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The Psychology of a Great Lawyer: Attorney Journal Feature: Dana J. Dunwoody

Even as a child in San Diego, Dana Dunwoody, Office Administrative Partner at Sheppard Mullin, enjoyed a good debate.  His instinctive sense of fairness evolved over time into an interest in justice. As luck would have it, he’d been born with a natural flair for persuasion. What better foundation upon which to build a successful legal career?

Dunwoody realized though that these natural gifts would need supplementing, not only for his career, but also for his personal growth. Recognizing that “successful people must constantly learn new skills and stretch themselves,” Dana went on to pursue his J.D at UC Berkeley.

In 1985, Dana made the leap from student to advisor, and began cutting his teeth in the areas of law that would ultimately become his specialties. Today, 26 years after admission to the California Bar, Dunwoody’s practice is almost equally divided between real estate disputes and corporate/business litigation.  Representing clients ranging from publicly traded energy companies to hotel brands, to banks and private equity capital, to real estate developers and national retailers, Dunwoody has developed a deep and successful record of trial and arbitration experience, and in the process has also received numerous awards and accolades.  On his success, Dunwoody said "normally I have no truck with mission statements, but I happen to agree with Sheppard Mullin's statement and it declares what should be an attorney's primary professional objective: “Our Mission Is Your Success.”"  Elaborating, he said, "if your clients and colleagues succeed, then you do also.  The job was harder before I understood that."

The Inner Workings

With personal and professional growth as his driving forces, Dunwoody set about to learn all he could in his areas of expertise. But becoming a successful attorney doesn’t happen overnight.  It comes from years and years of work (including 15 years as a partner in a trial boutique), adaptation, learning from failures, and discerning which traits and skill sets would best serve him in his efforts to help his clients and his partners succeed.  He says, In my earlier years I did not listen effectively, and I was too ego driven.”  However, whereas many attorneys would have continued to stay the course as long as business was coming through the door, that approach simply didn’t appeal to Dunwoody.  He was determined to evolve both inside and out of the courtroom.  "I was incurious about too many things I needed to be curious about."  What emerged as a by-product of his desire to personally improve was an atypical perspective on the practice of law.

“I have concluded that as in life the best way to sustain business is by focusing on the relationships and by truly listening.  All good litigators have similar skills within a reasonably small range.  Litigators with trial capabilities have more skills than litigators without significant trial experience, but most trial attorneys have reasonably similar technical skills to one another.  Clients see this.  Clients (including the largest companies) want an attorney with the required skill sets, but also someone who understands the clients' issues, goals and headaches.  They want someone who can tell their narrative in a way that enhances the best aspects and makes the worst aspects understandable or relatable.  What sets great lawyers apart from adequately good ones is their ability to empathize, to see the larger picture, and to listen.  That requires developing more compassion in addition to hard work and focus; but a better mastery of those skills pays off on all levels.”

External Rewards

And they have paid off, indeed. The rewards Dunwoody has received are numerous and prestigious and stem from a variety of sources.  He’s been named one of the "Best Lawyers in America" in multiple categories, including real estate litigation, banking and finance litigation and land use and zoning litigation.  The San Diego Daily Transcript named him a San Diego County Top Attorney in 2010, and he is a perennial Super Lawyer in San Diego.  He is one of three editors in the two-volume Matthew Bender resource text California Contract Litigation.  He is one of three authors for the annual LexisNexis publication California Federal Civil Rules: with local practice commentary.  He is one of eight members to LexisNexis' Advisory Board.

But with all of these accomplishments, Dunwoody maintains a reflective demeanor that conveys anything but a personal ego.  He explains, “My approach to cases is unusual, because I spend effort early on (and throughout) to assess the psychology of the situation.  Most disputes come down to various human interactions and human factors.  Peoples’ attitudes, their capacity to be flexible, their empathy and compassion or their lack of it, their neediness or manipulative qualities, their sense of themselves in the world – these are the things that motivated them to act in the way they acted which contributed to the dispute, and these are the things that continue to drive them and their counsel.”

Continuing in the same reflective manner, he adds “I believe that most counsel spend too much time on the task details such as discovery and motion practice, without actually thinking about their cases and without having first attempted to understand the human drivers and the pressure points.  This is like embarking on a journey looking only at the GPS screen in front of you from moment to moment without having any real sense of the probable route or even the probable destination.  Most attorneys consider case themes (if at all) for the first time when they are preparing for trial, and they consider various arguments for closing only during trial.  This is too late to be effective.”

Dunwoody isn’t just talking the proverbial talk; he’s ‘walking the walk’ with his clients.  To illustrate how understanding the psychology of a dispute plays such an integral role in the outcome, he recounts a recent case:

“Recently I arbitrated a case in which my client (an energy company) had been sued for breach of fiduciary duty and other claims by its 50% partner in a partnership which owns a cogeneration power plant.  Tens of millions were at stake.  My client did not want the partnership to be dissolved, while the plaintiff partner and its New York lawyers clearly desired that result.  My client’s affiliate operated the power plant, and the operating agreement (which was coming to an end of term) was also something the plaintiff wanted to terminate so that they could bring in an unaffiliated operating entity.

