An Interview with Kenneth J. Bialkin

Kenneth Bialkin is synonymous with leadership in American business, law, and the Jewish community.

Of counsel at Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Bialkin has spent a lifetime building a thriving corporate and securities law practice, and, at the same time, serving as chairman to some of the top Jewish organizations. From 1982–1986, he was the national chair to the Anti-Defamation League; from 1984–1986, he served as chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; from 1989–1992, he was president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and from 1996 to the present, Bialkin is chair of the America-Israel Friendship League.

Not only has he served the Jewish world, he’s been just as active in the legal world. He’s served on numerous committees at the ABA and advisory committees of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the New York Stock Exchange, and the American Stock Exchange.

In his legal career, he has been involved in some of the largest insurance company mergers and acquisitions in the United States. In 1995, he represented Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in its merger with New England Mutual Life Insurance Company. He also represented Travelers Group in its $4 billion acquisition of Aetna’s property-casualty operations and in financing transactions related to the acquisition.

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For most of your life you’ve been involved in supporting and advocating for the Jewish population. Can you talk about how you first got involved with this project?

I grew up in New York City, during World War II. I was too young to serve, but I became vaguely aware of anti-Semitism, and then learned about the Holocaust and the way Jews were treated in Nazi Germany and elsewhere. When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, I was 20 years old. In 1959 my wife and I went as tourists to Israel. We didn’t know anybody, but we met a lot of people. The whole population of the country was less than a million at the time, and in many ways it was a primitive society and a very poor one. That touched me, realizing that so many of the people there were refugees from the Holocaust and World War II.

When I returned, I began to read more about Jewish history. I saw that the people of Israel were fighting my fight. What is my fight? Anti-Semitism. The less than one million people who were in Israel were really the first line of survival of the Jewish people. I came to learn that I am a member of the Jewish people and that I can see myself voluntarily as being in the line of David, Abraham, Jesus. That’s a very nice line to be a part of. And so I view Jews of today as the survivors of the periods of history, in which they weren’t always so welcome.

How did you first become involved with the Anti-Defamation League? Then become its chair?

In New York, I met Nathan Perlmutter, who was a lawyer, a former heroic marine, and head of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, which is now called the Anti-Defamation League or ADL. He enlisted me as a lay person to be a member of the ADL. The ADL is a political action group, designed to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure the benefits of American identity for everyone. I went up the ladder, so to speak, becoming involved in their activities, until the day I became the national chairman.

How did you become first become involved with the America-Israel Friendship League?

The American-Israel Friendship League was originated by U.S. Congressman Herbert Tenzer from New York. He was very popular congressional representative. He became chairman of the Federal Regulation Securities committee, of which I was a member. That’s how we first met. He introduced me to the AIF, and, like the ADL, I worked my way up the ladder.

What is your vision for a Jerusalem today and how are you working to achieve that vision?

Jerusalem is the heart and soul of the Jewish people. It is also a holy place for Muslims because it’s from Jerusalem that Muhammad escalated to the heavens. It’s a holy place for the Palestinians, even though we could talk a long time about who are the real Palestinians. They are not actually a people, but they call themselves Palestinians. They exist and you can’t pretend they don’t. Any group of people who exist and organize is entitled to put their cause forward and compete in the public marketplace of ideas and seek support.

There are the different claims of historical and religious claims to Jerusalem, all of which have the right to be heard, and all of which have the right to advocate for their desired sovereignty and leadership. That has to be worked out. The state of Israel has as its capital Jerusalem. The Jews will never leave it, they will never abandon it, but they have made it clear that they will negotiate with other people, namely the Palestinians, who say they have similar claims.

All the people who live there have to find a way of living together, of hearing each other’s arguments and resolving them in a peaceful manner. That’s what I advocate. Now what am I going to predict about Jerusalem? I predict there is no way of getting Israel out of it, and there’s probably no way of getting the Muslims out of it. So they had better get together and find a way of separating, the way people in America, who have different backgrounds and different religions, separate and yet live and share principles which are holy to all of us. I don’t want to sound like a naive preacher, but that’s the reality of where it is.

How did you first become involved with the ABA?

I met Sam Harris, who had been a partner of the Fried Frank firm. He was chairman of the Corporation Business and Banking Law Section, which was the name prior to it being called the Business Law Section. Back then, the section was 15 or 20 people. It grew because the economy grew, the banking world grew, the investment bankers expanded.

