Tribute To Robert Morvillo, Pioneer Defender Of White-Collar Defendants

Thursday, January 19, 2012 - 15:19

Robert Morvillo, lead partner in the firm Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello & Bohrer, P.C., passed away on December 24, 2011, leaving an outstanding legacy as a defender of outstanding celebrities such as Martha Stewart, John A. Zaccaro (Geraldine Ferraro’s husband) and Maurice Greenburg of AIG. But the vast majority of his legal legacy is filled with cases that never came to trial – so astute was he in persuading prosecutors of his client’s innocence.

Commencing his legal career after Columbia Law School by clerking for New York Southern District Judge William B. Herlands, Robert Morvillo later took a position in the U.S. attorney's office headed by Robert Morgenthau, where he became head of the securities fraud unit and then of its Criminal Division.

In 1973, he joined the offices of Martin & Obermaier, which became the nucleus for his present firm. The firm pioneered in the area of white-collar defense, an area that white-shoe firms at that time eschewed (but which today is a part of every leading law firm).

We had the honor of interviewing his son Christopher (Chris) Morvillo for this tribute. Because of the close family ties between the four Morvillo sons and their parents, their father’s ability to separate his work life from his family life throughout their years of growing up, the culmination of their decisions to enter the legal profession and finally the fact that all four sons (Chris, Greg, Scott and Rob) chose to work initially in their father’s firm in pursuing the same discipline of defending against charges of white-collar crime makes for a kind of story-book legend. Regardless of whom he was representing, the fact that each of his sons had chosen to spend some of his professional career working with him was one of the joys of his life.

We asked Chris how much of his father’s influence had inspired him to follow his current career path.

He responded, “My father loved his job, was passionate about the legal profession, and it was infectious for us to be around him. There was never a moment’s doubt in my father’s mind from his early time as a law clerk and later as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office that he had chosen the right profession – he wore it on his sleeve!

“As we were growing up, we would gather at the dinner table to hear stories of his cases - both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney - that he enthusiastically recited (in sanitized versions for young ears). He made his job sound like a treasure hunt for facts or law, following clues and leads to unearth the proper legal argument or way of viewing a particular situation.  He was far from one-dimensional, however, as he always managed to achieve great balance in his life in making sure that he was available to coach a team for one of us and that he was at home on weekends and often for dinner. He had terrific balance in his life – a fulfilling professional life, a great approach to family life and wonderful rapport with his friends.”

According to Chris, the professional choice of each of the Morvillo sons was dictated by the overwhelming influence that their father had because of his own satisfaction professionally, but also “perhaps it was part of our DNA.” All of the Morvillo sons chose the same sector of the law. “Following in his professional footsteps (even working at his firm for several years) while independently rewarding, has made it tough in some respects for us to step out of his shadow and stand on our own reputations. But the benefits of having had him as a mentor far outweigh any of the negative consequences.

“When I was thinking about going to law school,” Chris remarked, “I asked my father why he enjoyed his job. He responded that what he loved about his job was that every case was different; one day he might be dealing with art fraud, requiring that he learn about the artist and his style, while another case might involve insider trading, requiring that he research a particular stock transaction or company. Every case was a new opportunity and challenge for him - like reading a book for the first time. There was always something to learn.”

We asked Chris which of his father’s cases gave him the greatest satisfaction.

“Many of his cases brought him a great deal of satisfaction on a variety of levels – whether it was an interesting client or subject matter or fun legal issue – but many also brought an enormous amount of pressure, as you can imagine would be the case when you are representing people facing possible criminal charges and incarceration,” Chris replied. “The high-profile cases were a whole different beast; the pressure of representing someone like Martha Stewart in a high-profile media circus is fraught with issues that never enter the calculus of a garden-variety white-collar case. There were many high-profile cases that never came to light because they were disposed of appropriately. But, regardless of his client, his guiding principal in every case was providing them with the most zealous and effective representation while at the same time never compromising his strong ethical code."

In describing Robert Morvillo, Judge Jed S. Rakoff spoke of his “tactical brilliance.” We asked Chris to give us an example of this attribute.

“My father had an uncanny ability to look at a hornet’s nest of regulatory or factual issues, filter out the noise, and hone in on the key fact or legal issue that would drive how a case was handled or resolved. Then he would reverse engineer a strategy from that point to neutralize his adversary’s case. People often said that he saw the chessboard differently and more deeply than others such that he was able to anticipate how people would make their moves and then counter their moves before they even knew they were being countered. He enjoyed outsmarting his adversary, though given his brilliance and dedication, it often wasn't a fair fight.”

Sadly, the law has lost one of its most notable sons. His legacy will long continue.

                                                                                              The Editor