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An Afternoon With Ed Hayes, Celebrated Litigator and Memoirist

Edward Hayes (on The Charlie Rose Show)

What draws people to the practice of law? Some do it for the paycheck, some do it for the prestige, and some do it for the excitement and fun of it all.

Veteran New York litigator Edward Hayes belongs firmly in the final camp. Although he has amassed fame and fortune over almost four decades of practicing law, his legal career reflects a quest for adventure.

And what adventures Hayes has had. After graduating from the University of Virginia and Columbia Law School, he joined the Bronx District Attorney’s office, where he prosecuted homicides (which there was no shortage of in the Bronx in the 1970s). He then launched his own practice, handling civil and criminal matters for such clients as the estate of Andy Warhol, notorious “Mafia cop” Stephen Caracappa, acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind, actor Robert De Niro, celebrity editrices Anna Wintour and Tina Brown, billionaire publisher Si Newhouse, and then-paramours Sean Combs and Jennifer Lopez (after they were arrested together back in 1999).

Eddie Hayes has even found his way into literature. He served as the basis for Tommy Killian, Sherman McCoy’s defense lawyer in Tom Wolfe’s great novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe dedicated the book to Hayes, a close friend of his for many years.

This past summer, I enjoyed the privilege of spending a day with Ed Hayes. We met up at Penn Station and took the train out to his vacation home in Bellport, Long Island, where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch, dining outdoors and overlooking the water. (There are Lawyerly Lairs-style photos of his house, after the jump.)

During our time together, Hayes reminisced about his extraordinary life in the law, offered career advice for fellow lawyers, and showed me how to properly prepare a caprese salad….

Instead of conducting a conventional interview in his Madison Avenue office, Hayes suggested that we take a day trip out to his weekend home out in Bellport, where he spends a lot of time over the summer, and have lunch there. This sounded like fun to me — and I was going out to Long Island around that time anyway, to spend a long weekend on Fire Island — so I readily agreed.

We met up on a Thursday morning in August at Penn Station, to pick up the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) train. Hayes — who spends significant amounts of time at the gym, dating back to his days as a homicide prosecutor in the Bronx — is tan and fit, more muscular than slender. That day he was looking casually dapper, in khaki pants, a blue polo shirt, and a seersucker jacket.

(Hayes is something of a dandy, with a large collection of bespoke suits, handmade shoes, and glittering cufflinks. In 1994, he was inducted into Vanity Fair’s International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame, “the highest honor a sartorial savant can receive.”)

Before we met up, I read Hayes’s excellent, critically acclaimed memoir, Mouthpiece: A Life in — and Sometimes Just Outside — the Law. The book describes Hayes’s difficult childhood, with an abusive, alcoholic father; his college and law school years, at the University of Virginia and Columbia, respectively; his years as a homicide prosecutor in the Bronx; and, finally, his long and colorful career in private practice.

I asked Hayes for an update: what has happened in his life and career since the publication of his memoir in 2006?

The biggest matter that he has worked on since 2006, and one of the biggest matters of his career, for that matter, was the headline-grabbing “Mafia Cops” case. Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, two former detectives who worked on organized crime cases for the New York Police Department (NYPD), were accused of working for the Mob instead of busting it — providing the Mafia with inside information about law enforcement activities and even carrying out hits for the Mob, in exchange for cash compensation.

Hayes represented Caracappa and Bruce Cutler, another one of Manhattan’s most prominent practitioners, represented Eppolito. The trial lasted three weeks and was a difficult one for the defense, due to the amount of evidence against the two men. Hayes recalled to me that when one government witness began testifying about digging a hole for the body of a Mafia Cop victim, Hayes leaned over to Cutler and whispered, “Bruce, this is not going well.”

Despite the challenges for the defense, the jurors in the case were impressed by Hayes. As one of them told the New York Times, Hayes was an “extraordinary lawyer…. I would have him in my corner any day. Maybe if he had a little bit more to work with, he could have turned it around.”

In the end, Hayes and Cutler were not able to turn it around — and after Caracappa and Eppolito were convicted, they turned on their trial lawyers, arguing that Cutler and Hayes were incompetent. These claims failed, not surprisingly, and the Mafia Cops are now serving life sentences in federal prison.

“My client was a cold-blooded man,” Hayes said of Caracappa. “He liked shooting guys in the head. Sure, they [Caracappa and Eppolito] liked the money; but some people just like shooting people in the head.”

“He’s not a stupid man,” Hayes added of his former client. “In fact, he’s a very bright man. But now he’s serving life without parole. It’s a hard life. A maximum-security prison. The food is not good.”

Daniel Libeskind

Not all of Hayes’s cases are quite this dark. His practice these days is split about 50-50 between criminal work and civil work. In fact, Hayes noted, out of the three biggest matters of his career, two were civil: his representation of the Warhol estate, an epic undertaking that he chronicles in Mouthpiece, and his work on behalf of celebrated architect Daniel Libeskind.

Hayes described Libeskind as one of his favorite clients. “The parties were very adversarial,” Hayes explained, discussing the contentious negotiations over Ground Zero rebuilding. “I got involved because I wanted to help my client and to help the city.”

Given Hayes’s star-studded list of clients, I couldn’t resist playing a “celebrity speed round” with him. I asked him, in rapid-fire succession, about various famous figures he’s interacted with or represented over the years.

