Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dewey & LeBoeuf: why I'm mourning the death of a law firm, part 3.

This is the conclusion of a story that begins here and was continued here.

For a time, I occupied an office next door to that of Charles P. Sifton (photo at left by Tyrone Dukes for The NY Times), later to become a Federal District Judge. He was known to all as "Tony".*

Tony had a strong sense of decorum that I sometimes tested. In the mid 1970s Cameron F. MacRae, III, son of the then senior active partner, was brought into the firm laterally. This started some mutterings about nepotism. "Young Cam" had previously been the chief lawyer in the New York State Banking Department. His immediate predecessor in that job, Mike Iovenko, had also come to the firm as a partner. At the time, I was the host of the "Associates' Lunches," periodic gatherings of the firm's lawyers at which one partner would be called on to talk about a case or deal he or she had worked on, or an area of practice generally. Before announcing the speaker, I would introduce any new lawyers who had come to the firm since the last lunch. At Cam's first, I said this:
I know that all of us associates have our pet theories about how to become a partner in this firm, but perhaps many of you, like me, have now come to the conclusion that there is only one absolutely certain route to partnership...and that is, of course, to first become deputy superintendent and general counsel of the New York State Banking Department, which is by way of introducing Cam MacRae.
Cam stood up, chuckled, and said, "Wait'll you see my successor!" After the lunch, a junior partner (the same one who had, in the previous instalment, abandoned me to the fleshpots of Baltimore) said to me, "You handled that beautifully; it really de-fused the situation."  But the next day, I heard a rapping and, looking up, saw Tony Sifton at my office door. "Uh, Claude, how long have you been host of the Associates' Lunches?" "About a year and a half, " I answered. "Well, uh," Tony said, "don't you think it's about time to let someone else do it?" I readily assented. ("Young Cam" proved to be a valuable addition to the firm; some time after his father's death he became chair of its corporate and finance department and later the firm's Vice Chairman.)

LeBoeuf produced my first marriage. Joanna was a paralegal in trusts and estates. When I first met her, I was puzzled by this tall Midwestern woman with a gentile Dutch surname who wore a gold Star of David on a chain. I learned that she had converted to Judaism after the breakup of her marriage, while a student at Vanderbilt, to a graduate student who she said proved to be a physically abusive beast. She was now living with a boyfriend named Leon who was studying to be a cantor. One night, I threw a party to which she came. As others left, she hung around, offering to help clean up. She stayed the night. She and Leon had parted; "Not Jewish enough" was his verdict on her. Within a month, Joanna and her two cats had moved in. When I asked her why someone who had gone to the trouble to convert to Judaism wanted to marry a goy, she said, "You may raise the children however you want."

Our engagement raised a few eyebrows at the firm, but it was agreed that it was technically OK since I didn't do T&E work and therefore wasn't her supervisor. The morning after we returned from our honeymoon she said, "By the way, we're never having children." It later became apparent that, for reasons seeming to have little if anything to do with me, she had come to regret her decision to marry. On my thirtieth birthday we had a big party, and I got thoroughly drunk. When all the guests had left, I told her I wanted a divorce. She agreed.

After we separated, Joanna moved to Chicago to be closer to her family. We remained friends and stayed in touch by phone. She even gave the ultimate compliment of naming a cat for me. After a few years, when I tried to reach her at her office several times and was repeatedly told she was out sick, I called her at home, and she said she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Several years later, after she had gone through a third brief, unhappy marriage, she called, told me she had decided to move back to New York, and asked if she could sleep on my couch while she looked for an apartment. I said I'd be delighted. She found a place to live, and a job. One day, as I was walking across Sheridan Square in the Village with Martha, then my girlfriend and now my wife, we ran into Joanna, and I introduced them. The next day Joanna called me and said she thought Martha and I "looked good together." A couple of years later I got a call from Joanna's sister; Joanna had died the day before, evidently of congestive heart failure.

