Lawyer Limelight: Cocktails With Roberta Kaplan

By Tina Spee

From the Summer 2006 Issue of Lawdragon Magazine

(Editor's Note: Roberta Kaplan is also featured in the Lawdragon Limelight in September 2013.)

Roberta Kaplan walks into a dimly lit bar in midtown Manhattan on a warm June afternoon. She is on her cell phone, scanning the room for a table. An after- work crowd sips cocktails under the red glow of a mural wrapped around the room, a busy depiction of a famous horse race in Siena, Italy, for which the Palio Bar is named.

She will mostly ignore the drink as she talks to Lawdragon about her life as a high-powered litigator in the city that never sleeps. One imagines Kaplan, a partner at New York’s Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, as never getting much shut-eye either.

Kaplan first toiled at Paul Weiss as a summer associate, in 1990, when she worked on a pro bono death penalty appeal in Huntsville, Texas. That was her first taste of trial work, and she was hooked. Kaplan became a partner at 32, during her seventh year at the firm.

Now 39, she juggles the legal troubles of corporate giants like American International Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley. Her practice spans a broad range of civil and criminal litigation, including securities, bankruptcy, regulatory matters and white-collar defense.

Kaplan was lead trial counsel for the California Public Utilities Commission in claims against Pacific Gas & Electric Company, which declared bankruptcy during the California energy crisis. She brokered the settlement deal that kept Pacific Gas under her client’s regulation, paid back creditors and won rate decreases for consumers.

An important part of Kaplan’s tenure at Paul Weiss has been chairing the women’s initiatives committee, which under her leadership has created a mentoring program for women and day-care services for employees who are parents. Since 1998, Kaplan’s first year as a partner, the number of female litigation partners in New York has increased from one to nine.

When it comes to nonpaying work, Kaplan’s biggest effort — aside from raising her 10-month-old son with her domestic partner — has been as lead counsel to 12 couples asking the New York State Court of Appeals to legalize same-sex marriage.

The case, argued May 31, brought together four decisions in which lower New York courts concluded that state law precludes same-sex couples from marrying. The combined parties were awaiting an appellate decision when Kaplan chatted with Lawdragon. Three weeks later, on July 6, the court decided that same-sex unions are not allowed under state law.

“We hold that the New York Constitution does not compel recognition of marriages between members of the same sex,” Judge Robert Smith wrote for the 4-2 majority over an impassioned dissent by Chief Judge Judith Kaye. “Whether such marriages should be recognized is a question to be addressed by the Legislature.”

Lawdragon: Why is gay marriage a topic of interest to you?

Roberta Kaplan: I believe that marriage for same sex-couples is really in a lot of ways the civil rights issue of our time. Interestingly in our case we had the NAACP Legal Defense Fund put in a brief that basically said that the issues facing same-sex couples, while not the same, are in a lot of ways analogous to the kinds of civil rights issues that African-American organizations have long been fighting.

On top of that, being a lesbian in New York City, being someone who’s had the kind of success I’ve been lucky enough to achieve in my life, I feel like I owe something back. And one thing I know how to do, I think, is how to litigate a case. There’s no reason why the skills I’ve learned litigating cases in the securities fraud area couldn’t be applied to the civil rights area.

LD: What are you arguing in this case?

RK: We argue in this case that we’re New York. There are thousands of same-sex couples or families with children in New York. The state agrees that those families are good and loving parents to their children. And the state agrees that it would be good for the children, as well as the families, to have all the benefits of marriage. In that context, giving all the benefits to one group and denying them to the other is irrational ...

This case is being fought in New York. It’s not being fought, with all due respect, in the states of Mississippi and Texas. And the policy of the state of New York is very clearly against discrimination. This is a center, in a lot of ways in the country, for gay and lesbian life. The numbers are enormous here.

LD: What are you working on right now at Paul Weiss?

RK: Most of what I’ve been doing for the past couple of years now has been AIG. My career, as it’s developed, has specialized in a lot of these big corporate scandals that have kind of rocked Wall Street and rocked the newspapers. The most recent incarnation of that is the work I’ve been doing for AIG.

AIG has faced almost a perfect storm of regulatory problems in frankly very different areas, from the way that its brokerage business was being done to the way its financial statements were being presented. Paul Weiss has worked on all those matters from day one, and they’re all unfortunately very complicated and very interrelated. A lot of my job has been frankly being the keeper of the big picture.

I think the company has very much recovered. For the last couple of years it’s been hard. But it’s on the right track. It’s a new company. I think the settlements we reached with the government were very, very favor- able. And it was worth all the long, hard hours and sleepless nights for both us and the company to get through.

LD: How do you handle that pressure, or does it come naturally to you?

