The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Thomas C. White, Partner—Litigation
Thomas C. White is a partner in the firm’s Litigation group. He represents prominent global companies and individuals in complex commercial litigation, including securities class actions, products liability actions, bankruptcy litigation, arbitration, and government investigations. He has represented Goldman Sachs, FCA, Volkswagen, California Resources Corp., Barclays, Cytec, the Republic of Argentina, Giants Stadium, the New York Bankers Association, The Clearing House, Popular, Swiss Re, and UBS.
A skilled courtroom advocate, Tom has twice been recognized as a “Litigator of the Week” by The American Lawyer’s Litigation Daily. He was recognized in May 2019 for a trial victory on behalf of Micro Systems Engineering, Inc. and again in November 2020 for securing the dismissal of a consumer class action against Volkswagen.
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
Sullivan & Cromwell’s Litigation group encourages us to be generalists who can tackle whatever complex disputes our clients are facing. As a result, my practice encompasses the full range of complex litigation matters. From briefing motions to dismiss in securities class actions to trying an intellectual property case in federal court, I represent clients in every stage of a litigation, from complaint through appeal. I have particular expertise in products liability matters, bankruptcy litigation, financial services litigation, and M&A litigation.
What types of clients do you represent?
I have represented a wide range of clients in different industries. My clients have included Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in actions related to diesel emissions and Micro Systems Engineering, Inc. in a copyright, trade secret, and breach of contract action. I have also represented financial institutions, including Barclays, Goldman Sachs, Popular, Swiss Re, and UBS in securities and ERISA class actions. Right now, I have the privilege of representing the Republic of Argentina in litigation related to its acquisition of a controlling state in the energy company YPF and cases arising out of its issuance of GDP-linked securities in 2005 and 2010.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
The types of cases I have handled for our clients run the gamut from M&A disputes, securities actions, environmental liability cases, copyright and trade secrets, mortgage-backed securities, etc. Recently, we have been handling a number of cases where the consumer plaintiffs’ bar has been making creative use of the RICO Act to bring products liability claims. S&C has deep ties to many global financial institutions, and I have worked on many matters stemming from the 2008 financial crisis.
How did you choose this practice area?
I don’t really view it as a choice—I’ve always known that I would be a litigator. In that sense, I feel like this practice area chose me. I enjoy the challenge of parachuting into a field that I know very little about and quickly getting up to speed on the relevant part of a client’s business. I enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with taking a deposition or delivering an oral argument. I think the areas in which I can bring my skills to bear—whether it be crafting creative arguments or spotting issues—are where I contribute the most value to our clients.
What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
It all depends on the case. Some cases are writing intensive; some are deposition intensive; and some are expert intensive. As a junior lawyer, I spent more time on research and writing, but I was fortunate to have opportunities early in my career to advise clients as well. I still do a lot of brief writing, but I also spend a lot of time brainstorming about issues and helping my clients make strategic decisions.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
You should challenge yourself, particularly in your second and third years of law school. Although I’m a litigator, I’ve found that it’s still enormously valuable to have a basic knowledge of financial concepts—particularly as someone who practices in New York—because those ideas come up over and over again. I would encourage all law students to take at least one course that focuses on finance or accounting. Having that coursework under your belt before you begin practicing will be helpful in terms of skills development, regardless of which practice group you end up joining.
What do you like best about your practice area?
I love taking depositions. I try to think through how key exchanges will go while I am on the record with the witness and anticipate ways he or she may try to dodge my key questions. I like deviating from my outline when I get unexpected testimony or “sniff” that the witness is hiding something. I also enjoy helping our junior lawyers prepare for their first depositions. I give S&C’s deposition training each year, which is always a lot of fun.
What misconceptions exist about your practice area?
Many people assume that junior litigation associates spend most of their time doing “doc review.” That has not been my experience. It’s also a negative spin on an important part of the job. Most of the time, even junior lawyers at S&C get involved with documents after they have been flagged as being relevant to the case in some way. Our junior associates are not paging through every scrap of paper in a file—they are hunting down the key evidence in the case. Personally, I want to look at every piece of paper that I reasonably can before taking someone’s deposition or cross examining them at trial. I don’t see that as “doc review.”
What kinds of experience can summer associates gain in this practice area at your firm?
S&C summer associates can gain all types of experience—it all depends on what they’re interested in learning and what type of summer they want to have. Recently, a summer associate working on one of my matters spotted an issue on his own and wrote a memorandum on it that ended up being the basis on which the Second Circuit affirmed our trial win. I also worked with a group of summer associates as part of our mock jury exercise—which was a lot of fun. If you’re someone who enjoys rolling up your sleeves and really diving into the work, there are very few limits on the types of experiences you can gain as a summer associate.
What do you feel are the benefits of taking a generalist approach in litigation versus pursuing a more specialized practice?
To me, the key benefit that a generalist litigator brings to a client is the fact that the judge and the jury are going to be generalists. If your practice is hyper-specialized, there’s a greater likelihood that you will get caught up in your own jargon and assume that others will understand concepts that seem obvious to you, which aren’t obvious to the uninitiated judge or juror. Generalist litigators can take any set of facts, fully understand them, and then distill them into a narrative that will resonate with your case’s judge or jury.
The legal market is always evolving, and my advice to law students is to resist the pressure to specialize early in your career. Areas that are in high demand now may be not be in five or ten years’ time. If you narrow your focus in your first years of practice, you risk developing skills that may not be useful in the long term. The skills of a generalist litigator, on the other hand—like being able to write clearly, cross-examine witnesses, and deliver effective opening and closing statements—will always be in demand.