Friedman Kaplan at 30: A Brief History of the Firm

February 5, 2016

On a weekend in early January 1986, Bruce Kaplan, Eric Seiler, and Bob Kaplan flew to Florida, where Ed Friedman was vacationing, to discuss the forming of a new firm. Bruce and Ed were partners in a four-year-old firm then known as Stein Zauderer Ellenhorn Friedman & Kaplan; Eric and Bob were associates. They had a vision of a firm that would pursue excellence within a non-hierarchical structure, offering great opportunity to talented young lawyers. They liked and respected each other. The basic outline of the new law partnership was sketched out on the back of an airline cocktail napkin.

Friedman & Kaplan opened its doors for business on January 13, 1986. Bruce, Ed, Eric, and Bob were its founding partners; two other associates from Stein Zauderer, Andy Goldwater and Lisa Gersh (later Lisa Gersh Hall), joined as associates and became partners shortly thereafter. They moved into temporary office space at 875 Third Avenue in New York City with a small staff and a pioneering spirit.

A few months later, the six litigators were joined by Gary Friedman, who left Debevoise & Plimpton to establish Friedman & Kaplan’s corporate department. He began representing McCaw Cellular Communications, a relatively unknown company that had a vision of establishing a nationwide cellular telephone network. McCaw grew into one of the cellular industry’s leaders, and Gary represented the company when it was acquired by AT&T for $11.5 billion in 1994. Friedman & Kaplan went on to represent AT&T Wireless in numerous corporate transactions and litigation matters.

In the firm’s early years, at 150 East 52nd Street, its litigators built a reputation as hard-working, creative, and tenacious advocates. They started out representing smaller companies in disputes with larger ones. In a short period of time, Friedman & Kaplan’s practice expanded to include larger clients and larger cases, such as the Polycast Technologies securities litigation. In 1990, Eric and Gary represented the airline flight attendants’ union in negotiations with UAL, the then parent of United Airlines.

This trend toward handling larger and more complex litigation continued when Bob Lack joined the firm from Sullivan & Cromwell in 1991. He played a leading role in establishing the firm’s practice of representing institutional plaintiffs in litigation against accounting firms. The first such case, commenced in 1993, involved the representation of Corporate Partners, L.P. in a $200 million claim against Coopers & Lybrand. The litigation, which arose out of a massive accounting fraud at Phar-Mor, Inc., was principally handled by Eric, Bob Lack, and partners-to-be Hal Neier and Lance Gotko.

The firm moved to expanded space at 875 Third Avenue in 1993. At the same time, it was branching out into new areas beyond its core financial litigation practice. Bruce, Ed, Bob Kaplan, and Andy began defending employment discrimination cases for Columbia University and Time Warner, and Bob Kaplan built a practice representing cellular companies in consumer class actions. The firm’s corporate department grew with more telecom work as well as private equity transactions. Among the firm’s corporate clients was a fledgling company called Oxygen Media, established by Oprah Winfrey, Geraldine Laybourne, and Marci Carsey-Werner. Lisa later left the partnership to become Oxygen’s Chief Administrative Officer.

In recognition of Eric’s longstanding contributions to the firm as a litigator and managing partner, the firm’s name was changed to Friedman Kaplan & Seiler LLP in 1997. The firm’s securities practice continued to expand, both on the plaintiff and defense side. Bruce and associate (later partner) Philippe Adler represented defendant directors in the MTC Electronics Securities Litigation. Bruce and Bob Lack obtained a jury verdict for Converse in a case alleging fraud and breach of contract in connection with an acquisition. Eric, Bob Kaplan, Bob Lack, and associate (later partner) Kate Pringle represented the Granite Funds in litigation against broker-dealers Bear Stearns, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, and Merrill Lynch. In 1998, Paul Fishman joined Friedman Kaplan from the U.S. Department of Justice to establish the firm’s white-collar practice and open its office at 1 Gateway Center in Newark, New Jersey.