After the divorce I moved from what had been our floor-through on Bank Street in the far West Village to a one bedroom pad in the newly renovated Van Rensselaer, formerly a notorious hot pillow hotel, on Eleventh Street just east of Fifth Avenue. It has since been renamed The Alabama and is used as a residence for Cardozo Law School students (photo at right), though Mr. Van Rensselaer continues to glower down through rectangular spectacles from under his broad-brimmed hat at the apex of the arch over the front door

In the process of moving, I had occasion to walk the block of Thirteenth Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, and there discovered the Bells of Hell, which was to become my home away from home during non-working hours.  These non-working hours began to expand, though on occasion I tried to combine them with work. I wrote a section of a brief in a proceeding before the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities while sitting at the bar of the Bells. It was on a tricky economic question, one on which I thought our client had a reasonable argument but would probably lose given some language in earlier decisions. We did lose, but the DPU's decision on this point included the words "Counsel for the Company ably argued..."  I could only wonder what they would have thought had they known where I was when I so argued.

Now it's time for a musical interlude. The house band at the Bells for much of the time I spent there was Turner and Kirwan of Wexford. You can read more about them, and see a video of Pierce Turner as a solo artist, here. Larry Kirwan went on to front Black 47; here's a video of them doing "Funky Céilí":

The video ends abruptly, like Larry's career at the Bank of Ireland, but unlike mine at LeBoeuf.

During 1975 and '76 I had experienced two of what psychologists consider among the most wrenching life changes: marriage and divorce. My divorce, as such things go, hadn't been traumatic, but I entered the final stretch of the seventies feeling itchy and introspective. My life since high school had been a rapid progression through college, which I completed in three years by dint of taking overloads and summer courses, then law school, then to the firm, with a break for military service, then back. I was wondering if I might have been happier had I followed a different path. Like Charlie McCrann (see the previous installment) I had artistic pretensions, though mine were of the Great American Novel instead of the Academy Award kind.

Unfortunately, my turn toward introspection and the Village demimonde came as LeBoeuf was getting substantial amounts of new business and associates were facing greater demands. One night I was working in the library during the wee hours, not because I was overburdened but because I had procrastinated, when the phone rang. I picked it up, and a woman said "Who is this?"

"This is Claude Scales."

"Claude, oh my God! This is terrible. Why are you working at this hour?"

"I just have to get something done. Who are you?"

She identified herself as a third year associate I knew, though not very well. She continued to bewail my late night labors, then giggled and said "Michael, cut it out!" Finally, I said I had to get back to work. She said "OK" and hung up. Later that morning I went to the office of Susan, an associate I knew was a friend of my late night caller. I told her what had happened; she sighed and said, "She's been working on a deal that kept her in the office for several days and nights straight." I told Susan about the giggling and "Michael." She rolled her eyes, and said Michael was a senior litigation associate I knew fairly well who had been through a bitter divorce and a breakdown. "The blind leading the blind," I said. Susan smiled wryly.

Charlie and I were moved from our shared office on the firm's main floor to adjoining small offices in a portion of the floor below that the firm had leased as expansion space. In Lions in the Street, his book about the great Wall Street law firms, Paul Hoffman wrote about how, when Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett had its offices in the old Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, an associate getting his (they were all male at the time) first individual office could tell if he was on partnership track by whether his window faced the street or an air shaft. Of those who suffered the latter fate it was said, "He got the shaft." I soon concluded that being assigned to one of the small associate offices in this isolated section, not connected to the rest of the firm by a stairway, was the equivalent of getting the shaft. This was confirmed at my next annual review when Don Greene told me I was not destined to be one of the elect. Nevertheless, he said, I should not "rush away" from the firm. He would try to find something for me.

Shortly after that, a younger partner who was regarded as a rising star invited me to dinner at what was then one of Manhattan's most trendy restaurants, followed by drinks at a members only** night spot. The purpose of this sybaritic night on the town was for him to let me know that a client of the firm, a utility company headquartered in the suburbs, was looking for an in-house lawyer. I was diffident; I didn't want to leave my Village digs for a place in the 'burbs, and reverse commuting seemed like a chore. Over the next few weeks, this partner and several others, including a senior partner for whom I had great respect, kept  pressing me to consider the job. I met Ken, vice president and secretary of the client (the firm held the title of "general counsel"), who would be my supervisor, and we both had favorable first impressions. I was offered a deal: I would work for the client at its offices full time for a trial period while remaining on LeBoeuf's payroll. If either the client or I was dissatisfied, I would return to work at LeBoeuf.

