America's Next Top Trial Lawyer: An Interview With Alex Spiro
The Quinn Emanuel partner, 39, counts Elon Musk and Jay-Z as clients.
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Who is the top trial lawyer in America? The question would trigger a fierce debate.
But here’s something most close observers of the legal profession can agree on: Alex Spiro of Quinn Emanuel is up there. And he’s probably the only one on the shortlist who’s under 40.
Indeed, in terms of well-known trial lawyers who take high-stakes, headline-making cases in front of juries—and win—I’m hard-pressed to come up with someone under 40 who can compete with Alex Spiro. (By the way, it’s pronounced “SPY-roh,” rhyming with “pyro.”)
As criminal defense lawyers well know, winning an acquittal at trial is no small feat. But Alex has done it multiple times, for high-profile clients like the former NBA player Thabo Sefolosha. Representing a billionaire before a jury in a civil case also presents challenges, since it’s easy for opposing counsel to spin a “David versus Goliath” narrative. But Alex has won civil jury verdicts for such boldface names as Shawn Carter aka Jay-Z and Elon Musk—whom Alex now represents in one of the biggest civil litigations in history, Musk’s attempt to get out of buying Twitter for $44 billion.
Celebrities love Alex, but not everyone does; he “elicits a love-him-or-hate-him response,” as Jack Newsham of Insider wrote in a recent profile. Most critics were anonymous, but one went on the record: Florida trial lawyer Mike Beltran, who went to law school with Alex, said, “He’s the type of guy that you’d call him up, and he’d open the conversation spending five minutes telling you how f**kin’ busy he is.”
But love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that Alex Spiro has had a remarkable career as a trial lawyer—especially for a 39-year-old trial lawyer. So I’m grateful to him for taking time out of his hectic schedule—he really is f**king busy—to be my guest for the inaugural episode of the Original Jurisdiction podcast.
What’s going through Alex’s head right now as the Twitter trial approaches? What’s the secret of his success in front of juries? What trial-lawyer conventional wisdom does he reject? And how much sleep does he get a night? To learn all this and more, listen to the episode, by clicking on the embed at the top of this post.
Alex Spiro bio, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP
From Jay-Z to Elon Musk: Inside the rise of Quinn Emanuel partner Alex Spiro, by Jack Newsham for Insider
Quinn Emanuel Pulls Off Coup With Big-Time Criminal Defense Hire, by Joe Patrice for Above the Law
Jay-Z Declares War... Against The Lack Of Diversity In The Arbitration World, by David Lat for Above the Law
A Wrongful Arrest Defense Clinic, by The Daily Show With Trevor Noah
Basketball Stars’ Go-To Guy, by Seth Stern for Harvard Law Bulletin
Prefer reading to listening? A transcript of the entire episode appears below.
Two quick notes:
This transcript has been cleaned up from the audio in ways that don’t alter meaning—e.g., by deleting verbal filler or adding a word here or there to clarify meaning.
For future episodes, transcripts will be provided only to paid subscribers, as one of the many benefits of subscribing.
David Lat: Hello, and welcome to Original Jurisdiction—the podcast. I’m your host, David Lat, author of Original Jurisdiction—the newsletter.
You’re listening to the very first episode of Original Jurisdiction, which is long overdue. I’ve been meaning to launch a podcast to accompany the newsletter for the longest time, but it was taking me forever because I wanted everything to be perfect. But I finally decided to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good—or what I hope is good, or at least decent—so here we are.
One of the thoughts I consoled myself with is that podcasts can evolve. In fact, some of my favorite podcasts today are very different from how they were at launch. So I consider this podcast to be a work in progress. I welcome your comments, criticisms, and suggestions, which will help it improve over time.
Here’s my current vision. I’ll post an episode every other week. They’ll run between 30 and 45 minutes. The typical episode will involve me interviewing an interesting, influential, or important person within the world of law, often someone I’ve mentioned in the newsletter.
If you wind up enjoying today’s episode, please rate, review, and subscribe to this podcast, which will let you know about future episodes. And please subscribe to the Original Jurisdiction newsletter if you don’t already, so you can get emails about future episodes of this podcast as well as all the other fun stories I write for the newsletter. You can read and subscribe to the newsletter at davidlat.substack.com.
