A Conversation with Judge Alvin Hellerstein
Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein is a federal judge who sits in the Southern District of New York. He practiced law at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP for 38 years before being appointed to the Court by President Clinton. He started at the firm in 1960, became a partner in 1969 and was co-chair of its litigation department until he took the bench in 1998. He has always been extremely active in bar association and educational activities.
Judge Hellerstein, who took senior status in 2011, maintains a full docket and has presided over innumerable controversial and notable matters. Among others, he presided over myriad claims stemming from the 9/11 attacks: the wrongful death cases brought by the families of those killed in the plane crashes, the insurance claims made by the owner of the Twin Towers and the settlement of the more than 10,000 claims by those firefighters, police, medical workers and volunteers who worked tirelessly to clean Ground Zero and who, themselves, became ill as a result.
Judge Hellerstein shares his experiences at Stroock.
Q : You came to Stroock very early in your career. What brought you to Stroock?
AKH: I graduated from law school in 1956, and then I clerked for a year in this Court [SDNY], for Judge [Edmund] Palmieri. After that, I went into the Judge Advocate General Corps, spending two years in Charlottesville, Virginia. I also spent a year in Korea trying cases and counseling servicemen. When I was discharged from the Army, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had just seen Paul Newman in Exodus and fancied that if I went to Israel, I would find Eva Marie Saint behind the nearest sand dune and I would make my life there. But as I traveled slowly across the country it dawned on me that that was not realistic.
One of my law school classmates was with Stroock and he told me I should interview. So I did. I came to think very highly of the firm. I had a very nice feeling about the firm. I took the offer.
Q: How large was the firm when you joined?
AKH: When I joined, I was the 29th lawyer. So I was privileged to be in on the growth. There was always a decency in dealing with people, an honesty. And it provided a nurturing environment. You were close to people who practiced law at a very high level. They were very practical. They knew how to be economical with a client, to give value to the client and to be there for the client when the client needed you. There was never an antagonism between the client and the lawyer. And the Stroock people were very good in figuring out what a client’s real needs were. Which was not always the same as what the client said it needed. And there was space and opportunity for young people to excel. And in my class, we all did.
There was no one monolithic way. Everyone did things according to his own style and had self-confidence in it. And you could learn just by being up with people who did things in different ways. You could reject some, accept others and you could find a style of your own. And for a young lawyer, that’s really important.
Q: What other characteristics did you find in your early Stroock colleagues and partners that were attractive to you?
AKH: They were real people. They didn’t, most of them anyway, pretend to be grand, eloquent, elegant people. They were lawyers who did their jobs, and did them very well. And I enjoyed working with them. I made good friends. Friends for life. And there was a very good professional attitude and very nice relationships with the clients. I got to like a lot of the clients.
Q: What were some of the cases you handled as a young lawyer?
AKH: One first job when I came in was visiting the Winter Piano Company – Sam Hoffman’s client – in the Bronx. They were located in an old fire trap on 138th Street and were always being pursued by the fire department and cited with violations. So one of my first assignments was to go up to the Magistrate’s Court in the Bronx. What did I know about fire violations? What did I know about Sam Hoffman’s clients? But I went up to the Bronx, called one of my friends from school and I asked him, “What do you do?” And he said, “First, you go over to the clerk and say that you don’t know anything and you’re a young guy who just came back from the Army. Can you help me out?” So that’s what I did. And he said “Well, you substitute the company for the individual and the judge will let you do that. And then you try to negotiate and get a lower rate.” So that’s what I did. And then I went back and I visited the company and looked at some of the violations and wrote a memorandum suggesting a plan of action to remove the violations.
I was told I should send a copy to [the client] Hal Friedlander. So I did. And then Sam Hoffman finds out that I sent this memorandum. He calls me into his office and he starts giving me an argument – why I had the temerity to do what I did without clearing it with him. And he’s about to tell me that my days at the firm are numbered when Hal calls him up and says who is this AKH? He said it was me. And Hal says “This kid’s great. He took an office job and he made something out of it. You should get more kids like that.” So that inaugurated me. I became very close with Hal. It was a very interesting origin for Sam. Sam worked up from the mail room. He went to night school. It’s one of the stories that endeared me to the firm.
