Criminal defense veteran Gerald Shargel is now a litigation partner at Winston & Strawn, a 900-lawyer firm representing Wall Street banks and large corporations.
His move to a corporate environment reflects the growing interest of large firms to expand white-collar criminal defense practices and bolster the ranks of lawyers with defense trial experience, several practitioners said.
"It’s a pretty novel move by Winston & Strawn," said Richard Holwell, a former Southern District judge who is now a partner at Holwell Shuster & Goldberg.
Even though Shargel has done a lot of white-collar crime over the years, "his reputation is for criminal defense work for clients you wouldn’t ordinarily consider clients of Winston & Strawn," said Holwell.
Shargel has closed his solo office and said his clients are moving with him to Winston, along with three associates and a paralegal.
Shargel, who graduated from Brooklyn Law School and has run his own firm for about 37 years, said Monday that he had been thinking about joining a larger firm and had been in serious talks with several.
Among the many high-profile clients he has represented are the late Gambino crime boss John Gotti; Marc Dreier, the disgraced former attorney who led the 250-attorney Dreier firm; and Malcolm Smith, the Democratic state senator recently arrested in an alleged bribery scheme.
"I’ve been doing the same thing for a very long time. I was looking for new challenges. Criminal law is still in my DNA," said Shargel, 68. "I see myself first and foremost as a criminal defense lawyer but I wanted to expand my horizons. The idea of being able to work on new matters is stimulating. I hope to be trying civil cases, but I’m certainly not abandoning or diminishing my criminal defense practice."
Shargel said he rarely took up civil litigation matters in his own practice because his firm did not have the capability.
"This opportunity seemed like a perfect fit," he added.
Shargel said he was impressed with Chicago-based Winston & Strawn and its chairman, Dan Webb, a former U.S. attorney who has tried more than 100 cases before juries.
One of the things that attracted him to Winston, he said, "is that they have flexibility, a collection of rough and ready trial lawyers. They’re open to considering a broad variety of cases."
Shargel said people who have referred cases to him saw him as a "kind of a one-trick pony…I’d like people to think of me as having a broader base."
Also, he said, the move "allows me to only focus on my cases and not have any pressure or burden of running a practice."
Shargel added that he will continue teaching at Brooklyn Law.
Michael Elkin, the managing partner of Winston’s New York office, said he expects Shargel will represent clients facing government prosecution and investigation. Elkin said the firm also "intends to embed him in civil matters" and harness "his experience, reputation and superb trial lawyering."
Elkin added, "It is rare that one is able to bring on board someone who is legendary and as accomplished as Jerry Shargel. Regardless of whether his current practice is consonant with the kind of matters our clients currently face, the ability to use and extend his talents…is just an extra feature and benefit" for Winston.
Though several of Shargel’s colleagues expressed surprise at the move, they said it made sense for both the firm and Shargel.
Holwell said lawyers who move to large firms "no longer have the responsibility for paying the rent and doing the hiring and the firing and sending out the bills." He noted that Shargel will have hundreds of lawyers around him for litigation support.
"It’s a brilliant move because he’s such a great trial lawyer," Holwell said.
Benjamin Brafman, a criminal defense attorney who has known Shargel for about 35 years, said the two have discussed being approached by large firms.
"In years past, he has rejected those overtures," Brafman said. "Both of us thought it was a good idea but we always valued our independence."
But "Jerry made a good decision," Brafman added. "I am delighted for him and delighted for Winston & Strawn. He gets to practice law without the burden of running a firm, and they are very talented trial lawyers. It’s win-win for both."
"People have a misperception of guys like him and guys like me. The occasional high-profile case gets a lot of publicity but most of our work is in the white-collar arena," Brafman said. There are cases that you do not get considered for, he said, " because people perceive you do not have a sufficient support system."
Brafman added that the profession is witnessing the willingness of corporate firms to "embrace" white-collar work either for institutional clients or as an attempt to attract that type of work.
Large corporate firms, said Scott Mollen, a Herrick, Feinstein partner who has worked with both Winston and Shargel over the years, "have developed extensive white-collar criminal law practices and they’ve recognized that in many cases it’s the practitioners from the smaller firms who have in-depth actual trial experience on the defense side."
Mollen added, "The Gerald Shargels are able to say that they truly have defense trial experience when most criminal cases today are resolved by plea deals, given heavy sentence guidelines and greater availability of incriminating evidence through electronic surveillance."
Nicholas Gravante Jr., administrative partner of Boies Schiller & Flexner’s New York City office who has worked with Shargel, said he understood the desire to let go of the administrative burden of running one’s own firm.
Gravante also noted that Shargel’s practice has shifted from organized crime cases to more white-collar work, and, "I think the benefit far outweighs any detriment that might be perceived from the few non white-collar cases."
Winston & Strawn’s gross revenue rose 0.1 percent to $755 million in 2012, according to The American Lawyer. The firm’s profits per partner increased 3.5 percent, to $1.49 million from 2011, and its revenue per lawyer increased by nearly 10 percent, to $895,000. Meanwhile, the firm trimmed its overall headcount by nearly 10 percent in 2012.