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Now, on to today’s guest. I wanted to get a big name for my inaugural episode, and I succeeded. Many of my guests will be friends, and today’s guest is no exception. Back when he lived in New York, we’d get together, but he hasn’t been spending as much time in New York lately—because he’s too busy litigating cases across the country.
My guest today is Alex Spiro—one of the nation’s top trial lawyers, with a very strong claim to being the top trial lawyer in the country under the age of 40. He’s a partner at the litigation powerhouse of Quinn Emanuel, where he serves as co-chair of the investigations, government enforcement, and white-collar defense practice.
As lead counsel, Alex has tried well over 50 cases to verdict. Unlike many Biglaw litigators, he’s a true trial lawyer. He takes cases to trial—and he wins. He counts numerous celebrities as clients, and he has won victories before juries for such figures as rapper turned entrepreneur Jay-Z, former NBA star Thabo Sefolosha, and the world’s richest person, Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Just this week, Alex was hired by Kanye West to litigate over West’s failed partnership with Gap. [UPDATE (10/27/22, 3:23 p.m.): Although West claimed on Instagram that Spiro was representing him in the Gap matter (misspelling his name as “Spiri”), and the two did meet to discuss working together, the representation was never made official. So Spiro does not currently represent West, as he told Reuters.]
Alex is now representing Elon Musk in Delaware Chancery Court, where Musk is trying to get out of his agreement to purchase Twitter for $44 billion. That case will go to trial in mid-October.
Alex grew up in the Boston area. He majored in psychology at Tufts, graduating summa cum laude, and worked for several years at McLean Hospital, the celebrated psychiatric hospital with many famous patients, where he focused on working with adolescents, especially ones with Asperger’s. He thought about going into neuroscience or psychiatry, but then concluded that he might be able to do more for young people as an advocate. So he went to Harvard Law School, graduating in 2008.
From 2008 to 2013, he worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where he cut his teeth as a trial lawyer. He won convictions of Rodney Alcala, the so-called “Dating Game” serial killer, and serial murderer Travis Woods.
From 2013 to 2017, Alex worked with Ben Brafman, one of the most famous “celebrity lawyers”—a lawyer to many celebrities, and a celebrity in his own right. While working with Ben, Alex built up his own stable of star clients—including, it seemed to me, half of the NBA.
In 2017, Alex joined Quinn Emanuel as a partner. According to a profile of Alex by Jack Newsham of Insider, Alex is one of the firm’s top-ten business generators—which is saying a lot, because average profits per partner at Quinn last year were over $5.7 million, according to the American Lawyer.
In our conversation, we covered a lot of ground. We talked about the Twitter case, the secrets of Alex’s success in front of juries, conventional wisdom of trial lawyers that he disagrees with, how to win seemingly unwinnable cases, and his important work in the areas of criminal-justice reform and racial equity.
Without further ado, here’s my interview of Alex Spiro.
DL: So where are you beaming in from? I know that earlier Quinn Emanuel launched a big Miami office, and you were going to be part of that. Of course you have this huge case in Delaware Chancery. You were in New York. Where are you right now?
Alex Spiro: I'm in Miami right now, but where I am is very much a moving target.
DL: Fair enough—and as we're recording this, of course you are gearing up for the huge Twitter v. Musk case. I know there’s not too much you can say about that, but is there something brief you can say about just how you’re feeling generally about the case, or anything like that? I’ve seen you quoted in news stories about the case, specific aspects of it.
AS: Like all cases, I think the truth will eventually come out. And when you’ve got this many people focused on something, as long as you get a fair shot in court, the truth will come out, and that’s all you can ask for.
DL: This is a little different from some of the things you’re most famous for. You’re most famous for being a trial lawyer who tries cases before juries. This of course is before a chancellor, a bench trial, one judge. How do you think about that? Do you approach cases differently, whether you’re arguing before a judge versus a jury?
AS: Yeah, I think you have to. I would still always prefer a jury. I'd still prefer a diverse audience than one person. One person leaves a lot hanging in the balance and people come into the things with preconceived notions, all people. So I’d rather try a jury trial, but when you're in front of a judge, you just have a jury of one and you have to realize that. You have to really focus on the things that are going to matter for the court and probably have to lean a little bit more heavily into law experts and other formalities than you would in front of a jury. And it may very well be that the stage and the impressions you’re leaving start much earlier. They don’t just start when the gavel comes down and the trial begins, they start at inception. So there are for sure differences and different approaches.
