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Experience October/November 2023

Building Both a Career and Friendships

Michael D Blechman


  • Seemingly small opportunities can lead to significant professional connections and lifelong friendships.
Building Both a Career and Friendships

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Now that I’m into my “second act” as an arbitrator and mediator, I can look back on my main career—as a lawyer representing European clients—with the perspective that comes with distance. I enjoy reflecting on the serendipitous path that took me in that direction and the things that still stay with me after all these years.

Sprechen sie Deutsch?

Before law school, I’d spent a year on a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin. I wasn’t sure what I ultimately wanted to do at that point, but I did know it would be something international since I’d really enjoyed my immersion in a foreign language and culture.

But I wasn’t very strategic in pursuing this goal. Following law school, I joined what was then a mid-sized firm called Kaye Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, which had no foreign offices and a largely domestic practice. I began working closely with Milton Handler, who at the time was a leading antitrust lawyer. The work was exciting, but it wasn’t very international.

After a year or two, Handler was asked by the U.S. subsidiary of a German client whether our firm, by chance, had an antitrust lawyer who knew some German. It turned out the company was one of several whose legal departments cooperated to produce a well-known German antitrust commentary. The general counsel of the U.S. subsidiary was tasked with updating the chapter on American competition law, and he happily passed the job on to me since I’d picked up some German while in Berlin.

Working nights and weekends, I went through the German text and added inserts on recent U.S. Supreme Court cases and other developments. It seemed like drudge work unlikely to lead to anything useful.

But after a while, the general counsel of the U.S. subsidiary asked me whether my firm would be interested in doing a program in Frankfurt am Main, more commonly known simply as Frankfurt, for the trade association of the German Chemical Industry on doing acquisitions in the United States. I spoke with Handler, and he immediately decided to fly a few antitrust lawyers, including me, over to Germany for the event. The program took place in a modern hotel at the Frankfurt airport, which made it convenient for lawyers from companies all over Germany to attend. In all, there were about 80 people in the audience.

Ja, ich spreche Deutsch

I decided I’d make my own presentation in German. This required a leap of faith. I knew I could comfortably converse in German, but I’d never spoken it in public before a large audience or about a specialized subject like antitrust. I also knew that, to create the impression I wanted, I couldn’t read a speech; I needed to speak freely from notes.

I still recall how I felt when I got up to speak at the podium in the hotel conference hall. I began, “Meine Damen und Herren” (there were a handful of women present) and noticed the puzzled looks in the audience as German lawyers tried to fathom how an American was speaking their language.

As I got into the substance of my remarks, I had a worrying thought: Is my German really working, or am I talking gibberish? There were a few mildly humorous lines in my talk, and I was immensely relieved to hear some laughter. Then, when I finished, there was a thunder of knuckles rapping on tables, which is the German academic equivalent of applause.

At the next break, two men came up and gave me their business card. One was the general counsel and the other, a Dr. Harald Rieger, a member of the legal department of a company called Metallgesellschaft AG, or MG for short, then the 14th largest company in Germany. After introducing themselves, Dr. Rieger said they’d like to work with me in the United States. Shortly after that, I visited the MG offices, and the first matters began to come in.

The whole Kaye Scholer team soon learned about MG becoming a new client. Shortly after we returned to New York, the senior corporate lawyer who’d participated in the Frankfurt program called me into his office. An imposing man with a Phi Beta Kappa key on his vest, he came directly to the point: “We need to talk about the origination credit for MG.” He had the air of a man about to take candy from a baby.

I was flabbergasted. “What’s there to talk about? They approached me personally after my talk and said they wanted to work with me. I obviously originated this client.”

“Still,” he said, “this could be a big deal. It needs to be discussed.”

I left his office and went directly to see Handler. He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it.” I don’t know what happened after that, but I submitted a new client form with myself as sole origination partner, and I never heard another word about it.

Thus began a career

After that, I began getting invited to speak at programs sponsored by other German business and professional associations, and my network of clients expanded.

As I spent more time in Europe, I gradually began to internalize aspects of German culture. For example, colleagues within a company who’d known each other for years and were quite friendly would, at least at that time, use the formal “Sie” and address each other as “Doctor” or “Herr” so-and-so. And going from one step to another of increasing intimacy was generally accompanied by a small ceremony. So a German friend might at some point in our relationship lift his glass and say, “auf Michael und Harald,” which was an invitation to use first names, but not yet the familiar “Du,” which required a separate invitation and another drinking ceremony.

My German business continued to develop. Then, on the morning of Dec. 7, 1993, I got a call from Harald Rieger. He told me that a member of the MG management board, called the Vorstand, was at MG’s U.S. subsidiary, MG Corp., a few blocks from my office. “Please go over right away. He needs your help.”

It turned out that MG Corp., which traded and marketed various oil products, had incurred losses in the billions. A morass of self-dealing and uneconomic contracts, “hedged” with a flawed trading strategy that produced even greater losses, threatened the solvency of MG as a whole. The top management of MG Corp. was quickly replaced. With a number of my partners from Kaye Scholer, we worked with the new management to save the company, which involved a multiplicity of litigations and transactions.

From business come friendships

During the months that followed, I spent a great deal of time in Germany advising the leadership of the German parent. Harald, who became a member of the Vorstand around this time, wrote an account of our combined efforts, which he titled, “The Overcoming of a Crisis.” The whole atmosphere was like that of a country under siege, and many of those I worked with at the time became good friends.

I remember in particular one dinner I had in Frankfurt during this period with Harald and a business advisor, an American woman who also spoke fluent German. She asked Harald and me how long we’d known each other. We told her it had been nearly 20 years.

“So how come you still address each other as Sie?” she asked. Harald and I looked at each other, and I smiled, raised my wine glass, looked Harald in the eye, and said, “Auf Du.” Harald smiled broadly, his eyes crinkled, and he raised his glass to mine: “Auf Du.”

When I celebrated my 80th birthday, and as he does every year, Harald sent me a note reminiscing about the highlights of our 45-year friendship, including that evening when, at our colleague’s prompting, we finally became Du-friends. After that, we shared many personal as well as business experiences together, including major birthday celebrations, occasional seders and other events at our home, and other visits on one side of the Atlantic or the other.

In more recent years, until COVID-19 stopped us, Harald and I would join another former MG lawyer for hiking trips in various Eastern European countries—which, as the years passed, tended to include more good food and wine than walking.

As I now look back on my international legal career, the individual cases and transactions are something of a blur. But the friendships, and the sharing of experiences that went with them, are forever.