The firm effectively started in 1976 when Steve Susman created a plaintiffs’ commercial litigation practice at a small Houston maritime firm. By 1980, his group of six trial lawyers had won what was at the time the largest verdict in antitrust history in the Corrugated Containers case and they broke off to establish their own commercial litigation boutique. Lee Godfrey joined the firm in 1983, and continued as a co-managing partner until his retirement in 2014.
Susman was one of the first lawyers to recognize an opportunity to try large commercial cases on a contingency basis. It was a novel idea; at the time, the use of contingency fees was limited largely to personal injury cases. He believed that if a lawyer was not willing to take a case on contingency, then the case ought not to be filed, and so Susman started promoting the idea of contingency fees in the commercial context long before the phrase “alternative fee” came into fashion.
Susman Godfrey reaped the benefits of this high-risk/high-return model by carefully selecting its cases and winning some of the largest jury verdicts in the country while efficiently working and trying the cases. In the 1990s, the contingency fee model transformed into a whole spectrum of alternative fees, from reverse contingency fees on the defense side, to flat fees and hybrids with both fixed and contingent components. Today, Susman Godfrey continues to be the leader among law firm using alternative fees of one sort or another. It likes to bet on itself, and has mastered the art of picking the right cases and pricing them so that both the law firm and its clients share fairly in the risk and the reward.
Much of Susman Godfrey’s growth outside Houston resulted from the firm’s desire to keep practicing with lawyers who wanted to live elsewhere. In the late 1980s the firm opened a Dallas office in order to continue practicing with Terry Oxford, Barry Barnett and eventually Ophelia Camina—all of whom remained with the firm after it merged the Dallas office into its Houston office more than 25 years later. 1995, the firm opened its Seattle office because Parker Folse decided to move his family there, and the partners wanted to continue practicing law with him. In 1998, the firm opened its Los Angeles office because it wanted Marc Seltzer, with whom the firm had worked as co-counsel for decades, to join the firm as a partner. Finally, in 2006, the firm opened its New York office because Steve Susman saw a big opportunity there for a firm willing to handle large commercial cases in the financial industry on an alternative fee basis.
Susman Godfrey lawyers are part of the firm, not just part of an office. They were together across office lines on typical cases, and the firm’s recruiting in every office focuses on hiring the very best lawyers completing federal judicial clerkships, not via mergers or lateral hiring. This is one reason why Susman Godfrey operates seamlessly as a single firm and can field an integrated trial team with lawyers from any of its four offices to handle litigation national in scope.