Photo by Dave Cross.
Milton Williams has built a renowned white-collar defense practice with a focus on regulatory matters, internal investigations, employment disputes and complex commercial litigation. In addition to his private practice, Williams is known for his public service, including a stint as co-chair of the Moreland Commission that investigated political corruption in New York State, and as one of the lead attorneys investigating the tax incentive programs in the State of New Jersey. Williams has served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York and an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, and more recently as the deputy general counsel and chief compliance officer for Time Inc. Now a partner at Walden Macht & Haran, Williams is a graduate of University of Michigan Law School.
Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the mix of work you do within your practice?
Milton Williams: I have an unusually diverse litigation practice that includes work on major white collar trials as well as compliance, commercial litigation, social justice matters, employment law and other issues as they arise. My current clients range from a public corruption investigation in New Jersey to a family whose child was part of a mock slave auction in Westchester. In between, I represent an array of individuals and businesses facing fraudulent conveyance claims and issues of regulatory compliance.
LD: That is an interesting mix! How did that come about?
MW: It really just happened. My career path is not something that is the result of any great design. I have tried quite a few cases, and different timely events have shaped the course of my career. I recall one instance when I was involved in a case while at Time Inc. I received a confidential tidbit from a lawyer who I had been adverse to many years earlier, when I was a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. I looked into the information that lawyer shared with me and it turned out to be correct. My work on that investigation led to me being promoted to Chief Compliance officer at Time, Inc. So, my career has really morphed and changed by happenstance much more than by design.
LD: What keeps you excited about the work you do?
MW: The competitive element of litigation is really exciting to me, and something I find very satisfying. In the work that I do, anything could ultimately wind up in court or in front of a regulatory board. Being trained and prepared to compete is something that keeps me going every day. You have to be geared up and really practice to perform and persuade. That kind of adrenaline rush really keeps me going. Even outside of the practice of law, the competitive nature of business development and marketing at a mid-sized law firm keeps me excited about what I do every day.
LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?
MW: Two separate but related matters have been among the most interesting in my career. Both stem from an effort to rein in public corruption. The first was the New York corruption case against Joseph Percoco, a top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo aide and two Syracuse businessmen. It was a very complex case with more than 11 million documents, multiple defendants and legal teams, and the shadow of a completely separate corruption case sitting in the wings. Additionally, the trial drew intense media interest and involved a number of very high-level political figures. It took months to try and in the end, my client was the only individual acquitted of all charges. I am immensely proud of my team’s work on that matter and relieved and happy for our client.
LD: That’s an incredible result.
MW: Thank you. The acquittal of Joseph Gerardi in the Percoco corruption trial is one of my most important accomplishments over the past two years. I’m incredibly proud to have represented him and happy that he put his trust in me to handle such a critically important case.
LD: And the second matter?
MW: The second case involves work earlier in my career as co-chair of the Moreland Commission, which was established in July 2013, by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to probe corruption in state government, political campaigns and elections in New York State. The Commission reviewed the adequacy of existing state laws, regulations and procedures involving unethical and unlawful misconduct by public officials and the electoral process and campaign finance laws. The Commission was directed to make recommendations to toughen and improve existing laws and procedures. Despite the Commission ending after just nine months of work, we issued a report which I believe put a spotlight on public corruption and raised a lot of unanswered questions about how business is done in Albany. It was a very powerful experience for me and really impacted how I view our public institutions.
LD: With your bird’s eye view of litigation work, are you seeing any broad trends in the industry?
MW: We are witnessing a dramatic change in the way clients select legal services. For a variety of reasons, corporate clients appear to be more focused on hiring the right lawyer for the job and breaking away from simply engaging the same “brand name” firm that historically provided all legal services to a client. Companies are looking to staff matters with leaner teams and make their legal spend much more cost effective while still demanding the same high quality work. This creates a terrific niche for a firm like ours. Personally, I know recently I’ve worked with co-counsel that are billing at rates much higher than ours and we have as much, if not more, experience as they do handling similar matters. Our mission as a firm is to make larger companies comfortable with hiring us for bet the farm matters.
LD: Can you talk about a case you’re currently handling?
MW: My partners and I are working on behalf of NJ Gov. Phil Murphy’s task force investigating that state’s Economic Development Authority’s controversial tax incentive program. The task force was formed following the release of the State Comptroller’s audit of the program, which revealed startling deficiencies in monitoring and oversight. The Task Force’s mission is to further explore the findings of the Comptroller’s audit and provide the public with a full accounting of how and why basic controls were lacking in a program that left New Jersey taxpayers on the hook for up to $11 billion. If necessary, the Task Force may refer matters to the law enforcement or other regulatory authorities.
