New York Stock Exchange head Richard Grasso was fired in 2003, then sued by then–New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer, who demanded that he not keep an “excessive” $190-million pay package. To defend himself, Grasso skipped over the big New York law firms and hired Washington’s Williams & Connolly.
New York lawyers haven’t fared that well in Washington’s courts, so it was a gamble to bring litigators Brendan Sullivan and Gerson Zweifach to Manhattan in a case that was New York to its core.
But in July, after nearly five years of motions, depositions, hearings, appeals, and bench trials, Williams & Connolly was victorious. The state’s Court of Appeals threw out most of the former attorney general’s claims, and Spitzer successor Andrew Cuomo has abandoned the case, allowing Grasso to keep the money.
When Grasso hired the DC firm—one of the biggest without a New York office—it was with the intent that first chair in the case would go to Sullivan, widely regarded as the nation’s top corporate-defense attorney.
But Sullivan’s conflict with another high-profile case—that of former Cendant CEO Walter Forbes—moved Zweifach to the fore and Sullivan to the background. Some conspiracists suspected that friendly prosecutors in Connecticut timed their case to neutralize Sullivan in New York’s Grasso case. If so, the move backfired.
Grasso showed faith in Zweifach, 11 years younger than Sullivan, comparing the lawyer change to replacing one Hall of Fame pitcher, Cy Young, with another, Warren Spahn.
In the New York case, Zweifach proved a tenacious foe on whether the case should be in state or federal court, whether it should be heard by a judge or a jury, and whether the judge should be disqualified.
As often happens in cases involving Williams & Connolly, the case ended with the original prosecutor’s reputation in tatters, while the defendant skipped out happily. Although there is no evidence that W&C had anything to do with Spitzer’s being outed as a user of a call-girl ring, some local attorneys smiled and said that something like that always seems to happen when Williams & Connolly is involved. “Contrary to urban legend, we had nothing to do with it,” Zweifach says.
New York’s decision to drop the case, while good for Grasso, is a mixed bag for Williams & Connolly. Because the firm bills by the hour rather than taking a percentage of any winnings, Cuomo’s decision marks the end of a five-year gravy train that took the full-time attention of Zweifach and a team of six associates, who each billed around $300 per hour. Zwiefach’s fees as a partner are around $875 per hour.
Even by conservative estimates, Zweifach and his team earned more than $20 million for the partners at the firm—from a client who ended up with plenty from which to pay.