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(Reuters) – There’s an art to telling legal war stories, of hapless clients and improbable claims; knavish opposing counsel and hard-earned wins.
Sandor Frankel is a master of genre. Leona Helmsley’s go-to lawyer, Frankel since her death in 2007 has been a steward of her $5.4 billion fortune, which he and his co-trustees have been charged with giving away “to improve lives” around the world.
In his new memoir slated for publication on Tuesday by Skyhorse, “The Accidental Philanthropist: From a Bronx Stickball Lot to Manhattan Courtrooms and Steering Leona Helmsley’s Billions,” Frankel shares often hilarious, sometimes poignant and always insightful observations drawn from more than 50 years of legal practice, representing clients including deposed Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, actress Brooke Shields, singer-songwriter Barry Manilow and boxing promoter Don King.
A 1967 Harvard Law School graduate, Frankel cut his teeth as a prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., did a brief Big Law stint at the firm now known as Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, then joined forces with tax fraud defense expert Lou Bender in a boutique practice. Frankel is now of counsel in the litigation department at Otterbourg in New York City.
Frankel told me has was inspired to write the book (his fourth – over the years he’s also written a true crime thriller, a novel and a how-to book on fighting the IRS) because “You reach a stage in life where you take stock of where you are and what you’ve done.”
Frankel writes in-depth about his work for hotel billionaire Helmsley, who was famously dubbed “the Queen of Mean.” In 1989, she was convicted of federal tax evasion and other crimes and served 19 months in prison.
After her death, he was named one of the executors of Helmsley’s estate, which included a $12 million trust for her Maltese dog Trouble (“a vicious nondiscriminatory people-biter” according to Frankel). The bequest was reduced to $2 million, which still allowed for nearly $200,000 a year in dog-related expenses.
As a co-trustee of Helmsley’s charitable trust, Frankel has been given “complete discretion” to decide which causes to give her fortune to.
“When you control billions of dollars, you become – I assure you – very popular,” Frankel wrote. “The life-change from genuflector, asking judges for small or large victories, to genuflectee, is radical.”
His years as a lawyer provided “a sharp, unique, sometimes piercing look into the foibles, limitations, churlishness, and occasional backbone of the human species,” he wrote in an email.
But his new role is something else entirely. “I pinch myself to make sure this is real. I think I’m awake,” he wrote. “’The Accidental Philanthropist’ tells how this dream happened, and how and why I did what I have done with it.”
Here are a dozen of my favorite takeaways:
ON HIRING A LAWYER
“If you ever need a lawyer and find one who tells you he’s never lost a case, look for someone else more experienced or more honest.”
ON DISCOVERY FIGHTS
“Stiff-necked lawyers often fail to agree on what is appropriate discovery even though the matter in dispute is clear, or is inconsequential, or at least not worth multiple lawyers’ time fighting over the dispute. Never backing down to compromise with an obnoxious adversary is a lawyer’s luxury paid for by the client.”
ON OTHER MEMBERS OF THE BAR
“People often ask how lawyers can fight each other vehemently in court and then socialize outside. Actually, it can be difficult – some of the lawyers you fight with inside the courtroom are people you’d also like to fight with outside.”
ON CLIENT COMMUNICATION
“A lawyer best serves a client’s needs by explaining honestly the ins and outs of the legal process and the unpredictability of the outcome and the pathway to that outcome – even though what the client often wants to hear is how entitled to win he or she is, and how that’s ultimately going to happen.”
ON MANAGING EXPECTATIONS
“Often, clients ask the natural questions: How long will the case take, how much will it cost, and will I win. My answer is often: Those are excellent questions, but the truthful answer is that it’s like asking how long is a piece of string.”
“Generally, the only certainty in litigation is uncertainty and that it will be expensive.”
“The client’s sense of justice frequently bears no relationship to the end result.”
ON BIG LAW
“I didn’t want to join a mega-firm; I’d sampled that environment decades ago after leaving the U.S. Attorney’s office and hadn’t liked the taste. A friend at one of those firms, which had recently hired its thousandth lawyer, commented that it wasn’t the same warm and cozy place it had been with only 999.”
“The opposite of ‘don’t sue’ is not necessarily ‘sue aggressively.’ Suing more aggressively than the situation or wisdom dictates can produce disastrous results.”
“Many lawsuits are settled when both parties get tired of paying their lawyers.”
ON CLUELESS CLIENTS (PART 1)
“Some folks think they’ve got a good case when, truthfully, they don’t. Man goes to a lawyer, says a neighbor drove him into a forest, tied him to a tall oak tree, and robbed him – and he says he’s got evidence to prove it. Lawyer says show me the evidence. Man invites lawyer into his car, drives to a forest, parks, walks the lawyer into the forest, stops in front of a tall oak tree, points to it, and says: ‘That’s the tree.’”
ON CLUELESS CLIENTS (PART 2)
“A man who had been indicted for tax evasion came to see me for possible representation. The indictment was plain vanilla – it simply alleged the years and amounts of evasion but provided no details. I asked what the case was about, and he said he had no idea…
Maybe this was the dream case for a tax fraud lawyer: a perfectly innocent taxpayer, clean as the driven snow, and an IRS investigation gone wild. After my lengthy grilling of him, our meeting was over, and I still had no idea of the basis for the indictment. As he was about to leave, though, a thought seemed suddenly to strike him.
Maybe it was the prostitutes, he said. Maybe I shouldn’t have put them on the payroll as salaried employees.”
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