20 Questions with Debra Steinberg
1. Your career is uniquely defined by earlier work that resulted in the prosecution of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, followed a decade later by your innovative probono efforts on behalf of 9/11 victims and families. When we interview someone for Litigation Commentary & Review, we like to try and figure out what makes them tick. That is, how did our LCA Fellows get to the preeminent practice level they enjoy and for which they are highly respected, and what was it, or is it, that has been there driving force? So let’s put that question to you in a simple fashion – what makes you tick professionally?
I was once asked whether representing the Firm's clients in the financial services and commercial world was dramatically different from representing the 9/11 families. My answer was that the two were very similar. All of my cases involve people in trouble, whether they are employees of corporate clients sued for securities fraud or 9/11 widows facing the trauma of supporting their families while grieving for their husbands. Both need help, and they look to me to make things right.
2. Please tell us about your representation of and work with the 9/11 families and victims, and how your efforts on their behalf came about.
After 9/11, I volunteered to lead Cadwalader's pro bono project representing families of deceased firefighters, office workers, restaurant workers, and victims who had a relationship with our firm. My work on that project continues to this day. The representations were holistic in nature: we served as general counsel for the families, providing a broad array of services that included addressing their emergency needs after the attacks; legislative and regulatory work to assure equal access to the federal Victim Compensation Fund for all victims' families, representation of our clients before the Fund, and negotiation of a unique humanitarian parole/deferred action program with the Department of Homeland Security. The scope of these pro bono representations is best summarized in an exchange, right after 9/11, with the head of the union representing restaurant workers killed at Windows on the World. When approached with an offer of free legal assistance for the union families who lost someone in the Towers, he asked: "What do they need lawyers for?" The response: "Then, we offer whatever the families need for as long as they need it."
3. Your public service has garnered you awards and recognition from not only the ABA and New York State Bar, but also from the United States Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, to name a few. What is it about pro bono work that you find professionally and personally stimulating?
It has been my privilege to serve the families of 9/11 victims and to help them rebuild their shattered lives. Professionally, these representations offered invaluable experience in the area of pro bono disaster relief and non-judicial compensation processes, which can be applied in other disasters affecting large populations. Personally, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a stricken family begin to heal and move forward to fulfill the dreams that their loved ones had for them. Personally and professionally, my collaboration with other law firms on behalf of similarly situated pro bono clients was an amazing experience. Lawyers from firms throughout the City joined together to deliver pro bono services using an innovative holistic model. Those lawyers -- who worked together for years, for free, for the common good of their 9/11 clients -- share a special bond and have my enduring admiration.
4. You’ve also been featured for your public service in the documentary film “The Legal Community’s Response to September 11th” and in a seminal study entitled “Public Service in a Time of Crisis.” Have the accolades and attention to your public service provided you with resources from your firm or other public or private entities that you have been able to parlay into additional service that you might not have had access to otherwise?
The recognition that my pro bono work received enabled me to shine a light on the "invisible victims" of 9/11 -- the immigrant and foreign national 9/11 families -- and their unique circumstances. From the outset, these families were among the most vulnerable, and their recovery presented the most difficult challenges. What those challenges are, and how we approached them, are important lessons learned for use in future "times of crisis."
5. Given your legal work involving Boesky and Milken roughly twenty years ago, and now, in the last few years having seen another wave of Wall Street creativity that has not been particularly popular or profitable among or for the general population, from your position as a securities litigator whose office is only a few blocks from Wall Street, was the writing on the wall for this meltdown or was this a substantially unpredictable perfect storm?
Each generation has its own meltdown in the financial services sector. When I started my practice, I worked on the Investors Funding case, which was then considered to be one of the largest securities frauds ever. Then came 1986, with Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, and the S&L crisis. Now, that has been eclipsed by Bernie Madoff. Each is different, but each shares Mr. Boesky's motto: "Greed is good."
6. What was your evolution toward litigation?
Litigation has been my area of practice since I started in 1979. Within that practice area, I have worked on a variety of different kinds of cases: securities fraud, intellectual property, oil and gas litigation, and, of course, the 9/11 representations. Each case was a window into a different world, which has made my practice always challenging and never dull.