  • Lizzie Grubman? “Great work ethic.”
  • Jennifer Lopez? “Very seductive, very persuasive.”
  • Robert De Niro? “Dedicated to his children, to his community.”

Many of his non-celebrity clients are colorful characters as well. For example, right now Hayes is representing a Hasidic Jew who’s accused of running a brothel.

“It’s not a confessional, but it is a strip club,” Hayes explained. “Talking to a Hasidic Jew who owns a strip club is an interesting way to spend an hour.”

Although he loves to work on high-profile, headline-generating cases, Hayes also needs to pay the bills, of course. Even a celebrity lawyer with celebrity clients must pay attention to the business aspects of legal practice.

“I’m always trying to improve my cash flow,” Hayes said. “I’m the kind of guy who can make $9 and spend $15. So I’m constantly looking out for business, and setting fees, and collecting fees. It can be complex.”

Business generation is important, according to Hayes, but it isn’t always fun. “I’m a great business getter, except I don’t always do it. It’s hard for me to spend time with people I don’t like or to see clients I don’t like.”

His advice for fellow lawyers looking to build a book of business is straightforward: “The most important business generation tip is to pay attention to your client’s needs, big and small. If you’re nice to people, you’ll get clients.”

People you meet through social activities can become your clients. As a prosecutor and then as a young lawyer in private practice, Hayes used to go out a lot and enjoy the New York nightlife (which he recounts in his memoir, including an interesting encounter with a transsexual). Through this socializing, Hayes met many club owners, and he has carved out a niche practice representing owners of nightlife establishments.

Having many individual clients can be great fun, especially when they are creative or colorful people. But it does make for some ups and downs in practice. “I have some corporate clients, but I do wish I had more,” said Hayes. “It would mean more stable income flow.”

In terms of fee arrangements, Hayes takes a variety of approaches. He often charges a retainer, sometimes non-refundable, and then bills hourly after the retainer is exhausted. Sometimes he charges a percentage of the matter at issue, which he likes because it aligns his interest with that of the client.

As for his office staff, Hayes runs a fairly lean operation. He has one associate, Rebecca Sendker, whom he describes as “very bright” and “a great writer,” and several high school kids who run errands, make photocopies, and perform similar tasks.

It’s a very different world from that of large law firms, aka Biglaw — and Hayes likes it that way. As recounted in his memoir, he went up against Skadden Arps when he represented the Andy Warhol estate. It was not a fun experience, due in part to what Hayes views as underhanded behavior on the part of Skadden lawyers. As Hayes wrote in Mouthpiece, the Warhol litigation taught him that “the universe of New York’s cultural elite, fancy auction houses, and slick corporate lawyers who represent them is even sleazier, more scheming, more conniving, and far more treacherous than anything I’ve encountered in the crime business.”

Hayes does have a fair amount of respect for some of the lawyers at mega-firms. He’s just not a fan of Biglaw culture.

“Large firms are full of very bright, capable people,” he told me. “There’s a lot of intense thinking. But it’s not an environment for charm or graciousness…. The way they compete with each other internally is striking. The guy in the office next door is your enemy.”

And don’t get him started on the fashion sense — or lack thereof — of Biglaw: “There are some terrible dressers at big firms! They must go to a special school to learn how to dress that badly.”

Or perhaps they just don’t have the time to focus on matters sartorial? In Hayes’s view, working at a large firm isn’t very conducive to, well, having a life: “You join one of these firms right out of law school. You’re 26 and billing 70 hours a week. How do you have time for love affairs? How do you have time to go to the gym? How do you stay married when you’re married to your job? Some lawyers wake up at age 40 and ask, ‘Why isn’t my life fulfilling?'”

Citing reports of some lawyers billing in excess of 3500 hours annually, Hayes wondered: “Billing 3600 hours a year — how the f**k do you do that?”

This discussion led naturally into a broader inquiry: Why are lawyers so miserable? Hayes offered several theories.

“First, much of the work is tedious. Second, hourly billing is terrible for morale. It’s not human to account for what you’re doing every six minutes. Keeping track of every phone call, every time you wake up at night thinking about a client’s problems — it’s horrible. And it sends the message to young lawyers that billing more hours will make you more money, instead of encouraging a good fast result. Third, it can be so adversarial. The best way to go through life is to avoid problems. Blood is bad for business.”

But conflict can’t always be avoided, Hayes conceded: “Sometimes you have no choice. Sometimes you have to make people bleed.”

In light of the challenges of legal practice, what advice would Hayes offer to people considering law school and legal careers?

“To go to law school, you need to have a sense of what you want to do,” he said. “Read about what lawyers do. Talk to lawyers. Take classes on the law. Read blogs about the law — these weren’t available before, and they can educate you about the profession.”

As our train ride concluded, I asked Hayes: what advice would you give to a young lawyer who aspires to a career like yours?

“Get burned, come up as hard as you can, and whatever door has the most excitement behind it — pick that door.”

Photographs from my day with Eddie Hayes — including pictures of his home in Bellport, and the delicious caprese salad that he prepared — appear on subsequent pages, with commentary. If you’d like to read more about Hayes, the final page collects links to additional references, including his excellent memoir, Mouthpiece: A Life in — and Sometimes Just Outside — the Law.

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