Remembering Tom Heftler

A few years ago, I spent an airless week in August interviewing for jobs at New York’s large corporate law firms. The interviews were all the same: precisely 20 minutes long, conducted by a mid-level associate who wanted to know what my strengths were and why I was interested in this firm. Few law students have unique answers to these questions. And since I was ambivalent about working at a firm in the first place, I was bombing one interview after the next.

I met Tom Heftler on the last day, when I arrived for my interview with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. He sat alone in the small room, jacketless, wearing a red bowtie and large round glasses. He’d combed his fine gray hair carefully against his forehead, like a little boy. Where other lawyers had lurched forward to question me, he balanced on his chair with an almost birdlike delicacy. He smiled warmly, and then, for 20 minutes, we talked about bikes.

He loved to ride, and was encouraged to learn that I did, too. He told me about his favorite routes, upstate and out in the Hamptons. I told him about my grandfather, a doctor who lived his entire life in New York. Mr. Heftler never asked me what my strengths were, or why I wanted to work for Stroock, and I didn’t tell him. He seemed to understand the pointlessness of such questions. He knew that collegiality, as the big firms like to call it, avoiding simpler words like “friendship” and “admiration,” grows out of daily human interaction, even in this often dehumanizing profession.

Later that day, he called to invite me in for a more formal interview at the firm’s offices. Of the three dozen interviewers I met with that week, he was the only one to call me back. This was an immense relief, as I was beginning to wonder whether I was fit for any job at all. Some people pass through your life like that, at a fleeting, sensitive moment—they do or say something you never forget. And sometimes, without warning, they come back into it.

Mr. Heftler was killed early Saturday morning by a drunk driver while riding his bike in Southampton, on the Montauk Highway in Shinnecock Hills. He was 64. Shortly after 6 a.m., Mathew Cacace, 24, swerved his van over the center line and struck Mr. Heftler as he rode on the shoulder in the opposite direction. Mr. Cacace, who remains in police custody, has so far been charged with driving while intoxicated.

“He was a deeply humane person,” said a member of the firm who knew Mr. Heftler well. He was also a highly respected energy-and-commodities lawyer whose clients included Goldman Sachs; he was recently ranked by Chambers U.S.A. as one of the top commodities specialists in the nation.

Biking for him was not just a hobby. He carried his trusty collapsible bike to firm events and outings, and regularly rode with both firm members and clients on the weekends. As one person at the firm put it, he was a serious cyclist “well before cycling became the new golf.”

I’m not sure how important it is to mention these things. It wasn’t until several weeks after my interview that I learned Tom Heftler was not an associate at Stroock, nor merely a partner, but the managing partner—the head of the 350-lawyer firm. I found this out by chance, since he had somehow managed to omit it from our discussion entirely.

Tom Heftler leaves behind his wife, Lois Weinroth, also a partner at Stroock, as well as two sons, three grandchildren, and hundreds of lawyers, paralegals and other staff on Maiden Lane who were both his friends and his admirers.