Craig Proctor first became interested in the law while participating in mock trials in high school. Today, as vice president and associate general counsel for Altria, Proctor manages all product liability litigation for the entire country.
“I’ve probably managed more than one hundred fifty trials during my time here at Altria,” Proctor says. “I love their excitement, the challenges they present, and their inherent unpredictability. Some people don’t like how unpredictable they are, but to me that’s what makes my work feel exciting and new—I’m not doing the same exact thing over and over again.”
Under Proctor’s management, the legal team at Altria has seen its caseload drop dramatically. When Proctor joined in 2010, his team had roughly ten thousand smoking and health cases. Now, there are fewer than two thousand five hundred.
“Craig and the Altria legal team have done a remarkable job of creating a highly functional ‘virtual firm’ of talented lawyers around the country who work together with mutual respect and professional commitment to the job,” says John Wunderli, a shareholder at Ray Quinney & Nebeker.
“The point was to winnow down our cases so that we could spend more time and energy on the ones that are actually going to go to trial,” Proctor explains. “So we’ve inserted ourselves much more aggressively into the case activation process and are more aggressive in terms of our strategy as well.”
For Proctor, lowering the department’s caseload has been critical in allowing him to dedicate his time to what he is most enthusiastic about. “Trial work is my greatest strength and my greatest passion,” he says. “At Altria, I have a pretty unique position where I work almost exclusively on those aspects, whereas most in-house counsel work on a whole array of things.”
Although Proctor doesn’t try cases himself, he is directly involved in the upward of twenty trials handled by his team each year. “I personally select the trial lawyers and the legal people we use,” Proctor says. “I’m heavily involved in the development of their strategy for each individual trial. I’ll go to the trials to watch, especially if a new lawyer is involved or there is a unique aspect of the case, but I’ll also watch them through live video feed, sometimes toggling between four or five different screens so that I can watch numerous trials simultaneously.”
Proctor’s affinity for trial work has attracted the attention of many of his peers, including Walt Cofer, a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon. “Craig is a collaborative, decisive leader who hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be in the courtroom,” Cofer says. “He is innovative, accessible, unflappable, and an absolute joy to work with.”
“Trial work is my greatest strength and my greatest passion.”
While individual trials certainly present their own problems and challenges, Proctor says that one of the biggest challenges he has faced while managing Altria’s product liability litigation actually centers on the attorneys themselves. Altria has a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, Proctor says, but it has been difficult to find talent that reflects that policy.
“At the beginning of my time at the company, we could easily see that we didn’t have nearly enough first-chair trial lawyers—especially diverse first-chair lawyers—to staff our trials,” Proctor offers. “But I strongly believe that working with lawyers from a diversity of backgrounds is an important part of our success.”
The solution to this problem? The Trial College Program. While many companies employ mock trial programs to test prospective trial lawyers or trial themes, Proctor says, Altria does something completely different and special.
It’s a two-part solution, Proctor explains. First, Proctor and his team look for talented first-chair lawyers. They seek recommendations from outside law firms, consultants, and other in-house counsel. But that in and of itself wasn’t an answer.
“We still needed to match these people up much better with our jury pool, which is very diverse, and the judges and types of cases we deal with,” Proctor says. “So after finding people who have the skills we’re looking for, we put them through the Trial College Program. It’s not intended to enhance their skill sets but rather to see if their skill sets are adaptable to our particular type of litigation and our types of trials.”
“Sometimes, we couldn’t find the attorneys we were looking for, so we created them.”
For an entire week, Proctor and his team monitor and evaluate participants as they go through their opening statements, conduct direct and cross-examinations, and deliver closing statements in front of mock jurors. After that, Proctor can determine whether an individual is the right fit for the firm.
The second part of the solution is something unique to Altria as a firm, Proctor believes. “We didn’t have enough first-chair trial lawyers even after instituting the Trial College Program, and we were still lacking in diverse, young trial lawyers. We had to try something else,” Proctor recalls. “We looked to our existing firms, and I handpicked people from our firm’s younger and diverse attorneys—people who we thought were up-and-coming superstars but didn’t have any trial experience at all.”
Those attorneys go through a two-year program that includes the mock trial training as well as leadership training, skill development, and storytelling exercises. “Our trial lawyers and even some former judges evaluate the participants and give them feedback. We also assign them trial lawyer mentors,” Proctor says. “Each mentor watches, monitors, and assists one of the new lawyers.”
“We are proud to partner with Altria on the Trial College Program,” says Andrew Brenner, a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner. “It has been a true win-win situation; the training our younger lawyers have received is invaluable to the firm, and [the program] has helped Craig fill a void Altria had in its trial counsel stable.”
Many of the attorneys who have graduated from the Trial College Program have gone on to try cases for Altria, Proctor says. “Sometimes, we couldn’t find the attorneys we were looking for,” he says, laughing, “so we created them.”
Ray Quinney & Nebeker is a full-service Salt Lake City law firm. Our product liability attorneys defend manufacturers and distributors in wrongful death, catastrophic personal injury, and complex product liability claims in state and federal courts throughout Utah and the Intermountain West. We act as lead and local counsel for major national and international clients involved in large-scale mass tort actions, including multidistrict litigation, across the country. Our clients include drug and medical device companies, motor vehicle and aircraft manufacturers, and all-terrain vehicle, heavy equipment, and recreational equipment manufacturers.
We tailor our approach as advocates to the individual needs of each client. Our legal team is aware of the need for cost-effective solutions and active communication throughout the course of our representation. Our litigation attorneys have extensive experience at trial in state and federal courts across the country. Many of our attorneys have had previous experience as in-house counsel, bringing a unique perspective to our clients’ challenges in the product liability realm. Understanding our clients’ goals, their business, their industry, and their future is our highest priority.
Ray Quinney & Nebeker commends Craig Proctor on his outstanding achievements and appreciates the opportunity to partner with Craig and Altria’s talented legal team.
Shook, Hardy & Bacon has been at the forefront of legal representation for more than 130 years, bringing innovation to legal strategies and budgets. With a well-earned reputation as a litigation powerhouse, Shook is the go-to firm for the world’s leading health, science, and technology companies. In addition to fielding the largest product liability practice in the world, Shook handles commercial litigation, environmental and toxic tort, and intellectual property disputes for the pharmaceutical and medical device, food and beverage, and consumer goods industries. While its high-stakes, complex litigation experience is second to none, the firm also has the regulatory compliance and risk management experience upon which companies have come to rely. Established in Kansas City in 1889, Shook has grown to approximately five hundred attorneys and two hundred research analysts and paraprofessionals, many of whom have advanced scientific and technical degrees. Shook’s offices are strategically located in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, London, Los Angeles, Miami, Orange County, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa, and Washington, DC.
Arnold & Porter:
“As one of the participants in Altria’s Trial College program, I can personally attest to Craig’s commitment to identifying and training diverse trial counsel. Altria’s investment in me has been instrumental in the progress of my career and has ultimately resulted in many challenging and rewarding trial opportunities.”
–Keri Arnold, Partner