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Lawyer Limelight: Lawrence Zweifach

Once you’ve taken down the kingpins of international narcotics smuggling conspiracies, racketeers, and elite con artists, maybe the rest of this lawyering business isn’t quite so intimidating.

Perhaps that explains why Lawrence Zweifach, a former federal prosecutor and head of the EDNY’s Criminal Division, and a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, has had success in such a wide variety of cases in his years since joining private practice, first at the now-dissolved Heller Ehrman and now as part of the illustrious ranks of litigators at Gibson Dunn

Zweifach successfully fought back for Ernst & Young against Madoff-related claims, and for UBS, Morgan Stanley, CIBC, and other banks in mortgage-backed securities actions. He also obtained a complete dismissal of a putative securities class action, including Securities Act claims, against AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. and several of its officers and directors, despite the company’s restatement of prior financial statements. He regularly handles antitrust and securities cases, regulatory investigations, and criminal investigations and prosecutions for clients ranging from auditors to hedge funds to public and private corporations.

But even as his practice becomes more complex and varied, his favorite flick will forever remain “Goodfellas.”

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the mix of matters that you’re typically working on these days?

Lawrence Zweifach: Over the years I have typically worked on a very wide range of civil and criminal litigation and investigations, including antitrust, securities, accounting, and auditor liability cases, as well as SEC, PCAOB, and CFTC enforcement actions. I continue to defend lawsuits and investigations in these areas. Although I probably have spent more time on antitrust and securities cases than other types of matters during the last 20 years, I am a generalist at heart and take pride in being comfortable handling almost any kind of complex commercial or criminal case. I really enjoy trying cases, particularly jury trials, and relish every opportunity to try a challenging case. My next jury trial will be a securities fraud case brought in the Southern District of New York by the SEC in which my colleagues and I at Gibson Dunn will defend Rio Tinto, a multinational mining company.

LD: Can you walk us through a recent matter that you’ve handled?

LZ: Two cases I’ve tried recently are worth mentioning. First, I along with my teammates at Gibson Dunn achieved a complete victory for Lynn Tilton, the so-called “Diva of Distressed Debt,” and her firm Patriarch Partners following the trial of an SEC enforcement action alleging fraud before an administrative law judge. The SEC sought a lifetime bar against Ms. Tilton and disgorgement of more than $200 million, the largest individual disgorgement ever sought in the history of SEC administrative proceedings. In the second case, following the trial of a PCAOB enforcement action against a former Big Four auditor partner before an administrative law judge, we obtained a dismissal of all charges and a landmark ruling from the D.C. Court of Appeals that is very beneficial to accounting firms that are the subject of PCAOB investigations.

It is noteworthy that we took similar, unorthodox approaches to the trial of these two cases that helped us win both of them, notwithstanding the fact that the SEC and PCAOB typically prevail at trial in administrative proceedings. We tried both cases with the mindset that we were appearing before a federal district court – not an administrative law judge – and we therefore asserted many of the rights that would have been available to us in federal court, even though we were not explicitly authorized to do so under the rules of the SEC and PCAOB. For example, we made Daubert motions challenging the SEC’s and PCAOB’s expert witnesses, filed motions in limine, argued against the admission of hearsay evidence, etc. In both cases, thinking out of the box helped us obtain victories despite the fact that the SEC and PCAOB had the odds in their favor when litigating in an administrative forum. In my experience, being a “generalist litigator” helps one bring fresh approaches to what are sometimes considered to be specialty areas of litigation.     

LD: Backing up, how did you develop an interest in the law in the first place? Did you ever think of doing something else?

LZ: Actually, I began college as a chemistry major, and was aiming for a career in science or teaching. Also, I was obsessed with playing and watching basketball, and hoped that if I became a teacher I could also be a basketball coach. My fantasy was that the New York Knicks would draft me one day, even though I knew that they probably did not need a modestly skilled, six-foot tall player with limited athletic ability. As an aside, I should say that given the Knick’s record these days, it might make sense to ask for a tryout even though I am more than a few years past my prime. In any event, I eventually realized that being a research scientist would probably not be as exciting as the “Microbe Hunters” depicted that profession to be when I read the book in high school. So I wound up speaking with some friends who were applying to law school who got me excited about the wide range of career paths one could take with a law degree. Before I knew it, I was in law school – and, I should proudly add, starting at point guard for our law school basketball team.

LD: Why did you want to be a prosecutor? Was there a professor or experience that pushed you in that direction?

LZ: I first became interested in the criminal justice system when I was a legal intern with the Federal Defenders Office while I was in law school. I decided I wanted to be a prosecutor when I served as a law clerk for judges on the New York State Court of Appeals and the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Watching prosecutors try cases and argue appeals, and learning about their special role in upholding the rule of law, inspired me to seek a position as a federal prosecutor. I applied only to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York when I learned that there were numerous former law clerks of the New York State Court of Appeals who worked there and raved about that office, including the late Judge David G. Trager, who was then the United States Attorney – meaning that he was the head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Luckily, I received an offer to join that office as an Assistant U. S. Attorney. I was incredibly excited to obtain a position in which my mission would be to serve the public interest, uphold the rule of law, and exercise independent judgment. And I was thrilled to have the opportunity to try cases and argue appeals.