DL: When I think about you and your practice, you seem to be somebody who’s able to relate to juries with a street smart, common-sense, man-on-the-street approach. But at the same time, you have this Harvard Law School pedigree, and you’re working at this elite law firm. How do you think of yourself and your practice in terms of these contrasts, in terms of Biglaw versus “trial lawyer who can really mix it up”?
AS: I’m a trial lawyer. I’m not much of a big-firm lawyer, frankly—and I don’t really think about it in those terms. I had a regular growing-up period. I went to law school by accident. I was focused on mental health and psychology before that. I do regular things and interact with lots and lots of people. And so I think that’s more of the imprint on me and the way that I view trying cases than anything I learned in law school or at a big firm. It’s the way you relate to people, which is based on human experience—or at least a lot of it is.
DL: Your background in mental health and psychology—can you talk about that? You studied that undergrad at Tufts, and you worked at McLean for a time. Can you talk about how that background or experience informs your approach to trying cases?
AS: It actually is mostly brought to bear in cross-examination and into trying to figure out why people do the things that they do. I think people assume perhaps that it’s in picking a jury or... I don’t really think that’s so much what it is. It’s more just that people do all sorts of things and think all sorts of things, and why they do what they do is really psychology, right? And if you can understand that and take a step back, you don’t have to look at things so linearly, and you’re more likely to be able to break somebody down because you’re really seeing through them and into them.
DL: You mentioned jury selection just briefly. One piece of trial-lawyer wisdom you sometimes hear is, ‘Oh, cases are won and lost in jury selection, in voir dire.’ What do you think of that?
AS: I don’t think very much of it, frankly. Now that I do work at a big firm, I have an argument every trial about hiring jury consultants and focus groups. I never want to, and everybody says, ‘Oh, that’s ‘cause you're brash.’ And I think, well, that's ‘cause I don’t think it’s that helpful.
Listen, the people that you’re picking are the people that you’re picking, that you feel that you can have an imprint on and will have an imprint on you. Another person can’t pick a jury for you. So if that’s right, then it doesn’t really matter. Even a novice jury selector is going to be better than somebody else selecting the jury for you, right?
Now, the other thing is jury selection can happen very, very fast. And so you’re going to have to make very quick judgments based on people’s mannerisms, appearance, body language, and things like that.
I tried a case with three big firms. Each had jury consultants, and each had to have their vote cast, and everybody had an opinion. There were like 30 voices. And I was thinking, ‘Geez Louise, you’re going to step on yourselves.’ So a lot of it’s gut, a lot of it’s feel, and then listen, it smooths itself out over 12 people, hopefully a little bit.
And in terms of one comment you made, which is like it’s won or lost at that moment—I don’t really think so. It’s won or lost in the contest itself, and unless you get a really bad, runaway kind of jury—there are people that cannot be moved—I think you get a fair cross section, and you get a fair trial.
DL: We talked about jury consultants—you probably put less stock in them than many—and we talked about voir dire. Are there other pieces of conventional wisdom of trial lawyers that you disagree with? Sayings like, ‘Oh, don’t ask a question that you don't know the answer to,’ or other things like that?
AS: I disagree with that one. I’ve never subscribed to that view. There's lots of questions that you don't know the answer to, but the answer can’t hurt you. I’m a big believer that you got to take risks in life and in court, and if you don’t, you’re just using the same playbook as everybody else. If my opponent has the playbook that apparently every person at a big firm seems to have, then he’s going to prepare his witness to expect only questions I know the answers to. Everybody seems to overprepare witnesses too, which I’m not a big believer in.
I get chastised for this too, but I'm not much of an overpreparer of a witness. I think it makes them come across as unnatural, and even if you’re being very careful in over preparation, you end up putting your imprint on them more so, and even if it’s not coached, it can look coached. And I don’t mind an occasional bad answer—let it become natural and let that person have their raw moments, you know? And again, some people will say that’s brash, that’s on the fly, but that’s just how I look at it.
But no, I don‘t at all subscribe to the view, ‘Don't ask a question you don’t know the answer to,’ because again, they’re going to be prepared for those, right? If you've got one piece of impeachment material, they’re going to be prepared on that. They’re not going to be prepared on something that they don’t expect you to have the guts to ask, and some area that they expect you won’t explore.
Another thing that people do that I just don’t subscribe to is, ‘You should always put on a case.’ I don't think that that’s necessarily right. The burden of proof is a pretty powerful thing. And I don’t think that you should feel that you have to put on a case. If they don’t have a case, what are you worried about? So I’m less likely to put on cases.
