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Not long after he got to college, Ira Millstein realized he wasn’t going to make it as a scientist. (“I couldn’t see electricity,” he says, “so I couldn’t believe in it.”) He still managed to make it through with a degree in industrial engineering. That, oddly enough, was the perfect preparation for his legal career. The goal of an industrial engineer is to improve methods of production. While Millstein was uninspired by conveyor belts and automation, he displayed a talent for seeing how the parts of a system should fit to serve the whole. Millstein, 80, now a senior partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, ultimately did make his name improving companies-by focusing on management, not mechanics. While still at Columbia Law School, Millstein became enthralled with antitrust law, which he saw as the main tool for keeping American businesses in check and the economic system running well. There were fewer than 20 lawyers at Weil when he joined in 1951, and he spent the next 40 years building a first-tier antitrust practice. Millstein recognized the importance of having close relationships with clients early. More than just a legal adviser, he aimed to be a trusted confidant and friend. “That’s what I learned from Ira,” says Harvey Miller, a bankruptcy guru whom Millstein recruited to Weil in 1969. “[Your clients'] cares are your cares.” So, when General Motors Corporation, Millstein’s longtime client, faced a leadership crisis in the early 1990s, the board turned to him for help. By successfully guiding GM’s board through the firing of its CEO and the drafting of its first corporate guidelines, he helped launch a new field of practice and established himself as the go-to governance specialist. After GM, Millstein counseled more than 50 other companies on matters ranging from board membership to executive compensation to shareholder rights. He also served dozens of nonprofit, educational, and government institutions, including the Central Park Conservancy, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and the Global Corporate Governance Forum, which promotes sound management worldwide. Millstein is willing to sound urgent, often blunt, calls to action. Last year, when he was asked to speak to the board of the American Red Cross as part of its review of its own practices, he offered a characteristically unvarnished assessment. Millstein says he told the members, “Everyone knows this is a dysfunctional board, and you didn’t do your jobs, and you’re going to have to fix it. If you start to circle the wagons, you aren’t going to get there.” When he got done, he says, “They were slack-jawed. But they took it very seriously.” Ultimately, the board made structural changes that required congressional approval. Millstein maintains a relentless work schedule, seeing firm clients, teaching at the Yale School of Management, and sitting on such high-profile boards as the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation and New York State Commission on Public Authority Reform. “Other people get old,” Millstein says. “I don’t get old.” Back to Main Story

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