Ira Millstein (David Handschuh/NYLJ)
To me personally, Ira Millstein is a law partner, a mentor and a very close friend.
When I first started at Weil, Gotshal & Manges as an associate in 1984, I knew Ira as one of the managing partners of the firm and as a nationally recognized antitrust lawyer, among whose clients was General Motors. Our working relationship started when I was an associate working on many matters for the General Motors Pension Plan. From that point forward, we worked together and established a bond that has gone way beyond professional colleagues.
And here we are, more than 30 years later, and Ira has completely changed how companies are run. Called a “governance guru,” “statesman” and “boardroom crusader,” he has championed governance reform and transformed the relationship between companies’ boards and their shareholders and management. Because of Ira, directors are more aware of their role and responsibilities to serve the best interests of the company as a whole.
Back in 1984 when I joined Weil, not only was it unheard of for directors to meet with each other separately outside the boardroom without management present, but it was deemed treason. Directors thought it was their job to support the CEO. The tides shifted in 1992 when General Motors’ directors revolted—under the counsel of Ira—after years of being kept in the dark while their company struggled. A year later, Ira advised the GM board in drafting and issuing its groundbreaking “Board Guidelines on Significant Corporate Governance Issues.” The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), a vocal proponent of the guidelines, distributed them to the boards of the 300 largest companies in its portfolio, asking for and grading responses. The GM Guidelines forever changed corporate governance. Companies and organizations started creating and publishing their own guidelines and codes of best practice, while also turning to Ira for counsel.
But Ira has not just had a profound impact as a lawyer, he has also made a significant impact as an academic, author and philanthropist. Just last year, as he celebrated his 90th birthday, he published a new book, “The Activist Director: Lessons From the Boardroom and the Future of the Corporation,” which has received praise from Michael Bloomberg, Sanford Weill, Joseph Perella and others. Ira is also founding chair of the Ira M. Millstein Center for Global Markets and Corporate Ownership at Columbia Law School, and thousands of students have had the privilege of being taught by him over the years.
A lifelong New Yorker, Ira has also played a pivotal role in the revitalization of Central Park as both a life trustee and former chairman of the board of the Central Park Conservancy. Twice recipient of the Frederick Law Olmsted Award, Ira, most recently, helped create and now chairs the Central Park Conservancy Institute for Urban Parks. The Institute teaches park users and managers to care for urban parks everywhere. He has long served as a member of the Board and co-chair of the Governance Committee of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
As the current Executive Partner at Weil, I’ve had the best leadership role model in Ira. When Ira joined the firm in 1951, after spending two years at the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., Weil had only about a dozen lawyers. Since then, Weil has grown to approximately 1,100 lawyers with offices on three continents around the world. Ira, along with a handful of other partners, led Weil into becoming the full-service international corporate law firm it is today. Ira’s leadership played a key role of instilling Weil with its unique culture of entrepreneurship, teamwork, camaraderie and the commitment to the greater community that remains today.
Like so many others, I am proud to call Ira a mentor, but I am even more proud, and consider myself fortunate, to also be able to call him a friend. It’s truly hard to imagine a more deserving recipient of a lifetime achievement award in the legal profession. With his brilliance, charisma, generosity and magnetism, Ira has left an indelible mark on the legal field, the Weil community and so many others.