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Wilkinson Stekloff

The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.

Moira Penza, Partner and Anastasia Pastan, Counsel—Litigation (2023)

Since joining the firm as partner in 2019, Moira has represented clients in product liability, antitrust, sports, and general commercial litigation. Moira recently served as trial counsel for Altria in an administrative trial related to the FTC’s challenge of Altria’s $12.8 billion minority investment in JUUL for which she helped obtain a full dismissal of claims against Altria. Before joining the firm, Moira served as Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where she led criminal investigations and prosecutions involving both white collar and violent crime, including her groundbreaking prosecution and trial conviction of Keith Raniere—the leader of purported self-help group NXIVM.

Anastasia Pastan was promoted to counsel on January 1, 2023. Since joining in 2017, Anastasia has represented clients in antitrust, product liability, environmental, and contract matters. She has extensive experience in trial strategy and preparation and was part of the trial team for Bayer that won a complete defense verdict in the third state-court bellwether trial involving Xarelto. Recently, Anastasia managed the trial team that defeated the FTC's efforts to enjoin Microsoft's $69 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard. Anastasia also maintains an active pro bono practice, representing clients in trial and post-conviction matters. 

Describe your practice area and what it entails.

We are a trial litigation boutique and pride ourselves on being able to take any case to trial. The firm’s attorneys have now tried more than 200 cases in a wide variety of areas, including over 20 trials since the firm opened in 2016.

While we take cases at every stage, we are often hired to represent clients at or near the end of discovery. This means our cases are normally ramping up for trial, and our job is to focus on taking what is often a very broad record and simplify it into a compelling narrative that will be persuasive to a jury. We also focus very strongly on diversity in the firm, as it is our goal that our attorneys be reflective of the juries to which we are presenting.

What types of clients do you represent?

The firm represents a wide variety of clients including large companies (Altria, Bayer, Microsoft, Glenmark, 3M, Cargill, Medtronic, Plaid, Allergan, and Georgia Pacific), sports associations (the NFL and NCAA), criminal defendants, and pro bono clients. The pro bono cases are some of the most rewarding, and Chambers & Partners has recognized the firm as having one of the two best pro bono programs of all law firms in the country, large or small.

What types of cases/deals do you work on?

Like all attorneys at our firm, we are focused on cases headed toward trial. In terms of subject matter, there is no single type of case on which we work. As a firm, we are willing to take any case to trial, but over the past several years we have had antitrust, class action, criminal, products liability, and sports-related trials. Everybody at the firm floats between these areas and is exposed to all aspects of trial litigation.

How did you choose this practice area?

Moira: I always had an inkling I wanted to be a trial lawyer, but it really was having the opportunity to work with Beth Wilkinson (now my partner) early in my career that solidified the desire. Watching her connect with juries and create a compelling narrative, I wanted to have that experience myself. My passion for trial lawyering was furthered when I served as a federal prosecutor and was able to experience having my own trials where I was leading case strategy. After serving as first chair for the government and obtaining a conviction in a major racketeering trial against the leader of a cult-like organization called NXIVM (which was the subject of HBO’s documentary The Vow), I decided to join Wilkinson Stekloff so I could continue trying complex, sophisticated cases.

Anastasia: After law school, where there is such a strong focus on legal research and writing, I expected that I would pursue an appellate practice. During my first clerkship, which was for a federal district court judge, I realized that I enjoyed the pace and strategy of litigation. Getting to observe trials clinched it for me: I was drawn to how the parties gathered facts and used them to tell stories about the claims at issue in their cases. I looked for firms where, even early in my career, I would have the opportunity to work closely with great trial lawyers on challenging, fascinating cases. As it turns out, that’s a great description of Wilkinson Stekloff.

What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?

Anastasia: After over five years here, I can honestly say that there is no such thing as a “typical day.” Although we are always focused on trial—whether a complaint has just been filed or we are preparing for a pretrial conference—tasks can vary a lot depending on the stage of the case. For example, early on we might be meeting with clients or vetting potential experts. As a case proceeds, we might be preparing witnesses for depositions, helping to develop expert reports, or participating in strategy meetings to ensure we’re developing a record that aligns with our trial narratives. Closer to trial, we typically shift our attention to preparing opening statements, developing direct and cross examinations, and preparing trial-related briefs.

What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?

Moira: Watch as many trials and as many different trial lawyers as you can. I still love observing trials and other trial lawyers, and it is such an incredible right that we have as citizens that our trials are public and we can just go watch. More people—especially people who say they want to be trial lawyers—should be taking those opportunities when they can.

Anastasia: Practical experience is best! Although much of our legal system is built around resolving disputes through trial, trials are relatively rare. But it is hard to know whether you will love the intensely focused—and highly thrilling—experience of trying a case without actually doing it. Law school clinics can be a great way to get these experiences, as can summer positions at firms or in government. Even if you’re not a member of the trial team, observing in court and doing anything else you can to get exposure to trials is a good idea.

What misconceptions exist about your practice area?

Anastasia: One cliché about litigation generally, and trial specifically, is that it is always adversarial. While there is plenty of conflict, much of litigation practice involves negotiation and compromise. While some of our matters go to trial very quickly, others go on for a year or more, which means we spend plenty of time interacting with opposing counsel. Trying to understand their point of view and thinking critically about when to push is an important part of helping a case progress smoothly. Having a strong track record of interacting fairly with the other party can also pay dividends in front of judges.

What is unique about your practice area at your firm?

Wilkinson Stekloff’s relentless focus on trial is part of what makes working here so rewarding. While many firms and lawyers view trial as a last resort, we are thinking about our presentation to the jury from the moment a complaint is filed or whenever a case first comes to the firm. We develop our trial themes early and use them to guide our decision making at every stage. That means we do everything, from depositions to document discovery to the briefing of dispositive motions, with an eye toward our ultimate trial strategy. Being able to make good arguments is critical but it will only get you so far—we want to make our case come alive for the jury. This approach is more difficult but also a lot more interesting and a lot more fun.

What kinds of experience can summer associates gain at this practice area at your firm?

Anastasia: Because of our size, our summer class is small and we try to give summer associates as wide a variety of experiences as possible. If the stars align and there is a trial during their time here, we make every effort to include them in the trial team. Going to trial is high paced and challenging, but also incredibly rewarding—and having a chance to participate in a trial is an important part of deciding whether this is the right type of practice for you. Even absent a trial, summer associates can expect to be integrated into all aspects of associate work, from joining witness preps to observing jury exercises to helping draft briefs.

How is practicing litigation in a boutique different from practicing in a large law firm?

Moira: Practicing in a boutique—at least at Wilkinson Stekloff—is markedly different from practicing in BigLaw, which is where I started my career. We can be more discerning in who we hire and what cases we take on. Our model puts teamwork and camaraderie front and center, and the cases we take in are ones that are aligned with our model, which focuses on trial law. For our associates, a major difference is the amount of early ownership they get in matters as well as client contact, which is made possible due to our flat fee structure.