Q: A great many of the businesses that we had represented were sold or filed for bankruptcy. In many respects the firm had to rebuild its practices. Did you have any sense of whether there was a change in attitude or the way people practiced then, or do you find that there was a continuity?
AKH: There was a continuity. What happened is that the quality of the lawyers emerged: where most of the lawyers were involved in servicing the clients brought in by the older generation, to the great benefit of the firm, the abilities that were fostered by that older generation came out in entrepreneurship that many firms didn’t have. Also, the good feeling among the people – there was a bond that kept the firm together. There never was a “star” system at Stroock – everyone understood that that person had a responsibility to do something. To develop new clients; to develop value out of old clients. And we did. We were able to reinvent ourselves.
Over the years, we went through other crises as well. The next crisis came when everything fell down in a depression and the only part of the firm that flourished was the bankruptcy department. We therefore went through a review, a painful review, and we changed our compensation system and the incredible result was that not one person left. I thought that was an extraordinary expression of the loyalty of people to the firm and to the partners of the firm. There was friendship that crossed all lines.
I can’t place the time, but Erwin Millimet had inherited a great deal of business and built more, and he was probably one of the most productive partners of the firm, although he was often a very challenging figure to deal with. But I always liked working with him. We did a really lot of good work for the Tosco Corporation. He was very client-centric. I remember leading a number of tender fights. And I always enjoyed having Erwin deal with a client. It was easy to work with him that way, because I could focus on the lawsuit, knowing that his client was in back of me.
Q: You’ve had a number of clerks who’ve come from the firm and you’ve happily sent some back, including two of our current partners. Have you noticed any change in what you’ve characterized as the firm’s culture?
AKH: Somewhat hard to say because I only get very small glimpses of it. But I’ve kept close to those two partners, Jamie [Bernard] and Claude [Szyfer] and I think I can tell from the way they practice that it’s pretty much the same as when I practiced. Jamie is servicing the litigation interests of a client that I passed to [now-Judge] Brian Cogan, who passed it on to Jamie. And Claude is doing nice work. I think the same attributes are there. Everyone has to be self-reliant and feel an individual obligation to increase the qualities of the firm.
Q: What advice would you give to a young lawyer today about Stroock and why he or she might practice law there as compared to somewhere else?
AKH: It’s a good place to practice because you do good work and because you become friends with your colleagues in the firm. Carl [Kanter] and I see each other every month. I’m in touch with Chuck Moerdler, Mel Epstein, Lenny Boxer, Joel Cohen and others. When he used to live here, Wally Cowan and I saw each other frequently. These friendships are priceless.
It’s also not given to the same kind of craziness as you see in large firm practice. But what I see from some of my law clerks is that other firms try to put lawyers, young lawyers, into niches, where they do narrow work and the firm multiplies the value enormously. I see how large scale litigations are done by some firms where too many lawyers come to the court and all seem to have little pieces of the case, without really understanding the whole case.
And what I found characteristic about Stroock is that you were able to build a maturity about you. It comes from handling small clients with small matters as well as large clients. You have to learn to be efficient and focused on giving value. You have to learn how to give good judgments. You have to learn how to settle cases as well as win cases. And I thought that Stroock did that better than the large firms.
I think there’s more professional growth possible at firms like Stroock. I think there’s more job satisfaction. You may not earn as much as you might working for some of the behemoths, but I think you enjoy the practice more. You learn more. You learn to be a lawyer. You learn how to advise a client. And you have to understand how to practice in an ethical way, but in an aggressive way. And aggressive doesn’t mean shouting. Aggressive means that you understand what a client wants to achieve in any particular matter and do the best you can to get it. And that’s characteristic of people doing deals, people serving the client’s interest on a counseling basis, and in connection with a lawsuit. I think the firm still has it.