I also am very against expert witnesses. I think they look like paid experts, which is what they are. And I think there’s almost always a way to get out from the witnesses you have in the case some sort of quasi-expert notion that then makes the same point. So unless you have some very technical piece of a case, and I mean, very technical.... I just think if it’s a case about investors, surely your witnesses will be some investors, and so you don’t need to hire some investor to tell you what the investor textbook says—just ask the investors.
And then also the other side has experts and you’re okay at cross-examination, hopefully you never need to call yours. And so I just think a lot of time and mental energy is spent on that when juries are just not that moved. But again, I seem to be the only one who thinks this, so maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know.
DL: You should write a book. A lot of trial lawyers, famous trial lawyers, have written books. You should write a book about your approach to trial, because I think you're... different. I think you have an unusual approach to trying cases that obviously has worked very well. But I know you’re a little busy right now!
So I’m curious: if you had to identify one secret of your success for trying a case to a jury, is there some kind of secret sauce or particular thing you could distill it down to?
AS: I have a few comments. One is, again, not using the playbook. If I want to do something in a courtroom, say something in a courtroom, or try to find a piece of evidence, it’s not like, ‘Is that in the playbook?’ It’s ‘That's what I want. That’s what I want the jury to see and know about.’
Is there reason why I can't do it, a real reason why I can’t do it, I think is a better way to approach—maybe it’s a better way to approach everything, but I think certainly things within the law, because it’s a lot of sort of starting in the opposite direction, which is how this is what we need to do versus what wouldn’t anybody else do. And if you think about it in the inverse, you’re only stopped when you have to be stopped. That kind of thinking and the element of surprise is probably the number one thing that I would say, which is that I never want the other side to know what I’m even thinking, let alone what my plan is, let alone what I’m going to ask the witnesses, let alone anything, really.
When you’re trying cases against all the big firms, they are so overprepared—on every possible thing, probably more prepared than me. But if they don’t know, then they can’t prepare for the unknown necessarily, or not as well. So I think that’s the second thing that I would say, and probably the bigger of the two.
And then the third comment I would make is: I’d pick what the case is, what the trial’s about—nobody else picks, not the judge, not the prosecutor, not the big firm on the other side, they don’t get to pick what the case is about. I get to pick what the case is about, meaning what the jury is going to remember from the case, what they’re going to think the case is about. You don’t get to pick the facts, but you do get to pick how to filter the facts to the jurors, and what happened in the real world isn’t the same as what happens in the courtroom or the way you frame it in the courtroom.
What matters here and what this case is about is whatever you decide it’s about. I tried a case for Jay-Z last year about royalties and licenses and all of this, but what it really was about was his name—what it means for him, what it means for others, and the need to protect his name and why. And if that’s what it's about, that’s what it’s about. And I think if you ask a juror three, five years later, or even three, five months later, and they’re walking their dog or going about their life, ‘Oh, I heard you sat on a jury. What was the case about?’ You want the answer to be, ‘Somebody was trying to abuse Mr. Carter’s name. Somebody was trying to take from him what he worked so hard, and so many people worked so hard, to develop, that’s so important for the world.’ And if that’s their answer, you won.
DL: By the way, that case for Jay-Z was a stunning win. They sued him asking for millions, and then in the end they ended up owing him millions. So that was an incredible victory of yours.
I’m curious about this framing point. Here’s another example. You were representing Elon Musk in the so-called ‘pedo guy’ tweet case, where there was this Thai cave rescue and Musk referred to, on Twitter, one of the other people involved in the rescue as a ‘pedo guy,’ which this guy sued him for, claiming it was a reference to pedophilia, accusing him of being a pedophile. As I told you around the time that that case was being litigated, maybe I wasn’t quite so blunt, but I thought, ‘You have an uphill climb.’ How did you frame that case, to get a victory out of that? A lot of people—myself included, I’ll admit—thought you were toast.
AS: That case was about what were Mr. Musk's real motives, who drew first blood, and the power and importance of the First Amendment—some combination of those things.
