Lawyers Weekly USA
How has it earned a reputation as one of the best firms in the state, leading to its selection as part of a team representing Florida in it Medicaid suit against the Tobacco companies?
How do they do it? Because being out numbered is what spurs them on.
Like a lone gunslinger in the Old West, Yerrid, Knopik & Valenzuela thrives on vanquishing powerful adversaries who underestimate them.
“The smallest firm with their best gunfighter can always compete with the biggest firm with their best gunfighter,” says Steve Yerrid, co-founder and president of the firm, which concentrates in civil litigation.
It is no coincidence that in many of its biggest cases, the firm represents underdogs. And it is fitting that Yerrid’s favorite movie is “Braveheart,” the true story of a Medieval peasant who led a group of badly outnumbered Scots against the English army.
“Too often in this county, money and power determine the outcome,” says Yerrid, 46, who earned his way through college by working and gambling in the Caribbean during the summers. “People equate number with strength, so often we get underestimated.”
There’s nothing they like more.
“A lot of times [the underdog] does win, and a lot of that is the underestimation that people in the [legal field] give to the perceived competitive advantage,” he says.
“The game is not won in the air-conditioned, rosewood- and mahogany-tabled conference rooms. The duel is won on the street.”
In one current case, the firm is pitted against Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a huge firm representing accounting giant Price Waterhouse. “That 700-man firm doesn’t bother me because when they get out in the street, they only have a limited number of gunslingers,” Yerrid says.
A “Strike Force” Approach
The four lawyers, all partners, thrive on litigating against big corporations such as Ford, Allstate, GM and the tobacco companies, says co-founder Christopher Knopik.
Its victories include a $16 million jury award last year for a welder who was paralyzed from the waist down after a 20-foot fall at a construction site.
“We see ourselves in those kinds of cases as a ‘strike force,'” Knopik says, which means they home in on the central issues of cases, then go on the attack.
The firm’s size forces it to be very aggressive. Whenever possible, the firm uses it compactness as an advantage.
A few years ago, for example, Yerrid was representing the plaintiff in a medical malpractice case. As he rose to his feet in a Jacksonville courtroom, he realized that on the other side stood five lawyers from a 12-lawyer firm.
In a moment of levity, the judge commented on the imbalance.
“Mr. Yerrid, it seems you’re the only lawyer for the plaintiff, and your opponent has five lawyers here,” Yerrid recalls the judge saying. “They hardly seems fair, does it?”
“You know, you’re right your Honor,” Yerrid replied. “I know that firm has a dozen lawyers. Maybe we should get the other seven in here too.”
The firm embraces those David-and-Goliath scenarios.
“I like being David,” admits Yerrid.
Its reputation for battling tough odds is widespread. The state of Florida has chosen the firm to help with its litigation demanding tobacco companies reimburse the state for Medicaid costs of citizens treated for smoking-related illnesses.
Small is Beautiful
Since it was founded in 1989, the firm has won 40 verdicts and settlements of more than $1 million each, Yerrid estimates. Its small size is a tremendous advantage because it allows them to:
# Zero in quickly on key case issues. A sharp focus lets them attack their opponents and respond quickly to defense actions. It also gives their cases strong, direct messages that jurors seize.
In one case several years ago, the plaintiff lost an eye when he was assaulted near an ATM machine. The assailants had hidden in the tall bushes surrounding the ATM. The man sued Barnett Bank, claiming that the bank compromised his safety by not making the premises safer.
Yerrid won a $1 million verdict for the young man, who now is a Washington, D.C. lawyer. As a result, banks began fortifying ATMs with concrete, metal, bright lights and security cameras, Yerrid says.
In this case, the jury agreed with Yerrid’s message: ATMs bring banks profits, but with those profits come responsibilities to customers.
# Stay involved in cases instead of delegating. Because the firm is so small, only a handful of lawyers and staff are included in each case. Without associates and multitudes of paralegals analyzing information and conducting research, the lead attorney does note have to worry about whether crucial information has ben lost in the shuffle.
“All of the knowledge of the case and the documents is vested in very few people.” Knopik explains. In some cases, one or two of the partners handle the work; in other, more complex matters, all of them participate.
# Convene a team of independent contractors. Whenever it needs to beef up its staff, the firm contracts our work. Its outside contractors include paralegals for document-heavy cases, a couple of investigators and a Registered Nurse who reviews documents for medical malpractice cases.
Its permanent employees include a receptionist, an office administrator, two administrative runners and four legal assistants who routinely digest depositions and serve as paralegals.
By keeping its staff small, the partners can litigate rather than administrate. “We get right to the heart of the matter,” Yerrid says. “We don’t have to worry about bureaucracy. We don’t have to worry about numbers.”
Selecting the Right Cases
Besides a thirst for competition, the key to success is careful case selection, Yerrid says. With the right case and the right client, you win. It’s as simple as that, he insists.