Q: You became co-chair of the litigation department - a department that basically didn’t exist before you were there – but you also found time while you were at Stroock to do so much work for and with the Federal Bar Council, the City Bar. How important was that to you being a lawyer at Stroock and ultimately to becoming a judge?
AKH: Critical. For a number of reasons. In a narrow professional sense, the firm – any firm – could not give me enough of a platform to gain the presence I wanted, so I had to find a way to create a platform. I have a good ability to teach and I felt that I could gain a reputation by teaching. And that’s when I got involved with ALI and PLI and other organizations involved with continuing legal education. Stroock ultimately gave me that opportunity.
I also felt that professional associations were extremely important. They could be narrowly trade oriented, or they could do a lot of good in many different ways. And I felt it was important also to “network,” what we now call networking which we didn’t do then. So I joined bar associations early on. And you join and you’re there and you work and you have some abilities; you get into leadership positions.
I also felt that I had to give some of my talents to Jewish and educational organizations. So these were all conscious choices. I think it’s so important for lawyers in their own development to be able to think of important issues and solutions outside of their narrow part of the law. Working with professional associations and charities gives you that opportunity. Not only do you do good for society, but you further your own capabilities. Many Stroock partners and lawyers are now active in the various bar organizations.
It is important to encourage that outside interest. It is very difficult because the demands are so high on a lawyer. A lawyer has to have all these professional obligations. It’s very important to be attentive to your family. And who has the time to do these other things? But I think it’s critical to do it. And in my chambers there’s more work than we can handle, but I don’t encourage weekend and night work. I want it to happen; it has to happen. But I don’t encourage it because I want people to understand that there is life outside the law. And they become better lawyers if they do things outside the law.
Q: You have a plaque that’s hanging on your wall. And it was on your wall when you were at Stroock.
AKH: “Justice, Justice Shalt Thou Pursue.” It is in Hebrew – from Deuteronomy.
So first I have to tell you an anecdote. There was an associate who was asking me about what he called “the sign”: “What’s that sign?” So I translated it and the passage from which it was taken. And he says “What kind of sign is that for a litigator?”
But it’s a very good sign for a litigator. The best advocacy is to appeal for the victory in the name of justice; to align your case so that a judge or jury believes they are doing a good thing. There can be joy in judgment, or pain, or indifference. The best advocate is the one that can get the trier of fact to be happy in their judgment. And since this whole process in the court is to deliver justice, the advocate who can align his case to be consistent with justice will more likely win.
I am not sure I realized it but “justice” animated my life. It caused me to be a lawyer; it caused me to contribute many pro bono professional activities along the way. I always felt this – “Justice, Justice, Shalt Thou Pursue.”
I was once presiding over a very difficult and contentious dispute between an Israeli inventor and a very large pharmaceutical company in the United States. It was a non-jury trial, but both sides asked me to help them settle the case. As I got them closer we decided to come to chambers rather than the court room. And here I was – some of the litigants Boston Irish and some Israelis. So I looked up at the sign and I said to myself: “What are they going to think?” But I explained it, and they understood it.
Q: Last question: How did your years as a litigator at Stroock make you a better judge?
AKH: It made me acquainted with lots of issues. I did not have a concentrated practice. I did everything, including criminal defense. And by doing everything you gain judgment. Stroock, when I was an associate, allowed you to do your own work as well as the firm’s work. And I did things myself. I drafted wills. I’ve done real estate deals. I’ve settled cases and done corporate transactions. I became a better lawyer by doing all these things.
I have a sense of the economics of a case. As a judge, I try across a table to fix the expenses of discovery and what people want to do with discovery to match the economics of the case. And to promote settlements on cases that couldn’t come out in another way, for both the lawyers and for the clients.
I think the fact that I practiced 38 years, particularly at Stroock, made me a better judge.