Why did Mr. Musk, as busy as he is, travel across the world to try to save those kids in that cave? And if you believed he was there to save those kids in that cave, then it’s hard to find anything but a very big heart within him, and everybody in that courtroom felt that. They tried to it couch it as ‘Billionaire bully picks on caveman, who was the hero.’ And the question really was, ‘Well, was he, or is he overstating that, and really was this part of his plan?’ It wasn’t an elaborate plan, but was picking a fight with someone who some people call the world’s most powerful man an attempt by him to ratchet up his own status?
If he drew first blood, then a responsive comment in kind that was a throwaway insult is not exactly as significant as the first chapter of the story, which is what this should have always been about: the miracle of those kids and the miracle of the rescuers, not about a spat. And then the final chapter, of course, is the First Amendment doesn’t protect compliments and happy speech. It protects unfavorable speech. It protects all speech. And if we start policing speech, where are we? We’re in a bad place in our society and in our world. So we don’t want to police speech. Let’s not do that.
DL: That makes sense. What I like about your framing of cases is you also look at the underlying principles. That makes me think about the arc of your career more generally and all the principles that you’ve litigated. A lot of people may not know this, or may not know it quite as well as your work for Jay-Z, Elon Musk, and half the NBA, but you’ve done a lot of work on behalf of criminal-justice reform and a lot of defendants like Pedro Hernandez, who was kept on Rikers for more than a year or something while he waited for trial, and then the charges ended up getting dropped. Can you talk a little bit about that? Some of your work on behalf of criminal justice reform and why it means so much to you?
AS: The first unit I worked in at McLean Hospital, which was called East House, was a group of teenagers that were not fitting in. They were suspended. They were without parents. They were not fitting into their world. And they went to this mental-health facility to try to get better, to try to get their legs underneath them so that they could have a fruitful and happy life. I’m a big believer in second chances, and I remember those kids, I remember every kid I worked with, and this is now, I’m dating myself, 20 years ago.
Fighting for those kids is why I went to law school. When I was in law school, I wanted to fight for people, as altruistic and corny as it may sound. I felt like fighting for the underdog was the reason to do this. And listen, my career started as a prosecutor and in the criminal justice system, that’s the stuff that I know best. The rest of this stuff... I get a case, I learn licensing law. I didn't study licensing law.
So in any event, those kinds of principles and thoughts stay with me more so than everything else combined, and when I get opportunities and people ask me, ‘Hey, did you see this? We’d really like your help here. Would you pour your efforts into this?’ And I think that it's an important issue that affects that case and cases beyond it. Somebody will come to me and in that case, the Kennedys came to me in Pedro Hernandez’s case and said there is this kid sitting in Rikers, after Kalief Browder and other tragedies at Rikers.... It was the bail reform movement, and they really thought that he was innocent and that a lot of good could be done for other kids if we could prove that he was innocent and get him out of jail. So I helped, and I tried to take on as many of those cases as I can.
There was a view that under the Trump Administration, the immigration policies in this country were becoming a little draconian. And as those conversations were happening, [noted rapper] 21 Savage was taken into custody and Mr. Carter and others came to me and we got him out of jail. And that seemed to have a byproduct of helping the fight to bring light to that issue and give hope to other people. When those things happen, I think it’s more meaningful than just trying some big civil case. And I try to do as much of that as I can, and that’s the part of the practice that I like the most.
DL: The 21 Savage case is another great example of a prominent public interest-oriented case you handled—on behalf of somebody very well known, but going to a lot of bigger issues within our legal system.
Is there a win in your career that you are most proud of, whether civil or criminal, whether at trial or not at trial? Is there any particular case that either you’re most proud of or that maybe even not necessarily most proud of, but maybe it resonates for you or has a certain sentimental value for you?
AS: I don’t know if there’s one, a lot of the things that I feel most passionate about, I’ve been lucky to have some case that just seemed to come to me. A lot of the issues I feel strongest about, I have had some luck in being able to fight that issue and often fight that issue publicly. And whether it was my view on immigration in that moment, or the way that Rikers and bail was operating then, the cases then end up having an imprint—and even some of the civil cases, right? I stand by what I said about the First Amendment and hope that people remember that.
The two that are popping into my mind right now.... One is, you know, this entire country is now alternative dispute resolution-oriented. You buy a Starbucks coffee and you get burned by a cup. You go to arbitration, and it’s really a factory in the middle of justice happening outside of public eye. And it tends to be very old—no offense to the folks that are it—but elderly or older ex-judges and folks that are from a different time period in which there was less focus on diversity, less focus on second chances, less focus on lots of things that there’s more focus on today. And so I’d always noticed this and thought that it would have a different impact to have that as your entire pool of ex-judges or senior lawyers.
