I had the incredible good fortune over a span of 43 years to know, work with, be a partner of and, most importantly, to have the friendship and guidance of Joe Flom. His passing on February 23, 2011, in his 87th year, is a profound loss for me – and for the legion of people and institutions he touched during his remarkable life. But sharing the pain of that loss is not the purpose of this note.
Rather, I would like to put down a few words about Joe Flom, the lawyer – a shining product of Harvard Law School, ever appreciative for what it did for him and of its preeminent role in promoting the rule of law, and forever giving back to it.
Joe simply loved practicing law. His greatness as a lawyer stemmed as much from that as anything. To be sure, he was brilliant and a true visionary. But what is most noteworthy is that he chose to apply those gifts to the practice of law. He could have applied them elsewhere, and often did. But the central focus of his awesome gifts was serving clients as a lawyer. And he did it with total dedication, genuine enthusiasm and zealous pursuit of his clients’ interests. For Joe this passionate commitment was not hard work, as others might have described it. Rather, it was the labor of love – and it was what he knew his clients deserved. Joe never lost that passion, that drive. To his very last days, he would ask his many Skadden partners who visited him, “What are you working on?”, “How are we doing?” – and would offer insights and advice to help advance the cause of Firm clients.
Joe raised the art of mergers and acquisitions to an entirely new level, turning it into a mainstream activity of Corporate America. In so doing, he was at the center of the most fundamental corporate governance debate of the last four decades – as between directors and shareholders, where and under what circumstances does the right to say no to an unsolicited takeover reside. This debate continues today, as witnessed by the recent Delaware Chancery Court decision upholding the use by Airgas’ board of directors of a “poison pill” in defending against Air Products’ unsolicited bid to acquire Airgas.
In the end, Joe fundamentally changed the legal profession and, indeed, the business world. Yet, truth be told, that was not his plan. His plan was to practice law. That he had such a singular impact is a testament to how incomparably well he did it.
Oh, yes, along the way Joe built from scratch (with more than a little help from his partners, who signed on to his vision) a major multi-practice law firm with national and international reach – Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. Now that was part of his plan – because he recognized that in an expanding, increasingly complex and globalizing business world such a platform would be best able to serve the interests of clients.
For those of us who had the privilege of practicing law with Joe, he has left an indelible and enduring legacy. We will honor it – and Joe – by continuing to do what he, by lifetime example, taught us – zealously to pursue the interests of our clients by providing the highest quality and service level, and by marshalling the resources that Joe, as the architect of Skadden’s growth strategy, was instrumental in gathering together.
This note is supposed to be about Joe the lawyer. But I can not end it without saluting the greatest part of Joe – his fundamental decency and humanity. Joe gave to so many others, in so many ways – friendship, advice, caring and respect for others, civic service, etc. His philanthropy is well-known – not because he sought recognition, but because his generosity was coupled with serious and creative thinking about ensuring that the money was well spent for a good – often ground-breaking – cause.
As founder and an always ardent supporter of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, Joe was never better at putting money to innovative use to help the less fortunate. With 620 Skadden Fellows to date benefiting from the financial support Joe and Skadden have provided to give dedicated public interest lawyers the freedom to pursue important initiatives on the public interest front, and with the continuation of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, Joe’s legacy in another essential area of the practice of law lives on.
And Joe never forgot his law school alma mater. I can not possibly recount how often, how generously and how thoughtfully – both philanthropically and by sharing his time and wisdom – Joe contributed to the well-being and future of Harvard Law School.
Joe was the consummate business lawyer – and he was much, much more. He was the best and most loyal friend, the best and most trusted advisor, the best model for giving back with generosity and purpose and the best example imaginable for living a truly valuable life. Simply put, Joe was the best.