RK: That’s part of the problem, I think, is I’m a bit of a pressure junkie. It’s clearly part of my job, I clearly like the excitement of what I do and when things tend to fall off, a part of me feels like, “Well, what’s wrong?” I’m not working hard enough or I’m not tense enough. The honest to God truth is I probably should do healthier things. I like to cook on weekends when I have time, and see friends and go to the beach. But I probably should be doing yoga or something like that. It would probably be healthier for managing the stress.

LD: What else do you like to do in your spare time?

RK: New York is such a fabulous city. One of the advantages of not being a pro bono lawyer or a civil rights lawyer and being the kind of lawyer I am is that you can have the resources to really enjoy it. I really like to take advantage, when I can, of the theater, try to go to a lot of the shows, the opera, try out all the new restaurants that get written up. In order to put up with all the stuff in New York that’s hard, in terms of the crowds and the aggravation, I think you also have to take advantage of those kinds of things.

But I will be honest with you. Since our son was born, I can’t say I’ve taken advantage of anything other than changing diapers and burping.

LD: Are there mentors that have been important to your career?

RK: I’m glad you asked. Being a litigator is really a job about people. The best litigators, I think, are peo- ple who are — it sounds sappy — but are people who get along with people and are persuasive and have charisma. And for that reason, I think that having mentors is really incredibly important. It really can’t be overestimated, and I’ve been very, very lucky in that respect.

Marty London, the greatest trial lawyer who’s ever lived, who retired this year, has been a phenomenal mentor to me. Everything I’ve learned to do, I’ve learned from Marty ...

I was also very lucky in that I had some really important female mentors. And not a lot of women lawyers get that, because frankly there aren’t that many female lawyers that have risen through the profes- sion. I clerked for Chief Judge Kaye, and she’s been a wonderful mentor to me. Obviously, we haven’t spoken a lot recently because of the case, but I clerked for her, and hopefully after the case, our relationship will resume.

Also Colleen McMahon, who was the first woman litigation partner at Paul Weiss and is now a federal district judge in the southern district, was also a great mentor to me. It’s really important if you’re a young woman lawyer to get that, because, while Marty London was fabulous, one of the hard lessons I had to learn is that I can’t do a cross examination the way Marty London does a cross examination. For better or for worse, there are things that you have to learn to do differently as a woman, and it was great having role models like Judge Kaye and Colleen to help.

LD: Was there a case that you felt was instrumental to you becoming a partner at Paul Weiss?

RK: The Sumitomo case. It seems funny today, but at the time, which was 1995, 1996, Sumitomo was the biggest corporate scandal that had ever happened. I actually was just finishing my clerkship for Judge Kaye and was visiting my parents and got a phone call at my parents’ house from Marty London. And I said, like, “Why is Marty London calling my parents’ house?”

In 1998, Japan’s Sumitomo Corp. agreed to pay $150 million to settle class actions filed in the U.S. against the company over rogue copper trading. Yasuo Hamanaka, a copper trader, received an eight-year prison term for running up losses of $2.6 billion in what was then the world’s biggest unauthorized trading scandal.

I was asked to go with a team of people to Tokyo, Japan, and actually work there for a year, which was incredibly unprecedented at the time. The idea of American lawyers back then going into a Japanese company, in fact a very conservative Japanese company, and running an investigation and working with people and interviewing people and looking at documents was almost unheard of.

It was an incredible experience, in terms of the cultural difference between the lawyers who were there and our client, the issues that were present, just the sheer logistics of having an enormous number of personnel — paralegals, lawyers — living in Tokyo the whole time. I wasn’t there when they made the decision about my partnership, but I like to think that the work I did on that case had something to do with making partner.

LD: What are you looking forward to in your career?

RK: I don’t know where the world will take us in terms of what will be the next area of interest to the regulators or the plaintiffs’ bar. I can’t predict that. But I think I would like to continue to do the work that I’m doing. I would like to read the articles in the Wall Street Journal every day and to be working on the cases that are of the most moment in the financial press or in the press. I personally wouldn’t make a lot of changes. I’m pretty happy where I am. I maybe need to do a little more yoga.

The morning the New York State Court of Appeals decided against her clients in the gay marriage case, Lawdragon reached Kaplan by e-mail for her reaction.

LD: How do you feel about the court’s decision?

RK: The Court of Appeals’ decision is extremely disap- pointing and today is a sad day for all New Yorkers who believe in the constitutional guarantee of equal protec- tion of the laws. ... The next battle will be before the New York Legislature, and we are confident that the legislature and the new governor will enact a marriage statute in this state, which serves as the home to many thousands of same-sex couples and their children.