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April 5, 2012 7:00 PM

Zuckerman Spaeder Continues New York Push by Taking on Redistricting Fight

Posted by Brian Baxter

Empire State Plaza

CORRECTION, 4/6/12, 10:15 a.m. EDT. A previous version of this story misidentified the home office of Amit Mehta. He is based in Washington, D.C. We regret the error.

A battle over the creation of a new state senate district in New York is helping Washington, D.C.–based litigation boutique Zuckerman Spaeder burnish its Empire State credentials.

Zuckerman lawyers—who have been busy over the past year appearing in New York courts on behalf of  such prominent clients as former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn and embattled New York City comptroller John Liu—signed on last week to represent Governor Andrew Cuomo on a pro bono basis in the legislative redistricting fight.

As The Am Law Daily reported at the time, Zuckerman made its presence felt in the New York market last September by hiring former senior Cuomo aide Steven Cohen as the fourth partner in the firm's Manhattan office. Before going into private practice, Cohen spent four-and-a-half years as Cuomo's top adviser, serving as chief of staff in the attorney general's office before moving to the governor's mansion.

Zuckerman's latest New York assignment is a product of last month's agreement between Cuomo and state senate Republicans to revamp New York's legislative redistricting system every ten years beginning in 2022. The proposal calls for the creation of a sixty-third senate district, something the senate's Republican majority supports. State Democrats, however, oppose the new district's creation, and sued Cuomo and Republican leaders on March 15 in state court in Manhattan in a bid to block the proposal.

While the governor generally relies on the state attorney general's office to provide legal representation in such matters, a spokesman for New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman told reporters this week that the state's top lawyer had given Cuomo his blessing to hire outside counsel.

Serving as lead counsel to the governor in the redistricting court fight is Zuckerman partner Paul Shechtman in New York. Shechtman, currently representing a construction company owner on trial over a tragic 2008 crane collapse, is a former name partner at leading New York litigation boutique Stillman, Friedman & Shechtman. He joined Zuckerman in October when the firm made a series of high-profile hires that included bringing on former Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy partner Andrew Tomback, who had worked with Cohen and Shechtman at the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan.

Shechtman, an adjunct lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School, says that his role representing Cuomo is the second time he's represented a sitting governor. A former director of criminal justice under former New York governor George Pataki, Shechtman represented the current Chadbourne & Parke counsel several years ago in a dispute with the state senate and assembly over budgetary powers.

Shortly after joining Zuckerman last fall, Shechtman landed a major assignment when he was hired by Liu amid a federal investigation into the latter's campaign fund-raising practices. (Despite criminal charges being filed against his former campaign treasurer—a development seen as possibly dashing his hopes for a mayoral run in 2013—Liu continues to raise money for a potential bid.)

Amit Mehta, another D.C.–based Zuckerman lawyer who was promoted to partner in 2010, is part of a team from the firm that is representing Strauss-Kahn in civil litigation in New York state court after getting criminal sexual assault charges against the French politician and lawyer dropped last August.

Strauss-Kahn is currently enmeshed in a lawsuit brought by his accuser in the criminal case, a former hotel housekeeper, which his Zuckerman lawyers sought to have dismissed last weekThe National Law Journal, a sibling publication, acknowledged Mehta's efforts on Strauss-Kahn's behalf by naming him one of its 40 Under 40 top minority lawyers last year.

Now, Zuckerman finds itself at the heart of New York power politics. In the redistricting dispute, the firm is up against lawyers from New York litigation boutique Cuti Hecker Wang, which is representing Democrats leaders fronted by state Senator Martin Malave Dilan of Brooklyn.

The state court litigation is unrelated to a federal suit filed by a group of New York community leaders last November against Cuomo and state legislative leaders. (Shechtman says the primary difference between the two suits is that the federal litigation is not concerned with the issue of an additional state senate seat.) Court documents related to the federal case—in which the plaintiffs are represented by Willkie Farr & Gallagher—show that several Am Law 100 firms have had roles in the redistricting row.

Perkins Coie and Kaye Scholer have been advising groups of voters that intervened in the litigation, while Jones Day and New York's Lewis & Fiore have been representing state senate Republican leader Dean Skelos. The suit effectively ended in March when a three-judge federal panel approved a plan to redraw New York's congressional districts based on the 2010 census results, resolving the legislative impasse.

New York is just one of the states whose efforts to redraw legislative maps in line with the results of the federal government's 2010 census have stirred controversy. The Am Law Daily reported last summer on the spate of redistricting suits heating up across the country—litigation that has yielded assignments for many firms, though not all of them handle the work pro bono—as Zuckerman is doing in New York.

The Am Law Daily reported last week on a ruling by a three-judge federal panel in Maine slashing the fees earned by plaintiffs' lawyers from Baker & Hostetler from roughly $150,000 to $70,400 in a redistricting dispute in that state. Meanwhile, Chicago-based Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott and Washington, D.C.'s Bancroft have racked up more than $771,000 in fees for a redistricting fight in Texas, according to the Houston Chronicle.

In Florida, despite already spending $1.2 million on redistricting-related legal fees, state senate Republicans this week hired White & Case partner Raoul Cantero, the head of the firm's Miami appellate practice, at a cost of $695 an hour to push through a new state redistricting plan, according to The Miami Herald.

As for Zuckerman, Shechtman says the redistricting imbroglio will proceed to answering filings and heading toward briefing. He admits that the past few months have been a whirlwind at his new home, but says he's too busy to be tired.

To accommodate its growing New York operation, Zuckerman more than tripled the size of its office space in the city earlier this year by moving to 1185 Avenue of the Americasaccording to sibling publication the New York Law Journal. The 90-lawyer firm has about ten lawyers in New York and plans to add more, Shechtman says, noting that his new colleague Cohen is quite the "expansionist."

Photo: Albany's Empire State Plaza, Wikimedia Commons

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