The Joy of Practicing Law

Benjamin B. Ferencz

One of the joys of the legal profession is the opportunity to engage in a large variety of activities. Before I even began my law practice in New York, I had been a prosecutor of mass murderers, the administrator of innovative new charitable organizations, and the director of what may have been the largest legal aid society in the world. None of those activities qualified me for the traditional careers that embraced my typical Harvard classmates who joined prestigious law partnerships, became bank presidents, and leaders of their churches and communities. I have no regrets. I cringe when I note advertisements by law firms, with hundreds or even thousands of members, proclaiming their abilities to enrich clients through class actions against defendants with deep pockets. Lawyers (like some corporate executives) seem to have forgotten that they are the servants of shareholders, not their masters. Medical specialists, now known as “Providers,” examine who pays before they examine the patient. Releases from all liability are mandatory, and house calls an anomaly. Of course, there are exceptions, but, if you pardon my repetition, they are only exceptions. I long for the day when one doctor could provide a comprehensive diagnosis and one lawyer could be entrusted with all legal problems of his client. I guess I am just old-fashioned.

There were some occasions in my varied practice when lawyers behaved as lawyers should. One day, a woman entered my office with a rather bizarre story. She had been a nurse in Berlin during the pre-Hitler years. She had fallen in love with a Jewish doctor and, after a romantic courtship, they were wed. Three days later, he put her out and sued for divorce, taking the blame on himself. He began to pay the court designated alimony. After Hitler came to power in 1933, no Jew could practice medicine. Her ex-husband fled to France where, he worked surreptitiously as a hospital surgeon. He continued his alimony payments until he disappeared. The divorced wife never remarried, but after the war, she emigrated to New York. While riding on a bus, she spotted her ex-husband standing on the sidewalk. A search of the phone directory revealed his name right under her own. She did nothing until, some years later, she read his obituary in the New York Times. He had apparently prospered in America, had remarried, and had children. The ex-wife wondered if she had any legal rights to his estate.

My search of official records revealed that when the fugitive doctor had applied for his marriage license in New York, he had stated that he had never been previously married. I also located the name of the lawyer handling the probate of the estate. He was a well-known Harvard attorney who had been a respected judge. I invited him to lunch to discuss the case, and we enjoyed a very pleasant meal at the Harvard club. In due course, I noted that there had been no alimony payments for over 30 years, and the false statement on the marriage license application might cast doubt on the validity of the doctor’s second marriage. The judge responded, as I expected he would, that the validity of the second marriage would probably be upheld. I noted in rebuttal that since the Jewish doctor had been driven out of Germany, he was receiving a pension under the German indemnification laws that I had helped negotiate. His widow in New York was entitled to, and was probably receiving, a reduced amount. If I interceded with the German authorities they would, most likely, honor the Berlin divorce decree and turn the New York widow’s pension into an alimony award with retroactive effect. I did not wish to embarrass his client but, of course, I owed it to my client to explore that possibility.

We both agreed that it might prove very distressing to the widow and the doctor’s family to reveal the undisclosed prior marriage. After several private meetings dealing with rates of exchange, accumulated interest, inflation, and other relevant factors, an agreement was reached. The Judge, correctly labeling it a “claim against the estate,” handed me a check in the amount we both felt would be equitable under the circumstances. No legal action had been commenced, and no papers were filed. When I handed the check over to the former 3-day bride, she was very pleasantly surprised. It was a fair gentlemen’s agreement that benefited both his client and mine. It was the way law should be practiced.

The worst way to practice law is to sit in conferences all day with people who love to sit in conferences all day. To some, it may be welcomed as a fitting substitute for work. For me it was a form of torture.

Perhaps worse than attending conferences was the requirement to attend dinners in honor of various people or occasions. I recall when B’nai B’rith invited me to attend the hundredth anniversary of the order. It was a black tie affair in London’s finest hotel. I carefully dusted off my tuxedo for the festive occasion. While getting dressed for the event, I noticed that I had forgotten to include the bow tie. How can one attend a black-tie event without a black tie? I always felt that putting a noose around one's neck and tightening it was both ridiculous and dangerous. I accepted that tribal custom as an unavoidable price to be paid for living in so-called civilized society. So I cut the center out of another dark tie and fashioned a neat bow around my neck. I just created a new style which caused some strange looks in my direction but the British are too polite to notice such things.

