The 500 Lawyer Limelight: Mel Immergut
Photo by Greg Endries

“Legend” gets tossed around quite a bit these days in the legal field, however, it’s the rare attorney who actually measures up. Mel Immergut is one of those who does: He’s been the chairman of Milbank for an unprecedented 18 years, building the firm into an international powerhouse while maintaining his stature as a top dealmaker and quiet powerbroker.

There’s much to discuss with Immergut – he’s Vice Chair of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and active in the U.S. Military; represents Anheuser Busch, NASCAR, MasterCard and many others; has seen the law and his firm transform from a far different time; serves on the board of and teaches at Columbia Law School; recently received the Servant of Justice Award from the Legal Aid Society; and created a visionary education program for his firm’s associates at Harvard.

Oh, and then there’s a fish story. A rare tale of one that got away.

Lawdragon: You’ve accomplished so much and rightly been recognized for all you’ve done. If you had to pick one accomplishment of the past year of which you’re most proud, what would it be?

Mel Immergut: That’s easy. We’re most proud of our Milbank at Harvard program. This is a concept where we are sending about 400 of our associates, the vast majority of them, to Harvard for one week a year for four years in succession. We’re bringing everyone in from all over the world, so, for example, all of our Singapore associates will do this. It’s a course that was in equal measures come up with by us, Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. And it emphasizes business concepts more than legal concepts.

LD: That’s fascinating. Can you tell me more about it?

MI: It took about a year of hard work between Milbank, HLS and HBS, led by Professor Ashish Nanda at Harvard, to do the design work. We’ve had three groups - about 120 associates - go through so far and it’s gotten the best reviews of any project vis-a-vis associates that I’ve seen ever at the firm.

LD: What do they say? Also can you explain a bit about the purpose of the program?

MI: Well, they all come back saying it’s amazing and the best learning experience they’ve ever had.

The purposes of it are first, greater retention; we hope associates will be so enthusiastic about this it will be a factor in determining how long they stay with us. Second, better recruiting. And it certainly has gotten a lot of buzz in the law schools. Third, it’s better for our clients because it’s turning out better associates, better trained people. And also better for the firm as a whole for those three reasons but also because it’s being talked about so much in the legal and business community.

LD: Tell me about this from the associate experience side?

MI: Well, 40 associates go through at a time, and spend seven days in Cambridge.

They live at the Inn at Harvard, have all day in classes, homework at night. They get to wear backpacks and go to school on bicycles. I only wish I could do it! I try to go to the final dinner for each one of the sessions so I can see the very, very genuine smiles all over our associates’ faces.

LD: How did you come up with this idea?

MI: This was thought of by one of our partners in Munich, Norbert Rieger. He was surprised when he came to me one morning and laid this idea out, which is of course a very expensive idea, and I instantaneously said, “wow that’s a terrific idea.”

LD: What appealed to you so immediately?

MI: I just thought of all four of those goals right off the bat and loved the idea that we were going to be the first to do it. And I knew the people at Harvard well enough to know they would do a terrific job.

LD: You had known Professor Nanda for quite some time?

MI: I had, he’s a close friend and does a lot of work for the firm. Norbert called him and proposed it, and he loved the idea also and he socialized it up at Harvard. One of the reasons they were so receptive to it - besides the fact they have such a strong relationship with us - is that business schools have been very successful with executive education programs, but law schools have not, so this is a pioneering concept to get law schools into executive education.

LD: It’s a perpetual problem in the legal profession, that lawyers aren’t taught how to practice law. I know that’s led to proposals that you take business development or law practice management courses while you’re in law school. Was that the notion behind this?

MI: Actually, this is about the basics. We’re talking about balance sheet reading, decision-making in a business, finance. We’re doing case studies of issues that could just as easily be done at HBS. Every associate in the firm goes through this training. The first- and second-year associates go through a different program that we basically do in-house at our conference center in Westchester.

And then the third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year associates - every single one in the firm, basically for four years - goes to Harvard. They go four times in four years; one week this year, one week next year and so forth. We’re effectively putting 400 associates a year through the program for four years and forever after that.

LD: Are you looking for this to change the model of bringing in associates, winnowing them out and only admitting a very few to partnership?

MI: This is an investment we’re making. We know that still only a relatively small percentage of people that start out with us are going to make partners and that most of them will not stay the full term to see if they do or not. But our feeling is that the benefits we will get with better-trained lawyers, lawyers that will stay with us longer, attracting better lawyers and just having better morale and having this as something we can offer is worth the considerable investment in both out-of-pocket expense and, more importantly, taking a week out of everyone’s busy schedule.