I moved from one leadership position to another in the ABA. At one point, I became chairman of a subcommittee, then I became chairman of the Committee on Federal Regulation of Securities, a section of the Business Law, then I became chairman of the Section of Corporation Banking in Business Law. Finally, chair of the Section of Business Law. I guess you could call me an ABA junkie.

How did you choose to focus your practice on corporate and security matters?

When I started college at the University of Michigan, I registered as a major in physics in 1947, but when I started, there were no physics courses available. So I took general courses. I went to Harvard Law School and became a young lawyer at the Willkie Farr firm. When I came to work the first day, one of the managing partners said to me, “What I want you to do is go read the New York and Delaware Corporation statute laws, read the laws of the states, follow the laws of securities law, because we’re going to be assigning you to that kind of work.” Being an obedient person I did that. I tried to make myself knowledgeable of the corporate world. I joined the New York City bar, I joined the New York County Lawyers, I joined the ABA.

The president of the New York County Lawyers Association was a partner at Willkie Farr named Mark Hughes who said to me, “Look, you’re active in the securities law now, why don’t you organize a Securities Law Committee with the New York County Lawyers Association?” So I did. I was also a member of the ABA Committee on Securities Law. I became active in the field of mutual funds and investment companies, so I became an expert on investment companies. My first ABA job was to be chairman of the Investment Company Committee of the Corporation of Business Law Section.

Did you get practical experience early on in your career that suggested you’d be good at it?

One day a senior partner sent me to Ohio where there was a company called Alside, which was going to go public. My firm represented the underwriter at that public offering. I was a very green lawyer. I met the owners of the company and we had a very successful underwriting, after which the company asked me to be a member of the board of directors of Alside, which I agreed to.

I was then assigned to another hot company called Leasco, one of the first computer leasing companies. Leasco became Leasco Data Processing and then they took over Reliance Insurance and I happened to be the lawyer for all of their takeovers.

I also got into SEC work. At that time, the bar associations generally didn’t accept government lawyers to the substantive bar committees. In the Securities Law Committee, which I came to chair, we didn’t have anybody who was working for the SEC. Then a remarkable idea came to my predecessor: why don’t we admit SEC lawyers to our ABA committee? There were pros and cons, because you invite the regulator into your home, it’s like letting the fox into the chicken house. But we overcame that and we decided that our section and our committee would accept members who worked for the SEC. It was a very good move, because it permitted many, many lawyers to develop personal relations with the regulator.

Given your many years of practice, what advice would you give to a new lawyer about how to build a book of business?

The most important thing is to work hard at your job, become expert in the body of law and practice, and learn about the businesses that your clients are engaged in. Too many lawyers don’t do that. They think that simply being a lawyer without having to understand the business, the market problems, the economic problems, and the political problems that your clients deal with. You have to be more than an SEC expert.

I wrote an essay once, for a book put out by the PLI on securities underwriting. In this essay, I advised young lawyers to open a brokerage account and hire and broker and learn how to buy and sell securities for your own account. If you want to trade, you have to learn about trading, if you want to short sales, you have to learn about short sales. If you want to speculate, you can buy puts or calls or strips and stripes or in different securities devices.

I would advise young lawyers to gain experience on their own, to invest small amounts of money. Never, never, never borrow any money, unless you know you won’t miss a margin call. But that’s not what I would advise for a young lawyer.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I grew up a very privileged person. I received a New York City public school education in the Bronx which got me through college and it got me through law school. Along the way, I realized there are two kinds of people in this world; those who when they are asked something, they always say no or find a reason why what they heard was wrong or they disagree with it. And there are other people who have a more open mind, who try to find a way to agree with people, maybe skeptically, who talk to you. Looking back on it, I always wanted to learn as much as I could from as many people as I thought could teach me something. I wanted to have friends and to have a friend you have to be a friend. I tried along the way to like people, which I do.

I believe when you translate that into the practice of law, my advice has always been if you can’t find a way of liking your client don’t be his lawyer. You don’t have to be a love mate of your client. But if you can’t have a cordial, friendly, positive relationship with your client—I can’t prove this statically—your success ratio will not thrive, and you shouldn’t represent that client.

Thank you for much for your time!

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