LD: What are some challenges of working on a case involving public figures and a scrutinized government program?
MW: This is an incredibly complex situation with a variety of interests at stake. Anytime you have a matter that is high profile with government entities there are always intangibles that fall outside of what you might find in a typical internal investigation matter. The mix of politics and media, along with sensitivities with governmental personnel, has placed everything about this matter under heavy scrutiny. We need to be very sensitive about doing anything that would unfairly cast aspersions on an individual or an institution. The whole dynamic takes it to another level.
LD: But this isn’t exactly new ground for you.
MW: Not really. Much of it is very similar to what I did earlier in my career with the Moreland Commission in New York.
LD: Looking back at early experiences, what led you to pursue a career in the law in the first place?
MW: My father was a judge and I think my decision to enter the legal profession had a lot to do with him. I accompanied him to the office and court when he was both a lawyer and a Judge so I received a lot of exposure to lawyers, judges and legal proceedings from a very early age. Additionally, my work as an undergraduate at Amherst College really helped me to become a critical thinker and problem solver. I took a course in Philosophy (Logic) during the fall of my senior year and, although I didn’t realize it at the time, it really came into play when I had to cross examine a witness in the DA’s office. I needed to always think two steps ahead and consider “if he says this” or “he says that” I’ll be able to respond with the appropriate questions to secure testimony that I can cite to when summing up before a jury. That course really helped me to be able to anticipate what witnesses are going to say and paid lots of dividends later in my career.
LD: Is there a specific reason why you chose University of Michigan over another law school?
MW: I wanted to go someplace big and chose Michigan. As a child, my family moved quite a few times and I grew up in four of the five boroughs of New York City. Every borough but Brooklyn. I attended Monsignor Farrell High School in Staten Island, NY, an all-boys Catholic school founded in 1961. Then I went to Amherst College, a relatively small college, so I thought it would be fun to try something different. I really enjoyed attending a big university (albeit a small law school in terms of students – 1100) and it turned out to be everything I wanted it to be.
LD: What sort of practice did you imagine for yourself while in law school?
MW: I was an Economics major and was initially drawn towards bankruptcy and commercial law. That changed over the course of my law school experience and my first jobs as an attorney.
LD: Was there a course or professor that was particularly memorable or important in what practice you chose?
MW: Prof. J.J. White at the University of Michigan (the former Robert A. Sullivan Professor of Law who retired in 2012) had a deep impact on my career. Prof. White was one of the nation’s top scholars in the field of commercial law, so much so that one of his books, “Uniform Commercial Code,” is among the most widely recognized treatises on the subject. I took four courses with him including contracts, commercial transactions, and debtors and creditors. He was an amazing teacher who showed students that there was a practical application to everything we were learning. He gave me some anchors to show me the practical application for many of the theories we were studying.
LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?
MW: Pick an area of law that you like and develop it as a craft or an art. See where it takes you. Don’t let money be the driving force in your entire career. The practice of law is a craft or an art that has to be slowly developed over time. When something is a craft or an art, you love doing it and put your whole self into it. Sometimes, it might give back, sometimes it may disappoint. But because you love it you will keep at it.
LD: Was there an early mentor who helped shape the course of your professional life?
MW: Eugene J. Porcaro, the bureau chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office (now the senior supervising attorney), was a very early mentor of mine. He really taught me how to try a case and mentored me throughout my time at the DA’s office. He was my trial coach during the time I was there, and I learned a great deal under his guidance.
LD: Can you share a lawyer you have come up against in a negotiation or case that you admire, and why?
MW: Three lawyers in particular – Ron Fischetti, a partner with Fischetti & Malgieri LLP; Chuck Ross, a partner with Mintz & Gold LLP; and Bruce Maffeo at Cozen O’Connor are professionals who I truly admire for their skill and talent. Each of them represented different defendants in trials while I was at the US attorney’s office in Manhattan. There is a tremendous difference between trying a case mechanically and the art of trying a case. All of them had the art form down and were truly talented in the courtroom.
LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer? Or, how do you think others see you?
MW: Very straightforward and pragmatic. Always interested in discussing settlement, but someone who is ready to fight and not afraid if the fight has to happen.
LD: Can you walk us through your career path to date?