We also have partners that attend this as, I would say, minor presenters, because most of the work is done by the professors. The partners supplement at the end of the sessions. That’s not the way we started out. We started out with them actually presenting but now we leave that to the professionals at Harvard.

LD: It sounds like you like the results so far?

MI: It’s a ten.

LD: Have other firms asked you about the project?

MI: A lot of firms have asked, but so have other law schools. We’ve been very forthcoming in working with other law schools to tell them how we came up with the program and what’s involved in it.

LD: Do you expect other law firms to follow in your footsteps?

MI: I don’t think they’re going to follow at Harvard. But at other law schools, yes.

LD: I’m also curious where you learned the leadership abilities for which you’re so well known. Who do you consider your mentor or role model in the practice?

MI: Interesting question. Certainly not a law firm chair. I have learned over the years that there is nothing rarer in the legal profession than someone who can effectively lead a law firm. I generally say that a law firm is blessed if it has one person who can be the chairman and another person who is ready to assume that job when he or she retires. Having done this job for 18 years as chairman of Milbank, I’ve gotten to know the managing partners of many law firms, and there are some very good ones out there, but I think it’s a fairly rare commodity at law firms.

So in thinking about who I would put forth as a role model, I think I would pick my very close fishing friend Don Tyson who was the chairman and CEO of Tyson Foods, the largest protein producer in the world. I had the privilege of working with Don and being his friend for the better part of 30 years, watching him both running his very large company and fishing with him all over the world. He taught me many lessons about managing an operation that have worked well for me and also make me what I think is a person who has maintained a reasonable balance between work, which I think about 24 hours a day, but also other things in life, which I can do while almost always thinking about work.

LD: When did you meet him?

MI: I met him in La Guaira, Venezuela, at 5 a.m. one October morning and we had just both gotten in from fishing all night. I had just caught the first swordfish I’d every caught in my life. He was on his boat and I was on my boat.

LD: Did he say “nice fish”?

MI: It was at 5 a.m. and we were both tired. I don’t know if we said anything. But we saw each other and we started talking the next day. We spent a lot of time together in the next 30 years until unfortunately Don died last year.

LD: I’m sorry. When you met him, was he already building Tyson Foods?

MI: Well, he didn’t found Tyson Foods, his father did. His parents were both killed in a grade-crossing accident in Arkansas. Don then built the company into what it became.

LD: It’s interesting, and perhaps not surprising, that you find your inspiration for your leadership in someone who was not a law firm leader. I’ve seen attorneys who, when they’re selected as managing partner or chairman, forget there were others who came before them, so they repeat the mistakes others have made. As a corporate lawyer do you recall anyone who took you under his wing when you joined the firm?

MI: I joined the firm 40 years ago, the day after I graduated from [Columbia] Business School. And I was immediately assigned to what was then called our “private placement department,” which had three partners in their 60s, who seemed very old to me then, one associate and me. And those three partners focused all their attention on me since I was one of only two associates and someone they saw as  having a future. So I had three practice mentors in the firm for many years. I got the kind of training at their footsteps that literally I think is almost impossible to get nowadays.

LD: While the Harvard project is not that kind of day-to-day training, does it offer that kind of perspective?

MI: It is, but that was 50 weeks a year just sitting literally at the feet of those partners - and they were literally all six feet tall, as most Milbank partners were in those days. And they all would keep me in their offices all the time. So I would just be there, if I was drafting a document, I would be sitting in one of their offices doing my work. It was very old fashioned.

They would be sitting at their desk. And the reason I talk about sitting at their feet is they had this annoying convention. In those days, we had a shoeshine person who circulated around the firm, we still do, and the shoeshine person would come in and I was always sitting at the partner’s desk. And the partner would make me move away and sit next to the shoeshine person. And the shoeshine person would be sitting there shining their shoes and I would be sitting next to the shoeshine person. It made a lasting impression. I would be sitting at their feet, literally, all afternoon.

And they got shines every day, I think it cost a quarter. Things were different.

LD: Do you have enduring lessons that you share, wisdom you wish you had known earlier and that you wish other lawyers had the benefit of?

MI: I tell people whether they be new lawyers or they be plebes at West Point, where I sometimes lecture, that there are three or four things that I learned over the years. One is always be watching people to see what you can learn from the way they comport themselves, and that can be good things and bad things. But there are almost always things you learn from watching people who have been around longer than you have.

I tell young lawyers and just younger people in general to always make sure that they have read the newspaper every day, nowadays I say whether it be print or online, because our clients expect them to be up to date on things going on in the world.

