Legend has it the managing partner of a top local law firm described his job this way:
“It’s like being the only fire hydrant in a room with a whole lot of dogs.”
But it would take more than stories from other law firms to scare Edward Radin off. At 43, he took over management of Chamberlain, D’Amanda, Oppenheimer & Greenfield, a firm whose roots date back to last century.
Venerable is one way to describe the firm. Mid-size commercial law firm is another.
But Chamberlain, D’Amanda might be best described as one of the most surprising casts of characters ever to assemble on one small stage.
It has lawyers who push the cause of organized labor and lawyers who polish corporate interests. Likewise, it boasts a team to defend insurance companies and a team to fight for injured plaintiffs.
Radin, whose field is trusts and estates, says he does not understand fully how such conflicting interests co-exist so peacefully.
“People practice in areas that you would think would be polar opposites,” Radin says. “But it’s extraordinary how we all manage not just to stay out of each other’s way, but to support each other.”
Firm harmony is all the more surprising because what Chamberlain, D’Amanda lawyers like to do the most is fight.
“We prefer the term advocacy,” says Robert Oppenheimer, Radin’s predecessor in the managing-partner post.
Speedy settlements did not earn Louis D’Amanda his name in insurance defense work. On the plaintiff’s side, Sheldon Boyce, Douglas Jones and Jay Friedman have not raked in millions by backing down easily, either.
Newest on the team–and new to the national Million Dollar Advocates Forum of trial lawyers–is Wade Eaton, former chief of the state attorney general’s office here. Eaton cut his teeth on recalcitrant government agencies and giant businesses.
At management meetings, Michael Harren, a soft-spoken man with an iron grip on a large chunk of union business, sits at the same table with Oppenheimer, Richard Sullivan and Jerald Greenfield, the corporate groomers.
Matthew Fusco, former steelworker, sits at the table, too. He chews on a variety of hot-potato cases, when not chowing down on Bausch & Lomb Inc. in a massive shareholder class action.
Chamberlain, D’Amanda’s 17 partners are, in short, attack-trained.
Even Radin and his fellow trusts and estates lawyers.
“People think I sit in my office and talk to rich old folks,” he says. “I don’t.”
For one thing, most of his clients are under 50 and on their way to wealth. In the advisory part of his practice, he battles schools of financial-service barracudas who swarm around the future rich.
“People go to a seminar on living trusts and convince themselves their lawyer is lying to them,” Radin says. “Meanwhile, they’re paying more for a videotape and some books than they would for an attorney’s time.”
For another thing, at heart Radin is a trial lawyer.
A happy trial lawyer. Because in the class of entertainment known as gory courtroom drama, nothing beats a good will contest.
Radin saw some of the action in one local estate case–the estate of Bernard P. Birnbaum. Nobody saw all the action. Money and dirt flew for 14 years in the marathon litigation.
There is no file on Birnbaum in the surrogate’s court. Instead, there is a Birnbaum room.
Then there was the time the widow of a Rochester contractor came to his office to talk about her in-laws. They were executors of her husband’s estate, an inheritance they allegedly said was in the $300,000-to-$400,000 range.
The executors were doling out $1,000 a month to the widow. Nearing 60, she had found her first job. It paid $120 a week.
But five years after her husband’s death, the estate was not settled. The widow hired Radin to find out why.
What he found was an estate worth $1.67 million and a snake’s nest of businesses running, he suspected, on the money that should have been supporting the widow and her children.
Radin went to court, alleging fraud in the family.
For their part, the executors denied those allegations and the series of charges that followed in a pitched battle over the estate.
Lawyers from a big law firm scolded Radin for rushing to trial–the estate’s executors were on the verge of rendering a full accounting of their sterling stewardship.
So account already, the court said.
Radin blew holes in the trustees’ accounting, and started chasing the money for real.
According to allegations in the case, the money moved from deal to deal, from limited partnership to corporation to corporation in what Radin attacked as an involved game of keep-away. Meanwhile, the executors moved from law firm to law firm.
Things got ugly, even bizarre. One lawyer excoriated Radin for wasting court time with his baseless suspicions, and hinted that another lawyer involved in the case had hinted that his client was, you know, “connected.”
But the court continued to back Radin’s bids for more information.
Radin hung on for years, slapping settlement offers aside. He bulldogged the bucks, broke into corporate shells and locked up assets.
Finally, he drew from the in-laws a settlement that returned the bulk of the inheritance to the widow.
This is not Radin’s version of the case. It is drawn from court records. Dry legal documents still radiate the heat of the battle five years after it ended.
