Baron Rothschild and Me
I had passed the bar exam and was working for a very large law firm in Pittsburgh. I was still so new I would get lost on my way to the men’s room.
But it was wildly exciting for a working class kid from a dying mill town to be associated with such a prestigious firm, and I naturally expected that I would soon be working on major matters, flitting among international capitals, trying cases before the Supreme Court.
But I quickly learned that the life of a young associate (as newly minted lawyers are called) was not so glamorous. I worked 70-hour weeks, most of them buried in a dark corner of the law library doing work that wouldn’t have taxed a reasonably bright tenth grader.
Worse, in some ways, I didn’t even have an office. New associates sat in “bullpens,” rooms shared with four or five other young lawyers, all of us having a fine view of the air shaft.
Worst of all was the pay. I was earning less than half what Army buddies of mine, all high school graduates, were getting paid working in Pittsburgh’s steel mills. My bullpen mates and I once calculated that when you divided our working hours into our pay, we were getting a bit less than 30 cents an hour.
But all that came to an end one morning when I received a call from the secretary to the head of the litigation group asking me to report to the big conference room on the seventh floor. That was odd. Normally, you were asked to report to some partner’s office so he could give you a new assignment. But a conference room?
When I arrived at the imposing room, stern portraits of the firm’s founders staring down at me from paneled walls, the place was already beginning to fill up with some of the most important lawyers in the firm: the head of the litigation group, the head of the corporate group, the head of the tax group, a few less august senior partners, a few very senior associates. And me.
The head of the corporate group, Mr. H, opened the meeting. “As most of you know,” he said, “our client, Copperweld Corporation, is the subject of a hostile takeover attempt. The company making the attempt is Imetal S.A., a recently formed French holding company.” He pronounced “Imetal” correctly: “Ee-met-ALL.”
“Baron Guy de Rothschild, Chairman of Imetal, is attempting to build an industrial powerhouse under the Imetal umbrella, and Copperweld is supposed to be his prize acquisition.” Mr. H had pronounced “Guy” correctly — “gee” as in “geek” — but he mispronounced “Rothschild,” which should have been “ROWTH-shield.” I decided not to make a fuss about it.
“Well, fellows,” Mr. H continued, “Copperweld isn’t interested in being the Baron’s prize and we’re going to fight this takeover with every weapon we’ve got!”
Mr. H went on to discuss how we planned to manipulate Delaware, Pennsylvania, French and international law to make it harder for the Baron to take control of Copperweld. “But,” he said, “the main defense will be our court case against Imetal.”
I grinned. This poor Baron Rothschild guy was about to be torn into ten thousand small pieces and fed to the sharks. Whatever else Reed Smith Shaw & McClay might be, it was certainly a vicious litigation machine. It wasn’t for nothing that other law firms referred to us as “Cheat Shift Stall & Delay.”
The head of the litigation group then took the floor and outlined the main elements of the court case. Questions and answers followed and, just before the meeting broke up, Mr. H told us that this case would be our highest priority.
“Imetal,” he said, “is represented by a powerful New York law firm, so we’ll have to do our best work. Unless something you’re working on has an emergency deadline, this matter comes first.”
The meeting was over and no one had said a word to me. But, as far as I could tell, I’d for some reason been added to the legal team for the most important case in the firm. Not bad for a guy who’d only been a lawyer for a year.
When I returned to my bullpen, my bullpen mates were naturally curious about what I’d been doing in the main conference room. I yawned and stretched and remarked casually, “I may have been a lawyer for only a year, but when the firm needs the best talent available, they obviously know where to turn.”
For several weeks I strutted around the bullpen saying fatuous things like, “Oh, please don’t bother me with that silly multimillion dollar case — I’m pondering grand strategy against the Baron.”
But gradually, as the days and weeks went by, it became obvious that, if I was a member of the Copperweld-Imetal team, I wasn’t a very important member. There was clearly a lot going on with that case, but none of it had involved me.
I may have been discouraged, but my bullpen mates were delighted. Every day one of them would casually say, “By the way, councilor, what’s the latest on that Imetal deal?” Knowing perfectly well I had no idea.
I was, in fact, spending my time exactly as I always had — buried in the law library doing grunt work.
But then, one morning while I was sitting at my desk reading a discouragingly thick book on Pennsylvania chattel law, my phone rang. It was the secretary to the head of the litigation group, a guy I’ll call Mr. M, asking if I could stop by.
Could I! I practically leaped from my chair, but then, realizing I had an audience, I merely remarked aloud, “Mr. M wishes to see me. Obviously, they’ve encountered some knotty legal issues on this Imetal matter that need to be unknotted.”
I left the room followed by the kind of comments that can’t be reproduced in this family-friendly blog, and headed for the huge corner office occupied by the head of the litigation group.
Next in this series: “A Humbling Start: Baron Rothschild and Me, Part II”