Robert Sheehan (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
In trips across the U.S. and to Canada with the Pro Bono Institute, Robert Sheehan preached the virtues of legal volunteerism, sharing the wisdom that pro bono work was good not only for the public, but also for business.
His career with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom reads as a testament to the symbiotic relationship between doing good and doing well.
He joined Skadden in 1969 when the firm had only 29 attorneys. During the next decade, Sheehan founded the firm’s financial institutions merger and acquisition group, a demanding practice.
“I had a lot of fun doing contested and friendly takeovers and defenses, and built a nice practice here. I really enjoyed the deals. And then they tapped me on the shoulder,” said Sheehan, 71.
He was tapped to be executive partner in 1994. The firm wanted that position to be full-time, precluding Sheehan from handling cases, so Sheehan tried pro bono work. He partnered with the Pro Bono Institute and its pioneering founder, Esther Lardent, who became an important influence. Lardent died in April.
Under Sheehan’s leadership pro-bono participation by Skadden lawyers grew. He also reached out to other pro bono organizations, joining the boards of such groups as the Volunteers of Legal Service and Brooklyn Legal Services, as well as becoming a member of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.
All the time, Sheehan presided over continued growth at Skadden; the firm more than doubled in size, revenue more than tripled and it expanded its international presence.
After leaving the firm’s top job in 2009, Sheehan was appointed to head Skadden’s pro bono work. Under the influence of a Skadden colleague, the late Steven Kolleeny, Sheehan became involved in political asylum cases.
“You had better not lose,” he said. “You can’t accuse a government of torturing your client and then proceed to lose and see him deported back to that country.”
Among the successful cases that stand out for him is that of a Croatian journalist whose investigative work exposing the financial misdeeds of that nation’s leader resulted in a series of death threats. The last one before he fled was the explosion of a car mistaken for that of his girlfriend’s, which detonated in front of her apartment building. Sheehan also won asylum for Tibetan monks who refused to denounce the Dalai Lama.
In addition to pro bono work at the firm, Sheehan served on the task force to expand access to civil legal services in New York created by then-Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman as part of his effort to improve the availability of civil legal representation to low-income New Yorkers.
Sheehan traces his interest in public affairs to his politically active parents. He majored in economics at Boston College and became active in opposition to the Vietnam War, which was then sweeping the nation’s college campuses. Deciding he didn’t want an economics career, Sheehan followed his father’s advice and considered law school.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and an initial stint with Skadden, Sheehan took a job in Washington, D.C. in 1973. He went to work for Brooklyn Democratic Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, a member of the House Judiciary Committee investigating the Nixon Administration following the Watergate break-in. He did research on constitutional law centered on impeachment.
Returning to Skadden, Sheehan was introduced to mergers and acquisitions involving financial institutions. In 1978, he worked with the financially ailing Marine Midland Bank. In an amicable deal, HSBC took 51 percent ownership in 1979 before taking full ownership in 1987.
It was complex work, involving state and federal regulations. And political, too. Marine Midland initially was able to circumvent opposition by major New York banks, by changing its bank subsidiaries from state-chartered to national banks. The big banks then responded with successful legislation that the Marine Midland team believed would have doomed the HSBC deal. Gov. Hugh Carey, however, immediately vetoed the bill, allowing the deal to proceed.
Financial institutional takeovers, and defenses against them, proved compelling. They filled Sheehan’s days and, sometimes, nights. It was challenging intellectually, he said, “like three dimensional chess,” but with unyielding deadlines and adrenaline-filled all-nighters where teams of attorneys struggled to meet them.
A takeover is a matter of financial life and death for the client facing one. “It’s the most important thing for the CEO since they had their first child,” Sheehan said.
Finally, baseball wasn’t just part of Sheehan’s pro bono work; he also helped restore youth baseball to Upper Manhattan. For nearly 20 years, he served on the board of Harlem RBI, an after-school baseball and softball program that evolved into a charter school. In 2012, He also co-chaired a $20 million fund-raising effort with the goal of expanding the K-4 school through the eighth grade.
Robert Sheehan, 71
Of Counsel, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
Skadden: executive partner, partner, associate; founder, financial institutions group; chairman emeritus, pro bono committee
Board member, Harlem RBI, Dream Charter School
President, The Joseph H. Flom Foundation
Trustee, Skadden Fellowship Foundation
Member: New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice; Chief Judge’s Advisory Council on Attorney Emeritus Program
Advisory board member, Feerick Center for Social Justice at Fordham Law School
Board member, Volunteers of Legal Service, Inc.
Former co-chair, law firm advisory committee, Pro Bono Institute
J.D., University of Pennsylvania Law School, 1969
B.A., Boston College; 1966