Marc Kasowitz addresses the media on June 8 following the congressional testimony of former FBI Director James Comey (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Marc Kasowitz, the founding partner and benevolent dictator of Kasowitz Benson Torres, has his hands full.
Just in the last week he’s made national and international headlines for lashing out at former FBI director James Comey at the National Press Club and reportedly claiming credit for the firing of former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. All the while, he has been privately counseling Present Donald Trump through the 24/7 news cycle and expanding his influence within the White House.
Representing the president amid investigations into his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia is the hard-charging litigator’s most high-profile case.
But at a time when his New York law firm’s head count and revenue are declining, Kasowitz’s career-defining undertaking in Washington, D.C., has raised questions about the trajectory of his business. How will such a demanding, controversial representation affect the litigation powerhouse in the long run? It has raised the firm’s profile, but could it turn off potential recruits and lead to further downsizing? And more broadly: What’s the endgame for a law firm when the lead rainmaker is out of the picture?
Few firms in the Am Law 200 have first-generation partners still running their firms. “Transitioning from a first-generation partnership to second generation is probably the hardest thing any firm does,” said legal management consultant Peter Zeughauser, speaking generally on succession planning. “And only a small number of firms make it when they have a single dominant partner.”
As managing partner of a large firm, Kasowitz, 64, stands out for his close involvement in his firm’s operations, including many of its most high-profile cases. He’s not just a rainmaker who steps back after cases are brought in, said one attorney keenly familiar with the firm.
“He’s going to be involved in anything important,” the attorney said. “Even though it’s a partnership, it’s his firm and he’s the leader.”
“How long can this firm last beyond Marc? … Most people feel it would break apart,” the lawyer said.
Kasowitz and others at the firm did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article. Several lawyers familiar with Kasowitz and his firm spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of Kasowitz’s role.
Trump and Kasowitz
Trump surprised Washington insiders when he turned to Kasowitz, who is known mostly for his commercial litigation experience. But Kasowitz and Trump are alike in many ways, attorneys noted.
Kasowitz, who has represented Trump for more than 15 years in other litigation, has a “very dynamic personality,” one lawyer said. “Marc tells it like it is and he can be real about things.”
While Trump is the more obvious showman, one attorney noted, both men built their businesses as hands-on, autocratic leaders—with their own names and reputations central to their brands.
“Marc has got that combination of being really smart and knowing the law but also street smarts too,” the lawyer said. “He’s not one of those guys locked away in an ivory tower.”
Kasowitz is also close enough to tell Trump what options are not available. “Trump will do what he wants. Marc has the relationship to say, ‘That’s crazy,’” one attorney said. While Kasowitz represented Trump last year in threatening to sue The New York Times for libel—in what many viewed as a groundless claim—nothing landed in court. “It was more public relations, appearances,” another lawyer said.
Kasowitz Benson is known for its civil work, but it includes some attorneys with government experience, including former federal prosecutors Edward McNally, Mark Ressler and Daniel Fetterman, and former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman. And some said they wouldn’t be surprised if Kasowitz hires more to staff the Trump case. “He knows what he doesn’t know,” one said.
Kasowitz’s firm, founded in 1993, had already planned to expand its Washington office, according to three people familiar with the firm’s strategy, including two recruiters in D.C. Besides the Trump legal team, the office formally has three resident lawyers—an associate, a special counsel and a counsel. It is led by counsel Clarine Nardi Riddle, the firm’s government affairs department co-leader and a former chief of staff to Lieberman, who works for the firm out of New York.
Nardi Riddle refused to say this month whether the firm was actively working to add lawyers in the capital. “I’m in the middle of a huge hot potato,” she said. “Right now I can’t take the time. Could you come back to me in a year? Or let’s do six months. “
Recruiting and Retention
Even before the Russia probe, the firm’s longstanding ties to Trump were solidified when Trump picked name partner David Friedman—a longtime Trump lawyer in bankruptcy matters—as U.S. ambassador to Israel.
One Manhattan recruiter said he believed the latest Trump representation would make recruiting for Kasowitz’s law firm more difficult.
Partly that’s because of Trump’s politics. But unpredictability is a factor too.
Trump might eventually turn on his own lawyers, the recruiter noted. Kasowitz’s work is subjecting him to intense scrutiny that could make him vulnerable to a change of heart by the president. On Tuesday, for example, ProPublica cited unnamed sources to report that Kasowitz had boasted he was behind the president’s decision to fire Bharara, a well-respected federal prosecutor.
Kasowitz’s law firm has already been hit with a series of partner departures in 2017, on top of partner group exits in recent years, including in its matrimonial, insurance recovery and employment practices.
Most recently, two well-known partners at Kasowitz Benson, Christopher Johnson and Zachary Mazin, left for McKool Smith, joining an insurance recovery group that left the firm last year.
Johnson and Mazin both gave small contributions this year to ActBlue, a major PAC for Democrats. (Johnson declined to comment on his contribution and firm exit, while Mazin did not return calls for comment.)
Campaign finance records, meanwhile, show name partners Kasowitz and Benson have each contributed to GOP causes and candidates.
One attorney said Kasowitz himself is not shy about voicing his conservative political opinions at the office, including in occasional breakfasts with associates and partners.
“It would get tense at times,” the attorney said, “but it was always civil, and nobody left thinking, ‘I can’t work for this guy.’”
The attorney was doubtful that Kasowitz’s work for Trump would drive partners to leave. “During the most contentious parts of [Trump's] candidacy, when he was boasting about molesting women, everyone knew [the firm was] representing him,” the attorney noted.
The firm was already shrinking. After two rounds of layoffs in 2014 and 2015 and a spate of partner moves, the firm’s attorney head count has dropped by about 100 lawyers, from 372 in 2013 to 264 last year, according to affiliate National Law Journal figures.
“The layoffs were a morale killer,” one attorney noted, leading other lawyers to leave on their own. “There was a second wave of people who thought, ‘I don’t want to be part of the next one.’”
Since then morale has recovered, the attorney said, and business had picked up.
Still, after revenue hit a high mark in 2014, the firm’s gross revenue has declined the past two years, falling by about 7.4 percent to $217 million last year, according to affiliate The American Lawyer. Amid the departures, profits per partner inched up by less than 1 percent to $1.86 million.
Day to Day
Some attorneys said Kasowitz’s absences from New York and his attention to Trump matters were bound to be disruptive. “He won’t be able to argue other cases as freely as he did,” one attorney said.
Kasowitz himself is litigating many of the firm’s biggest cases, including defending AMC Networks Inc. in a profit-sharing suit launched against the network by a creator of the hit series “The Walking Dead.” And as multiple media outlets have reported, he is defending Sberbank, Russia’s largest state-owned bank, in a new lawsuit in Manhattan federal court alleging it conspired with others to eliminate and raid a large granite producer.
But while Kasowitz works on nearly all the matters he brings in, many attorneys close to the firm doubted that client cases would suffer. Kasowitz has always been adept at juggling high-stakes client matters, they said, and he can lean on his lieutenants and senior partners. “He’s a good delegator,” said one attorney.
“There are many senior partners who are working a case with Marc,” said another.
Name partner Daniel Benson has always been “Marc’s right-hand man,” and partner Aaron Marks is “always the guy running the day-to-day operations,” said one attorney.
Another marveled at how Kasowitz would know every detail of a client’s case even if he hadn’t been working on it closely, and could quickly brief a client in a phone call.
When it comes to litigation, said one: “He just loves it. And he’s very good at it.”
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