The plaintiff’s complaint was replete with the rhetoric of discord, accusation, and business dissolution.  The same type of accusations could have been hurled back at the plaintiff, and certain potentially very valuable remedies were available only if such cross claims were asserted (such as being able to buy out the other partner for net book value rather than fair market value).  If we had cross complained for breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and other causes of action similar to those contained in the complaint, the arbitrator would be left wondering whether the two parties could ever get along as partners – and we might lose the partnership simply because the arbitrator would see the case as a zero sum situation and be forced to "pick a side."  I felt that the case was winnable on the facts, and we had really good people.  I worked extensively with the client to achieve alignment of our themes well in advance of the deadline to draft our cross-complaint.  Ultimately our cross-complaint alleged simple breach of contract and declaratory relief, and it took quite a neutral tone.  Our rhetoric was “marriage counseling” rather than the “divorce” rhetoric of our opponent.  The opposing counsel ridiculed our position in the litigation phase and throughout the arbitration, characterizing it as weak and "an admission."  On the night before the last day of the arbitration, the arbitrator began to talk about “reconciliation” rather than “organizational divorce.”  Settlement discussions began that night and culminated the next day on very favorable financial terms for my client, including that the opponent agreed to a new multi-year contract for my client’s affiliate to operate the plant.  The partners have peacefully coexisted since the settlement.  Everyone got what they really needed.  Sometimes it's so important for a person to publicly tell his narrative that he's willing to engage in some self-destruction to do so; that was the other side's story.”

What’s On the Inside Manifests Itself On the Outside

With his knack for looking at the whole picture from the inside out, it’s not surprising that Dunwoody’s professional life beyond casework extends into other areas of service for his field.  His firm has a robust pro bono program, whereby the more than 550 Sheppard Mullin attorneys are all encouraged and supported to provide pro bono legal services to those in need.  But again, this isn’t just talk.  “The San Diego office has been awarded the Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year award from the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program five times in the last fifteen years.  We also contribute to local charities, and throughout the year, we sponsor numerous events of a charitable nature, including the Legal Aid Society of San Diego,” he says.

Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, LLP also provides legal updates to its clients and anyone who is interested and was an early adopter of blogs.  The firm now has approximately 25 informative blogs where legal updates on various areas of the law ranging from art to video game law, as well as more traditional areas such as corporate and real estate law, are available to anyone with an internet connection.  Again, matching his firm’s efforts, on a personal level, Dunwoody is also actively involved educating others outside of his office or the courtroom.  He is a frequent and regular lecturer and panelist in continuing education programs sponsored by the California Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB), the Association of Business Trial Lawyers (ABTL), the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA), American Conference Institute (ACI), Corporate Counsel Exchange and other organizations.  He’s a member (and former Board Member) of the Association of Business Trial Lawyers, a member (and former Chair of the Executive Committee) of the State Bar Litigation Section.  And he serves as a member of the International Society of Hospitality Consultants (ISHC).

But you’re not likely to hear any of this from Dunwoody’s mouth.  Instead he gives credit to his professional success to various mentors in his life, including Ken Bly at Cox, Castle & Nicholson, a Los Angeles based firm Dunwoody worked for at the beginning of  his career, and Mark Mazzarella originally of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, and later Dunwoody’s partner in the boutique firm they ran for 15 years.  In terms of furthering his personal growth, he credits his wife, Henriette Rosenberg Dunwoody.  “After 10 years we continue to positively change and affect one another's lives on almost a daily basis.  She's a wonderful source of inspiration for me,” he says simply.

With a successful career, what else is left for Dunwoody?  Continued growth, naturally. “My firm has an excellent strategic growth plan, which includes targeted international expansion. When I joined as a partner in 2006 we had no international presence. Now we have offices in Shanghai, Beijing, London and Brussels. As an adjunct to my existing practice I plan to develop more expertise in ICC international arbitrations,” he explains.

And of course, he plans to continue to delve into the psychology behind disputes in order to best represent his clients.  “The better you know yourself and your behavioral drivers, and the better you can understand these things about your clients, your opposing parties and counsel, and the other important players in the suit, the closer you are to crafting a successful strategy for litigation and settlement, or for trial.”


J.D., University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall, 1985, Associate Editor for the Industrial Relations Law

B.A., University of California, San Diego, 1981

Recognition and Positions:
San Diego Super Lawyer every year since 2007.

Best Lawyers in America, 2012 and 2011 (in multiple categories, including real estate litigation, banking and finance litigation, and land use and zoning litigation).

Former Chair, Executive Committee of the then 12,000 member Litigation Section of the California State Bar.

Editor-In-Chief, Litigation Section's newsletter, 1990-1994.

Former Board member, Association of Business Trial Lawyers of San Diego.

Trial Master, American Inns of Court.

Article Contributions:

  • One of three authors on the annual Lexis/Nexis publication called California Federal Civil Rules: with local commentary.
  • One of three consultants on the Lexis/Nexis publication called Matthew Bender® Practice Guide: California Contract Litigation originally published in 2005, and still in current publication.
  • One of Eight members of the LexisNexis California Advisory Board for Legal Publications.
  • Served as a Consulting Editor for CEB's "Action Guide" series.
  • Co-authored a chapter on Alternative Dispute Resolution, Mediation and Arbitration of hospitality disputes in "Hotel Investments: Issues & Perspectives"- 4th Edition.
  • Edited portions of CEB's "Effective Use of ADR in California"
  • Written numerous other articles on legal topics and topics affecting the hotel industry.


Member (and former Board Member) of the Association of Business Trial Lawyers.
Member (and former Chair of the Executive Committee) of the State Bar Litigation Section.
Member of the International Society of Hospitality Consultants (ISHC)
Dana J. Dunwoody, Office Administrative Partner
Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP
501 W. Broadway, 19th floor
San Diego, CA 92101


Jennifer Hadley

Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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About the Author: Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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