The four partners vote unanimously on whether to accept a case. Criteria include the firm’s current caseload, the justness of the cause and the honesty of the client. At any one time, the firm has 100 to 150 active files.
It is difficult when a great case walks in the door and the firm has to turn it down, Yerrid admits. But the lawyers know a small case load plays an important role in the ability to win against big opponents.
In addition to the philosophical criteria, the firm screens cases with an eye towards their costs and potential pay-off.
“There’s not any kind of magic formula that we have,” Knopik says. The lawyers look at the client’s potential recovery and fees as well as the case’s financial costs and the time it will take to resolve the case.
The cost of some case is easier to predict than others. Knopik says the lawyers have a ballpark idea of what it costs to take a typical product liability case to trial, for instance. But commercial litigation cases, especially those with substantial document copying costs, are less predictable financially.
Careful case selection doesn’t mean taking just easy cases, Yerrid says. And taking on good causes doesn’t always make them popular.
For example, the firm currently represents a Haitian man whose 24-year-old son was killed by a Bradenton, Florida, police officer. The lawsuit – which names the officer, the police department and the city as defendants – alleges that the officer used excessive force.
The case has racial undertones and has stirred up strong feelings in the community. Yerrid says he has received several threats for representing the family.
According to Yerrid, the shooting stemmed from an argument between the young man and a rent collector. A police officer entered the fray and helped the rent collector chase the man who began running toward the home. The man then picked up an unbroken bottle, and the officer shot it out of his hand. When the man started running again, Yerrid says, the policemen shot him in the back.
A trial date has not yet been set.
The firm also took on Allstate Insurance Company in a suit over a job reference, which resulting in a confidential settlement last year.
Yerrid and Knopik represented two people who were shot by a former Allstate employee. Allstate fired the man because of menacing behavior, including bringing a handgun to work. But the company nonetheless gave him a positive letter of recommendation that did not mention these problems. Unaware of the man’s violent tendencies, another insurance company, Fireman’s Fund, hired him.
Shortly after he was hired, the man was dismissed from Fireman’s Fund. He returned to the Tampa office building one day, entered the cafeteria and shot five people, three of who died. The man killed himself later that day.
The firm represented the family of an executive killed in the shooting and an employee partially paralyzed by a bullet. These plaintiffs contended Allstate was liable for misleading the subsequent employer about the man’s dangerous nature.
After the judge allowed claims for punitive damages in the case, Allstate settled, according to news coverage of the case. The terms of the settlement were confidential.
The case served notice to employer that they could be liable for writing misleading letters of recommendation for former employees, Yerrid says.
Mavericks in the Making
The firm’s four lawyers are mavericks, which lends to their courtroom success but doesn’t fit well with a corporate mentality. That’s one reason they each prefer the small-firm setting.
Yerrid, a West Virginia native, worked his way through college with summer jobs at a dredging company in St. Croix. He won money in card games on the company ship during the week, then multiplied his winnings by gambling in Caribbean casinos on the weekends.
After graduating from Georgetown Law School, he joined Holland & Knight, a Florida-based firm that now has more that 500 lawyers. Hungry for courtroom experience, Yerrid volunteered for traffic case, where he established a 48-2 record. He moved on the small claims court and then quickly on to bigger cases.
In 1980, he represented the pilot of a boat that slammed into the Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay in heavy fog. The collision crumbled a bridge support and sent 35 motorist plunging to their deaths. Yerrid argued that an act of God, not negligence by his client, caused the tragedy. The jury agreed.
Not long after that victory, Yerrid became a partner at Holland & Knight. He was 31 years old.
Knopik and Henry Valenzuela, both 36, also worked a Holland & Knight early in their careers.
Knopik, a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, joined the firm after clerking for a federal judge in Florida. Valenzuela was an accountant who later earned a law degree from Duke University. He joined Holland & Knight in 1985.
A year later, the threesome and seven other litigators left Holland & Knight and founded Stagg, Hardy and Yerrid.
The 10-lawyer firm thrived and quickly grew to 14. But that was too big for Yerrid, Knopik and Valenzuela, the threesome that handled most of the firm’s trial work.
“We wanted to be in an environment where we could govern ourselves a little bit more,” Knopik says.
In 1989, they jumped ship and founded Yerrid, Knopik & Valenzuela, where there is less bureaucracy and more collegiality, the partners say. All major decisions are made unanimously, including hiring staff and deciding whether to take particular cases.
“We had to schedule firm meeting and schedule firm retreats [at Stagg],” Yerrid says. “I can schedule firm meetings over lunch now.”
Matt Mudano, 37, a graduate of Florida State University Law School, joined the firm in 1990.
The Firm has not increased its ranks since then, but the subject comes up frequently.
“If all the member of the firm are candid with you, they will tell you we have considered adding attorneys to the firm more times than you can count on two hands,” Knopik says.
But they’ve always chosen not to.
“Small firms can’t survive unless there’s a oneness there,” Yerrid says.
“Large firms need rules to maintain order,” Knopik says. “We don’t want to get that big.”