Thoughts From A Former Law Clerk
For many years, attorneys who were really “in the know” understood that the most frightening thing about heading to the Bankruptcy Court in lower Manhattan was not the possibility of leaving the courthouse with an unfavorable ruling for your client. Rather, for the longest time, the most frightening thing about heading downtown was walking near Battery Park in the early afternoon and hearing a “ring ring ring” coming up from behind you. The reason this seemingly innocuous sound was actually so terrifying was because it was the caution signal to would be pedestrians and park goers that Judge Burton R. Lifland was commencing his afternoon bike ride through Battery Park with his chambers. And on more than one occasion you could witness a tourist or two diving for cover as the Judge and his entourage navigated their way up the West Side.
Judge Lifland passed away this past Sunday, January 12, 2014. At the time of his passing, Judge Lifland was the senior judge for the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. He previously served as the Chief Judge for the S.D.N.Y. Bankruptcy Court as well as a former Chief Judge of the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the Second Circuit. Since his appointment to the bench in March 1980 and over the course of his nearly 33 year career on the bench, Judge Lifland oversaw some of the most high profile and high stakes bankruptcy cases in U.S. history, including the chapter 11 cases of Johns-Manville, Bethlehem Steel, Eastern Airlines, Macy’s Department Stores, Dana Automotive Corp., Calpine Corp., and Blockbuster Entertainment. Most recently, Judge Lifland had been overseeing the continuing wind-down of assets related to the Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Bernard Madoff.
Judge Lifland was also actively involved in cross-border insolvency work. He was a member of the United States’ delegation to the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law in the development of Chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code. He was a member of the Judicial Conference Subcommittee on Bankruptcy Case management and was a member of the American Bar Association’s SABRE (Select Advisory Committee on Business Reorganization) as well as a Founding Member of the International Insolvency Institute.
I first met Judge Lifland when I was interviewing for an internship position at the beginning of my third year at New York Law School. At the time, I was simultaneously working part-time as an intern for a bankruptcy boutique in midtown where I had spent the previous few months as a summer associate. Always wary of even the appearance of impropriety, within the first three minutes of my interview, Judge Lifland questioned whether other attorneys may think I was perhaps a “mole” implanted in his chambers to report back on cases to the law firm where I was working part time. This interview, I thought to myself, had gotten off to a truly spectacular start. Thankfully I was able to convince Judge Lifland that my intentions were above-board and I went on to have the privilege of serving as both his intern and later as one of his law clerks.
A thoughtful and caring jurist, Judge Lifland was often described as “pro debtor,” but in reality it would be more accurate to describe him as “pro reorganization.” Whether acting as a mediator or ruling from the bench, Judge Lifland always knew how to apply the precise amount of pressure to parties in interest in order to facilitate a consensual reorganization or settlement in furtherance of the true purpose of the Bankruptcy Code.
Sitting in on hearings and chambers conferences was quite a thrill for a young attorney but what will always stand out the most to me were the afternoon bicycle rides. During those (sometimes lengthy) rides up the West Side Highway, Judge Lifland would discuss upcoming decisions or the next day’s calendar. This was the time when the Judge welcomed young law clerks to add their two cents or play devil’s advocate if they dared while weaving in and out of traffic. It was an amazing experience for a young attorney fresh out of law school and one I will not soon forget.
My clerkship for Judge Lifland lasted but one year. Many knew him better than I, including his long-time courtroom deputy, Monica Saenz De Viteri, and former permanent law clerk, now-Chief Deputy Clerk of the Court, Una O’Boyle. They spent countless hours with the Judge on the sixth floor at One Bowling Green managing his calendar, researching legal opinions, and assisting in other matters of the day. I was fortunate enough to be one of the privileged few who had the opportunity to share the bike path with him.
He will be missed.
Matthew Goren served as a law clerk for Judge Lifland from January through December of 2008, and as an Intern in Judge Lifland’s Chambers from January through June of 2006.