Government Problems? Call Ted Wells
Lewis Libby, in big trouble, knew where to turn
Published in 2006 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on July 18, 2006
Updated on March 24, 2011
It is shortly after 8 a.m. on a gray Saturday on the 26th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. The offices of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison are dark and quiet. Except for one corner office. Light leaks from beneath the closed door. Inside, someone talks on the phone in a low, rumbling voice.
Suddenly the door flies open. “Hey, come on in here. Sorry to keep you waiting. I had to finish that conference call,” says a smiling Ted V. Wells Jr.
That call was a strategy session about Vioxx troubles facing pharmaceutical giant Merck, but it just as easily could have been about environmental lawsuits against ExxonMobil or the criminal charges against former vice presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby, or an assortment of legal problems facing Wells’ many boldfaced-name clients. Wells is the go-to guy for the defense in front-page white-collar criminal cases and complex civil litigation. An appealing part of Wells’ story, and perhaps a big part of his success, is his modest background. Wells does not often sit for interviews. But on this dismal Saturday he reflects on what he’s done, how he’s done it and how others, especially other African Americans, can try to do it too.
Wells and his mother were among the first black families to move into northwest D.C. in the mid-1950s after the Washington school system, one of the defendants in Brown v. Board of Education, was ordered to integrate. Wells absorbed his mother’s lessons well, especially those about working hard and treating people with respect. She worked for decades as a clerk in the mailroom at the U.S. Navy Department, and became an anchor of common sense and stability in a changing and sometimes tumultuous neighborhood. “She’s 83 and she’s lived in the same house for over 50 years,” Wells says. “She’s the unofficial mother to the neighborhood. Everybody calls her Ma Wells.”
By the time he was in high school, the 6-foot-3-inch, 200-plus pound Wells was the star lineman for the Calvin Coolidge Colts, had begun dating his future wife and had already decided to become a lawyer. “I was always arguing about one thing or another,” he recalls. He went to Holy Cross on a football scholarship, and then to Harvard for his law degree and MBA. After a clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for Judge John Gibbons in Newark, N.J., he briefly joined a firm in California but decided the West Coast was too far from home. He took a job at Lowenstein Sandler, a firm in Roseland, N.J., to work under Matthew Boylan, who specialized in white-collar criminal defense. “I watched Matt Boylan,” Wells says, “and I learned everything about how to try cases from him.”
Ted Wells and Nina Mitchell Wells, who also became a lawyer, settled into a comfortable home in comfortable Livingston, N.J., and began raising a family — a girl and a boy. Wells got his big break in the early 1980s when Boylan had a falling-out with his client Harold Ruvoldt, a New Jersey county prosecutor accused of extortion and bribery.
“I want the kid to try my case,” Ruvoldt growled, pointing at Wells, who was then 31. Nobody following the case — in New Jersey, political corruption trials are indeed a spectator sport — expected Ruvoldt to get off. Even if he skated on some of the charges, he’d go down on others. When the jury acquitted Ruvoldt on all charges, the newspapers trumpeted a “stunning” verdict and the defendant proclaimed Wells the best lawyer in the state. Wells’ only comment was that the truth was on his side. But today he acknowledges, “Ruvoldt put me on the map. I rolled right from Ruvoldt into Donovan.”
Raymond Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s labor secretary, was one of several defendants accused of fraud in a 1987 trial lasting eight months. Wells represented the president of Donovan’s construction company but quickly emerged as the lead defense attorney, as much of the evidence focused on his client. Over the course of dozens of cross-examinations, news reports described him “shredding” prosecution witnesses. When the prosecution rested, Wells persuaded the other attorneys and their clients not to put on a defense. “It’s never going to get any better than this,” he told his colleagues. “I can see it in [the jurors’] eyes.” The other defense lawyers agreed, and then sat as Wells closed — for three days, without notes. Wells wept as the verdicts were pronounced: “Not guilty” more than 100 times. The young lawyer drying his eyes was a star.
Through the 1980s and into the ’90s, Wells’ clients included financiers Michael Milken and Michael Steinhardt, hedge fund manager Jay Regan, former Ohio Congresswoman Mary Rose Oaker and Exxon. Since 2000, he’s also represented Monsanto, Johnson & Johnson, Philip Morris and former New Jersey senator Robert Torricelli.
Wells was incensed at the corruption charges against Mike Espy, a black man from Mississippi who served as Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture. Espy may have violated the spirit of the ethics rules by accepting gifts such as tickets to football games from friends, Wells argued, but he did not break any criminal laws. Once again — while the government called 70 witnesses — Wells did not present a defense. Once again, a former cabinet secretary was cleared on all charges. After that verdict, Wells’ firm in New Jersey threw a welcome-home celebration. Espy drove up from Washington for the party. “I owe my soul, my spirit, and my countenance to the Lord,” he proclaimed. “But I owe my freedom to Ted Wells.”
