Diane Sullivan ’84: The Litigator

Diane Sullivan ’84: The Litigator

by Meredith Guinness

When Diane Sullivan ’84 was a student at John P. Stevens High School in Edison, N.J., an advisor told her she should consider Fairfield University for college. It wasn’t far from home and it had a beautiful campus, so she applied and majored in politics.

Four years later when she was considering life after graduation, her best friend, Regina Pizzonia Watson, was going to law school, so Sullivan applied, too, and ended up with a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Recently told she’s easily led, Sullivan let out a hearty laugh. “It’s true! Good thing I had good advisors,” she said.

They were advisors who knew Sullivan well. Since leaving UPenn in 1987, she has forged a law career many attorneys only dream of: A partner in the litigation department at prestigious Weil, Gotschal & Manges LLP, specializing in complex commercial disputes, class actions, consumer fraud, product liability, mass torts, and life sciences matters.

And is she good at what she does? Ask those who follow the near-blood sport world of high-profile corporate cases. In naming her one of five finalists for 2012 “Litigator of the Year,” The American Lawyer said Sullivan “isn’t a hired gun; she’s more like a hired bazooka repeatedly parachuting into high-stakes cases leading up to trial and securing victories.”

The National Law Journal selected her as one of 10 litigators in the nation “at the top of their game,” and has featured her jury verdicts as “Top Defense Verdicts of the Year” in 2011, 2006, 2005, and 2002.

Chambers USA called her “a top choice in bet-the-company litigation.” Law360 selected her as a 2011 “MVP” for major litigation success. Her peers named her to the 2010 and 2011 editions of The Best Lawyer in America and she has been chosen as one of the 500 leading lawyers in America for five year running in the aptly named LawDragon.

Sullivan was the lead counsel for a 2010 defense verdict for AstraZeneca involving the prescription drug Seroquel and has led much-watched cases for Merck and Schering-Plough. In 2005, she secured a first, game-changing trial victory for Merck in the legal battle over Vioxx, a victory named among the top defense wins of the year by both The National Law Journal and InsideCounsel.

“I have tried cases all over the country,” Sullivan said. “It’s exciting, and it does refresh your belief in the jury system, in fairness.”

In 2008, Sullivan co-wrote an article for The National Law Journal, considering her place as a defender of successful corporations. “Jurors…will believe that it would be easy for a big company to just pay some money to an individual plaintiff,” she wrote, saying the attorney’s job is to explain to the jury why the case is not about money, but what is right and wrong. “The attorney should empower the jurors with the belief that the values they embrace in finding for her client are consistent with their values and are more important than awarding money to the plaintiff.”

Sullivan said Fairfield was, in part, responsible for her learning how to take in a whole situation before making snap decisions, how to look for truth.

She also appreciated the lively discussions with classmates, playing tennis with a Jesuit, and her former professors, such as Drs. Kevin Cassidy and Alan Katz, and the late Dr. John Orman. “It was the personal attention,” she said. “They took time out to meet you and get to know you. There was a sense of community there, a striving for excellence in what you do and in giving back to the community.”

Sullivan continues that work at Weil, which requires its attorneys to complete at least 50 hours of pro bono work a year. Most do much more than that, she said. Sullivan counts working to make sure children with disabilities were afforded appropriate lesson plans in school as some of her most rewarding work to date.

It’s the kind of thing she dreamed of when she was living with friends in a big yellow house on Fairfield Beach, one she’s often reminded of when she joined her sisters, her nieces and nephews, and her husband, Bill Ricigliano, at her own home on Long Beach Island, N.J.

“I remember thinking, ‘I hope this isn’t the last time I have beachfront property!’” she said. “I loved it.”