I tell people to never lose their tempers. You communicate displeasure or annoyance much more effectively and much more authoritatively if you do it in a measured thought-through way. It’s a very rare person, there are people out there, but it’s a very rare person who achieves what they want by raising their voice.

And I tell people that at the end of the day, what separates the truly successful leadership-type person from what is the vast majority of other people are character traits. And that leadership people are almost always people who exhibit great character. That’s kind of the speech I give at West Point.

LD: How did you come to lecture at West Point?

I do a lot with the military. [He points to pictures hanging on his wall.] That’s a trip last year to the North Pole with a nuclear submarine surfacing through the ice; that’s a trip landing on an aircraft carrier in a fighter jet, an F-18, that’s me on the left. I’m vice chairman of the Intrepid, I’m on the NATO Senior Advisory Council, the European Command Council, the Defense Business Board of the Pentagon, which is a Presidential Advisory Council, that advises the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs on business issues. One small thing that I do is a couple of lectures at West Point, and elsewhere. Tomorrow I’m teaching a course at Columbia Law School at 8 a.m. on professionalism.

LD: I know you’re about to be honored by the Legal Aid Society, which seems to exemplify the involvement that’s a hallmark of your career. Is that what being a leader is? Being involved and picking areas in which you can make a difference and really contributing in that way?

MI: I think in a law firm like ours, a leadership person is one, somebody who’s a very good lawyer. You can’t be a leader here unless the partners respect you for your legal abilities. Second, it’s got to be someone that’s viewed as totally fair, impartial, honorable and of the utmost integrity. Third, it has to be somebody with a strong and effective business sense. And fourth it should be someone who has stature in the community in general and not just the legal community. You need to be involved outside your law firm to have stature in the outside community.

LD: Where did you grow up?

MI: In Brooklyn, right where I’m looking at, right out my window. I’ve lived in New York all my life except for college at the University of Pennsylvania. My dad was a surgeon and my mother was a homemaker. She did work, because she raised three children, but not outside the home. I have two siblings, a brother who’s a doctor, and a sister who has raised three children.

I have one daughter who’s a freshman at my alma mater, University of Pennsylvania. My wife [Barbara Lyne] was a legal journalist, she had a lot of jobs, including at American Lawyer, Manhattan Lawyer, she wrote a column for the New York Times for awhile and edited the book Charlie Wilson’s War, which my brother-in-law authored. She’s very accomplished.

LD: And you’ve spent your whole career at Milbank?

MI: It will be forty years in six weeks.

LD: How do you feel about the firm today as opposed to the firm you joined?

MI: It’s totally different, not because of the space we’re in, because we’re in the same offices we were in forty years ago, just expanded. But this is the same floor. This is where we started, but the people are vastly different. It’s a much younger firm, a much more diverse firm, a much more aggressive firm, I think the quality of lawyering is similar. The firm had very strong, substantive quality lawyering in the early days. I think as people we are equally strong substantively now to those days. But I think people are harder working, more worldly, we’re now 25 percent outside the U.S., where when I first joined we had two lawyers in Midtown and one in Washington.

So I think what hasn’t changed is a very strong focus on substantive quality. A strong focus on profitability, that’s always been the case at the firm. A strong focus on collegiality and non-internal competitiveness, it’s a hallmark of this firm. And a very strong commitment to treating people well.

LD: You’ve kept what was really good, and moved it forward.

MI: Clearly we’re run much more like a business now than was the case in the old days. But we realized in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s that was a total necessity in the environment that we’re in.

LD: How often do you get to go fishing, I have to ask?

MI: I used to fish 70 days a year. Every weekend and most of my vacations, I lived on my boat. But I fish much less now and do a lot of other things.

My boat was called Grander; I sold my last boat. Grander is the term for a thousand-pound fish in Australia. And I have tried for about 35 years to be the first person in the world to catch three fish of three different species all of more than a thousand pounds.  I caught the all-tackle world’s record blue fin tuna when I was a second-year law student, which was 1,040 pounds. And I caught a 1,204 pound black marlin. And for 25 years I’ve tried to catch a blue marlin of 1,000 pounds. The Grander blue marlin. I caught a 980 pound blue marlin, and I’ve had a 1,000 pounder marlin on the line many times but I’ve always lost the fish. So I said I’m done, I’ve pretty much stopped trying.

And it’s a very long story, which I’m not going to tell you now, but the first fish is the reason I’m at Milbank.

LD: You know you’ve got me hooked.

MI: That’s a story for another day.