Nussbaum and Conway: Political Enemies, Legal Allies

Perhaps no free legal advice in recent memory has garnered as much attention as that given by George Conway III. In 1996, Mr. Conway, a litigation partner of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, quietly advised Paula Jones’ lawyers on their court filings against President Bill Clinton. Mr. Conway, a member of the Federalist Society, surprised many of his colleagues with his ideologically driven assistance. It was particularly flagrant given that the firm’s two most senior litigators are major Democratic Party loyalists, including the President’s first White House counsel, Bernard Nussbaum.

But political partisanship really has little to do with the rivalries and alliances that festoon every law firm-especially when it comes to paying work. Thus Mr. Nussbaum and Mr. Conway have been working together on a securities fraud case since 1996 without huffing or backbiting, said those who have witnessed the legal alliance.

The two are defending a subsidiary and executives of stock issuer Merrill Lynch & Company in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, against claims that they had misled the investing public about the stock of the Ann Taylor Stores Corporation. Both Wachtell barristers appeared together at oral arguments last year. “They worked together seamlessly,” said Robert Zimet, a lawyer of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom who represented Ann Taylor.

And successfully: The legal duo won a dismissal of the case in November 1998. They are now readying a brief for the appeal due in April.

The pairing of the two lawyers was a conventional assignment for each man. But it surprised some former Wachtell associates, for reasons having nothing to do with politics. Mr. Conway is considered part of the camp of litigators around Herbert Wachtell. Working for the tempestuous Mr. Wachtell is an acquired taste, insiders said, but one Mr. Conway apparently relishes. Still, those two are far from a political match: Mr. Wachtell is a big donor to the Democratic Party.

Mr. Nussbaum is a far mellower work partner than Mr. Wachtell. “Everybody gets along with Bernie,” said one former associate. (Wachtell is not the White House, where Mr. Nussbaum reportedly had his political troubles.) And other lawyers who know Mr. Nussbaum said he is too street-smart to hold a grudge against a talented attorney when it comes to business.

Mr. Conway declined comment. But Mr. Nussbaum said he and his young Federalist colleague even get along with each other when out of the courtroom. “He is a very able lawyer, a very able partner, and he works with me, among other people in the firm,” said Mr. Nussbaum on March 3. “I’m on a friendly basis with George Conway,” he added. So, friends? “We’re professional colleagues,” he said.

He had to run; late for a party. Monica Lewinsky’s interview with Barbara Walters was only a couple of hours away.

Megafirm Merger Still a Maybe

They have a name: White & Case Brown & Wood. But do they have a deal?

Simple answer: not yet.

Both firms acknowledged that their respective management committees continue to discuss a proposed 1,200-lawyer megafirm, even though the end-of-February goal has passed. “We’re about a week behind where we want to be,” admitted Thomas Smith, managing partner of Brown & Wood. “All we’ll say is that discussions are proceeding, and they’re proceeding well,” said White & Case spokesman Nancy Lasersohn.

The emissaries are meeting two, sometimes three times a week to forge a merger proposal, alternating between White & Case’s 44th Street offices and Brown & Wood’s abode in the World Trade Center. Money, contended one participant, is no longer the key issue between the firms.

So what is? To judge by the order of the ungainly name, maybe control. The name order was pretty obvious, said one participant in the talks: “One of these firms is twice the size of the other.” And one of these firms, White & Case, has a pretty dominating leader in James Hurlock. “Smith had thought he would get a role right at the top with Hurlock,” said one person not at the table. “He realized in January that wasn’t exactly how it would happen.” Mr. Smith declined to discuss his management role or any of the issues under discussion.

One Brown & Wood side lawyer thought that the partners would receive the proposal during the second week of March. But that might be a little rosy. A White & Case source’s reaction to the time estimate: “Is that a reliable source?”

That’s Law Biz

Al Pacino and Natalie Portman are splitsville, legally speaking.

The actors, who appeared together in the movie Heat , both had lawyers at entertainment stalwart Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz. Recently, though, Ms. Portman’s lawyer, Ira Schreck, and three others took their cell phones and briefcases and left to start their own firm. Mr. Pacino will stay with the parent firm.

The lawyers’ defection to the new Schreck, Rose & Dapello firm removes from Frankfurt Garbus such screen sorts as Aidan Quinn, Julianne Moore, Tom Berenger and Skeet Ulrich; the directors of My Left Foot , The Ice Storm and The Madness of King George ; the songwriter for The Prince of Egypt ; and financiers October Films.

Mr. Schreck’s group had started running into occasional conflicts at Frankfurt Garbus, which represents media companies as well as individual performers. “It felt like it was the time to set up a boutique devoted to the needs of the creative community,” he said. The two firms are still working together on a few matters.