I had this case for Jay-Z and we got a pool of 200 arbitrators and we noticed there wasn’t a single African-American. I think there was one of 200, I don’t remember. Or when they gave us the subsection of it, it was like zero out of a hundred. Jay had the guts to file for a TRO and stop the proceedings, and it had an impact. They passed a law in California about keeping censuses of alternative dispute resolution. I get calls from, oh, somebody in Oslo saying, ‘Hey, they’re changing the way they do this. They’re thinking through the way they do this. They’re having a symposium on this.’ It has had an impact.
And then the other one that comes to mind, and it’s maybe more of a personal thing, is the Thabo Sefolosha case. I was a kid trying that case when I look back, and it was really the beginning of the beginning of the issues that came to the forefront of police violence or police abuse of force on people in the African-American community.
Mr. Sefolosha had actually tweeted—I don’t remember, on some social media—about how when Eric Garner happened, that it could have been him, and he had just reflexively said that online. And then the next thing you know, he’s there in New York City in the playoffs and he’s on the ground and his leg is broken and there’s a white police officer standing above him. That case was highly followed and it got a lot of the NBA players and a lot of the community involved, and it put an early light on some of the issues that would later tragically impact the country.
DL: That was another great case because here you were representing Thabo Sefolosha, this NBA star, and he was the victim of police violence, brutality. And as I recall, he was the one who was hit with criminal charges for, I don’t even know what, and then in the end, of course, you got him an acquittal at trial, and then you filed a civil lawsuit, which was very successful.
I do think of that as one of the early cases. And it also suggested to me—kind of what he was saying about how Eric Garner could have been him—he’s a famous, wealthy professional athlete, but he also could be subjected to racism and mistreatment at the hands of the police.
AS: Yeah. It shows it affects everybody, and it got a lot of people talking about it. I wish people had talked about it more in advance so that it didn’t have to come to such a traumatic sort of moment in this country’s history, which happened soon thereafter, but at least it keeps people talking in the right context. And this is why trials are great because things can play out publicly so that people can really see what the facts are and the truth are and debate things so that people in society can move forward.
Without trials, everything happens in secret arbitrations and in back-office handshakes, and nobody would ever get to see these things play out and wouldn’t shape their opinion and move society forward. And so that’s ultimately why trials are so important.
DL: Are you then worried about what some people are calling the decline or the death of the jury trial? So many things get settled or pleaded out. Is that a concern? I'm guessing, though, that you still have a very active trial docket because you’re known as a trial lawyer, so people come to you with the few trials that are out there. But as a larger systemic issue, are you concerned about how we have many fewer trials?
AS: Yes, and I was even more concerned during the pandemic or during the heights of the pandemic: is this going to go one step farther? Zoom hearings are fine for issues between lawyers and scheduling and whatnot, but they can’t be a substitute for credibility in person.
A lot of people sat in jail. A lot of people sat waiting for justice during that time period. And there was already a backup in the system, and there already was a decline in the jury trial. Let’s hope that that doesn’t keep trending in that direction, because I think that’s very, very bad, and even worse for the criminal justice system, frankly, because then there’s just no checks. There’s no checks on the system.
DL: On the criminal justice point, you are very focused on criminal justice reform, but at the same time, you were also a prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office for a number of years. Do you have mixed views on it? I assume you’re not a defund-the-police type. You worked with police officers; you know that they can do good. Do you have some big-picture thoughts on where that conversation is right now, nationally?
AS: Yeah, and no, I’m sort of in the middle, I don’t have either of the most extreme views that you see publicly. I’m involved in criminal justice reform and seen as being on that side of things, but no, I still have many friends within the NYPD and FBI, and I know how important their work is. And obviously the idea that you’d have a society with no rules or law enforcement doesn’t really make any sense.
And so, again, it’s where this conversation started. It’s about looking at things in a little bit of gray, right? The world is not black and white, even when it appears in the media to be black and white; it needs to be gray. And our society tends to go too far in both directions. And so Thabo Sefolosha—watching a prominent, sophisticated person have their leg broken by the police, for no real reason—should wake us up a little bit, so we could start talking about it and asking ourselves questions.
