My favorite moment during last winter's $1.3 billion Massachusetts tobacco-fee trial came near the end, when Ronald Kehoe, an avuncular, white-haired assistant attorney general, was questioning the state's star witness, Thomas Sobol. Sobol was describing how his former law firm, Brown Rudnick Berlack & Israels, prepared in 1995 to sue Big Tobacco on behalf of the Commonwealth.
Sobol testified that to reduce its risk on what looked like a long-shot lawsuit, Brown Rudnick hired a bunch of cheapo "contract" lawyers, at $25 to $35 an hour, and also cut back on its pro bono commitment, redirecting $1 million worth of work to the anti-tobacco litigation.
KEHOE: Was the tobacco litigation seen by the firm as a form of pro bono activity in part?
ROBERT POPEO [Brown Rudnick's attorney, jumping out of his chair]: Objection, your Honor.
JUDGE ALLAN VAN GESTEL: Sustained.
Did Brown Rudnick view the anti-tobacco lawsuit, which would later pay out the largest legal fee in the Commonwealth's history, as pro bono work? I asked Sobol that question over hot chocolate at Johnny's Luncheonette, in Newton, Massachusetts. Both on and off the stand the forty-six-year-old Sobol cuts a bold figure, closely resembling Bruce Springsteen before the Boss started showing his age. For want of a better term, Sobol—not unlike Jan Schlichtmann, the Boston lawyer who litigated the toxic-waste case made famous in the book and movie A Civil Action—has star quality. In one of several tendrils linking the two cases, which were tried in the same downtown courtroom, Schlichtmann and Sobol were briefly colleagues, before quarreling over the—yes—fees in a high-profile class-action suit, unrelated to tobacco.