White collar work: Gibbons’ Solano Jr. says criminal defense sector is seeing rush of work, post-pandemic

Local law juggernaut Ricardo Solano Jr. decided earlier this year to help build out the white collar arm of Gibbons P.C. — marking his third stint there.

He couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

Because, with winter fast approaching, Solano Jr. says white collar criminal defense is heating up in New Jersey.

The Garden State, and the U.S. as a whole, had seen a freezing over in the amount of federal white collar cases making their way through the courts. The pandemic led to an expected backlog of cases.

“And, once things stabilized, judges were dealing with a lot of the reactive or violent crimes in which people are being detained, which wouldn’t apply to white collar (cases),” Solano Jr. said. “That took up the court docket for a couple years. But, starting this fall, and I think into next year, there’s a lot of white collar trials coming up.”

The Department of Justice has moved these cases to the top of the pile. Solano Jr., who previously served in both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, expects a lasting uptick in activity in his space. The co-chair of the White Collar & Investigations Group at Gibbons P.C. said many of those newly prioritized cases deal with pandemic issues, such as alleged misuse of COVID relief funds.

He also anticipates a new demand in the area of federal securities-related cases, in light of ramped-up U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement over the past year.

“That also follows a (several-year) lull,” he said. “While New Jersey has always had securities fraud cases, the sexier ones, say the trial of (cryptocurrency organization FTX’s) Sam Bankman-Fried, tend to go to the (Southern District of New York). You might still see that with high-profile cases, but you’re also going to see more actions being filed in New Jersey.”

Solano Jr. referenced some of the underappreciated comfort level SEC officials have with

New Jersey’s courts. Most prominently, the director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, Gurbir Grewal, was the attorney general for New Jersey prior to being tapped for his SEC role.

Within New Jersey’s state courts, current Attorney General Matthew Platkin announced earlier this year the state’s Division of Criminal Justice would be creating a new Office of Securities Fraud and Financial Crimes Prosecutions to bring cases forward.

Additionally, Solano Jr. expects local scrutiny and enforcement actions in sectors such as long-term care for the elderly to keep white collar litigators busy for some time to come.

In his area of law, all of that adds up to more reason to get in front of issues by doling out advice to clients.

“What you’re seeing from the client perspective is the need to continue following enforcement trends and get advice from counsel on areas where need to be more careful,” he said. “I’m not sure that ever fully stops when you’re running a company. You’re always interested in trends in the sorts of enforcement actions being taken.”

From Solano Jr. ‘s perspective, the defrosting of white collar work presents more opportunity to usher clients to the other side of possibly the worst situation they’ve ever encountered. His hope is that it will involve many instances of finding alternatives to a high-profile prosecution.

“I’ve always thought that the best success you’ve had, nobody knows about,” he said. “You’ve convinced the government not to charge somebody in a case with a public face to it. … Convincing the government that there’s another path forward than charging a company’s officer for something — there’s nothing more satisfying.”

Layoffs’ legal element

Economic uncertainty heralds downsizing, layoffs … and whatever other terminology companies choose to use when asking employees to clear out their desks.

It also presents more potential work for litigators to represent employees who believe they’ve been discriminated against in the process.

Bruce L. Atkins. (Deutsch Atkins & Kleinfeldt P.C.)

Bruce L. Atkins, senior managing partner at Deutsch Atkins & Kleinfeldt P.C., a regional plaintiff employment law firm, said he expects that, if the economy goes south, there’s going to be an overall increase in case flow.

“When there’s more layoffs, more terminations in the market, there’s more activity in this area — without a doubt,” he said. “But, fortunately for us, the demand is steady even in other economic conditions.”

While the firm handles a wide range of employment matters, what it encounters regularly is tendencies for layoffs to offend the state’s rules protecting people from being discriminated against based on gender and age.

“It’s not necessarily new, but it’s certainly very prevalent today in the marketplace,” he said. “We just got one in which five people were laid off, and three of them were women over 50 years of age.”

In another case, Atkins said an around 60-year-old woman was terminated after asking for a promotion. While the state’s laws are strict, Atkins said it’s still a long road to proving someone was let go for reasons that can’t be explained away as nondiscriminatory.

In his example, an executive’s email indicating the employer was retaliating against the employee landed her a million-dollar verdict.

“Sometimes the attitude of a company is, ‘Let’s get some new blood in here,’ and they don’t necessarily think much of letting a 20- or 30-year employee go,” he said. “The argument, often, is that they’re too expensive. Well, they’ve earned it, because they’ve performed over many years.

“To win a case like that, or to get a good settlement in a situation such as that, is rewarding on many levels.”