The Talent

November 18, 2008 12:42 PM

New Book Reveals Secrets to Joe Flom's Success

Posted by Francesca Heintz

Gladwellsmaller_3 Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, examines what makes successful people successful by looking at the circumstances of their lives and by highlighting certain factors in their backgrounds. Gladwell, whose two previous books, The Tipping Point and Blink, have been best-sellers, writes that these "outliers" are "the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies." The book, which hits stores on Tuesday, backs up this theory with a variety of examples and includes a chapter on The Am Law Daily's favorite topic: lawyers. Titled  "The Three Lessons of Joe Flom," the chapter identifies three traits that defined Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom name partner Joseph Flom and others like him, including the four founding partners of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, & Katz. The first is the importance of being Jewish, the second is being born during the Great Depression, and the third is having parents or grandparents that worked in the garment industry.

The Am Law Daily caught up with Gladwell to discuss the book, his thoughts about Joe Flom, and whether this economic downturn may breed a new generation of rough and tumble lawyers.

How did you decide to use a group of Jewish lawyers born in the 1930s in New York as examples of how success is determined by personal circumstances?
I had a good friend whose father was a member of that generation and she would tell me stories of her father's upbringing. I would ask about her father's law partners and I was constantly struck that I kept hearing the same story over and over again.

When you were researching this, did you come across people who had studied this before?
In terms of the particular advantages that accrued to Jewish law firms because they were discriminated against, that idea has been explored very brilliantly by [University of Denver law professor] Eli Wald. He wrote a really brilliant law review article looking at that specific part of it.

One of the central figures of the chapter is Skadden's Joe Flom, a legendary figure in the legal world. What were your first impressions of him?
You get a sense of his charisma. What's interesting about writing this book about extraordinary people is when you meet them it feels different. Same with Joe. He's not ordinary in any sense--you're struck by the force of his personality and his charisma.

Had you heard about Joe Flom or any of these lawyers before? How did you come across them?
I read this really great book written about Skadden by Lincoln Caplan that was very useful, but mostly it was asking around. It's not hard to find lawyers from this particular background. Of all the tasks in the book, finding Jewish lawyers in their 70s that grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn and whose parents were in the garment industry is incredibly easy.

Did Flom and the others buy your theory of their success?
I remember one of the name partners at Wachtell saying to me that the fact that he couldn't get a job at a fancy law firm coming out of NYU was the best thing that ever happened to him, even though it didn't seem so at the time. And Joe Flom said the same thing, what seemed to be a denial of a great opportunity was actually their break and made their success possible. There are many American CEO's who I think are delusional about why they are where they are, but I didn't get that at all from this group.

In your book, you juxtapose the hard-scrabble, proxy-fighting Skadden with the white-shoe, WASP-y Cravath, and you talked to partners at both. Did you see striking differences in the two firms, even today?
What I'm describing is more of a historical observation than a contemporary one. I would have loved to have done these interviews in the 1960s and early 1970s, it would have been fascinating.

You attribute one aspect of these lawyers' success to demographic luck, being born as part of a smaller generation when New York City public schools were at their best. Can this be replicated? In this economic downturn, will we see a generation that benefits from these situations?
One of the interesting things about this is that none of these things that happened to those lawyers that made them who they are seemed at the time to be an advantage. Their parents would certainly not have said during the Depression that the Depression was good for their kids. Their grandparents would not have thought that working in the garment industry was in retrospect the best possible thing they could have done. One of the themes of the book is that success often has serendipitous routes and there is no simple formula you can follow.

Did any of the lawyers you interviewed tell you any interesting anecdotes that didn't make it into the book?
There was a lot more about what happened in the Depression. There was a very, very large community of Jewish lawyers during the Depression, solo practitioners who were wiped out. Eli Wald said something that was really interesting, he said that what you understand when you look at the full history of the Jewish lawyer in New York is how long it took. This was not an overnight success story. That really is the sense you get when you investigate this stuff, the number of years it takes for a group to overcome disadvantage is enormous.

Have you gotten any feedback from Joe Flom or any of the others?
No, not yet. I’m curious to hear. What always happens which is both wonderful and heartbreaking is that you write something and then you hear from all the people you missed and invariably they have even better stories.

Outliers, Little Brown, November 2008

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