Advocating Differences: From Hell's Kitchen To Park Avenue

Sunday, February 1, 2009 - 00:00

The Editor interviews James S. Carr, Partner, Kelley Drye & Warren LLP.

Mr. Carr is the Chair of the Bankruptcy and Restructuring Practice Group. His practice focuses on all aspects of corporate bankruptcy, with an emphasis on creditor representations for companies in the petroleum, energy, chemical, retail and airline industries.

Editor: Jim, can you describe your position at the firm today?

Carr: I have been practicing law for 22 years. I'm chair of Kelley Drye's bankruptcy department and a member of the firm's executive committee. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame School of Law in 1987, and after completing a one year judicial clerkship, I joined Kelley Drye as an associate in the Litigation Department.

Editor: From our earlier conversation, I've gathered that you have had quite an "amazing ride" to where you are now in a comfortable, modern Park Avenue office. Can you tell us about your journey - where you traveled from to reach where you are today?

Carr: Life began for me not on Park Avenue, but in Hell's Kitchen - on 43rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. Although Hell's Kitchen is now a rather trendy area near Broadway, with the theater district and 42nd Avenue - it wasn't always that way. It used to be a part of New York City that in the 1960s was a very poor, drug-infested, dangerous neighborhood run by an Irish gang called the Westies. In fact, much of the ethnic tension that pervaded my neighborhood inspired the musical West Side Story.

Editor: What about your family life and how you grew up?

Carr: I was born into a family which struggled with hardships. Both of my parents battled with alcohol issues and my mother left my three brothers, one sister and me. After I was born, I, along with my sister, was sent to live with my grandmother, who immigrated with my grandfather from Cuba. I was the youngest member of the household. I was raised by my grandmother until I was in the second grade, when I was sent to live with my older cousins in New Jersey. They were in essence my adoptive parents. Neither of them had even a high school degree, but they were good, honest, hard working and street smart people. They taught me how to survive and how to work hard.

When I was 16 years old, I received my union card as a result of the many years that my grandmother worked at the NY Times as a cleaning lady. I had 11 relatives in the union and when I told my grandmother that I was going to college, she was dumbfounded. She couldn't understand why anyone with a union card would have any greater aspirations.

Editor: Does your background highlight how "diversity," itself, can have several meanings?

Carr: Yes. I think there are many ways in which people's differences bring strengths to the work they do and to their work environment. All differences, whether they are racial, ethnic, socio-economic, religious or of sexual orientation, give people different perspectives that help us gain greater understanding, and help us be more effective lawyers. Similarly, our clients are also very diverse and have a wide variety of backgrounds. They appreciate diverse lawyers, with differences in opinions, ideas, thoughts and personalities.

Editor: How do you relate your successful practice as a lawyer to the challenges you faced early in life?

Carr: To overcome my challenges, I knew I had to be competitive, I had to be innovative and I had to work hard.

I've been competing my whole life - starting from Hell's Kitchen and what I lived through, then moving as a young child, trying to fit into an adoptive family, a new school and neighborhood, as a young man to get into the union and to earn money so I could pay for both college and law school, and now as a lawyer, in a profession where you really have to prove yourself to your clients every day.

Editor: Tell us more about how your career in law began.

Carr: I was initially interested in going into public service. At the time, I thought the best route to that goal was to follow in the footsteps of a number of successful, high-profile politicians and to get a job in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan in the Southern District of New York. However, that office was looking for lawyers who had a few years of experience, so in law school I interviewed with a number of law firms

I chose Kelley Drye because it did "Wall Street," top-tier work, but it wasn't elitist. In other words, I felt that I fit in. It also had and still has a tremendous reputation for litigation work. Then and still, we have a lot of people in this firm who are first generation lawyers - smart, hard working and ambitious - but most importantly they are not constrained by a firm culture that hampers their ability to be themselves.

When I first started at Kelley Drye, I tried to figure out what makes partners successful. Did they all dress alike? Do they all wear blue ties? Blue dresses? What I soon realized, though, was that among the partners there were different kinds of styles, personalities and backgrounds, but they all shared certain traits - they all brought clients to the firm and had an unquestionable commitment to providing excellent legal services.

Editor: Since you did not have contacts, family connections and some of the other traditional ways of networking, how did you go about developing business?

