“The most important thing you can do for a client is be there,” says Kenneth A. Lefkowitz ’83, a partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed who has worked on mergers and acquisition deals with such giants as Viacom, CBS, and major airlines in his twenty-eight years as a transactional lawyer at the firm.
“I still have my first client, the National League for Nursing,” he says proudly. He got the small not-for-profit on a cold call in 1993, the same year he made partner, and he still gives it the same star treatment all his clients get. “The CEO told me, ‘Ken, it’s amazing that whenever I call—even if you’re working on a million dollar deal—I hear back in two minutes,’” relates Lefkowitz. “For me, that was heartwarming.”
“Ken’s a force of nature,” says Tom Schueller, a retired Hughes Hubbard partner whom Lefkowitz calls his mentor. “He’s a can-do guy, passionate about what he does. He can do it all and is available all the time—yet he’s a regular guy. That’s why clients love him.”
What Lefkowitz loves most is doing deals. A self-described “deal junkie,” he says: “What’s interesting to me is they are so varied and you get to form relationships with so many different types of people. That’s what makes it fun.”
In a deal that propelled his career forward in the late 1980s he represented Eastern Airlines—then led by charismatic CEO Frank Lorenzo—when it sold its Eastern Shuttle to Donald Trump. While working to complete the deal, Lefkowitz’s negotiating team took a 2:00 a.m. break. “Someone picked up a copy of that morning’s New York Times,” Lefkowitz recalls. “The headline read: ‘Lorenzo and Trump to Sign Deal on Shuttle This A.M.’ That surprised us. We were nowhere near signing.” But with the pressure on, they did sign, ironing out the details later.
“We had a closing party on the Trump Princess, Donald’s 280- foot yacht,” recalls Lefkowitz. “It was the most luxurious thing I’d been on in my life.” He remembers a discothèque, with images of Trump and his wife, Ivana, flashing on the ceiling while guests boogied between glasses of Dom Perignon.
As a young man Lefkowitz went straight from college (Tufts) to the Law School in 1980, choosing it over places like Georgetown because “Cornell was small, in a real college town, had a great reputation, and was great at helping its graduates get jobs at Wall Street law firms,” he says. “I really liked corporate law and thought it was a good career path. Unlike litigation, you get to be out there with clients early in your career.”
He got interested in M&A deals during several summer internships at Skadden Arps. Hoping he’d become an associate, friends at the firm suggested he try a short stint at Hughes Hubbard first. “Twenty-eight years later here I sit,” says Lefkowitz, who now is deputy chair of Hughes Hubbard and co-chair of its corporate group in addition to his demanding M&A practice there.
On his success, Lefkowitz says: “I’ve been blessed with incredible mentors who have given me opportunities; clients who have stayed with me even when they’ve changed employers; and colleagues who make me look good.”
Lefkowitz was back at the Law School last fall to participate in the Transactional Lawyering Competition as a judge. “I thought it was phenomenal,” he says. “The students did a great job, and it was great for alumni participants. No other law school I know has anything like it. I wish we’d had it when I was a student.“
His advice to young corporate lawyers starting out: “Our business is completely a service business. If you don’t answer a call immediately, that’s the thing clients are going to remember no matter how hard you’ve worked for them.”