December 18, 2019 MEMBER SPOTLIGHT

Member Spotlight: Seth Rosner

By Seth Rosner

Tell us a little bit about your career.

I can't tell you exactly when I first thought about becoming a lawyer nor just how old I was but I remember the occasion clearly. I was in high school and it must have been a weekday since Dad had come home from his law office in New York City and we were at dinner. As he often did, Dad was telling us about his day and about some serious trouble a client had, really bad trouble. Dad never mentioned the client's name but he told us how upset and angry the client was and how he had gotten the client to calm down, telling him what he and the client could do to fix the problem. I thought immediately: what a great way to spend your life; people have trouble, they have problems every day. So you go to college and law school, you learn how to be a lawyer and you help people solve their problems... and they pay you for it!

Wesleyan and Columbia Law School, then clerking in my dad's law office in New York City. I worked with him on motion papers in a bankruptcy proceeding in the Eastern District of Kentucky. It involved four subsidiaries of the Columbia Gas system and was the longest bankruptcy proceeding in U.S. history, beginning in 1930 and winding up in the early 1960s. Dad invited me to accompany him to hearings in Lexington, KY. When Judge Ford came on the bench, Dad rose and said: ‘May it please Your Honor, it is my privilege this morning to move the admission to the Bar of this Court a young man who last June graduated from Columbia Law School, was admitted to the New York Bar in December and was not yet born when these proceedings commenced.’ Thus to audible gasps from the courtroom I was admitted to my first Federal District Court, the Eastern District of Kentucky.  

Though the Korean Conflict was winding down, the military draft was still on and I chose to apply for Navy OCS. Unexpected for a lawyer, I graduated fifth in a class of over five hundred that virtually gave me my choice of duty station. I had joined the Navy because I love the sea. So asked for a large combatant ship and was thrilled with orders as legal officer of U.S.S. Intrepid, an Atlantic Fleet aircraft carrier. When I reported she was in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York City, for a six-month overhaul so I was 'home'.

My ‘coming on board’ meeting with my Commanding Officer, Captain Forsyth Massey, was surprisingly relaxed, perhaps because as legal officer I'd be working closely with him on crew discipline. He spoke about the Navy and the proud history of Intrepid, then asked if I had any questions. I replied, 'Yes Captain, I'd like to know if I'll have an opportunity to qualify as officer-of-the-deck underway?' Complete change of tone: 'Ensign Rosner, how come? You're going to be plenty busy as my legal officer.' Me: 'I don't mean to be disrespectful, Captain. I did well enough at OCS to have my choice of shore duty but I love the sea. I have a gold star on my sleeve, a general line officer that means I'm eligible for command at sea but it won't mean anything if I can't qualify as an OOD underway.' Captain Massey: 'Here in the Navy Yard Intrepid has five qualified underway OOD's, me, the XO, the Navigator, Gunnery officer and first lieutenant. If you can qualify, let me assure you, you will be one of my underway OOD's.' Once out of the Navy Yard and operating, in addition to my legal office work I stood regular training watches on the bridge as junior OOD and in six months had my letter qualifying as OOD. To this day the two documents I prize most highly are the Certificate of my commission by the President of the United States as an ensign in the United States Navy and the letter from my Commanding Officer certifying me as an officer-of-the-deck-underway.

After release from active duty, I accepted a two-year Ford Foundation Fellowship in Comparative Law, a year at NYU School of Law for an LL.M. and a year in Paris doing doctoral studies and research for my thesis. Returning to New York City I rejoined my dad’s office and accepted appointment as adjunct Professor of Law at N.Y.U. Law School teaching a comparative law seminar in the N.Y.U.’s Foreign Law Institutes, a satisfying appointment and task that lasted twenty-nine years.

Is it what you had planned when you started law school?

Rosner & Rosner was a two-lawyer general practice firm in Manhattan until my brother Jonathan joined Dad and me following two years clerking for a federal district judge and three years as assistant U.S. Attorney in the S.D.N.Y. Jon was an exceptional litigator, my practice was transactional, corporate and commercial, trusts and estates. However, all was not routine: one morning in 1969 a solicitor friend in London telephoned. The Vietnam War had reached its controversial climax; Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre had conducted their mock trial of President Lyndon Johnson for international war crimes. My friend said he and his firm represented Russell and needed New York counsel to deal with a controversy here and would I be interested? I said, 'Jack could you hold for a moment?' Put down the phone and went to my Dad's office. I asked: 'Dad, would we have a problem representing Bertrand Russell in New York?' He looked over his glasses and replied: 'Represent Russell? I assume he can pay his fees; why wouldn't we?' Which is how I became American counsel to Russell. His personal secretary had been fired, absconded to New York with the stolen typescript of the third volume of Russell’s autobiography and was meeting with major publishers in New York asserting that he was authorized to sign contracts on Russell’s behalf. In due time I was able to resolve the problem. Russell's engagement letter hangs on my wall today. 

