Gerald Shargel, whose clients ranged from mobster John Gotti to former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, is retiring from the partnership at Winston & Strawn and leaving the practice of law at the end of this month.
“I’ve tried many, many high-profile cases. I loved trying the high-profile cases, but I don’t need to try any more of them,” he said in an interview. “I don’t need to and I don’t want to. They’re a tremendous amount of work, and to say that I’m somewhat burnt out would be fair.”
Shargel, 73, is part of a wave of retirements hitting large firms as the baby boomer generation of lawyers continues a slow-moving exit from active practice. In the next five years, 14 percent of partners at large firms will retire, and 34 percent within the next decade, according to a Major, Lindsey & Africa survey in 2016.
Among them, Shargel stands out for the prominent cases he’s handled over a long career. Described in a New Yorker profile as “quite possibly the finest of his generation,” Shargel has represented mobsters such as Gotti and Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano; politicians such as Malcolm Smith and Kane; lawyers such as convicted law firm founder Marc Dreier; and celebrities such as Amanda Bynes.
It’s uncommon for a lawyer of Shargel’s stature to leave the law so abruptly and completely, and not at least consult on cases after withdrawing from daily practice.
Indeed, the age range of senior lawyers in full-time practice and the span of time in which they phase out their practices are both increasing, said Altman Weil law firm consultant Alan Olson. “Some lawyers retire early, but we are seeing that more seniors are practicing into their late 60s and 70s. Sometimes they are working full-time and full-go, but more often, they are extending the length of the phase-down period,” he said.
“What I’m doing is somewhat unusual,” Shargel acknowledged, adding: “Many lawyers don’t retire period, they still have their guns until the time of death, and I don’t want that to be me.”
‘A Young Man’s Game’
While some health-related issues are factors in his retirement, Shargel declined to discuss them in detail and said he remains physically active. He wants to spend time with family and his grandchildren, he said, and he looks forward to enjoying certain activities and projects in retirement.
“Trial work is a young man’s game,” said Shargel, who has tried more than 130 cases. “I could feel that my skill set is not the same skill set that I had when I was 60 years old.”
He recalled that in 1977, when he was in his 30s, he represented a doctor accused of Medicaid fraud and charged with 133 counts in the Bronx. Shargel said he tried the case alone, with no paralegals and no second chair. “The jury comes back and acquits the doctor of every one of the 133 counts,” he said. “Would I be able to do that today? No, I don’t think so.”
But there are prominent exceptions of lawyers who excel well into retirement age, Shargel said, pointing to U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein of Eastern District of New York, at age 96. “He is as clear as a bell. Every sentence is perfectly formed and the subject and verb perfectly agree.”
Shargel led his own law firm for most of his legal career, while jumpstarting the careers of several New York lawyers who joined his firm, noted Winston partner Ross Kramer, who has practiced with Shargel for 12 years. Shargel’s associates over the years have included Judd Burstein, Sarita Kedia, Henry Mazurek, Alan Futerfas, Nicholas Gravante Jr. and Jeffrey Lichtman.
Young lawyers flocked to his trials, several lawyers said. “Going to see a closing argument was like going to a concert you couldn’t get to a ticket to,” said Joshua Dubin, a trial consultant who has worked with Shargel for about 15 years. “The jury would literally sit on the edge of their seat” during a Shargel close.
For a lawyer known for his representation of organized crime figures, his move in 2013 to an old-line Chicago corporate law firm, Winston & Strawn, drew headlines. But Shargel has regularly represented defendants in white-collar defense cases, from Dreier to Murray Huberfeld, founder of shuttered hedge fund Platinum Partners.
“Jerry Shargel in many ways brought the skills and tenacity of a street-fighting lawyer to the white-collar bar,” said Marc Mukasey, a former federal prosecutor and a Greenberg Traurig shareholder. “He put the skills that you use in a blue-collar case and brought them to a white-collar case.”
After his move to Winston, Shargel continued to take on intense criminal defense trials, while at the same time becoming more selective on the cases and turning away some matters, he said.
Shargel, working with several other defense attorneys at Winston, represented Kane in the lead-up to trial and at trial. Kane was ultimately convicted in 2016 of perjury and related charges. Also at Winston, Shargel and associates at the firm represented Ulster County dentist Gilberto Nunez accused of killing his lover’s husband. Nunez was acquitted of murder but ultimately convicted of other charges.
“They came to us because of Jerry,” Seth Farber, co-chair of Winston’s white-collar defense and investigations practice, said of the Nunez and Kane matters. Shargel “gave us a somewhat broader capability,” he said.
Farber and Michael Elkin, Winston vice chairman, said Shargel, a longtime teacher at Brooklyn Law School, embraced serving as a mentor to younger firm lawyers while also collaborating with other firm partners, allowing them to take on coveted trial roles and responsibility. Winston will recognize his career at a retirement party Thursday, with more than 150 people expected, including top litigators and current and former judges.
During retirement, Shargel said he has “certain projects that I’m seriously thinking about” and he is considering writing a book. “I always wanted a horizontal space between retirement and whenever it is I leave this Earth,” Shargel said, where “I could be active and still involved and enjoy that easy time.”
“I want a simpler life,” he said. “I can go to the movies and I can read books that I’ve always wanted to read and I can have lunch with friends.”
Shargel, grandfather to six, said he’s also thinking about moving to California to be closer to family. His children include David Shargel, currently a partner at Bracewell, and Johanna Shargel, a former Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld lawyer who has represented indigent defendants at a public interest law group in California.
On advice he would give to lawyers nearing the end of their careers, Shargel said, “Retirement is important, it’s healthy, it’s the stage of life that should not be ignored.”