Nussbaum went to college at
Columbia University, where he
decided to become a journalist.
“I had every intent to live a life
as a person of disrepute, as a journalist, but my parents would have
none of it,” he says.
Harvard Law School was next,
followed by a year checking out the
world via the Frederick Sheldon
Traveling Fellowship, a prize awarded to top graduates to allow them to
experience foreign travel.
Mention of the Sheldon Fellowship triggers Nussbaum’s recollection of a discussion he had with U.S.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin
Scalia at a party a few years ago:
“Do you know who followed
you as editor of the Harvard Law
Review?” Nussbaum asked.
“You did,” Scalia replied.
“Do you know who followed you
with the Sheldon Fellowship?”
“Why, I think you did, Bernie,”
“So, when are you going to step
down from the Supreme Court
“Oh, no,” Scalia responded. “I
may be here for a while.”
Nussbaum received job offers
from several top law firms, but chose
to work for the legendary Robert
Morgenthau as a prosecutor in the Manhattan
U.S. attorney’s office.
From 1962 to 1966,
Nussbaum tried dozens
of major cases involving
a range of matters—
from drugs, financial
fraud and embezzlement to political
corruption and bribery.
“If you really want to be a trial
lawyer, I strongly encourage you to
spend a few years as a prosecutor,”
he says. “The experience you get
from trying major, complex criminal
cases at age 25 is something you can
never get from a big law firm—or
probably from any law firm.”
In 1966, Nussbaum received a
phone call from a high school classmate, George Kern, who was starting a new law firm with six lawyers,
including a couple guys named
Wachtell and Lipton. There was absolutely no thought back then that
the firm would emerge as the most
prominent and financially successful
corporate legal practice in New York.
Nussbaum was gaining status as
a New York litigator, but leading the
House impeachment case against
Nixon catapulted him to the ranks
of the elite. And his reputation continued to grow.
Nussbaum says good settlements
hinge on the opponent realizing that
you are not afraid to take the case
to trial, as well as your own client
recognizing the risks that come
with a trial.
For example, in March 1992
Nussbaum was hired by Kaye,
Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler
after federal charges were brought
against the prominent Manhattan
law firm for its role in advising
Charles Keating and Lincoln Savings
& Loan. The government sought
$275 million in penalties and moved
to freeze the firm’s assets—an action
Nussbaum contends would have put
it out of business.
The $41 million settlement he
reached with the Office of Thrift
Supervision saved the firm from
having to close its doors. But he says
it wasn’t easy seeing his client have
to fork over that much money.
“Any lawyer who tells you he’s
never lost a case hasn’t really tried
that many cases,” he says.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, though
he was directly involved in picking
and vetting both.
The national news media constantly cited “White House sources”
criticizing Nussbaum for being too
confrontational. “He’s a litigator in
a corporate counsel’s job,” the
Washington Post opined.
Nussbaum took the most heat
when news broke that he advised
President Clinton against appointing an independent counsel to investigate Whitewater.
“I argued with the president vigorously,” recalls Nussbaum. “I told
him, ‘If you do this, this is an evil
institution that will be investigating
you and your family long after
Whitewater is pronounced bogus.’
But he did it over my vehement
In March 1994, Clinton told
Nussbaum “it might be a good
time to leave.”
“Do you really think this is about
me?” Nussbaum asked.
“Oh, Bernie, if you leave, there
will be peace and we will finally get
health care passed,” the president
“If I thought my quitting would
help, I would do it,” Nussbaum told
his boss. “But if you throw me—
your most loyal advocate—over-
my favorite subject—me.”
In 1993, Nussbaum crossed paths
with the Clintons again, when the
president asked him to be his first
White House counsel. His tenure as
the president’s top lawyer saw many
highs and lows.
A STORMY STINT IN THE
CLINTON WHITE HOUSE
NUSSBAUM WAS BLAMED FOR THE ZOE
Baird and Kimba Wood fiascos (two
attorney general candidates who had
hired workers with immigration issues), even though he had little to
do with their selection. And he received very little credit for the appointments of Attorney General
Janet Reno and Supreme Court
board, no one will feel obligated to
be loyal to you.”
Nussbaum says Clinton seemed
to agree. But a couple hours later,
White House Chief of Staff Mack
McLarty and his deputy, Harold
Ickes, brought a letter to Nussbaum’s
office that the president had received from a U.S. senator. The
letter told Clinton that Nussbaum
was giving him bad advice, and that
Clinton needed to get rid of him.
“The president told you to show
me this letter?” Nussbaum asked.
“Yes,” McLarty answered.
“Then tell the president I will re-sign.” He did so that night.
Nussbaum remains close to the