Carr: I started to build my client base by talking to the credit analysts of potential clients. I explained basic bankruptcy concepts to them and let them know that if they had any questions, they could give me a call.

Credit analysts generally report to the credit managers who report to CFOs. Word about my advice traveled up the management chain and I soon found myself talking to the people in higher levels of management. I started to get invited to companies to give presentations on creditor related issues in bankruptcy. I also sought out opportunities to speak at business associations of all kinds. There are trade and other associations serving almost every industry.

All along, I had the support of partners in the practice group. That's one piece of advice I would give a young lawyer - get a mentor, someone whose style is like yours, who is having the kind of life you want to have, and who is willing to give advice.

Editor: Now, you've developed a highly sophisticated book of business - certainly quite a world away from the Hell's Kitchen that you described. Publications such as The Deal and Chambers USA have selected you as one of New York's leading bankruptcy attorneys. What are some of the types of matters you handle?

Carr: I have had long-term attorney-client relationships with a number of clients, such as one of the world's largest integrated oil, energy, chemical companies and a major developer of shopping centers. I handle certain highly sophisticated derivative agreements, working with investments in commodities and innovative financial instruments to help clients minimize their exposure to companies which are not performing well financially. It's genuinely an interesting, fast-paced and intellectually stimulating job. It's extremely rewarding and fulfilling to have these professional relationships and the confidence of my clients, and to assist them with their business goals.

My practice also is varied in that I represent both lenders and borrowers in real estate work-outs, bondholders and indenture trustees, secured and unsecured creditors, purchasers of bankrupt companies, creditors committees in chapter 11 cases and ad hoc committees in out-of-court work-outs.

Editor: Now, in today's economy bankruptcy practices have become more historically relevant and active than ever before. Can you describe some of your very recent cases that reflect what is going on in the bankruptcy world?

Carr: The bankruptcy world is very different today. A lack of capital has made it very difficult for companies to emerge from bankruptcy as a going concern. As a lawyer who represents major creditors in many high profile cases, we try to take an active role in assisting the debtor to develop a feasible exit strategy from bankruptcy.

One example is the Wellman, Inc. bankruptcy case that is pending here in New York. Wellman confirmed its plan of reorganization in January 2009, having filed for bankruptcy in February 2008. I represented the largest unsecured creditor in that case with a $46 million claim and my client also provided the raw product that allowed Wellman to manufacture plastic bottles. The case was on the verge of liquidation a few times. The major parties - Wellman, the first term lien holders, the second term lien holders, the committee and my client - refused to give up. We had numerous meetings during the last four months to formulate a plan that would allow Wellman to emerge from bankruptcy as a financially healthy company while at the same time trying to address the needs of these major parties. We ultimately developed a very creative plan of reorganization.

Another recent success was the out-of-court liquidation of CompUSA in which I represented the Ad Hoc Committee of Landlords. My committee, along with Gordon Brothers and counsel for the Ad Hoc Committee of Vendors, liquidated CompUSA's assets and made distributions to all unsecured creditors in less than a year. We just made the final distribution in January. Unsecured creditors received a distribution of 34 percent, which is a far greater result than had CompUSA filed for bankruptcy.

Editor: You clearly have a challenging and leading bankruptcy practice. In going back to how you achieved your goals, you mentioned mentoring. What advice would you give a young person with a background similar to yours?

Carr: My advice to a high school, college, or law school student is, first of all, don't let anyone else outwork you. Second, believe everything is possible - don't cut yourself short because of your background. You may have to work harder, but in our diverse society, there is an American Dream. I know this sounds like a cliché but it's true. Ask Barack Obama.

Third, take control of your life, don't drift along but instead, set goals. Set both long-term and short-term goals. If people only set long-term goals, they don't focus on the immediate issues. If they set only short-term goals, then they don't focus on where they want to go.

Editor: Do you look for people with different backgrounds to add to the strength of Kelley Drye & Warren?

Carr: Yes, and my department has been and continues to be very diverse. Often those who grew up with different backgrounds or in very difficult circumstances and had to work hard to make something of themselves are focused, out-of-the-box thinkers, who persevere with a "can do" attitude. Their perspectives have brought tremendous value to the team.

Please email the interviewee at jcarr@kelleydrye.com with questions about this interview.