Why a defender of Wall St.'s notorious is joining Ballard

He's defended a judge who threatened to kidnap his ex-lover's child, a Tyco executive accused of grabbing millions, accused Wall Street hedge fund and municipal bond fraudsters, U.S .Defense Secretary turned alleged bank predator Clark Clifford, and the late international-cult-and-conservative-cause boss the Rev. Sun-Myung Moon. Among others.

They didn't all go to prison. But New York lawyer Charles Stillman speaks of them affectionately, even of the ones who did get convicted and sent away.

For example: Ex-Tyco chief financial officer Mark Swartz, who did hard time after directors testified he wasn't entitled to $50 million he said they gave him in extra bonuses, was "one of the finest men I met in my entire life," Stillman told me from the porch of his vacation home in the Berkshire Mountains. "I adore the man, and I thought he was innocent...When they put him on work release, he lives in Florida, but he needed a New York job. I hired him. He works for me." 

Stillman himself now works for a Philadelphia firm, having merged his 14-person Manhattan defense boutique, Stillman & Friedman PC into Philadelphia's vastly larger Ballard Spahr LLP. The combined firm will do business as Ballard Spahr Stillman & Friedman LLP in New York, where it will serve as Ballard's new Manhattan office, Ballard managing partner Mark Stewart told me after  announcing the deal last week.

The merger gives Ballard a New York base, and hopes of extending the smaller firm's past practice into the next generation of white-collar prosecutions, while resolving the aging founders' succession plans.

A Brooklyn native (like his wife of 53 years, Marilyn), Stillman clerked for Judge Irving Kaufman, who sentenced the Rosenbergs to death for Communist spying and presided over other landmark cases, then spent four years as a prosecutor under 1960s Manhattan prosecutor Robert Morgenthau, before joining Louis Nizer's libel-complaint and motion-picture practice. From there, Stillman teamed with Columbia grad Julian Friedman in hopes of better supporting his growing family.

Moon's office, pressed by tax and brainwashing claims, called a year after the pair hung out their shingle. "I'd heard all these stories about him kidnapping children. My principal assistant (then and now), Marianne Johnson, asked, 'How could we defend a man like that?' But I told her, 'This is the best thing that has happened to us so far.'" 

Indeed, after Stillman made the national news as Moon's defender, calls poured in -- from Sol Wachtler, chief judge of New York, "a totally great man in a terrible situation," who was convicted of threatening his adulterous lover's family: "Thank God he got back on his feet again" as a law professor and mental-health advocate, post prison, Sullivan says. And from Clifford: In 1991, he says he was reading about the former Defense Secretary in David McCullough's Harry Truman biography at the moment the actual Clifford called him for representation in the BCCI scandal. "It was a great professional experience," Stillman says.

White-collar prosecutions are "cyclical," he notes, and Rudolph Giuliani's years as New York's prosecutor in the 1980s were a fruitful time for defense lawyers. "Our whimsical refrain since then has been 'Bring Back Rudy!'" he said, chuckling. Giuliani's current successor, Preet Bharara, is "an outstanding guy" who has busted a string of Wall Street inside traders, including Stillman's client at UBS. "But the overlay to this is, we're living in an environment of very aggressive regulation -- in my opinion, overregulation," Stillman added. "Regulation means rules; rules get violated; you need someone to walk you through not violating the rules; and if you violate them, to tell you how to extricate you from the bushel of trouble you can create for yourself."

Big firms like Ballard used to leave this kind of defense to small specialists. "People like myself and Stanley Arkin had this to ourselves," Stillman said. "Then Big Law began getting involved and hiring former prosecutors" as defense lawyers. "They saw the need. It became a profit center. Big corporations need help from big lawyers. There are fees generated."

In its search for such a practice, Stewart and senior partners like John Langel and Bill Slaughter visited Stillman & Friedman's office at 56th and Park, and urged the partners to consider being part of a national firm. "We went over to the [Manhattan] Four Seasons, had a glass of wine and talked. The chemistry was good. Their vision is akin to mine: to provide legal services with a hands-on approach," affirms Stillman.

A few months earlier, Stillman had approached Ballard's elder statesman Frederic Ballard to elucidate the UBS case in court; Ballard turned him down. "Guy's a total legend in the muni bond field. But he didn't want to get involved as an expert witness. Now I'm his law partner!"  

Later in the courtship, Stillman and his associates headed to Philadelphia, where Stewart's crew wined and dined them at the Hotel Monaco's Rooftop Bar & Lounge, then carried them to Ballard's luxury box to watch the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park: "As an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan who became a New York Mets fan, I was forced to wear a Philadelphia baseball cap." He was more pleased when Ballard agreed to preserve the Stillman & Friedman name. "It's a nice feeling," says Stillman. "We all have ego."

But a bigger legacy than his is at stake, Stillman concluded: "I have these wonderful young partners. I though this was a great opportunity to help them build a bridge to the future."