How Corey's laywers beat City Hall

At first view, the fight looked rigged.

On one side of the courtroom sat an armada of attorneys from some of Atlanta's most storied and expensive silk stocking law firms, there to defend the city of Atlanta's handling of a billboard advertising contract at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Across the aisle, the prosecution consisted of two 40-ish attorneys from a five-lawyer boutique firm, whose forté is products liability and personal injury cases. They were tasked with representing an eccentric Atlanta businessman who dared to take on Atlanta City Hall in a federal discrimination suit over that contract filed six years ago.

In the end, those two attorneys, Jeffrey R. Harris, 43, and Darren W. Penn, 42, from the firm that bears their name -- Harris, Penn & Lowry -- did what their client wanted.

They won and won big for Billy Corey and his company, Corey Cos., quelling a multi-firm defense anchored by heavyweights Alston & Bird and King & Spalding. A week ago Monday, a federal jury awarded $17.5 million in damages to Corey after finding the city illegally steered that contract to Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. and politically connected minority partner Barbara Fouch.

How they did so and their approach to the case, which they took on only four months ago, serves as the blueprint for how they handle many of the cases they've taken on since Harris, Penn and their third partner, Stephen G. Lowry, 38, founded their firm four years ago here and in Savannah.

The strategy: Take volumes of complex information, strip it down to the bare essentials and try to weave an interesting narrative that will hold a jury's attention.

That meant, in a short period of time, whittling down six years' worth of case files -- between 10,000 and 15,000 documents -- to fewer than 100.

"As a practical matter, you're never going to show all those to the jury. They'll get overwhelmed," Harris said from the firm's Midtown offices. "So picking the documents that make the case and prove the point is one of the toughest things to do, but it's also one of the most important."

To underscore his strategy, he pointed to a marked-up white board on the wall with boxed nuggets of information about the Corey case. It read more like an outline for a short story.

"Each one of those little squares is an exhibit and when we're trying to put the case together, we want there to be a theme and a story and a pattern that the jury can see," Harris said. "You might be able to prove each one of those points with hundreds of different documents but the key is picking the ones that really work and the ones that get the point across."

To combat juror boredom, they tested their storytelling on each others' families, Lowry said.

"They tell me, ‘This doesn't make sense,'" Lowry said. "It's really enlightening to hear from non-lawyers once you've told your story because they have a totally different perspective and it helps us a lot."

That stripped-down approach is a theme weaved into the philosophy of the firm itself, because these guys like to play against type. There's no prerequisite quail hunt oil paintings hanging on cherry wood-paneled walls or marbled floors.

In fact, their offices are decidedly un-lawyerly. The walls of their Atlanta offices are painted in varying shades of industrial gray with exposed, black-painted pipes above, suggesting an environment for a technology company.

When they're not in court, they're more likely to be dressed preppie-casual, right down to their sans-socks penny loafers. The three-piece suits and French-cuffed starched shirts? Forget it.

"We view ourselves almost like a software firm," Harris said. "It's not a stuffy environment. You want to be able to bounce ideas around. I can't think in a pair of wingtip shoes, you know?"

While it may have seemed an odd choice to go with a firm best known for its products liability work, it was actually that experience that factored into Harris and Penn being tapped to try the case, said Tex McIver, senior partner at Fisher & Phillips.

McIver's firm is Corey's main legal representative and did the bulk of the research and filings, along with another powerhouse firm, Balch & Bingham, leading up to the trial. When it came to time to enter the courtroom, they wanted a team well-versed in trying cases before a judge and jury, McIver said.

"We had what I call a beauty contest," McIver said, recalling the search and interviews that led up to the selection. Harris, he said, made the best case. That they had experience in personal injury litigation meant they were in the courtroom frequently, McIver said. Another advantage: they had tried a case before Charles A. Pannell Jr., the federal judge presiding over the Corey trial.

"We wanted to have someone very familiar with trial work," McIver said. "They're comfortable, they're confident and quick on their feet."

That trial expertise explains why more than 95 percent of the cases they take each year come from other firms who hire them specifically to try their cases. It also explains why they've won several big judgments, according to those who have opposed the firm.

Last year, they won a $40 million verdict against Ford Motor Co., the highest in the state in 2009, for a Lamar County woman who sued the auto maker, claiming a transmission defect in her Ford Explorer led to an accident that paralyzed her.

"What we say from the defense side is they'll ‘work' a case," said Brad Marsh, a defense attorney and partner at Swift Currie who has gone up against Harris, Penn & Lowry. "They're not afraid to work hard on a case and do what's necessary. And they're not intimidated."

Following that Ford case, federal transportation regulators launched an investigation into the alleged defect.

"That's one of the most rewarding things that can happen to you as a lawyer," Penn said, "that the work you do in a case actually gets the government to move and to investigate a problem."