Should police officers have different training? Should they live in the communities in which they police? What is implicit racial bias? If we were thinking about these questions a little bit earlier, then I think we would be better off rather than waiting for an African-American person dying, and then another one, and then another one, and then another one.
And then throwing the book at the entire concept of law enforcement strikes me as not a productive way to handle the issue and what our country seems to do too often. I just think we have to all remain level-headed and think through what’s the right way to marry all these issues.
DL: Shifting gears a little bit, we’ve talked a lot about your successes and your wins, but you can’t win them all—not even you, Alex Spiro. Is there a loss that you most regret, or is there a case that you really felt just not happy about the outcome?
AS I don’t know.... just like the successes, I don’t know if there’s one that you most regret. After being a prosecutor, when you leave and you’re like, ‘Okay, I need a case, or I need to do something,’ most of the cases you get early on, at least for me, were criminal defense cases. That’s just how it starts probably for everybody. And some people take guilty pleas and go to jail. They just do. Some people take guilty pleas and are branded a convict, and that’s a sad thing, no matter what. Those people have families and lives and dreams.
A lot of them are probably still up at night with regret and still suffering from that, years later. And so all those people, any of those people that had to go into a jail cell, that’s a pretty sad thing. And I don’t have one that stands out. I give my advice and judgment on whether or not somebody should take the deal. People get to decide their own fate, obviously, but those people, they’re always the ones that are going to stay with you.
DL: We’ve talked quite a bit about your work on the criminal side. What’s the balance these days in your practice between civil versus criminal work? I know you’re the co-head of the white collar and investigations practice at Quinn Emanuel. But of course now you’re litigating the largest civil case currently pending on the planet. So what’s the balance right now, how would you describe the mix of cases in your wheelhouse?
AS: Definitely mostly civil, supermajority civil, but it can change. This case will end too, and afterwards the cases I take could change the balance very quickly. So I’m not wedded to one versus another. I like the cases that I think are most interesting.
DL: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t see yourself as a ‘Biglaw lawyer.’ You were a prosecutor. You worked at the boutique of Ben Brafman, another lawyer well-known for defending famous clients. Do you feel there is any kind of tension or weirdness between working at a big firm but having some of these cases of yours, which are sometimes high-profile or involve celebrities? Do you think sometimes corporations that hire you or Quinn say, ‘Oh, isn’t he the celebrity lawyer?’ Is there any kind of tension between Biglaw and Page Six?
AS: There’s no tension for me. I don’t really care. But you might want to ask the firm or one of my corporate clients. But not from my perspective, it doesn’t have one speck of impact on me on a day-to-day basis. And how could it, right? How could I be an advocate and live my life if I was worried or thought.... I'll tell you one anecdote, which is when I started representing Mr. Musk, he wasn’t, you know, Time Man of the Year. He was still probably the most successful businessman and visionary on the planet, frankly, but I don’t think people at that time, and this is years ago now, realized what impact he would have on the world—generationally.
And I’ll always remember this, there’s a CEO, a well-known CEO that called me and said, ‘What are you doing? Are you gonna go represent him? You represent me!’ And I was thinking, ‘That's interesting and all, but there’s something great in him also, even if it's different than your great.’
So yeah, listen, everyone’s going to have their opinion. You can’t be a fighter and an advocate if any of it moves you too much.
DL: That's fair. And if you had to pick a big firm for your practice, Quinn is a great platform. John Quinn is also a very larger-than-life personality. It’s a firm that's litigation focused. You have fewer conflicts with all these corporate clients. It’s a firm that’s not afraid of taking risks. If I had to pick a firm in the Am Law 100 or Am Law 200 for you and your practice, I think Quinn does seem like a very natural fit.
But let me ask you: your career seems to go in these four-, five-year sort of chunks. You’re at McLean for four or five years. You’re at the DA’s office for five-ish years. Do you plan to stay at Quinn for the foreseeable future? Or do you sometimes wonder about your post-Quinn existence or other future enterprises?
AS: This last chapter is more than four-ish years. Some of that’s the pandemic, mind you; I don't want people thinking I’m standing still. You have to back out some of that. But I have no interest in working for another law firm.
I don’t know what I’m going to do next or what I’m going to do when I grow up, but I’m hoping there’s more hills to climb and there’s more things to do. But I’m interested in what I’m doing right now and what I have to do and get on with today. I’m still challenged and excited about it. I still have some cases that still need to be tried and the truth needs to come out. So that’s where my head is today.
