Harvey R. Miller, Renowned Bankruptcy Lawyer, Dies at 82

May 6, 2015

By MICHAEL J. de la MERCED

April 28, 2015

Harvey R. Miller, one of the country’s pre-eminent corporate bankruptcy lawyers, who shepherded clients as diverse as Continental Airlines, Lehman Brothers and General Motors through Chapter 11, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.

A spokeswoman at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, the law firm where he worked for 40 years, said the cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Through detailed knowledge of the law, a loquacious if sometimes unyielding negotiating style and an imposing presence, Mr. Miller became one of the most famous members of the corporate bankruptcy bar.

While the public may regard a Chapter 11 filing as the death knell for a company, the process often gives corporations time to reorganize finances, ideally allowing them to live on and pay at least some of what they owe to creditors.

For Mr. Miller, that meant representing some of the biggest collapses in corporate America. In the 1980s, those were Continental Airlines and Texaco. In the 1990s, they were R. H. Macy and Drexel Burnham Lambert, the onetime home of the junk bond king Michael R. Milken. And in the last decade, General Motors, in its government-backed case, and American Airlines were the most notable bankruptcies.

“Harvey is one of a handful of people responsible for the development of modern bankruptcy practice,” Richard Cieri, a former competitor at Kirkland & Ellis, told The Wall Street Journal in 2008.

In Mr. Miller’s eyes, bankruptcy law allowed him to rove across industries that included banking, steel and energy, a freedom he relished.

“It is probably the last area of the generalist,” he told The New York Times in 2007.

Such was his stature that he billed around $1,000 an hour, compensation that helped him indulge in one of his interests, fine clothing. He sometimes joked that Weil’s offices, in the General Motors Building in Midtown Manhattan, were only a short walk from Barney’s, the luxury department store.

Mr. Miller was working “full on” through last December before the illness known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or A.L.S. took its toll, said Barry M. Wolf, the executive partner at Weil Gotshal.

In the courtroom, Mr. Miller stood out both physically — tall and deep-voiced, dressed in those tailored suits — and rhetorically. He frequently wrote out his text and spoke in complex paragraphs, and was quick with cutting, sometimes snide remarks directed at legal opponents.

Despite the bluster, Mr. Miller was ultimately known as a “deal” lawyer, whose main objective was to strike an accord.

In 2002 he took a career detour, leaving Weil to set up shop at Greenhill & Company, a boutique investment bank. He eventually found himself missing the practice of law enough to return to Weil in 2007, taking a pay cut in the process.

His return came just a year before one of the biggest Chapter 11 cases of his career: overseeing the unwinding of Lehman in the wake of its collapse during the financial crisis.

Not only was Lehman’s filing on Sept. 15, 2008, complex — with $639 billion in assets and operations spanning the world in multiple jurisdictions, to this day the biggest bankruptcy in history — but it also involved a hotly contested sale of the firm’s North American banking operations to Barclays of Britain.

During an eight-hour hearing four days later, Mr. Miller argued that selling the Lehman operations to Barclays was of vital importance. The North American business, he implored the presiding judge, was a “melting ice cube” that would evaporate without a deal, causing “a major shock” to the global financial system.

By 12:41 a.m. the next day, Mr. Miller and his team had prevailed. The sale was approved, drawing applause from the crowd of more than 100 in the courtroom.

What was left of Lehman eventually exited bankruptcy protection in 2012. By that point, Weil had taken home nearly $400 million in legal fees.

“It was an extremely difficult and enormously time-consuming case,” Mr. Miller told Reuters in 2012. “I had to increase my high blood pressure pills.”

He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Ruth.

Harvey Robert Miller was born on March 1, 1933, in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1954. After a stint in the Army, he earned a law degree from Columbia in 1959, aided in part by the G.I. Bill.

He began his law career advising down-on-their-luck garment companies before joining Seligson & Morris, a small firm that earned fame for employing the lawyers who went on to found the elite Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.

His early education in bankruptcy exposed him to the intricate dealings required of Chapter 11 advisers.

“You had a chance to be different people — a litigator one day, an administrator another day, a negotiator the next day,” he told Super Lawyers, a legal trade publication, in 2009.

“It was living a fantasy.”

Mr. Miller was recruited to join Weil by the prominent corporate lawyer Ira M. Millstein in 1969. The firm became one of the most sought-after advisers for companies in trouble.

So powerful was its reputation that it was enlisted in representing companies in three of the biggest collapses after the burst of the dot-com boom: Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing.

Mr. Miller also mentored many of the top Chapter 11 practitioners of today.

“I basically copied down on a legal pad everything Harvey did, from the time he stood up to go to the lectern,” Martin J. Bienenstock, a former Weil partner who now leads the restructuring and bankruptcy practice at Proskauer, told The Times in 2008.

Mr. Millstein recalled a moment in 1975 when he and Mr. Miller were representing, pro bono, the City of New York as it flirted with bankruptcy. With talks at an impasse, the two men retreated to their office and banged out a two-page document — which is framed in Mr. Millstein’s office — laying out in blunt detail the city’s awful finances.

“It was the equivalent of filing for bankruptcy,” Mr. Millstein recalled. “It was also Harvey’s way of telling people that if something was not done soon, there would be one holy mess. And it worked.”

Originally published by The New York Times