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Conversation with Jeffrey S. Trachtman
New York Lawyer
March 16, 2007
By Thomas Adcock
New York Law Journal
Q: On April 12, you will accept the ABA’s John Minor Wisdom Award for pro bono on behalf of your firm. Who was John Minor Wisdom and why is Kramer Levin getting the honor?
A: Judge John Minor Wisdom, who died in 1999, was a courageous figure with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit during the 1950s and ’60s, when the court handed down a series of decisions crucial to advancing the civil rights of African Americans.
Awards in his name usually go to individuals and public service lawyers—only four times before to law firms. I believe we’re the first New York firm to be honored. In our case, it’s for what hundreds of our lawyers have done in a wide variety of matters over time.
Q: What sort of matters?
A: In 2006, we devoted 3.9 percent of our billable hours to pro bono. We had 212 attorneys in the firm do some pro bono work during the year—from political asylum cases to voting rights issues, civil rights and direct service to poverty law clients in housing and Social Security matters.
We’ve helped micro-entrepreneurs in transactional matters and helped to build the new downtown headquarters for Coalition for the Homeless. We also fund a full-time externship at South Brooklyn Legal Services.
Q: And allies with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund on such high-profile cases as Lawrence v. Texas before the U.S. Supreme Court and ‘Hernandez v. Robles’ before the New York Court of Appeals, your firm is known for its strong advocacy of full civil rights for gays and lesbians. How did the firm get involved in this arena?
A: We’ve been doing [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] work for nearly 20 years. Do you know of Larry Kramer, the playwright and founder of Act Up? He’s the brother of our founding name partner, Arthur Kramer. They had a fractious relationship, which is the basis for Larry’s play, “The Normal Heart.”
The firm also provided an externship to Lamba Legal for Norman Simon. So we’ve deepened our roots with Lambda. Norman was an associate at the time, now he’s been elected partner.
Q: Any negative repercussions for the firm from working in this still somewhat controversial area?
A: No. There’s not a hell of a lot of reason for wanting to deny people their rights. Besides, we’re in the process of a generational shift—to the generation of “Will and Grace.” People just don’t care. But I do cut some slack for people above a certain age. I have an aunt who was involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the ’60s. But she just can’t get her arms around gay marriage.
Q: Any negative repercussions to you -- personally, as a straight lawyer —- in advocating same-sex marriage?
A: No personal impact. I was raised to do peace marches—stuff like that. My parents are both psychologists and classic Manhattan liberals.
... I feel a moral responsibility to work for everyone’s civil rights, not just my own. The white lawyers working on civil rights for African Americans in the 1940s and ’50s realized that Jim Crow was hurting everyone. To exclude people from equal participation in our institutions—marriage, for instance—undermines the institution. Nobody wants to belong to an exclusionary club.
As a straight lawyer working for gay clients, though, I feel some humility in imposing an opinion. At the end of the day, I’m not the one getting directly hurt.
By the way, it’s not that difficult for us to do the civil rights work we’re doing today. Doing it in the South back in the ’50s and ’60s—that was dangerous. For instance, Constance Baker Motley was in danger of having her hotel room firebombed.
Q: You mention the late Judge Motley, longtime trial attorney for the NAACP appointed by President Johnson to the Southern District bench, the first black woman named to the federal bench. Did you know her?
A: I clerked for Judge Motley.
Q: Has your firm been involved in pro bono work for detainees at Guantánamo prison?
A: Yes, and, frankly, there was more concern about that than our getting involved in gay rights issues. Internally, there were questions. But it was all very respectful. A consensus emerged that this was something the organized bar was doing with one voice, and that it wasn’t about defending “terrorists”—that it’s about guaranteeing due process.
Q: What specifically have you done for detainees?
A: We represent five Uighur Muslims from China who escaped their homeland by way of Pakistan, only to wind up in Guantánamo. We’ve helped gain release for three of them; we’re working to resettle the other two.
Q: Not long ago, a former high-level Defense Department official criticized large firms for volunteering legal service to prisoners at Guantánamo. He suggested that corporate clients should withhold business from such firms. What did Kramer Levin hear from its corporate clients?
A: Our corporate clients not only didn’t ditch us, but said they were proud of us for doing our job. I’m not sure they’d call themselves liberals or progressives. In fact, a lot of them are conservatives. But this isn’t about conservatives versus liberals.
Q: For the past 14 years, you have been the partner at the head of Kramer Levin’s pro bono committee. Before that, you were active in pro bono as an associate. What changes have you seen in pro bono over that time?
A: Pro bono has become a competitive matter among the firms. It’s largely a friendly competition. We’re all aiming at the same goals, and of course you want to impress the clients—and compete for the best associates by impressing students.
I would say there’s been a formalization of pro bono. And I would say that cities with strong pro bono cultures tend to raise all boats.
Q: A number of New York firms have full-time pro bono directors, which is not the case at Kramer Levin. Why?
A: Well, we just do it the old-fashioned way—by committee. It’s become more difficult as the firm has grown, so we’re exploring different models. But there’s something nice about having so many working commercial lawyers involved in a pro bono committee.
Q: What is your practice area?
A: I focus on complex bankruptcy and mass tort litigation. I also have experience in securities fraud, intellectual property, administrative law and constitutional law.
Q: If you had not become a lawyer, what profession would you have pursued?
A: It was always a question of journalism or the law. I was editor of the student paper at Stuyvesant High School. When I was 16, I was the film reviewer for the Villager newspaper. Then all through college I worked for the Villager.
Q: What made you decide to become a lawyer?
A: I sued my high school principal. The paper wanted to do a sex survey of the student body. When the principal said no, the New York Civil Liberties Union assigned me a lawyer and we filed suit in the Southern District. We won -- before Judge Motley, of all judges. We lost on appeal. But we got a beautiful, almost poetic First Amendment dissent.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the March 16 New York Law Journal.
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