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Combining Public Service and Private Practice Makes Better Lawyers, Robert Fiske, '55, Tells MLaw Students

By Amy Spooner
April 20, 2015

Robert Fiske, '55, believes that public service and private practice aren't mutually exclusive. He should know—he has excelled at both.

Robert Fiske, '55In an April 16 talk entitled, "Serving the Public Interest During Your Law Firm Career," Fiske stressed to Michigan Law students the value of public service experience. "There's a synergy between public service and private practice that makes people who do both better at each," Fiske said. "Government lawyers who have been in private practice have a better understanding of the industries they're supposed to regulate, and a more balanced background to make the necessary judgments. Conversely, lawyers in private practice who have worked in the government benefit from the increased responsibilities government service provides at an early age."

A law school summer internship at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York convinced Fiske that he wanted to be a government lawyer. However, his supervisor that summer, United States Attorney—later Chief Judge—J. Edward Lumbard, told him to get some law firm experience under his belt first. Fiske did, and became an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York after graduating from Michigan Law. (Lumbard became one of Fiske's lifelong mentors.)

When he had the opportunity to become an assistant U.S. attorney a few years later, Fiske faced a crossroads. His long-held dream butted heads with the advice of Davis Polk's partners, who said he shouldn't leave a comfortable firm job for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

His boss and mentor, Hazard Gillespie, "said it was a terrible idea and that I would lose too much ground on the track to becoming partner," Fiske told students. Gillespie also told Fiske there was no guarantee the firm would take him back when his stint in the U.S. Attorney's Office was finished. "No one understood why I would want to leave Davis Polk. But I knew that I wanted to do public service, and I said that when I was 80 years old, I didn't want to look back and regret having spent my entire career at a firm. So I left."

Now past 80, Fiske said that it was one of the best decisions he ever made, not only for the experience but for the way it positioned him for future public service positions later in his career. As a 28-year-old, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fiske brought down John Dioguardi, a notorious labor racketeer, on tax evasion charges—a trial opportunity that gave Fiske a wealth of experience at a young age. In an ironic turn of events, in 1959, his former Davis Polk boss, Gillespie, became the U.S. Attorney, and Fiske worked with him until they both returned to Davis Polk in 1961.

In 1976, Fiske again faced a difficult public-sector-private-practice decision: Whether to throw his hat in the ring to be the next U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. President Ford was politically vulnerable because of his pardon of President Nixon, and there was a high probability that Fiske would be out of a job just a few months after his confirmation due to a new presidential administration.

"I said that even if I could only have that job for a month, I would do it," Fiske explained.

Again, Fiske took the gamble on public service, and again it paid off. As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Fiske won the admiration of New York lawyers, including those who advised the new New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan on judicial appointments after Jimmy Carter became president. Moynihan—in a break from tradition—allowed U.S. attorneys who were doing a good job to complete their nominal four-year terms. "In his words, he put 'professionalism ahead of politics,' which was a courageous thing to do," Fiske said.

During four years as a U.S. attorney, Fiske led many high-profile cases, including the conviction of Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, a powerful New York drug-ring leader known as Mr. Untouchable because he had successfully dodged four previous indictments. President Carter called the case "the most important in the country" in terms of reestablishing the credibility of the American system of justice.

When he returned to Davis Polk in 1980, Fiske's reputation followed him, and he was a highly sought-after litigator and adviser. He represented the manufacturer of the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island; the NFL in a monopoly suit brought against it by the USFL; and New Zealand in a case against the San Diego Yacht Club over the eligibility of a catamaran racing against a monohull in the America's Cup. In addition, Fiske received numerous special appointments, including serving as independent counsel of the Whitewater investigation in 1994—another opportunity that was wrought with cons but proved too important and professionally rewarding to pass up.

"When you have an instinct about something, go with it—and don't be afraid to take risks," Fiske told students. "That’s what leads to a full, rewarding life."

The event was sponsored by the Organization of Public Interest Students, Student Funded Fellowships, and the Office of Development and Alumni Relations.

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