By Monday she was already interviewing
clients for what would become one of the
world’s largest environmental class actions.
Hundreds of suits were filed around the
country and ultimately consolidated.
The judge in the case, Charles Breyer,
appointed Cabraser to head what observers
dubbed the “dream team” of 22 lawyers
on the vehicle owners’ steering committee.
“The judge knew Elizabeth could marshal
the talents of these people in each of the
areas they excelled at,” says firm partner
If anyone else was given the task, there
In her methodical way, Cabraser
commissioned surveys of VW owners,
zeroing in on issues they cared about. “She
sought out everyone’s input, but ultimately
made the decisions,” says plaintiff’s
attorney Joseph Rice, who was on the
committee and has worked with her on
several class actions. “She knows how to
manage a group of type A personalities.”
VW settled in 2016 for $14.7 billion, with
more than $10 billion for buybacks and
owner compensation. It was another in a
long series of billion-dollar judgments for
Cabraser, who is adept at getting diverse
groups of people to work together.
What was particularly unusual was
that civil lawyers worked in conjunction
with the EPA, DOJ, FTC and California
attorney general. “None of us were entirely
comfortable with the interaction between
public and private litigation, but the judge
told us to ‘get comfortable, because you are
going to interact,’” she says.
The key to orchestrating a complex case
with so many players, Cabraser says, is to
be sensitive to other people’s concerns and
agendas. “You can’t call a state attorney
general on Saturday night and expect them
to drop everything and talk about the case,”
she says. “But I could call a fellow private
attorney, because we’re crazy that way.”
Cabraser is renowned for both her
encyclopedic knowledge of class action
law and her unique strategies. Recently, a
colleague was seeking her advice because
his firm was representing 40 people
involved in a lawsuit, which he was having
trouble getting the court to certify as a
class action. Cabraser suggested he tell
the defendant that he didn’t want a class
action and that the 40 cases could proceed
individually—a discombobulating tactic
that made the defendant want a class
action. “The defense is always trained to
fight us, and Elizabeth turned it around
on them,” Lieff says. “Her creativity just
bewildered the opposing counsel.”
She’s also dogged. During the Volkswagen
case, Rice says Cabraser continually red-eyed
it across the country to teach a law class or sit
in on a drumming gig, only to turn right back
around on the next flight.
A hectic schedule is the norm. At the end
of each week, her law firm’s word-processing
department sends out a memo asking
which lawyers will need its services over the
weekend. “Elizabeth is always the first to
sign up, because she’s always working on
Saturday and Sunday,” Lieff says.
Cabraser is more comfortable in front of
a judge than a jury.
“I’m not David Boies or Melvin Belli,” she
says. “When it comes to cross-examinations,
I tend to be a little too open and inquisitive.
You have to go into a cross-exam looking
to box someone in, not find something out.
But that’s not instinctive or intuitive with me,
and some lawyers get there on a visceral
What she does like is taking cases apart
and putting them together again. It’s a
trait that appeared early. Her father, who
raced stockcars on weekends, insisted all
his children learn basic mechanical skills.
As a teen, Cabraser made money by fixing
junk cars and selling them.
Her dad was also a union organizer.
Activism was almost her birthright: “I
assume Democrat was listed on my birth
certificate.” In 1967, at age 14, she was
stirred while accompanying her parents to
a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
She went to UC Berkeley on a National
Merit Scholarship to study physics, but it
seemed like the grants were for defense-
related work to support the Vietnam War
rather than her preferred pure science,
which curtailed that aspiration.
While attending Berkeley, Cabraser was
swept up by police while at a protest, and
bused to Santa Rita Jail. After standing
in line to use the phone, she called her
mother, who declined to bail her out for the
weekend. Her parents didn’t mind that she
had been arrested. “They wanted me to
understand that civil disobedience wasn’t
a lark, and if I stood up for something, it
should be something that mattered. That’s
part of the deal, and I’ve never forgotten it.
There’s a reason Dr. King’s [missive] is called
Letter from Birmingham Jail."
After graduating in 1975, she considered
medical school, but was weak from dealing
with medical issues of her own. By the time
she was diagnosed with an easily treatable
auto-immune syndrome, she was already
at UC Berkeley School of Law. “I naively
thought law school would be more relaxing
than medical school,” she says.
She got a work-study job at the Alameda
County Law Library, and was certain her
future was as a law librarian. “I had never
been a big talker or writer, so I figured being a
librarian would be perfect,” she says. “I could
just help people and be around a lot of books,
which I thought would be seventh heaven.”
Her plan was derailed when she put
up an index card on the bulletin board at
the library offering legal services for $5 an
hour. Robert Lieff contacted her, asking her
to prepare a brief that was due in the 9th
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the next day.
He hired her as a law clerk during her last
semester, then she stayed on as a lawyer.
Lieff was winding up a few cases in
preparation for retiring so that he could
tend his wine vineyards. But people kept
coming into the firm with interesting cases,
Cabraser says, and she would ask him if they
could do “just one more.” That was 38 years
ago, and Lieff hasn’t managed to retire yet.
“Putting up that index card essentially
started my legal career and ended my job
search,” she says. “I don’t dislike change, but I
was lucky to fall into a career and relationship
that worked for me,” she says. The 36-year-
strong relationship is with Marguerite
Longtin; they have two grown children.
AT LIEFF CABRASER HEIMANN &
BERNSTEIN, Cabraser became a name
partner in three years. The firm embraced
class actions. “In the 1970s, class actions
“Every so often
you have a chance
to do a repair job,
either preventing a
harm or restoring
health or lives,
after the fact.”