Then, in 1999, the firm made its biggest jump in growth with the welcoming of six corporate lawyers from the Rubin Baum firm, including Barry Adelman, Gregg Lerner, Richie Hoffman, and Meryl Rosenblatt. The firm’s name was changed to Friedman Kaplan Seiler & Adelman LLP in 2000. The new lawyers cemented the firm’s leadership in the cellular telecommunications field, bringing to the firm representation of VoiceStream Wireless and Western Wireless. Barry and Gregg later represented VoiceStream in its $50 billion acquisition by T-Mobile, which became a client of the firm.

The firm moved to 1633 Broadway in 2002. It continued to attract some of the nation’s brightest young lawyers as associates, who joined the firm from clerkships or laterally from well-known firms. A number of these later became partners, including Dan Rapport, Hallie Levin, Anne Beaumont, John Orsini, and Jeff Wang. The firm also expanded and enhanced its litigation practice with the recruitment of two lateral partners: Scott Berman, a leader in hedge fund litigation, and Mary Mulligan, who brought experience as a former prosecutor and intellectual property litigator.

In addition to its commercial practice, Friedman Kaplan participated in an increasing amount of pro bono, charitable, and political work, including seeking compensation for victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, representation of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and Central Synagogue, participating in challenges to the Florida vote in the 2000 presidential election and to the method of nominating New York state judges, and representing numerous individuals who would otherwise have been unable to afford counsel in matters involving such issues as housing and political asylum.

Our corporate department performed extensive private equity work for Blue Ridge Capital, in both domestic and foreign transactions. We also handled significant representations advising boards of directors and in negotiating employment contracts for highly placed executives in the financial industry. The firm represented in litigation matters and the Huffington Post in a variety of corporate and intellectual property assignments.

The firm’s relative freedom from institutional conflicts of interest made it a top choice for major clients with disputes with commercial banks, investment banks, and accounting firms. The firm’s third decade saw a surge in such cases, most notably in the Lancer and Beacon hedge fund litigation, Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners’ litigation over the leveraged buyout of Clear Channel Communications, and the MAFCO Litigation Trust’s suit against Marvel Entertainment’s former officers and directors. The firm also represented Wells Fargo and Wachovia against Citigroup, and Tribune Company’s Litigation Trustee and indenture trustees against the shareholders and financial advisors that benefited from an LBO that preceded Tribune’s bankruptcy.

Friedman Kaplan in recent years also has played a leading role in a number of other high-profile cases, including a series of insurance, contract, and tort disputes arising out of the collapse of the 7 World Trade Center building on September 11, 2001, representation of major “hold-out” bondholders in litigation to obtain payment of more than $1 billion on defaulted Argentinian bonds, representation of Caesars Entertainment in defense of federal and chancery court lawsuits brought by various creditor groups, an arbitration and jury trial arising out of the departures of a large number of employees from one inter-dealer brokerage firm to another, and representation of the founder of organized American soccer in government investigations relating to FIFA, the international soccer organization.

As the firm matured, it saw some of its lawyers recruited into prominent positions in public service. Paul Fishman was named by President Obama in 2009 to be United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey. A former partner has led the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and former partners and associates have become federal prosecutors in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Florida. Firm alumni also hold important positions at T-Mobile, Viacom, Peabody Energy, and Democracy Prep Public Schools.

Fortunately for the firm, the recruitment went in the other direction as well. We were pleased to recruit Eric Corngold from his position as New York’s Executive Deputy Attorney General for Economic Justice to head our white-collar practice, as well as Ricardo Solano Jr. from his position as New Jersey’s First Assistant Attorney General to join our expanded New Jersey office. In 2015, we were honored to welcome Judge Robert Smith to the firm upon his retirement from New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. The firm continued to attract the best and brightest associates and to promote them to partnership, including Jeff Fourmaux, Jason Rubinstein, and Michael Gordon.

The firm moved to 7 Times Square in 2011.

In expanding from six lawyers to more than fifty, and from cases and transactions involving millions of dollars to billions of dollars, Friedman Kaplan has remained committed to the core values that underlay its founding: intellectual rigor, hard work, creativity, collegiality, and dedication to excellence in client service.