant so much to me to hear from our partners how meaningful it was to them that we took on the fight.
Trials have undeniably become fewer and further between, and yet you have been recognized for taking a lead role in several headline-making, game-changing – and award-winning – ones just within the last few years alone. Is this just happenstance or is this the fulfillment of an ambition and an agenda to be a true trial lawyer?
I agree that, if you look at the data, trials are becoming less frequent but I am not sure this is true with the kinds of cases we are handling. Clients often come to us when the problem they are having is so significant to their business that it is either likely or certain that they will want to take the case to trial.
It is also not uncommon that we will be asked to come in as trial counsel in the middle of a case. A couple of years ago, for example, I was brought in six weeks before trial in a case that was worth hundreds of millions of dollars. So it is possible that while the number of trials is shrinking, the number of business-critical trials is not shrinking and may even be increasing.
That said, I value every trial opportunity. Last year, I felt fortunate to be able to lead a major bench trial and a jury trial within seven months, both during COVID-19, and both in person.
And I am also fortunate that I love other kinds of legal work too. Clients are asking me to handle investigations and matters that generally involve public and media scrutiny. So in addition to a trial specialty, I also specialize in crisis management. I have represented witnesses before the January 6 Committee, the Benghazi Committee, and the New York Attorney General’s investigation of the former Governor Andrew Cuomo; I also lead internal investigations for companies and boards of directors. In that work, I am able to draw on the skills I gained in government and communications, in working with high-profile public figures, and as both a federal prosecutor and a trial lawyer.
What are your perspectives on the breed of the trial lawyer? And what about the future of them? What do you see as challenges to continuing to groom trial lawyers in training?
All of the truly excellent trial lawyers I know combine two qualities that might seem in tension with one another: they are extremely likable and extremely cut-throat. They can twist a knife on cross-examination while having everyone in the room love them for it. On top of that, they work very hard – they never feel above rolling up their sleeves, working the long nights, and mastering the facts. And the reason they do all of this is because they truly love trying cases.
All that said, great trial lawyers are not just born, they are made. To become great, you need experience on your feet. Some people, like me, get their early trial experience trying cases in the public sector, either as a prosecutor or as a public defender. Others, like my brilliant colleague Bill Isaacson, get trained through plaintiff-side cases and arbitrations.
And those of us who lead trials bear an enormous responsibility to train the great trial lawyers of the next generation. It would be easier if more cases went to trial, of course. But on the plus side, the cases we take to trial tend to be long, lasting for weeks, with opportunities for lawyers besides the lead counsel to handle witnesses, technology tutorials, jury instructions, and motions. Judges have also started expressing a preference for seeing more junior lawyers at the podium, which is a great development. As fun as it is to put on a witness yourself, it can be even more gratifying to second-chair one of your colleagues when they do their first cross-examination and hit it out of the park.
Your practice is a fairly diverse mix of commercial litigation, investigations, and civil rights, as evidenced by the cases you have been recognized for your role in. Most recently it seems there is a particular emphasis on antitrust matters. Is this part of a broader trend? Practitioners, especially those based in DC, have referenced antitrust as the “latest flavor” and I wonder what your thoughts are on this.
My practice has always been diverse, crossing many substantive areas of law, including many types of commercial disputes, government and internal investigations and civil rights. Right now, for many companies and regulators, antitrust is where the action is so that is where we are too.
I want to give you a platform to speak a little on one case in particular – the Sines v. Kessler case. This case was the only instance of one that was recognized as one of Benchmark’s “Impact Cases” prior to a decision being rendered. We of course were all too happy to recognize it once again after the victorious 2021 decision. I don’t want to put words in your mouth but I’m assuming this is a case you are particularly proud of taking a leading role in.
First, thank you and Benchmark very much for the meaningful recognition of this case. When my career is over, I know that I will look back on the Charlottesville case as one of the most transformative in my legal career. I am immensely proud of our team, at my own firm and at Kaplan Hecker and Cooley, who worked tirelessly for four years to find justice, accountability and some measure of closure to our clients.
Our clients were nine Charlottesville residents who were injured over the weekend of August 11 and 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The defendants were leaders of the neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements in America. And while publicly the defendants called the event “Unite the Right,” privately they called it the “Battle of Charlottesville.” The violence that occurred that weekend was pre-planned, executed, and celebrated by the defendants. We sued both the individuals and groups involved because we wanted to get to the heart of the violent white supremacist movement and the leaders and most violent foot soldiers responsible for that weekend’s violence.
The trial itself was almost a surreal experience; I have described it as living in a bubble of hate and violence. The defendants continually spouted racist hate, in a purposeful attempt to desensitize the jury. In closing argument, I expressly asked the jurors not to be desensitized, after all they had heard, and to remember what they felt when they first heard the evidence in the case. The verdict was gratifying and a huge relief: each and every defendant was held liable for a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence and the jury awarded both compensatory and punitive damages. The case now serves as a playbook for holding violence extremist groups accountable and other suits have been brought based on our model. The case also helped focus many more people on the very real threat white supremacist violence poses to our fundamental values as a nation.
What other cases do you view as important?
I have been extremely fortunate to try some of the most high-profile and significant cases over the past 10 years. Of course, all of the trials I did as a prosecutor are close to my heart, because that is how I learned to be a trial lawyer and I loved standing up for the government in court.
On the commercial side, I will mention one of my favorites, Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies, Inc., the hotly contested trade secrets case in 2017 over autonomous vehicle technology that the media referred to as a “battle royale.” The case came against the backdrop of a very tumultuous time for the company and for former CEO Travis Kalanick. Travis was my witness at trial and shortly after his testimony, the case settled favorably for Uber.
Another one of my favorite experiences, also very important, was helping to secure budget autonomy for the District of Columbia in 2014. Budget autonomy–the ability of the District to spend its own tax and fee revenue without congressional approval–has been a civil rights issue in the District
for decades, and when we took on the case, no one thought we could win it.
I litigated the case with my husband for two years and it was a very hard-fought battle in local and federal court.
You have placed on Benchmark’s prestigious Top 100 Trial Lawyers list for several years in a row now. Are there any other trial lawyers in the community that you wanted to publicly acknowledge? Former (or current) opponents can be included!
Bill Isaacson: It is one of the greatest privileges of my professional life to try cases with Bill. He is a brilliant lawyer and a dear friend. He is also a fierce cross-examiner. His understated manner means that the witnesses don’t see it coming, which is incredibly effective.
Juanita Brooks: I was extremely fortunate to co-counsel with Juanita a few years ago; I admire her greatly and now count her as a friend. Juanita has long been a trailblazer for women trial lawyers, which is no surprise when you see her in a courtroom – she is a master communicator, painting a clear picture for the jury no matter how complicated the topic.