At first, it worked out well. I found that I could make the run up the FDR Drive, over the George Washington Bridge, and up the Palisades Parkway to the company's office in about 45 minutes. The return trip was usually a bit slower, as there was some traffic going into the city for the evening. I had to leave the Bells earlier on week nights to be able to get up at 6:30 the following morning, but I was seldom required to work late or on weekends. After about a month, Ken called me into his office, said he and his colleagues were pleased with my work, and offered me the job. I accepted.

After a while, though, I felt the sense of restlessness returning. I didn't want to spend the remainder of my career working in the suburbs. Ken hired another lawyer, Steve, to share our growing workload. Unlike me at the time, Steve was focused and ambitious. He found that the officer in charge of purchasing had made a hash of hedging against fluctuations in the cost of oil and, with Ken's support, took this to top management. This made Steve unpopular with some people, but feared and respected by others. Meanwhile, I was taking long weekends to work on Charlie's movie (see previous installment) and finding it hard to concentrate on my work. When a project I was assigned, in which the company's president took an interest, became overdue, Ken's limited supply of patience was exhausted. He called me into his office. Steve was there. Ken said that henceforth I would report to Steve. I felt like quitting on the spot, but I couldn't take the immediate financial hit.

I considered my options. Jobs were not widely available; these were the "stagflation" years. My work on regulatory matters had kindled an interest in economics. I had taken one undergraduate course in that subject, which I liked and aced. The New York University Graduate School of Business Administration (now called the Stern School) offered an M.B.A. degree with a major in economics. I had G.I. Bill educational benefits available. Going back to school was an attractive prospect. I could look for part-time work, and my parents agreed to help as necessary. My application to N.Y.U. was accepted, and I left my in-house job in June of 1979.

In the fall of that year, I was invited to a black tie dinner dance to celebrate LeBoeuf's fiftieth anniversary.  Everyone was cordial, and after dessert had been eaten and the band struck up, Sheila, the firm's first woman partner, came over to where I was sitting and said, "Ask me to dance." I managed not to step on her toes, and my date was impressed. It was a delightful evening.

One afternoon around that time, I was sitting at the bar of the Lion's Head, which had again become my principal watering spot since the Bells closed a few months before, and got into a conversation with a Weil, Gotshal partner who frequented the place. When he found out I had been doing public utility work, he said, "I could use you. We have this strange antitrust case where our client is a public utility holding company suing other public utilities under the Sherman Act, and we don't have anybody who knows the industry." He said I should mail him my resume with a cover letter claiming I had been given his name by a common acquaintance of ours, and swear in blood that I would never disclose to anyone at the firm how we met, or even mention the Lion's Head. I got the job, working on an hourly basis, and this led to further projects that sustained me through the time I was taking classes at N.Y.U.

By 1982, I was ready to re-join the full time work force, and got an in-house job with an insurance company. Being in that business meant that I was able to keep up my contacts with LeBoeuf, at NAIC meetings and also, from time to time, as a client. I was proud to see my old mentor Taylor, who had become the firm's chairman, profiled in The American Lawyer as "LeBoeuf's Gentle Expansionist". Later, after Don Greene had succeeded Taylor at the firm's helm, I was surprised to see an associate, anonymously quoted, describing Don as "like the great flaming head in The Wizard of Oz." This didn't seem like the Don I remembered, and still saw on occasion. I was deeply saddened to see Peter Demmerle, a very smart and personable lawyer and former Notre Dame football star who seemed to be Don's heir apparent, fall victim to, and eventually die from, Lou Gehrig's disease.  At the same time, I was glad to see Jim Woods, who had been one of my associate friends in the early '70s, and who had become the head of LeBoeuf's San Francisco office, rise to a position of prominence in the firm by developing a thriving insurance practice on the West Coast and in East Asia.***

