I was representing the New York Yankees against Major League Baseball [in a dispute over sponsorship rights] in May 1997 when Time Warner (TWX)—then the largest client of my law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore—acquired Turner Broadcasting. Turner owned the Atlanta Braves, and they didn't want their law firm representing the Yankees.
I had been at Cravath my entire career. At 56 I had a multimillion-dollar-per-year income, total job security, and the best lawyers in the country on my cases. I didn't want the firm to lose its most important client, but I didn't want to abandon Steinbrenner. The issue was raised by Time Warner (TWX) on a Friday. By the following Tuesday, I resigned. It was the only way I could be loyal to my firm and my client.
A few days after I left, there was an article about it in The New York Times. That morning, [real estate executive] Sheldon Solow, who had been a client at Cravath, called me and said, "Now you have two clients." By the end of the day, I had Georgia-Pacific and DuPont, too. The first call I made was to a brilliant lawyer named Bob Silver. Bob brought over an associate. My son Jonathan was graduating from law school, and I convinced him to come, too. By Thanksgiving, we knew this was going to be successful.
One thing that could have screwed it up would have been not spending enough time on client relationships. The hardest decisions are knowing what to take on. Most clients expect some participation from me, and I'm careful in choosing what to do. There are a few factors: my availability, the nature and importance of the case, the significance of the client to the firm, and chemistry. If I'm going to spend a lot of time with them, they have to be people I want to work with.
Law firms either grow or decline. You must recruit the very, very best people. They won't come unless they can see a path to their own professional development. I would have been happy to see us settle at 150 lawyers. We have more than 240 lawyers now, and the firm still has to grow. It's a necessary evil to attract the best people.