MW: After law school, I worked as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. I then joined the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York as a federal prosecutor. From there, I moved into private practice with a small firm before going in house at Time Inc. to serve as Deputy General Counsel and then Chief Compliance Officer. I later joined a firm, Vladeck, Raskin & Clark specializing in employment law, and white collar criminal matters. After more than eight years at Vladeck, I moved to Walden Macht & Haran in May of 2017 as a partner.
LD: What are some of the challenges you face in your current leadership role at Walden Macht?
MW: Making sure that all of the younger lawyers are actively engaged, have interesting work, and have a good work life balance. It is very important to me that the lawyers I work with have a life outside of the law. I have always had that perspective. You need something else in your life. There is tremendous pressure to get a lot of work done as a lawyer and it is easy to lose sight of how hard people around you are working. But it can’t be that way the entire year. Sure, there are going to be periods of incredible intensity, but it can’t be all the time. You cannot sprint the entire five miles in a cross country race, or else you risk burning out young lawyers who have great potential.
LD: Can you share some strategic plans for your practice or firm in the coming months or years?
MW: I hope to continue to collaborate with my partners to jointly bring in work with the idea of making it interesting and profitable for the firm. Any lawyer in private practice will tell you that you can never have enough business. You always need to be developing business and, if you get it, you find a way to make it work. And that’s why the work life balance can be very challenging.
LD: There are many high-quality firms out there. What do you try to “sell” about your firm to potential recruits – how is it unique?
MW: We have a unique client focus on budgets and have always staffed our matters to deliver the best possible results within a budget that allows the client to be pleased with both the outcome and the final invoice. The competition for cases varies from matter to matter, but the trend is that we are now vying for cases against much larger firms. We have almost 40 lawyers and several non-lawyer professionals on our team. This enables us to successfully compete for any engagement, from discrete investigations to bet-the-company litigation and monitorships.
Similarly, we take a very innovative and progressive approach to training and firm management that can be directly credited to our growth and efficiency. Our junior associates are trained and mentored in a way that is consistent with how things would work at a US Attorney’s Office. This includes providing associates with opportunities to be on their feet in court, take depositions and handle oral arguments with appropriate supervision. From a management standpoint, we reach consensus as a democratic partnership on thorny issues, including the creation of a compensation model that reflects our values. At the same time, we have taken a proactive approach to tamping down internal partner competition with fair rules on sharing originations and making certain that everyone’s voice is heard on the firm’s business. All of this adds up to a structure that is anchored in principles that have really contributed to a firm culture of which we are proud.
LD: How has firm management changed since you joined Walden Macht?
MW: We have seen a substantial change in the recruiting environment for new talent over the past few years. This includes a steady stream of exceptional resumes flowing into our firm. We affirmatively seek to secure candidates with meaningful work and life experiences. We want to hire associates that can handle a fast pace and are eager to learn and develop the craft. We do not subscribe to the model where associates are categorized by their class years like steps on a ladder. We do not have third-years reporting to fifth-years and then up to a senior counsel or partner. Instead, we have assembled a team of lawyers who operate and collaborate together. Our associates expect to be treated as lawyers and leaders – not as pure subordinates – and we expect them to create the highest quality work-product regardless of how many years it has been since they graduated law school. We provide substantial real-time training and feedback and find it to be an extremely effective way to develop young talent and deliver great results for our clients.
LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities?
MW: I am on the board, and am the former chair, of the Fund for Modern Courts, an independent statewide court reform organization committed to improving the judicial system for all New Yorkers. I am also on the board of New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), Prisoners Legal Services (PLS), and the Office of Appellate Defender (OAD).
I am a member of The New York State Governor’s Screening Panel for the First Department Appellate Division, and The New York City Mayor’s Advisory Committee on the Judiciary
Additionally, I am a member of the Southern District of New York Attorney Grievance Committee, which hears complaints against lawyers in the Southern District of New York, and Vice Chairperson of the Attorney Grievance Committee for the First Department of the New York State Unified Court System.
LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?
MW: The films “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Presumed Innocent” are among my favorites. In the end of both movies there was justice. In “Mockingbird” it was pure justice. “Presumed Innocent” has a twist on justice in the end but it was equally as appealing.
LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?
MW: Probably teaching or coaching. Maybe teaching history or government to kids between 10-14 and coaching basketball and tennis. I attended Catholic schools for twelve years, and saw the importance of mentoring and teaching from members of the clergy and lay personnel who really cared. I’d like to pass some of that on to the next generation if I had a chance.