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Lawyer Limelight: Nicholas Gravante Jr.

Photo by Dave Cross.

Nicholas Gravante was preparing for a summer party he and his family host each year at their Pennsylvania getaway. He pulled from the shelf his thick black binder that details how many burgers – and other food items –  they served the prior year, and noted that they had a few too many sausages.

Which can be either a silly endearing story, or a clue to the tick-tock that goes on in the head of one of the nation’s biggest rainmakers and respected litigators. Routinely called on by Starr Companies, the Related Group and many Lloyd’s Syndicates for their biggest matters, Gravante’s also known for his relentless networking and community involvement. But at the heart of it all is a meticulous nature that ties down every detail for his clients.

Of late, he’s officially been doing that for Boies Schiller & Flexner, as well. The challenges many firms are facing as storied founders age have not escaped the House of Boies, which continues to be led by its Chair, the one and only Mr. Boies. But we are, after all, mortal. Which led the firm to more officially incorporate four of its leading lights into day-to-day management earlier this year. Among them is Gravante, who has been with the firm nearly since its founding after a legal career hatched at Cravath before becoming a trial lawyer with the legendary criminal defense attorney, Gerald Shargel. After that he joined Barrett Gravante Carpinello & Stern, which merged with Boies Schiller to become its New York City office in. 2000. And he’s never looked back.

Lawdragon: Nick, bring us up to date on what’s been keeping you busy. I know in the past year you’ve added additional management responsibilities at the firm. What brought that about?

Nicholas Gravante: What brought it about was a decision by the firm in October of last year to begin transitioning management of the firm to the next generation of firm leaders. That decision was followed by an election of four Executive Committee members to constitute a Management Committee. I, along with Karen Dunn, Phil Korologos and Damien Marshall, were elected to that committee and we started running the firm by making day-to-day management decisions last January. Overall responsibility for long-term firm management still resides in the Executive Committee, which consists of eleven partners. Fortunately, with David Boies and Jonathan Schiller as part of the Executive Committee, the Management Committee has a wealth of knowledge and experience at its fingertips.

LD: What do you focus on in day-to-day management and how does that work with other members of firm management? Can you tell us about the other leaders and characterize how you all work together?

NG: In some respects we all focus on everything, but the four of us have divided responsibilities so lawyers at the firm know who to turn to in the first instance for certain decisions. I focus more on firm personnel and HR, among other things. I’d say 95% of the decisions I make on a daily basis are no-brainers. For the more difficult decisions, I confer with Karen, Phil and Damien. We are all on the phone together at least once a week and operate through an almost nonstop series of emails and texts throughout the day. I truly enjoy working with them and have gotten to know each really well on a personal level. In addition to being outstanding lawyers, each loves our firm and is committed to taking it to the next level.

LD: And what about you personally? You’ve been a Boies Schiller partner since almost the beginning and among those responsible for its success. What is your view of the three most important issues the firm must focus on to move forward with the success it’s had in the past?

NG: Managing a law firm, even with four of us working together, takes more time than I had imagined. I appreciate now even more than I did previously the great job that David, Jonathan and Don Flexner did over the years. It has been difficult to balance managing a law firm while actively practicing law and I now understand why many firms are run by a non-practicing chairperson. That said, I still believe the wealth of on-the-ground experience the Management Commitee continues to have as practicing lawyers makes us better equipped to handle the challenges associated with running a law firm.

If I had to pick three issues I’d say, first, ensuring that the transition continues to run smoothly, not only for the Management Committee, but also for the rest of the firm. Having first been elected to the Executive Committee and now to the Management Committee, I feel a tremendous sense of obligation to my partners to ensure that we’re successful.

We’ve long been one of the nation’s top litigation firms, but want to be the best. To achieve that we have to adapt to different times, including in the way the firm is run. Transition, by definition, entails change and change is not always easy. Retrenchment – doing fewer things better – and focusing on what got us to where we are my top priorities. I have little interest in growth for growth’s sake. A decade from now I want us to be a firm at which law continues to be practiced at the highest level, a firm that lawyers truly enjoy being part of, and – never forgetting that this is a business – a firm that is very profitable. And if that means we’re a firm of 200 rather than 350 or 500 lawyers, so be it. It’s about achieving the highest level of client service and profitability, not about our number of lawyers or gross revenues.

Promoting women to firm leadership positions also remains one of my top priorities. We’ve got some incredibly talented young women moving up the ranks. They’re not only great lawyers, but also dynamic and personable. I recently took on a pro bono case with four of them based in New York – Karen Chesley, Ilana Miller, Laura Harris and Joanna Wright – in which our female client is challenging the constitutionality of the military draft because it excludes women based on their gender. Now that our society has evolved to the point where women are active members of the military with key roles on the battlefield, we believe there is no basis to prohibit women from registering for the draft. Watching our talented female attorneys work together on this important issue has been the most gratifying part of the case for me. They give me confidence that our firm is going to thrive not only over the next decade, but 20 and 30 years down the road.