My friendship with Charlie, and several other former LeBoeuf associates, had continued from the time we left the firm. Charlie and I both got married and became fathers, which somewhat dampened our Bohemian inclinations (although we made it a tradition to meet once a year with the sound man from his movie at a Bohemian beer garden in Queens). He became a senior executive with Marsh & McLennan, the world's largest insurance brokerage, and had an office on the 100th floor of One World Trade Center.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I had just dropped off my daughter at P.S. 150 in lower Manhattan, about a quarter mile north of the World Trade Center, and had turned off of Greenwich Street, where I had a clear view of the WTC towers, onto Reade Street, when I heard the sound of a plane overhead, seeming much closer than it should be. A few seconds later, the noise abruptly stopped. There was a brief silence, followed by a very loud explosion. People behind me on Greenwich Street started screaming. I ran back, looked up, and saw a gash in the side of One WTC right about where I knew Charlie's office was.  A moment later, a fireball emerged from the gash. In 2003, I posted this on Charlie's page in Marsh's memorial website for those lost in the September 11 attack:
Two years ago today, on a crisp, clear morning just like this, I lost someone very dear to me. Charlie's and my friendship took root in the early 1970's in a shared office at LeBoeuf's, was watered during bachelor hours at the Lion's Head and the Spring Street Bar, flowered in exotic locales at NAIC meetings, endured and strengthened through his and my marriages and the births and growth of our children. He was responsible for my brief, less than glorious but delightfiul movie career. I miss him very much.
I later learned that Cameron F. MacRae, III lost a daughter, who worked for Fred Alger Management, Inc., a few floors away from Charlie's office.

After I moved to Brooklyn Heights, Tony Sifton and I were neighbors, and would occasionally see each other on the street or in the bank or a shop. He would sometimes stop to chat, and was keen to hear how my life was progressing. The last time I saw him, we were both in line to buy bread at Almondine. He looked frail and was wearing a ventilator. Not long after, I saw his obituary. This past February I had the pleasure of meeting his son Sam, who had recently been appointed National Editor of The New York Times, when he spoke at a Brooklyn Heights Association meeting.

I had mixed feelings about the Dewey-LeBoeuf merger. I was sorry to see the LeBoeuf name lose precedence to the more prestigious Dewey, but hoped this would enable the firm to thrive in the increasingly competitive, globalized market of the megafirms. Every once in a while I would see an announcement that a highly regarded lawyer in some lucrative area of practice had left another firm to join Dewey LeBoeuf. While I assumed they were doing so because they thought they could make more money, I knew nothing of the lavish guarantees they were given. Perhaps Steve Davis, the firm's chairman, was hearing the words of Brutus:
We at the height are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or else lose our ventures.****
Maybe these same words echoed in the head of the "London Whale". For some, no doubt, they have inspired great deeds; for others, including Brutus and Cassius, they have pointed the way to disaster.

Erratum: I erroneously wrote that Cameron MacRae's daughter worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. LeBoeuf alum Peter Smedresman, whom I saw yesterday evening for the first time in about thirty years, told me she worked for Fred Alger Management. I've made the necessary correction to the text.


* It is evidently an haut WASP tic for a man to have a nickname commonly associated with a given name other than his own. I never asked Tony how he came by his nickname, but I did later find the origin of a similar one. After leaving LeBoeuf, I worked for a time for Whitney North Seymour, Jr., former U.S. Attorney for Manhattan, and learned that he was known as "Mike." After one of my friends asked how "a guy with three last names" could be so called, I made a discreet inquiry and was told that when Whitney Jr. was in utero his mother called him "Microcosm." Update: I've since learned that "Tony" had a similar origin. When he was a baby, his older brother called him "Bunny", which later got changed to Tony.

**Note: no apostrophe. I get lots of hits off web searches by people wondering if "members only" takes an apostrophe.

***At the outset of this series I mentioned how my infatuation with a law school classmate who had been a summer associate at LeBoeuf led to my interviewing for a job there. This woman also indirectly and unwittingly caused Jim to go to work at the firm. For a time she dated Larry, a classmate of ours, and told him she had enjoyed her time at LeBoeuf. Larry later met Jim when they both had summer jobs at the United Nations. Jim, a native Californian, was impressed by New York City, and asked Larry what law firms he would recommend as prospective employers. Larry, remembering his former girlfriend's praise, told Jim he should check out LeBoeuf. The rest, as they say, is history.

****Julius Caesar, 4.2.269-276.