All Radin says about the case is that it was “interesting.” He “enjoys” courtroom action.
When Radin came to Chamberlain, D’Amanda fresh from law school, “everyone did a little bit of everything, but the firm strongly believed everyone had to know how to try cases.”
Radin had earned an undergraduate degree in urban studies and political science from Fordham University in New York City, then a law degree from St. John’s University School of Law just outside New York City.
In July 1977, Radin came to town “in a blur.” He had taken the bar exam on a Wednesday and Thursday, married on Saturday and moved to Rochester on Monday.
Radin wanted out of New York City and knew something of upstate from a high school friend. Wife Frances could continue her art training at Rochester Institute of Technology.
He had been raised mostly in New Jersey. She grew up in Queens. They moved into a house in an apple orchard in Wayne County.
“Everybody who knew us thought there was something very wrong with us,” as Radin recalls the move.
But country living stuck. The Radins are raising daughter Elizabeth, 13, and son Benjamin, 11, in a house a mile away from the apple orchard homestead.
Radins, it seems, have a penchant for going their own way. Radin’s mother practiced law for one year before settling down to raise a family with his father, a photoengraver.
One brother, career military, lives in Korea. Another is in England, an engineer for McCormick Spice Co. A sister teaches public school “as far out on Long Island as she could get.”
Radin came to Chamberlain, D’Amanda because it would continue to let him go his own way.
“Lawyers here are allowed to pursue things that they think should be pursued,” he says. “The firm relies on the individual strengths of the people in it.”
Radin had done some trusts and estates work while clerking for a Manhattan firm. But he still was doing his “little bit of everything” the day Philetus Chamberlain decided to retire and hand Radin 65 active estate cases.
“I went running down the hall to Art Chatman,” Radin recalls. “I said I couldn’t do it. He said I could.”
Arthur Chatman’s “aggressive, vibrant” leadership won out, as it usually did in what then was a 10-attorney firm. Chatman was a charmer whose outgoing personality defined the firm’s presence in Rochester.
Few expected Chamberlain, D’Amanda to survive Chatman’s 1979 death in a moped accident in Bermuda. Especially since Chatman’s death was so close in time to that of another power, Francis D’Amanda.
“All the partners got calls from other firms, inviting them to join,” Radin says. “Everyone in town was acting as if the firm had already disintegrated.”
It did not. Oppenheimer, the reserved flip side of bon vivant Chatman, took over.
And he tripled the size of the firm over the next 10 years.
Oppenheimer stepped into the managing-partner spot at a time of major change for Rochester’s firms. The banks that had been the bread and butter of many firms were pulling back, shopping around and turning up the competitive heat for legal business.
Specialization was in. So was divorce.
Oppenheimer attracted Anita Miller and Lewis Heisman to set up a family-law department. The residential real estate practice grew a strong commercial lending arm, now run by John D’Amanda, Steven Tranelli and Sanford Liebschutz.
“Bob Oppenheimer established the idea that the firm had to let its individuals shine,” Radin says. “If you want to attract sophisticated, expert talent, you cannot squeeze people into molds.”
Oppenheimer’s smooth style eased the firm into a management-by-consensus pattern of decision-making, according to his successor.
Somehow, Radin says, Oppenheimer finessed him into the managing-partner slot, a role he took over in January.
“I think it was a natural succession thing, but I’m not sure,” Radin says. “I know I didn’t run for the office, and I don’t remember anyone asking me if I wanted it.”
Jerald Rotenberg says Radin’s firm leadership potential was spotted almost the moment he walked through the firm door–by Chatman.
“Art took to him immediately. Although he got along with almost everybody, Art did not take to many people,” Rotenberg recalls.
Now a partner in the accounting firm he founded, Rotenberg & Co. LLP, Rotenberg was Chatman’s best friend. Radin’s quick mind and courtly manner with clients, along with–what else–his aggressiveness, made him a natural candidate for firm management grooming, Rotenberg said.
Firm leaders began pushing Radin and other younger partners into management roles some five years ago, Oppenheimer says.
“We are proud the firm is 117 years old and expect it to run another 117 years,” Oppenheimer says. “I still feel like a kid, but I’m not that young.”
At its current size, he adds, the firm still can run by consensus. But the managing partner is the “one person who has to give direction and leadership.”
Now, when a panicked lawyer runs down the hall, it is to Radin’s office. Some still go to Oppenheimer. Then, Radin says, “he has a big smile on his face when he sticks his head in the door to tell me, “You have a problem.”’
Edward Radin: A leader who taps individuals’ strengths
Legend has it the managing partner of a top local law firm described his job this way: