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Paul Weiss's Poor Partner

Vivia Chen

June 1, 2011

Fotolia_568053_XS Let's count the perks that come with being a lawyer at a big firm. Don't worry, this won't take long. There's the car service that whisks you home when you work until the wee hours of the morning. And there's the occasional free legal help--like when you buy or sell your home or need to do a will. As for messy stuff like a lawyer's divorce, most big firms won't touch it. Who can blame them? Divorces can be bitter and prolonged, especially if it involves a senior partner.

But Paul Weiss is brave: It's going to bat for partner Steven Simkin, who is seeking to revise the divorce agreement he reached with his former wife of 33 years in 2006. Simkin was a Bernie Madoff investor, and when news came out about the Ponzi scheme, Simkin filed papers to void the terms of the divorce.

Here's what New York Times's Peter Lattman reports:

Mr. Simkin, chairman of the real estate department at Paul Weiss, and Ms. [Laura] Blank, a labor lawyer for the City University of New York, believed at the time of their divorce that $5.4 million of their $13.2 million in assets was in a Madoff account. To divvy up things, Mr. Simkin withdrew some money from his Madoff account and put it toward a $6.6 million cash payment to Ms. Blank. He continued to invest with Mr. Madoff.

But once the Madoff empire collapsed, Mr. Simkin began arguing that he and Ms. Blank were mistaken about the existence of the account. “There was in fact no account and no securities or other assets,” wrote Mr. Simkin’s lawyers in a recent filing. “There was only a Ponzi scheme of unprecedented size and duration.”

Lawyers and legal scholars are busy debating about whether Simkin has grounds for revising his divorce settlement, and how it might open a Pandora's box of legal challenges. I'll leave that up to the legal brains, but here's the part that grabbed my attention:

Mr. Simkin’s lawyers--his colleagues at Paul Weiss--described their partner in court papers as “gravely damaged” and suffering “extreme hardship” as a result of the Madoff fraud.

While I don't doubt that Simkin is traumatized by his losses, the use of the term "extreme hardship" seems, well, a bit extreme. I mean, isn't he still a partner at the firm, where, as the article notes, the profits per partner is about $3 million per year?

Maybe his partners feel sorry for him because he's had to downsize--the article notes that Simkin sold his Scarsdale home for $5.7 million and bought another one in the vicinity for $4.1 million. His new digs might be more modest, but at least he netted $1.6 million so he can decorate à la shabby chic.

And maybe Simkin is in such dire straits that he can't afford real divorce lawyers. Maybe that's why he's getting free representation from his firm. Mark Alcott, a prominent litigator at Paul Weiss (who is now of counsel) is Simkin's main lawyer. Though Alcott has handled all sorts of complex matters, divorce doesn't seem to be one of his specialities.

Whatever. At least we all know that Paul Weiss has a stellar pro bono program. But who knew that partners could qualify for the service? I just wonder if the firm handles divorces for all its lawyers--or only in cases of "extreme hardship" like Simkin's.


Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].

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Wow... just wow.

Anyone got a handkerchief?

Some of the venom dripping from this article fell onto my shoe.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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