Big firms have been shedding their trusts and estates practice groups for decades. But those that still have them apparently populate them with the most interesting lawyers at the firm. At least that’s what I gather from reading Undue Influence: The Epic Battle for the Johnson & Johnson Fortune, by David Margolick. Here are two gems from his book:
“[A]t Shearman & Sterling as at most large firms, the individual-clients group was a loss leader, a service the firm extended to plutocratic executives, but a gilded graveyard for those lawyers — eccentrics, aristocrats, gays, fops, women — who traditionally congregated in them.”
“[Sullivan & Cromwell’s] probate department was small and idiosyncratic, inhabited by the usual collection of oddballs, geniuses, and women. It was the only place at the firm where one could be an associate in perpetuity and eccentric with impunity.”
As a member of the trusts-and-estates slice of the legal clan myself, I love this description (and hope it’s true!). Anyway, for those of us hoping to glean a bit of wisdom from the follies of our peers, this book doesn’t disappoint. I highly recommend it. And I’m not the only one. Here’s an excerpt from The Band-Aid War, a NYT’s review of the book:
ON one side was strong-willed Barbara (Basia) Piasecka Johnson, a farmer’s daughter who had only $200 in her pocket when she left Poland in 1967. One of the world’s wealthiest widows, she still bought lottery tickets and made her bodyguard use discount coupons when she sent him to Dunkin’ Donuts.
On the other side were Mrs. Johnson’s six grown stepchildren — the querulous progeny of J. Seward Johnson, an heir to a fortune earned by Band-Aids, who lavished more attention on his prize Holsteins than on his unhappy family. The grand prize: the $402,824,971.59 that Johnson left behind when he died in 1983. Although he had set up handsome trusts for each of his children, his two sons and four daughters wanted more, and Mrs. Johnson, his principal beneficiary, had sworn not to give them “the dust off half a penny.”
As told by David Margolick in “Undue Influence: The Epic Battle for the Johnson & Johnson Fortune,” their face-off was an unsavory (and perversely entertaining) exercise in absurdity. Mr. Margolick calls the will contest “the largest, costliest, ugliest, most spectacular and most conspicuous in American history.”