Alumni Short

From the NFL Lockout to the BP Oil Spill: Thomas Heiden '71 Inspires Students with Talk on High-Stakes Litigation

"I believe in our system. I believe our system is the best devised so far," Thomas J. Heiden '71 told an audience of Cornell Law students on October 18 as he spoke on big-ticket civil litigation. Heiden certainly knows the system well. A partner in the Chicago office of Latham & Watkins, he has tried cases in every region of the United States. He is admitted to practice in the United States Supreme Court; District of Columbia, Sixth and Seventh Circuit Courts of Appeals; and various United States district courts, and is admitted for specific trials in federal and state courts in eleven states. Among the clients Heiden has represented in complex litigation in recent years are the cities of Austin and San Antonio, New England Power, Ford Motor Company, and Westinghouse.

But, Heiden focused his presentation on two recent high profile cases. The first was the 2011 NFL lockout case, in which he represented the NFL Players Association against league owners and won. On the basis of the owners' written communications, Mr. Heiden argued that recurring words and phrases—"weapon"; "war chest"; "deal-breaker"; "freeze out Fox," and others—demonstrated the owners' concerted efforts to strong-arm the television networks for a "war chest" of $4.078B, which they intended to use to finance the lockout. These actions violated the prevailing collective bargaining agreement.

Heiden isn't Cornell Law's only connection to the dispute: Jim MacFarland,'80, sits on the Player’s Association Executive Committee, and William Buckley Briggs, Adjunct Professor of Law, is vice president of labor arbitration and litigation with the NFL.

Presenting a contrast to this "narrow and expedited trial," Heiden then spoke of the massive body of ongoing cases, more than 400 in various courts, related to the explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, ensuing 98-day oil spill, and clean-up efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. Heiden's firm is representing one of the defendants, the manufacturer of the dispersants applied to the spill area.

In closing, Heiden, turned from such high-profile cases to his days as a student and novice lawyer scared to open his mouth in court. "I remember the man who told me, 'when you stand up, it's your courtroom,'" he said. "I thought he was high." After standing up in a multitude of courtrooms, Heiden could now tell the aspiring lawyers before him, whom he urged to cherish every professional opportunity entrusted to them, however daunting, "Believe you can do it, because you can do it."