DL: Of course we're all thinking about the Twitter/Musk case. And there has been a lot of turnover in the GC’s office at Tesla. And I saw this tweet from Mr. Musk looking for really tough, smart, street-fighter lawyers. Would you ever want to go work for either Tesla or Mr. Musk? Is that something that could be on the radar for you?
AS: I got news for you: I do work for Tesla and Mr. Musk.
DL: True [laughter].
AS: I don't have to deal with that.
DL: Random question. We’ve been talking about some pretty heavy stuff and the justice system.
So I was noticing that whenever we text, I get the green from you of a non-iPhone user. And then I read in a profile as I was preparing for this—obviously we’ve known each other for years, but I do my research—I read that you still use a BlackBerry. And then I thought maybe that’s why I get the green from you rather than the blue of an iPhone user when we message. Is that true?
AS: Still on Android. The weird thing is I lost my BlackBerry. I didn't lose it, but I lost it because it shut down because of the 4G, 5G... there’s all sorts of technology things that are above my pay grade. But I have an Android, it’s easier for me to type on, and it’s BlackBerry-ish. But yes, I’ve always had a BlackBerry. I’ve never had an iPhone in my life.
And people will comment. I get two comments, usually: how come your texts and emails are somewhat incoherent, it’s like you’re talking to yourself? I get that a lot. And then sometimes I get, ‘And how come it’s a different color?’ And the truth is I like talking to people and meeting with people in person, and I’m multitasking, and I’m not good at electronic communication. But also the truth is I have an Android.
DL: Let me close with a couple of standard questions I plan to ask all my guests. The first is: what do you like the least about the law?
AS: Doing it for too long. I don’t really like things that are backwards-looking, that are pegged to what happened before, because that’s the opposite of progressive thought. And I think that very much frustrates other non-lawyers, visionaries like Mr. Musk. And it’s a little too in the box for the way I like to think about things.
DL: Okay, second question I wanted to ask you is: what would you be if you were not a lawyer?
AS: A basketball coach, maybe?
DL: I thought you were going to say a doctor or a psychiatrist given your pre-law school stuff.
AS: Yeah, I still would like to maybe have another chapter doing something that helps kids, helps people coming up in the world, whether it’s in mental health or whatnot. That’s another possible career path. I think it was supposed to be the career path and maybe I'll do something with that, and in that, in the next chapter or two.
DL: Okay. Fair enough. Third question: how much sleep do you get each night?
AS: Very little. I wouldn’t copy that. I’ve always been not a good sleeper, a few hours a night. I try to get four, five is a big one.
AS: I don’t want you to think I’m up writing motions and things. I’m just restless.
DL: And then my last question: any final words of wisdom, especially for listeners who look at your life and career and say, I wanna be Alex?
AS: Be careful for what you wish for. Try hard and don’t be afraid to take chances. People want safety. And I think people end up making career choices, picking the cases they work on, and things that are very much about safety. So when a lateral associate wants to talk, or somebody wants to know if they should go to law school, I always just ask them: if you try to do what you’re talking about and it doesn’t go well, or it’s wrong, what do you think happens? Tell me what the downside case is—and nobody can ever really tell me.
Some people have luxuries, I’m mindful of some people trying to help family members and make ends meet. You have to be fortunate enough to be able to be in a position where you can take some risk. But if you are, you should, because this isn’t a dress rehearsal. You might as well go for it.
DL: That’s an excellent note to end on, Alex. Thank you so much for taking the time and for sharing your insight. It was a lot of fun, and I hope when you come back Northeast, we can meet up in person at some point.
AS: Good. Talk to you soon. Thanks so much.
DL: Okay. Thanks Alex. Talk to you later.
DL: Thanks again to Alex for joining me. I found his insights into trial practice to be fascinating. I don’t know that his approach can work for everyone, but it’s obviously working for him.
Thanks to Tommy Harron, my sound engineer here at Original Jurisdiction. He’s a podcasting pro, and he has been an invaluable source of wisdom and guidance for me in putting this together.
Finally, my thanks to all of you, the listeners to and readers of Original Jurisdiction. The podcast and newsletter would not be possible without your support.
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Alex Spiro is a tough act to follow, but my second guest will be even more exciting to at least some of you, those of you who are Supreme Court nerds and appellate aficionados. So please tune in two weeks from now to find out who it might be. Until then, may your thinking be original and your jurisdiction free of defects.
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