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Leonard Relin dies; known for his tenacity

Rochester Business Journal
May 14, 2010

Leonard Relin once claimed to be a descendant of a French Hasidic Jew who stayed in Russia to study the Talmud after deserting from Napoleon's army. As Mr. Relin told the story, a talent for Talmudic hairsplitting had been passed down from that ancestor to him and other members of the Relin clan, many of whom settled in Rochester and took up the practice of law.

Mr. Relin, 73, died May 6. He had recently returned to work after a long hospitalization in North Carolina and Rochester for a heart attack. He succumbed after having trouble breathing, said his wife, Susan Barnett.

A fixture in the local U.S. Bankruptcy Court for several decades, Mr. Relin was known as a teller of colorful but not always easily verified stories such as the one above, a dispenser of wickedly sharp asides he called Relinisms and a tenacious lawyer who fought with bulldog determination to wring out the best deal possible for the debtors he represented.

"Leonard was unique in his presentation. He was very smart, able to put forward his unique point of view," said fellow bankruptcy practitioner Douglas Lustig of Chamberlain, D'Amanda, Oppenheimer & Greenfield LLP.

As an attorney, Mr. Relin "would do what needed to be done," said David MacKnight, a bankruptcy attorney with Lacey Katzen LLP. "If you were really jammed up, really had a problem and needed somebody to fling open the door, create a smokescreen and maybe get something done, he was the guy to go to. There were not many like him in Rochester."

Even when he did not prevail, Mr. Relin was a bold courtroom actor, capable of antics few others would dare to contemplate, MacKnight said.

In one instance some years ago, MacKnight and Lacey Katzen senior counsel Louis Ryen represented a creditor in a dispute with a debtor represented by Mr. Relin. In questioning the debtor at a court hearing, Ryen chipped away at the debtor's assertions.

Mr. Relin countered with a redirect that restored some of his client's credibility, only to see it evaporate after Ryen questioned the man a final time. Acknowledging defeat, Mr. Relin crossed the courtroom and put Ryen in a headlock.

"Judge," said Mr. Relin as he proceeded to kiss Ryen's bald spot, "you've got to trust me on this."

The judge laughed and let the incident pass.

In a more recent case, in which Mac-Knight was attorney for a creditors committee of a Chapter 11 debtor represented by Mr. Relin, MacKnight describes Mr. Relin as working all players to secure the best outcome.

"He wheedled a little more money out of the insiders to pay the creditors, went after the creditors and twisted the judge's tail a little," MacKnight said. "It's not easy to reorganize a struggling business and end up with a functioning one. Creditors got paid back at 20 percent. Everybody made out well."

"I will miss Leonard in my court," said Bankruptcy Judge John Ninfo II, in whose Rochester courtroom Mr. Relin most frequently practiced for the last half of his four-decade legal career.

"As I go around the country to Bankruptcy Courts all over, I tell the judges the same thing," Ninfo said: "You run into the same cast of characters, but no one in any other court anywhere has a Leonard Relin. He is unique, one of a kind. What I don't think everybody saw is that he really, genuinely cared about his clients. He was a man who surely didn't need the money, but he fought for them tirelessly, especially in the last 10 years."

A sixth-generation Rochester native, Mr. Relin grew up in the Upper Monroe neighborhood, the only child of Bernice and Benjamin Relin, a tailor and clothing salesman.

Mr. Relin graduated from Monroe High School, then earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and a law degree from Albany Law School. He practiced two years at Lacey Katzen before striking out on his own and remained a sole practitioner until his death.

A fierce opponent in court, Mr. Relin displayed qualities at home that were not always evident to his legal colleagues, his widow said.

"When we first met, I remember telling a lawyer who knew him that I thought Leonard was a nice guy, and the fellow said back to me, 'I don't think he'd want any lawyers that know him to hear that,'" she recalled.

"There is a fruit of the prickly pear cactus Israelis call a sabra," she said. "He was like that, prickly on the outside but sweet on the inside. If you were smart enough to let him, he would be your best friend."

A loving grandfather and father, Mr. Relin was a partner in a real estate business with his son, she said. The couple traveled frequently in the United States and Europe and had been planning further trips when he died. Mr. Relin had an eye for beauty in nature and art, pointing out sunsets and landscapes and delighting in visiting museums wherever they traveled.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Relin is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, David and Elizabeth Relin, and grandchildren Austin, Connor and Ava Relin.


What You're Saying 

Mark Sinopoli at 9:34:04 AM on 11/14/2012
From early April 1993 to late December 1998, I was in the employ of Mr. Relin as his paralegal/case manager. Brilliance is the one word that could only pop into ones mind if you spent any time at all with him. Now when I say brilliance; I'm not speaking solely of book smarts...  Read More >

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