7. I used to practice with a fantastic, though difficult, legendary so, trial lawyer named Olin Zeanah. One of my partners, beginning when we were associates, kept a list of “Zeanahisms.” They were little gems of knowledge that Zeanah would occasionally impart. Did you have a trial icon or mentor in your early years of practice who shared with you the wisdom of years of practice? If so, please tell us about them.
When I came to Cadwalader in 1984, I worked with two old-school trial lawyers: George Reycraft and Richard Wiener. They enjoyed a worthy adversary and a good fight. They believed in on-the-job training; backed their teams; and encouraged associates to assume responsibility early and often. They took a chance on me at a time when there weren't that many women working in the field of complex commercial and securities litigation. They instilled in me, and all those who had the privilege to work them, a love of the law and joy in the practice of it.
8. We’re in what a banker friend of mine called a “bumptious” economy. How has your practice and that of your firm, adjusted?
Cadwalader is said to be the oldest law firm in America. Through its diverse practice groups, which are hedged against different economic scenarios, it is structured to adjust. My practice, which focuses on securities and intellectual property litigation, has not been adversely impacted by the current economic environment.
9. What has been the biggest change in the way law is practiced between the time you first began until now?
When I started practicing, men dominated the trial bar. Cigars, liquid lunches, courtroom antics were the norm. That changed as women attorneys were integrated into trial teams. They brought a different, more analytical style with them, which has evolved into the trial advocacy that we see in general practice today.
10. Litigators tend to travel a great deal. What are some of your favorite cities or places, and what fascinates you about them?
Opelousas, Louisiana. It's a real small town that's right out of an old movie set, with a courthouse in the central square, the Palace Cafe down the street, and the best fried oysters you've ever eaten.
11. Have you ever had a case in which your opposing counsel went over the line ethically in representing their clients interest? How did you deal with it?
Yes. I dealt with the situation by documenting it, presenting it to the Court, and seeking sanctions.
12. Has trial law’s golden age passed or have we yet to reach it? What intrigues you about prior generations of trial lawyers?
Every generation produces a golden age. All you have to do is look at popular culture . . . the lure of a good trial scene is irresistible to stage, screen, and literature in every generation.
13. What lawyer or lawyers in book or movie fiction have you found interesting or entertaining, if not inspirational?
Atticus Finch - To Kill a Mockingbird.
14. What is the first thing that comes to mind if I ask "If you were a judge, what would you do differently from what you deal with most frequently in your practice before presiding jurists?"
I would like to be the kind of judge that I would want to appear before. Judges have the tools to enforce the promise of Rule 1 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure: "the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding." Those tools should be used more often to prevent frustration of that Rule.
15. What is your greatest extravagance?
16. What object in your office serves to re-energize you when your mood needs an adjustment?
Drawings by the 9/11 kids. Their graduation pictures. They remind me that lawyers do make a difference.
17. If you could meet anyone from history, who would it be, and why?
Actually, I just met her. Ruth Gruber (who just turned 99) was tapped by President Roosevelt, in 1944, to bring 1,000 displaced persons to safe haven at Fort Ontario, New York. She was given an honorary rank of "general" for the assignment, because, if the Nazis were to capture her as a civilian, she would have been executed as a spy. Fort Ontario was the only World War II refugee camp on American soil. After the war, Dr. Gruber fought to allow the refugees to remain in this country, and, on December 22, 1945, President Truman signed an Executive Order granting a path to citizenship to the Fort Ontario refugees. I was introduced to Dr. Gruber at the screening of a documentary on her extraordinary life, aptly titled Ahead of Time.
18. Cadwalader maintains a strong position on diversity and has received various acknowledgments for the firm's efforts in that direction. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to the LCA's mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth, and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in the next issue of Litigation Commentary & Review. So in a word, sentence, or paragraph, what in your opinion is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?
I am a product of Cadwalader's commitment to equality and diversity. Diversity in law firms and in the judiciary is essential to maintain the public's confidence in equal access to justice. If discrimination and exclusion were to infect law firms, then the law would not safe from those scourges.
19. What trait do you most value in your friends?
20. What is your motto?
Every problem has a solution.