Susan Brice of litigation boutique Nijman Franzetti (courtesy photo)
Susan Brice, the newest partner at Chicago-based Nijman Franzetti, shares one career milestone with the three other women who co-own the environmental law boutique: they’ve all led environmental practices within Big Law. Together, it’s a “who’s who” of major Chicago firms. Brice, with 25 years of experience in large firms, most recently co-led the toxic tort group at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner; before that, she shared leadership of the environmental group at Mayer Brown. Susan Franzetti had the same role at Dentons predecessor Sonnenschein, Jennifer Nijman at Winston & Strawn, and Lynn Grayson at Jenner & Block.
Brice spoke with ALM about the opportunities she expects to emerge from her move, her work bringing genomics into toxic tort defenses, and the impact of the coronavirus on her practice.
You’ve held leadership roles in two large firms. What’s the appeal of taking your practice to a boutique setting?
Obviously, the overhead from a very large firm is quite substantial, and moving to a boutique allows you to decrease the overhead and therefore charge your clients less and have less expenses that are attributed to you in the end. It makes it much more appealing, I think, in a practice such as mine, which is more of a niche practice. I’m excited about it because I think it’s going to make things a lot easier, less conflicts.
I’ve worked with wonderful environmental attorneys in both my other law firms, but having a specialty practice in environmental products, I think it’s time to just narrow my range and go after what I’m best at.
How much of a selling point was it that Nijman Franzetti is a women-owned firm?
I’ve worked in big law firms that have been managed the “old school” way for a long time, and I am very excited to become part of something that’s managed in a very different way. The internal management of the firm is done on a very equitable basis, and I find that attractive. And it’s nice to be around other women who have grown up in the big law firms and know the drill and decided to move to a small shop and do our own thing together.
We’re in a period where corporate clients are more concerned about issues of diversity and inclusion. Does this make a difference in marketing your services to clients?
Most definitely. Not only the talent with these particular women, but the fact that we are women-owned and women-run is something that big corporate clients are taking into account. And especially in a time of COVID, when you’re seeing a lot of big companies really looking to reduce their spend, and being able to have a lower billing rate is an attractive option to them. It’s clear in moving my practice over that the clients are very excited about getting the same service at a lower rate.
Tell me a little bit about how genomics has the opportunity to transform toxic tort litigation.
The biggest problem—let’s just take mesothelioma—is a “black box” causation. Someone alleges that they have cancer. Well, was that cancer caused by the exposure? Was that cancer caused by a genetic mutation that you were born with? Was that caused by something else?
We are on the cusp of the science being able to really open up that black box with the genetics and do whole-genome sequencing of the plaintiff’s blood and/or tissue to determine a variety of different things, including whether or not there are chromosomal aberrations that tend to trend with a particular exposure. For example, there was a case a few years ago where they were able to actually look at what genes were being expressed in response to radiation. They knew what the fingerprint was when you’re exposed to radiation. And this person’s tissue did not have that. And they were able to prove, and the jury agreed, that it was not caused by radiation, that it was actually an inherited condition.
You’re going to see lots and lots more, in the upcoming years, of this kind of science being introduced in the courtroom.
How did you first recognize the potential that this science did have for the defense work that you do?
Something that I’ve always been passionate about is understanding genetics. I just honestly started looking into it and studying it and reading about it.
I wrote on it and ended up getting hooked up with this group in Research Triangle Park that does this for litigation purposes: it’s ArrayExpress. We work together on trying to get the word out about this platform. Because it will help plaintiffs too. It won’t just help the defense; it will help you know what actually was the cause, instead of this battle of the experts over epidemiology extrapolation and all these other things that typically come into play. It’ll give you a much more cleaner idea, based upon science, as to what’s going on.
With litigation, for now, on some degree of a pause with the coronavirus, has the pandemic provided any new opportunities for your practice?
I’ve done a lot of work with respect to advising clients on mitigation, techniques and strategies, as well as reopening. In particular, the PREP Act, which immunizes particular entities from lawsuits if they’re engaged in distributing, producing, etc., countermeasures that are approved. For example, ventilator manufacturers would be covered by this act. Vaccine manufacturers would be covered.
But it’s not that simple. It’s actually a very complicated statute that goes hand in hand with the emergency declaration that accompanies it. So, I have been doing a ton of counseling on that.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.