I had also forgotten to include any cuff links. First I tried to roll up my sleeves, but the sleeves were too long and my arms were too short. I found a little B’nai B’rith lapel pin, made of silver and diamond chips fashioned as a menorah, that had been given to me for serving as President of my local lodge. That would make a fine cuff link. But I noticed that I had two arms. For the other cuff I used a twisted paper clip. I thought it quite clever, until a very formal English dowager, who sat on my right, noticed the diamond clip and remarked politely that it was such an appropriate and interesting cuff link. I explained that it was really a lapel button. “Did you have two of them?” she asked. I confessed that I had only one and, in response to her quizzical gaze, I showed her my left wrist where my old paper clip could be seen substituting for the diamond pin. She nearly fainted.

Because of my intensive schedule of travels to Claims Conference meetings and the many United Restitution Organization offices throughout the world, I became well known to hotels in London, Paris, Geneva, Israel, and major German cities. I hated them all. I felt it was demeaning to both giver and receiver to have to “tip” for services already amply overpaid for. I also hated hotel food. I did develop a certain affection for the Piccadilly Hotel in London where they told me they were glad to get rid of me. That unusual confession came about as a result of an unusual ailment.

It may have been the winter of 1958 when I arrived in London with an obvious case of the flu. The doctor at the Piccadilly Hotel ordered me confined to bed for at least 10 days. The participants at the conferences I was unable to attend felt obliged to come by the hotel to wish me a speedy recovery. Each one carried a little gift, such as a jar of delicious pigs feet in aspic, gooseberries vinaigrette, and similar English delicacies that might cause any non-British ailing patient to wish he were dead. I groaned politely and motioned for them to leave these savories on the mantelpiece that unfortunately was visible from my bedside. When any of the maids appeared to clean the room I urged them to please take one of the nauseating gifts away, as a token of my appreciation. Soon my room became a daily shrine of hotel employees inquiring about my health. They were happy to take one of those horrible dishes. After all, they were British.

When, at last, I was relieved from my imprisonment, I went to the manager to pay my bill. He asked politely; “How are you feeling now, Mr. Ferencz?” “Fine, just fine,” I replied, knowing that my mantelpiece had been emptied without my having to even taste any of the poisons there assembled. “Well, said the Manager,” I must say, we are happy to see you go.” I inquired apologetically, “Why is that?” His sad reply was “Half of our staff is out with your flu.” I guess it was something they ate.

On one of my sea voyages to the States, I had as a table companion a pleasant young woman from Holland. I noticed that she wore a Star of David on her bracelet and came to the table carrying a book of Jewish studies. I asked her whether she was Jewish and she answered, “No, but I would like to be.” She explained the strange reply by telling me that she was affianced to a young Englishman whom she was going to visit in South America. They were eager to wed, but his orthodox Jewish parents would only give their blessing if she converted to Judaism. The eager couple had been to see his orthodox rabbi in London who counseled her to study all about the Jewish religion. If she could pass his test he would do whatever rabbis do to switch her from one religion to another. He told her to return after three years.

The passions of youth are hard to restrain. She was understandably quite unhappy about the long wait and I promised to see what I could do to help her. When we got to New York, I phoned a Reform rabbi whom I knew to be quite liberal in his thinking. In fact, he was a former German, and the beneficiary of one of those German pensions that I had arranged for Nazi victims. Feeling indebted, he said I could give her his name and he would see what could be done. Several months later, when I had almost forgotten about her plight, a nice plant was delivered to my office. It was accompanied by a letter from my Dutch acquaintance thanking me profusely for my help. She was passing through New York with her fiancée on her way back to London to get married. With the help of my liberal Rabbi in New York, she had quickly qualified as a certified Jewish convert acceptable even to the orthodox parents in England.

I added the accomplishment to my “Mitzvah File” where I recorded all of my good deeds. You may recall that when I was about 6 years old, my pious grandfather had sold his good deeds to a dying friend who wanted to have them on his record when he faced his Maker. That struck me even then as a very promising business. Besides, you never know when it might come in handy to get a receipt for all good deeds. My “Mitzvah File” was among my papers donated to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, with the story of my playing Cupid among them. It is a story of triumphant love, and the flexibility of the Jewish religion.