LD: Not too long ago, the firm moved to Hudson Yards. What do you think about the West Side and what do you miss on Lexington?

NG: I miss Lexington Avenue and the geographic convenience it offered during the work day, but Hudson Yards is truly spectacular and undoubtedly the most exciting place to work these days. It’s also a quicker commute from my home, which makes my life easier. Sprinkle in a barber shop, a pharmacy, a bank and a few fast food places, and Hudson Yards will have achieved perfection.

LD: What cases are you most focused on right now? Any trials coming up?

NG: I’m running a large matter for Starr Companies, juggling several appeals and handling some important criminal matters right now. White-collar criminal defense work, especially representing individuals and companies embroiled in grand jury and state AG investigations, continues to be a growing part of my practice. My next trial will be in Florida this fall for the Related Group. After that it’s likely to be Hank Greenberg’s defamation case against Eliot Spitzer, where David Boies, Bob Dwyer and I will again join forces and hopefully replicate the success we had at trial defending Hank against the New York Attorney General’s case. I’m going on 15 years representing Hank and no client deserves a victory more than he does in that case.

LD: You are noted for your rainmaking prowess. Has the pressure on rainmakers in general gotten more intense and if so how do you deal with that?

NG: It is intense, but it’s always been intense for those heavily relied on by their firms to generate business. I guess the pressure on me has ratcheted up somewhat now that I’m in my prime, but I deal with it the same way I always have, by continuing to focus on it no matter how busy I am with existing matters and firm management. As I constantly preach to our younger partners, you just can’t ever be too busy to connect on a personal level with your existing clients, your former clients, your former colleagues, and your friends, including those from law school, college, high school and elsewhere who have achieved success in the business world. With a brand like BSF behind you, the more one stays in circulation the more business opportunities will present themselves, often from the most unlikely sources. By contrast, if you’re out of sight you’re out of mind. As my colleagues know, I’m also not one to “pitch” to prospective clients. I’d rather eat, drink or smoke a good cigar with them.

LD: You’ve also made quite a name for yourself as a commentator on an array of white-collar issues including the current President. What guidance would you give lawyers who would like to get those press calls about how to respond?

NG: Handling the press is tricky business, but I’ve always enjoyed the challenges it presents. Like everything else, once you know the ground rules and appreciate that everyone has a job to do, it all comes down to trust. Treat people fairly and they’ll treat you fairly. Watch out for a reporter and they’ll watch out for you. I’ve turned down dozens of cable news invitations over the last few years and just don’t have the time to be a talking head. With clients on all sides of the political spectrum, I’d also inevitably offend some of them, which is never a good idea. I did Court TV several times when I was younger, but it took up way too much time. My advice to young lawyers before they talk to the press is to sit down with a more experienced lawyer and get a quick course on the ABCs. A half hour learning the ropes will substantially minimize any possibility of getting burned.

LD: You’ve continued your work with a variety of community organizations. What leadership roles are you in now and what are you enjoying about those activities?

NG: Notwithstanding the time it takes, serving non-profits has long been my favorite way to give back to the community, particularly when it benefits the lower income communities of New York. If I didn’t enjoy serving, I wouldn’t do it. In addition to fundraising, working to revamp boards to increase diversity and revitalize them is a challenge I really enjoy.

I recently stepped down after four years as Brooklyn Public Library board chair and I’m now serving as board chair of the Poly Prep Country Day School. My work for Poly Prep is particularly gratifying because I attended school there, as do two of my boys. I’m also serving as Vice Chair of the Community Service Society of New York. I was honored to chair its 175th Anniversary Gala last spring, which was a huge success. I’ve also enjoyed serving on the board of the Central Park Conservancy for several years.

LD: What else are you enjoying in your relaxation time?

NG: Aside from sneaking in as much tennis as possible, my life is pretty simple and there isn’t much time for relaxation. My twin boys are now high school seniors so I’m up to my neck with college visits and the application process. One was just elected captain of his football team and the other is an aspiring actor. My younger son is a high school freshman, so the three boys keep me plenty busy. A little boating, skiing and travel with my family is all I need these days.

About the Author: Katrina Dewey (katrina@lawdragon.com) is the founder and CEO of Lawdragon, which she and her partners created as the new media company for the world’s lawyers. She has written about lawyers and legal affairs for 30 years, and is a noted legal editor, creator of numerous lawyer recognition guides and expert on lawyer branding. She is based in Venice, Calif., and New York. She is also the founder of Lawdragon Campus, which covers law students and law schools.