LD: Are there certain memories or cases that stick out from your time in the Eastern District? Are there a few things you would list as your biggest achievements as head of the criminal division?

LZ: The EDNY U.S. Attorney’s Office was an extraordinary place to work. The tone for the office was set at the top – by the United States Attorneys who led the office. During my nine-plus years in the office, I was fortune to work with four outstanding United States Attorneys, each of whom became highly respected federal judges – Judges Trager, Korman, Dearie and Raggi. They were role models for all of the AUSAs in the office, displaying remarkable courage not only with regard to the prosecutions that the office decided to bring, but also with regard to the investigations that we decided to close without initiating criminal proceedings. Although law enforcement agencies, other government agencies, public officials, and private parties sometimes attempted to place pressure on the office to impact its decision-making, these superb and fearless United States Attorneys ensured that the office would always exercise independent judgment. Importantly, besides being required to work extremely hard, to produce first-class work product, and to be completely dedicated to serving the public interest, every AUSA was expected to maintain the gold standard when it came to prosecutorial ethics. With this type of leadership, it is not surprising that close to twenty of the prosecutors with whom I worked became federal district and circuit court judges, federal magistrate judges, and state court judges.

I really enjoyed my tenure as chief of the criminal division. Besides overseeing the day-to-day operations of the office and helping to shape and update its practices and procedures, I supervised its most sensitive cases – including those involving public corruption, international narcotics cartels, terrorism, and organized crime. Despite having a very full plate, I also was able to fit in trying several public corruption and racketeering cases on my own.

One of the best experiences I had when I was chief of the criminal division was working closely with Judge Jack B. Weinstein when he appointed me as the Chair of the Eastern District’s Criminal Litigation Committee, a court-appointed committee whose mandate was to devise new procedures and practices to improve the administration of criminal cases in the Eastern District.  Judge Weinstein has always been one of my heroes. He is truly a giant of the legal profession and is well-known as a living legend of the federal bench. It was a special treat getting to work with him. When discussing potential projects for the committee, he could rattle off more creative ideas off the top of his head in five minutes than I could if I studied and thought about the issues for years. He is absolutely brilliant.

One memory that I will never forget is putting Mel Weinberg on the witness stand as an accomplice witness in one of the Abscam-related trials. Mr. Weinberg, a professional con artist played by Christian Bale in the movie “American Hustle,” was hysterically funny and had the jury in stitches while the defense lawyers were trying to shake his testimony on cross-examination. It took an incredible amount of willpower for me to avoid bursting into laughter in the courtroom.

LD: When leaving Heller, why did you decide on Gibson Dunn? What do you like about practicing there?

LZ: First, I should make it clear that I thought that Heller Ehrman was a wonderful law firm, and I never would have left it had it not unexpectedly imploded.

When I got a call from Gibson Dunn after Heller blew up, the decision to join them was easy. Although I was deeply honored to be selected by the American College of Trial Lawyers for induction as a Fellow of the organization, the greatest professional honor I ever received was Gibson Dunn’s offer to join them as a partner. The firm has an unwavering commitment to maintaining its highly collaborative and diverse culture. And the talent level here is simply off the charts. I am very fortunate to be practicing at what I wholeheartedly believe is the best law firm in the world.

LD: What’s your favorite thing to do in New York City or nearby?

LZ: My wife’s and my favorite thing to do is babysit for our three-year old granddaughter, Chloe. If Chloe were to tell me to stand on my head, I would gladly do that. As for our other leisure time in New York City, we enjoy going to plays, movies, museums, and live music performances. We recently saw David Byrne’s “American Utopia,” which was one of the finest musical experiences I ever had – it was right up there with going to Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys New Year’s Eve performance at the Fillmore East.

LD: When not here, where do you like to travel to?

LZ: When I travel, I love to engage in outdoor activities – biking, hiking, rafting, etc. – especially in the national parks. We took a wonderful bike trip to Brittany and Normandy last summer, and we plan to continue going on bikes trips abroad and in the U.S.

LD: Is there a book, movie or TV show about the justice system or being a lawyer that you enjoy or feel gets it right?

LZ: I actually don’t tend to read books or watch movies about lawyers. I generally try to focus on areas outside the world of law – history, science, biographies, sports, anthropology, economics, etc. I just bought theoretical physicist Brian Greene’s “Until the End of Time,” and can’t wait to start reading it. I do, however, love watching mob movies, because it takes me back to my days in the Eastern District. I have probably watched “Goodfellas” over 50 times, and I will probably watch it at least another 50 times. Nothing seems to capture the zeitgeist of the Eastern District better for me than that movie. I saw Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) testify in several Eastern District trials, and Ed McDonald, a friend of mine from the Eastern District, plays the role of a prosecutor in the movie. And, of course, the so-called “Lufthansa Heist” took place in the Eastern District. Anyone who has spent time as a prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York usually leaves the office with the same watchword to describe their experience – “you simply can’t make this stuff up.”