Nancy Rose, a name partner in the firm, had some expertise in theater. Another partner who specialized in Broadway deals also departed, last year. Michael Frankfurt, the managing partner at the 40-lawyer firm, said the firm on Jan. 1 had brought in a new theater partner to make up for those losses. He otherwise shrugged off the departures as routine for an established firm like his. “This will have no material effect on our practice,” he said, ticking off a few talents whom the firm represents, including Alec Baldwin, John Goodman, Geraldo Rivera, Tom Clancy … and Monica Lewinsky.

He said that the firm will replace Mr. Schreck and Ms. Rose in the natural course of things; right now, its partners are seeking a couple of midlevel associates who can handle corporate work. “It’s a totally full-service law firm, and the corporate work overlaps significantly into the entertainment clients and the businesses they’re in,” he said. ( The Observer is one of the firm’s clients.)

Indeed, representing individual performers can be financially nerve-racking for a lawyer. “It’s an awful lot of work for not much money,” said another entertainment lawyer in town. Will the new firm be able to sustain itself by dickering over artists’ contracts? Said Ms. Rose, on the phone from the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen: “We think we are representing the champs in the business. The actors, the writers, the directors-those are the jewels of the business … Obviously, we wouldn’t do this unless we thought we can make money at it.”

For Mr. Schreck, a former cab driver and Reno croupier, one of the benefits of the new firm is its relaxed, Los Angeles-like environment. “I get to wear jeans,” said Mr. Schreck.

Pirro Due Up

There’s a big induction planned for Cooperstown this summer, but it’s not of the baseball kind. The state’s district attorneys will gather in July in the town of the National Baseball Hall of Fame for their association’s annual summer conference, where they’ll swear in a new president to a one-year term.

On deck for the position: West-chester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro. The ascension is apparently moving ahead, despite the legal troubles of Ms. Pirro’s husband, Albert J. Pirro Jr., which have cast a large shadow on Ms. Pirro’s political ambitions.

The case against Mr. Pirro, a Republican lobbyist, has already done some damage to his wife. Indicted on Feb. 23 by U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White on 66 counts of tax fraud, Mr. Pirro has been accused of making improper deductions for home furnishings, baby sitters, vehicles, vacations and other items shared by the couple. Ms. Pirro was not indicted although she signed some

of the tax forms. The much-

photographed District Attorney has maintained that she was neither knowledgeable about nor involved in her husband’s business activities, but editorial writers have criticized her lack of curiosity about her household finances and urged her to explain further. Her husband’s spokesman claimed that the indictment has already “sidelined her as a possible senatorial candidate.”

Ms. Pirro’s fellow law enforcement leaders, however, so far have not passed judgment. Ms. Pirro’s spokesman David Hebert said that her term as head of the New York State District Attorneys Association is still on track. “She has given me no indication that anything has changed,” he said. The man in line to get the job once her term is done, vice president-elect Robert Carney, the District Attorney of Schenectady County, said she has his support. “She’s a talented lady. I feel bad for her,” said Mr. Carney, a Democrat in office for nine years. “I would much rather follow her in the year 2001 than [replace her] in the year 1999.”

Unless the U.S. Attorney’s office backs off from the indictment, the case against Mr. Pirro likely will still be pending when the Cooperstown gathering kicks off on July 14. The next hearing in the case is March 31.

Four Reasons To Say Goodbye

A trial lawyer who practices at a noted small litigation shop returned one of N.Y. Law’s phone calls the other day. “I’m sorry I’ve been a little slow in getting back to you,” he said, “I’m quitting the practice of law and I’ve been trying to take care of a couple of last matters.”

That was surprising. This was someone who had always wanted to be a trial lawyer. A onetime clerk to a Federal judge, lead associate on some big securities cases, he had spent some time at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison but left before he was offered a chance to become partner. Now he was going for good. “It’s an ugly profession to try and make a living in,” he said.

The lawyer said his decision came down to four issues. “One is the client hustle … Second is: So little of litigation has to do with the actual dispute now; it’s all in fighting procedural battles, waves of motions. The stuff that requires legal analysis is minimal.

“Three: People are nasty. They’ve always been nasty, but they’re still nasty.

“And then you settle everything. Much of litigation is positioning yourself now, so it’s drawn out and drawn out until both sides have to cave somewhat. What amounts to the actual trial is so little now.”

The lawyer said he’s not expecting much to change. “O.K., you pass a law and say you will start sanctioning frivolous litigation. Now, in reality, few people ever get sanctioned. But now everyone files motions to sanction. And there’s the pre-discovery conference. That was created to resolve all the discovery disputes in advance, all at the same time. So you go to it and take care of everything-that’s the theory. But then you go and fight the same disputes anyway.

“You still hear plenty of people making motions for the purpose of ‘educating the judge’ … If you do a survey of senior litigation associates, see how many cases of theirs have gotten past summary judgment. Below 20 percent? In my five years at Paul Weiss, I had one.”

With few regrets, he’s planning to go to work for a hedge fund.

You can reach N.Y. Law by confidential e-mail at mfleischer@observer.com.