Image: Ron Motley
Attorney Ron Motley of Charleston, S.C., meets reporters in Washington in a file photo from 2002. He is one of more than 100 lawyers seeking leadership roles in the gusher of litigation against BP PLC and other companies involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
updated 10/7/2010 5:20:34 PM ET 2010-10-07T21:20:34

More than 100 lawyers are battling for the biggest chunks of what is likely to be a multibillion-dollar settlement for Gulf of Mexico oil spill victims, jockeying for spots on the elite team that will control the plaintiffs' cases.

A judge will pick 12 to 15 lawyers to take the lead in lawsuits against BP PLC and other companies filed by thousands of fishermen, restaurateurs, hotel operators, property owners and many others over the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Competition is fierce: The candidates include a former Cabinet secretary and the lawyer who represented Al Gore in the 2000 presidential recount case. The team could get up to 15 percent of a multibillion-dollar settlement from more than 300 lawsuits that have been consolidated in New Orleans federal court. And that's on top of the typical 30 percent fee that lawyers charge their individual clients.

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"This is a very lucrative position," said Brian Fitzpatrick, a Vanderbilt University law professor who has studied how attorney fees work. "You not only control the case but you get a big percentage off the top. This will attract all the big fish."

Applications from 112 attorneys have been filed with U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who will announce his choices in the coming weeks. Top trial lawyers from around the nation are represented, many of them veterans of similar high-profile cases such as Toyota's sudden acceleration problems and the troubled painkiller Vioxx.

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Modesty is not the calling card of these attorneys, some of whom jet around on private aircraft. A typical application comes from South Carolina attorney Ronald L. Motley, whose 70-lawyer Motley Rice firm is one of the nation's largest representing plaintiffs literally from A to Z — from asbestos victims to people claiming they were poisoned by zinc in denture cream.

"Throughout his career and to this day, Motley has developed and tried complex toxic tort cases against powerful adverse interests," Motley's application says, adding that he has "extensive courtroom and trial experience as a tireless advocate for plaintiffs."

Mike Espy, a former Mississippi congressman who was agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, is seeking one of the positions. So are five attorneys who sued BP over the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, including Houston's Mark Lanier. Two Vietnamese-American lawyers want to represent fishermen of Vietnamese descent.

Derriel McCorvey, who is black, wants to represent African-American and other minority clients. He also noted that he was an all-Southeastern Conference defensive back at Louisiana State University.

David Boies points to his 40 years of legal work including the recount case for Gore, numerous major class action lawsuits and representation of the Justice Department in the antitrust case against Microsoft Corp.

A team is needed to oversee the lawsuits because it would be impossible to have hundreds of lawyers actively involved in cases that have been consolidated in the name of efficiency.

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Once the panel is chosen, the attorneys will make nearly every strategic decision on behalf of the people across the Gulf who are suing BP. The lawyers left out will have almost no role.

In addition, the rank-and-file lawyers are often required by judges to pay an assessment to members of the leadership committee for "common benefit" costs — in other words, for the extra work they did to benefit all the plaintiffs and their attorneys.

"You are the master, the captain who runs the ship," said New York attorney Hunter Shkolnick, who is not involved in the BP lawsuits but has worked on numerous other major consolidated cases. "You are carrying the ball for everyone, not just your own clients. You are entitled to payment for that. This becomes your life."

The winning law firms will need the financial wherewhithal, likely in the millions of dollars, to hire experts, investigators, forensic and computer whizzes, and meet myriad other expenses long before any damages or settlement money comes in.

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"The lawyer who represents one or two fishermen, they just can't do it," Shkolnick said.

Judges in several recent cases, including the Vioxx case, have imposed caps on attorney fees partly to guard against a major windfall for lawyers on the leadership committees, legal experts said. Some attorney fees have reached 55 percent in past cases.

"The judges are saying that is just too much," said Fitzpatrick, the Vanderbilt professor.

The lawyer committees will do battle against large, well-financed firms with long-standing relationships to BP, Transocean, Halliburton and the other companies connected to the spill, which resulted from an April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers. Louisiana attorney Richard Arsenault, who is seeking appointment to the BP panel, compared the plaintiff attorneys to David in his biblical showdown with Goliath.

"These lawyers, many of them who compete against each other and are used to being their own bosses, are put together to form this makeshift team that will perform against Olympic athletes," Arsenault said. "It's an interesting dynamic."

Not every attorney seeking a leadership slot in the BP case stressed his accomplishments and appearance on annual "top lawyer" lists. Robert Cunningham of Mobile, Ala., noted in his application that he had lost cases as well as won them, adding, "I believe that if you are not occasionally losing a case, you are not trying enough of them."

Cunningham went on: "I am attaching as an exhibit a one-page biography drafted by our 'Marketing Director' for our website. Please take it with a big grain of salt. Nowadays, we are all the 'Best,' the 'Top' and 'Super.'"

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Oil spill commission deeply critical of Obama team

  1. Closed captioning of: Oil spill commission deeply critical of Obama team

    >>> disaster and an investigation ordered by the white house of the government's handling of that catastrophe. turns out the panel is coming down hard on the obama administration. our white house correspondent savannah guthrie with us with the story tonight.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. this is an early report, not the final record on the response. but it does fault the obama administration for a lack of competence on the issue of how much oil was leaking. for months, tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil gushed into the gulf, disrupting wildlife and a way of life . but now a draft report from a commission appointed by president obama is sharply critical of his administration for underestimating how much oil was spilling into the gulf and overestimating how quickly the oil disappeared once the leak was stopped. by doing so, the report concludes the federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the american people about the scope of the problem. among the findings, the government took initial estimates about the rate of the oil leak on bp's word alone, without supporting documentation. and used crude methodology to determine how much oil was leaking and was overly casual about the numbers. while estimates at the same time from private scientists were significantly higher, and used more clear and rigorous analysis.

    >> there's no doubt in my mind the original numbers were significantly lower than the flow was. from what i've seen, i don't see that the government was intentionally trying to low ball the oil spill estimates.

    >> reporter: the report says when some government scientists thought to publy size their figures, they were blocked by the white house . but the white house says worst case data was available then and points to examples of top officials in early may being quite candid about how bad it could be.

    >> the worst case scenario is we could have 100,000 barrels of oil coming out.

    >> our scientists have done an official assessment and more than three quarters of the oil is gone, the vast majority of the oil is gone.

    >> reporter: but the report says the administration misused the data to come to an overly sweeping conclusion. again, this is just a staff report, not the final word. it doesn't answer that ultimate question, whether all this confusion about the flow rate of the oil into the gulf affected the government's sponsor cleanup. the white house has always insisted it based its response on the worst case scenario of more than 100,000 barrels a day going into the gulf and ultimately those figures, about 62,000 is what was concluded was flowing

Interactive: BP stops the massive gusher


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