Q&A Topic: Trial & Litigation
Why is it essential to hire a law firm with broad and sophisticated litigation experience and a willingness to take my case to trial, if almost all cases end up settling out of court?
Russell M. Yankwitt, Partner
1. Yankwitt LLP draws its attorneys from three elite groups: federal law clerks, the federal Prosecutor’s Office and top-tier New York City law firms. How do those individual experiences—and your firm’s combined expertise—benefit Yankwitt’s clients?
Federal law clerks spend a year working for district (trial) and circuit (appellate) judges. They gain in-depth knowledge of the litigation process and a firsthand understanding of how judges analyze and decide issues. In addition, law clerks spend much of their time writing analytical memos for their judges and assisting with drafting decisions. As a result, in our experience, federal clerks make the best writers – and compelling writing is critical to successful litigation. Our attorneys have clerked for judges throughout the Northeast and beyond. We are particularly proud to be the only law firm in the U.S. with at least one former law clerk from each of the active federal district judges sitting in the Westchester division of the Southern District of New York.
Attorneys who hone their skills as federal prosecutors at the United States Attorneys’ Office receive unparalleled, on-the-ground training as trial attorneys. They learn to manage a large docket of varied cases and typically take more cases to trial during their prosecutorial tenure than private practitioners will handle in a lifetime. At Yankwitt LLP, we are fortunate to have former federal prosecutors from the Civil Division, as well as a former Co-Chief of the Criminal Division here in White Plains.
Many of our attorneys spent their formative years at top-tier international law firms. They have been trained by the best and so they can hit the ground running when they join Yankwitt LLP. Their breadth of experience also enables us to staff cases leanly, usually with just one or two attorneys, and handle complex cases for far less cost than the big firms at which they were trained.
We take the sterling reputation that we have earned from our combined experience seriously. This gives us credibility, which is critical in any court appearance or submission, mediation session or settlement negotiation. Judges and adversaries alike know that we do not take frivolous cases or cut ethical corners to garner legal fees. That knowledge, coupled with our attorneys’ pedigrees, benefits our clients in all phases of litigation.
2. Given the background of your attorneys though, why Westchester? Why choose this market instead of Manhattan?
I worked in New York City for years, and while they were tremendous years of growth for me as a lawyer, the commute and the long hours were hard on my family. By 2009, I had made the move to a Westchester firm, but I wanted more control over my schedule and the types of cases on which I worked. I had a baby boy and had just adopted a baby girl from Taiwan, and I wanted to spend more time with my family. Thus, I started Yankwitt LLP at my kitchen table with my laptop, a telephone, a list of attorneys I had worked with in the government and my prior NYC firm, Skadden, Arps, and tremendous support from my wife Debbie.
I quickly discovered that working in Westchester enabled me to tap into two legal markets. I could continue working on New York City cases that were “too small” for big New York City law firms, because a Westchester office with its lower overhead afforded me the ability to charge more competitive rates. Additionally, Westchester has an active litigation docket because White Plains is home to both a federal and state courthouse, and although Westchester has plenty of law firms, there were very few litigation-focused practices, especially for federal and complex state court cases. Yankwitt LLP, which is comprised of seasoned litigators who have clerked, prosecuted and trained at top firms, filled a significant gap in the Westchester bar.
Now in our 10th year, we have handled more than 1,200 cases, which translates to average growth of more than 25% per year and a total gross revenue increase of 1500% since inception.
3. You say you are willing to take cases to trial but are also always looking for the optimal time to settle a case. That’s an interesting duality. Can you explain how those two principles interact?
The best way to achieve a fair settlement is to be ready for trial, both physically and mentally. Litigation is like poker – neither party wants to try the case, because it is so expensive, but no one wants to be the first to fold and admit a trial is undesirable. Like in poker, you need to go “all in” often enough to push your opponent to settle. We try more cases than the vast majority of similarly situated New York firms – three to five trials per year. Our adversaries know that we have the experience to take cases to trial and, more importantly, that we are willing to do it. Most of the time, opposing counsel is not. Because of that, we achieve better results at the settlement table for the 98% of cases that settle and have a successful trial record for the 2% that do not. However a case resolves, we are positioned to achieve optimal results for our clients.
4. If almost all cases settle at some point, how do you know what that optimal settling point is? What strategies do you use – in both litigation and alternative dispute resolution forums – to find those pressure points and achieve a settlement?
Our goal is to settle from a position of strength, and we use aggressive, yet ethical strategies to achieve the best results. We look for weaknesses in our opponents – whether on the merits of the case or in relation to financial factors. While each case is different, we have found that good times to broach settlement can be prior to depositions or after filing a dispositive motion. Clients hate depositions. They are expensive, time consuming and intimidating. For similar reasons, most clients also are averse to trials, and so after a motion for summary judgment is filed but before trial preparations begin can be an optimal settlement juncture. For our clients, it is all about finding the point of maximum value and minimum attorneys’ fees.
With respect to mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution, again, our reputation as trial attorneys gives us leverage. Our adversaries know that we are not afraid of going to trial, so they do not view the suggestion to mediate as a sign of weakness. Rather, it is practical and reasonable, because mediation is often a far less expensive alternative to litigation. While some clients are averse to settling because the litigation is about “the principle of the matter,” most cases are about money, and mediation is often the most effective way to maximize everyone’s return.
5. Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your firm and your philosophy as an attorney?
With about a dozen attorneys on staff, Yankwitt LLP is one of the largest litigation firms in Westchester County. As a result, many New York City law firms and Westchester-based law firms that do not have a deep litigation bench retain us to handle their Westchester litigation. We also have aligned ourselves with respected law firms that can handle non-litigation matters for our clients, such as matrimonial, tax, and bankruptcy work, enabling us to refer our clients to attorneys who we trust. We typically refer more than $1 million of work per year to other Westchester firms.
Litigation is a demanding discipline and today’s clients expect and deserve responsive attorneys. At Yankwitt LLP, we work hard on behalf of our clients while maintaining a family-friendly corporate culture, which I am proud to say is a cornerstone of our firm. We value high quality work, not face time, and have promoted that philosophy by investing in sophisticated technology that enables our attorneys and staff to work seamlessly from anywhere. Unlike big firms where late nights are the norm, most Yankwitt LLP attorneys leave the office by 7 p.m. to spend the evening with their families and then can log on to their computers from home as necessary. We also have attorneys working part-time and flex-time schedules, which is unusual for a small, suburban firm. Two years ago, I accepted the Westchester Women’s Bar Association Family Friendly Employer Award, and we remain committed to striking the work-life balance that has become elusive in the legal profession.
Yankwitt LLP is like one big family, and we are all there for each other. If someone needs assistance, colleagues volunteer to pitch in. And because each attorney is an experienced litigator, that assistance is seamless for our clients.
About Russell Yankwitt
Russell Yankwitt founded Yankwitt LLP in 2009 after honing his litigation skills at the premier New York City law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP; as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York; and as a federal law clerk to Thomas C. Platt of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
He litigates commercial matters of all kinds, including contract and partnership disputes, employment and shareholder lawsuits, insurance coverage disputes, ADA litigations and premises liability cases. Russell has accrued an enviable track record of trial victories over the past two decades and is recognized as Westchester's go-to litigator and trial attorney.
Well respected by the bar and judiciary, he is known to be a fair, effective and zealous client advocate. Russell graduated cum laude from Cornell Law School and is admitted to the federal and state bars in NY, CT, PA, and NJ, as well as to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Russell M. Yankwitt
140 Grand Street