Joe Plumeri is the kind of guy who can make you believe anything is possible.
And why not?
The grandson of Sicilian immigrants, he was infused before his first breath with a belief in the power of hard work and reaching for the stars. His grandfather was legendary in Trenton, N.J., for wooing Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to play a game just three days after winning the 1927 World Series for the Yankees.
After a stint in the Army, Plumeri found his first professional job in a closet on Broad Street. From there, he became a corporate titan with a raft of titles: President of Shearson Lehman Brothers; Citibank North America; and Willis, to name a few.
He’s legendary for his ability to inspire – which is why he brought down the house at Carnegie Hall in May, when he gave the commencement speech for New York Law School’s graduates. His speech was exceptional because he is so gifted and passionate, but also because of the audience of several hundred new lawyers he was launching into choppy waters.
“Go play in traffic,” he advised them, encouraging them to take risks and find their way in the world. And he told the story of how he got his start in business. In 1968, he enrolled in NYLS to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer. Because he also needed to work, he went knocking on doors downtown hoping to clerk for a law firm.
So when he found one that had three names and an ampersand, he figured, what luck! One of the partners interviewed him and asked why he wanted to work there, and when Plumeri said to get some practical experience in the law, Sanford Weill explained that Carter, Berlind & Weill was a brokerage. Plumeri left law school and became a huge business success – proof that you never know where life will take you.
So at graduation 47 years later, as he watched the students – each a story of perseverance – cross the stage to accept their diplomas, Plumeri was inspired.
“These were first generation lawyers, a person raising a child while going to law school holding their children as they went across the stage,” he said. “It was inspiring, motivating and it made me feel good about what the school was doing, seeing the diversity and the opportunity it gave people.”
The experience inspired Plumeri to establish The Joseph Plumeri Center for Social Justice and Economic Opportunity with a $5M gift to NYLS from Joseph and Susan Plumeri. The Center will provide opportunities to law students and clients who need legal advice as entrepreneurs, veterans, immigrants and for civil rights issues.
“A large reason for whatever has happened to me in my life I owe to New York Law School,” says Plumeri, who became reacquainted with NYLS earlier this year after meeting Dean Anthony W. Crowell. When Plumeri visited NYLS, he wanted to support the school’s efforts to build its practical training program.
“My grandfather and great-grandfather were immigrants who came for an opportunity, not a handout,” says Plumeri. “I want to make sure everybody has the opportunity to be able to live the American dream. This is my way of doing that.”
The Plumeri Center will be the home of NYLS’s law firm, with street-level access for clients who can receive free legal services. It will house more than 20 legal clinics from the school and offer trial practice facilities. The donation is one of the largest in NYLS history and one of the largest ever to a law school to enhance experiential learning.
“NYLS is immensely grateful to Joe and Susan Plumeri. Their generous and visionary gift will allow NYLS to fully realize the experiential learning model of a modern legal education, ensuring students have the practical training and knowledge to effectively represent a wide range of client needs,” said Crowell. “Joe is someone who firmly believes that you learn best by doing. For law students, the experience of being lawyers—whether counseling a client on business development issues or making a presentation to a public interest law organization—can be a powerful way to learn.”
Arthur Abbey, Chair of the NYLS Board of Trustees, said, “We are touched by Joe’s genuine commitment to creating opportunities for law students to serve New York’s many communities in need of free legal services. We hope to continue to offer services that distinguish us from other law schools and serve the broadest constituency possible, in the most diverse and inclusive city in the world.”
Lawyers who have represented Plumeri say the students at the clinic are in for a great experience. Samuel ‘Skip’ Keesal of Long Beach’s Keesal, Young & Logan has represented Plumeri in securities arbitrations for more than 30 years. As a client, Plumeri is always passionate and principled, he says, understanding both the business and legal matrix of the issue at hand. “Joe has such a great mind,” says Keesal. “And he brings tremendous experience and heart to any project. This law center is a wonderful gift.”
“He’s a force of nature,” says Adam Rosman, general counsel of FirstData Corp., where Plumeri is currently vice chairman. “He has a vision as a business leader, a philanthropist and as a human being that’s unique.”
Rosman has advised Plumeri since 2009, and says it’s passion that drives his leadership style and his strategic and tactical thinking. “That’s not something you think easily translates to the general counsel’s office – you have to be calm and collected and reasonable.
“But what he taught me is you can be both,” says Rosman. “It changed my view of the job. I am really passionate about what I do and it’s because of him.”
No one is better, according to Keesal and Rosman, at pairing legal intricacy with business wherewithal – a difficult balance for corporate executives. Rosman recalls working on quarterly earnings announcements with Plumeri, where you need to balance talking honestly about results with being as positive as you can. “He is a master at that,” says Rosman. “I was the lawyer, I’m supposed to be Mr. Thorough and he would be the most thorough of any of us. We would literally be on version 15 of a press release because he wanted every word to be perfect and strike the balance of telling the truth and telling the company story in a compelling way.”
When he heard about the gift, Rosman thought, classic Joe Plumeri. “He finds something that he likes and not only brings a lot to the table, he brings the table.”
Part of what is “beautiful” about the gift is how big it is. He could have started small, says Rosman, “but that’s not Joe. He’s all in right from the beginning. He didn’t start with just business entrepreneurs or criminal defense. It’s a full suite of opportunities for students who might not otherwise have them.”
Plumeri hopes the Center is the beginning of something big that can change access to justice on both the lawyer and the client side. “I view this as not a one-time commitment,” he says. “Hopefully it does so well the commitment is ongoing. And if all that works, it will help build the economy of New York City, and build jobs. That’s my dream.”
When Plumeri comes to visit, he wants to see a busy place. Dean Crowell knows the students are excited about what the future holds and to help meet the tremendous legal need in New York City.”The new Center allows us to do our part,” Crowell says.
“I want the students to say to me this has been so wonderful I had the opportunity to practice real law with real people, that gave me experience as I go into law, and a compass to guide me as to what law I want to go into,” Plumeri says. “I would be ecstatic if a veteran said without NYLS and being able to seek legal advice without having to pay for it, I wouldn’t be able to open a business and pursue the American dream I fought for in battle.
“I am so grateful to this country for giving my grandfather and great grandfather the opportunity to be able to seek the American dream. They passed that opportunity on to me. And what I’m trying to create is to pass that on to other people – students, to educate and train them better, and to clients who can’t afford it. So they can all have their shot at the American dream.”