Our firm grew to four partners and an associate. In 1980, two years after my dad passed, I accepted an invitation to join Marchi Jaffe Cohen Crystal Rosner & Katz, a sixteen-lawyer firm at 2 Wall Street where I continued until 1989. By then, as a result of work on legal ethics and professionalism committees of the A.B.A. and the N.Y. State Bar Association I had a significant practice counseling lawyers and law firms on ethics matters and appearing as expert witness in matters involving lawyer conduct.

Here’s how that happened: Dad had suggested I join the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. His good friend, Whitney North Seymour, arranged for my appointment to the Young Lawyers Committee. I also joined the A.B.A. In 1964, the A.B.A. annual meeting convened in New York City and the Young Lawyers Section met at the old Commodore Hotel. I went. There I met Pete Connick, Chairman of the City Bar's Young Lawyers Committee. 'Hi Pete,' says I. 'Hi Seth,' says he, 'You're going to be our delegate to the ABA Young Lawyers.' "Not me,' says I, 'don’t have the time.' 'Yes you,' he says, 'you're the only one here.' That's how began fifty A.B.A. years without missing a single annual meeting and missing just one midyear meeting due to illness.

In January 1980 I was serving as Chairman of the A.B.A. General Practice Section when Robert Kutak, Chairman of the Commission on Evaluation of Professional Standards, published the Commission's first Discussion Draft of its proposed Model Rules of Professional Conduct. We created a Section committee to consider the Model Rules. After careful study we determined to oppose the Model Rules format for two reasons: (1) The A.B.A. Model Code of Professional Responsibility was in effect in virtually every jurisdiction with little change. We argued that changing the format would mean the 'balkanization' of legal ethics rules in the jurisdictions for many years. We were right about that: it took a third of a century before California became the last jurisdiction to adopt the Model Rules format. (2) The Model Rules eliminated the Model Code's Ethical Considerations - the E.C.'s - that set forth the requirements of good professional behavior. We were right about that: two years later, realizing what the loss of the E.C.'s meant, the A.B.A. created a Commission on Professionalism to which I was liaison from the Ethics Committee to which I had been appointed following the Kutak debates.

Thereafter I served on the Special Committee on Professionalism that resulted and went to the Board of Governors to transform it into a Standing Committee that I chaired for three years. From 1997-2000 while serving on the A.B.A. Board of Governors I was Board liaison to the Ethics 2000 Commission that revised substantially the Model Rules, remaining for additional two years as liaison from the Center for Professional Responsibility.

The development of a significant practice counseling lawyers and law firms on ethics matters and expert witness engagements led me to conclude that I didn't need a law firm, as excellent as it was, or billable hours or responsibilities to law partners, associates and staff, as excellent as they were. I withdrew from my firm and went solo.

It was indescribably liberating. Shortly after leaving, one early autumn day following lunch with a friend and client, I wandered on Madison Avenue in the seventies, scanning shop windows, browsing in a store specializing in antique watches. Cool, brilliant blue sky, and I suddenly thought that for the first time in decades I was not thinking of time in tenths of an hour.

So liberating was it that eventually I moved to a beautifully restored 1860 farmhouse on 45 acres of farmland just east of Saratoga Springs, New York, and continue today in Saratoga Springs as legal secretary, file clerk, billing clerk and sole practitioner. And able to devote more time to my beloved wife Judith and to the pleasure of creative writing.

If you had not become a lawyer, what do you think you would you have done?

Had I not been a lawyer, what would I have been? Answer, very likely a writer. My high school yearbook predicted: 'future Red Smith' the great N.Y. Herald Tribune sports writer. I love sports, was sports editor of my college newspaper and play-by-play announcer of Wesleyan football and basketball games on the college radio station. And since forever have written verse and occasional short fiction.

On the other hand, I might well have made the Navy a career. I love, that is l-o-v-e the sea. I earned very high fitness reports from all of my commanding officers. Some friends still call me Admiral.

But lawyering is what I do and I still really enjoy helping people as I enter my 89th year!