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John Quinn and the art of litigation

4 minute read

Artist Molly Segal (L) and firm founder John Quinn (R). Photo courtesy of Alexis Hyde

(Reuters) - The 10th floor of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan’s office in downtown Los Angeles was all but deserted midday on Monday, except for founder John Quinn and artist Molly Segal.

Segal, who describes her watercolor paintings as “a lot of California landscape-y stuff that leans dystopic,” is one of two artists currently in residence at the 875-lawyer firm’s pandemic-emptied headquarters.

“It’s the most surreal residency,” Segal said when Quinn, on a video call with me, walked down the hall to visit the bright corner-office-turned-artist-studio that Segal said she is “slowly destroying.”

Or maybe it’s the opposite. The work she’s creating, including a painting of a waterpark on fire that might be an analogy for California, is mesmerizing. (Indeed, Quinn, who has pledged to buy one of her works when the three-month residency is over, told me he has his eye on that piece. “Molly has a dark imagination,” he said.)

Painter Edgar Ramirez, who per his bio “works primarily with themes related to commerce, commodity, labor, geographical territory and identity,” is occupying another corner office studio.

In addition to the swanky workspace and guaranteed sale of a painting, both artists are getting a $15,000 stipend from the firm, plus $1,500 for materials, and will have a two-person show in early December after their residency ends.

At least two more (still-unnamed) artists will be selected for residencies next year, with applications opening soon for the next go-round.

But what about when the COVID-19 threat fades (surely it will fade?) and lawyers come back to the office? What then?

“I don’t think we’ll ever have the same demand for space,” Quinn said. Neither did he see any particular problem with having an artist or two working alongside firm lawyers, if it came to that.

In the meantime, he noted, “We have six floors (in Los Angeles), most of which don’t see a human being on any given day.”

An avid collector and artist himself, Quinn when confronting the empty office space told me he was inspired by a simple idea: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we actually had some artists in here working every day?”

The world is changing "faster than ever before," he noted. "Who better than artists to give us insights into what those changes are and what they portend?”

The resulting artist-in-residence program was announced in June and received more than 150 applications from emerging and mid-career artists working in the Los Angeles area.

Quinn and partners Luke Nikas and Maaren Shah, who both specialize in art-related litigation, had what he called “the task and pleasure” of sorting through the submissions and picking the winners. (Originally, they planned for one inaugural artist, but the trio of judges couldn’t decide between Segal and Ramirez, so both got the nod.)

I asked Quinn how the rest of the firm's 265 or so partners have reacted to the program.

“The ones who have spoken to me about it have been very enthusiastic,” he said. “I haven’t heard any naysayers.”

As for the cost, the litigation-focused firm in 2020 had gross revenue of $1.3 billion and profits per equity partner of $4.67 million, according to The American Lawyer. The outlay to the artists barely registers. “A rounding error,” Quinn called it.

At first glance, it might seem as if there’s little overlap between the work of visual artists and litigators. (Unless by overlap, you mean lawyers buying paintings to decorate their houses in the Hamptons.)

But Quinn, a legendary first-chair litigator, sees myriad similarities between the two.

Skilled trial lawyers are well-aware of the importance of graphics to convey information, but it goes beyond that, he said.

“You are presenting a case, which is a story, a version of events,” that’s created using documents and evidence and human beings as witnesses, Quinn said. “A trial lawyer in a real sense is like an artist facing a blank canvas.”

On our video call, he showed me one of the pieces he conceptualized (though he arranged for someone else to actually construct it). It’s called “17 Time Zones,” a reference to when Quinn would frequently travel to far-flung places such as Korea for work.

A gold cabinet filled with jewel-like pills, the work was inspired by artist Damien Hirst’s series of pill cabinets, though Quinn’s is, as he put it, more “over the top.”

Each pill has a different marking, such a dollar sign or the Batman logo, and plays with the notion that “there’s a pill for everything,” Quinn said, including getting to sleep when you’re jetlagged.

If he wasn’t a lawyer, might he have been an artist? I asked.

“I’d like to think so,” Quinn replied.

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author. Reuters News, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias.)

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com

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