In his 22 years at Lowenstein Sandler, Wells worked with many lawyers from big New York firms, including Paul Weiss’ Arthur Liman, legendary as much for his pro bono work as for his litigation skills. Among other cases, Wells and Liman defended Milken against criminal and civil securities fraud charges. Liman and other partners at other large firms repeatedly tried to recruit Wells. He always said no. He liked his firm and his practice and his life in New Jersey. After Liman died in 1997, however, Paul Weiss began pursuing Wells more intently. One big selling point was the firm’s reputation as the country’s premier litigation firm and its historic civil rights record, including its representation of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Paul Weiss asked Wells to become co-chair of its litigation department. “That was different,” Wells says. “It was something much bigger than just being a partner.”
He was still reluctant, but Nina persuaded him to accept. “She said the kids were gone to college, so they didn’t need me at home in New Jersey,” Wells recalls. “She also said, ‘You know, for years you’ve been challenging the big New York City firms to hire more black lawyers. You keep saying great lawyers don’t have to be white. Here’s your chance to make the point.’ When my wife said that, I had no choice. I had to take the job.” Six years later, overseeing 38 litigation partners and 144 counsel and associates, he has no regrets. “My stage was pretty good in Jersey,” he says, “but there’s no question that moving to Paul Weiss has given me a bigger national footprint.”
Courtroom observers note Wells’ “enormous presence” and “common touch.” One-on-one in his office, it’s easy to appreciate how jurors connect with his folksy, Southern-tinged speech and manner. Some say Wells makes juries feel smart. Wells counters, “That’s because juries are smart.” It helps that Wells makes jurors feel as if he is one of them rather than someone who bills more than $800 an hour. He talks like a very smart regular guy.
Wells, wearing faded jeans and a soft brown shirt, untucked for the kind of look The New York Times once described as his “nonchalant elegance,” glances up from his desk and out the windows that make up two of his office walls. He is literally in the middle of the Manhattan skyline. Just to the east, across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, he can see the luxury building where he keeps an apartment. That’s where he stays during the week unless he’s working on an out-of-state case — in January 2007, he’ll be based in Washington, D.C., for the Libby case. “You ever see that movie Lost in Translation? That was me in Tokyo,” Wells says, grinning. “But I came to love Japan and its people.”
His wife, formerly senior vice president of Public Affairs at Schering-Plough and an assistant dean of Rutgers School of Law, is currently New Jersey’s secretary of state under Gov. Jon Corzine, a longtime family friend. Their daughter Teresa is Corzine’s traveling press secretary, and their son Phillip is a graduate of Georgetown University and a second-year law student at Fordham Law School. Beyond his family, Wells does little socializing. On this particular day, like most days, he works until 9 p.m., though it’s not unusual to see him working past midnight and putting in long hours on the weekends. He slips away for workouts when he can. He takes long walks, jogs when his knees cooperate and lifts three times a week — all to stay fit enough to work so long and hard.
“The life of trial lawyers may seem exciting — on a superficial level,” he says. “But it’s a very work-driven occupation. There’s no quick and easy way to do trial work. There’s always more reading to do, more writing to do, more thinking. Other people don’t see you up all night waiting for that eureka moment that might be the key to your case. You can sit there waiting for months for the theory of your defense to crystallize.” Wells doesn’t like to waste that preparation. “I hate to settle cases,” he says. “I want to fight. Everybody knows I will try the case.”
Amid the framed articles and original courtroom illustrations on Wells’ walls is a sign painted on a weather-beaten board: “We Serve Colored — Carry Out Only.” It reminds Wells of growing up in the 1950s, and the kind of treatment he encountered when visiting relatives in rural Virginia, where his mother grew up on a farm. Much of his pro bono work has been for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, and he now serves as co-chairman of the board. He has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for politicians and charities, often through fundraisers at his Livingston home. In 2000 Wells served as treasurer of former Sen. Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign.
Wells also teaches, not only at Harvard and at ABA courses, but pretty much anywhere he’s asked. A friend recently invited him to talk to the mock trial team at a Catholic girls’ high school. He quizzed them: How will you prepare for cross examination? For closing statements? “The most important thing I can tell you today,” he said, “is don’t use notes. Even in the closing.”
He frames every case as a story. “Trial lawyers are storytellers,” he says. “A good trial lawyer has the ability to construct a story line. Trials are all about competing storylines, and it’s important to get a jury to accept your version.” He told the girls to get their story down on paper, outline it, pare it down to bullet points and keep practicing the delivery. “Be yourself when it comes time to face the jurors,” he says, “and make sure to look them in the eye.”
Wells turned 56 on April 28, 2006, an age when many litigators look forward to the next stage of life. Wells wants to keep doing what he’s doing, full tilt. He’s turned down several invitations to be a U.S. attorney or a federal judge. He has rebuffed all entreaties to get him to run for office. He probably would have been either White House counsel or attorney general if Bradley had become president, but he’s not interested in jumping on any other bandwagons. “I don’t see myself leaving private practice,” he says.
Looming ahead, however, is the Paul Weiss policy of mandatory retirement at age 70. If he’s still physically healthy and has all his marbles, Wells will look for another job. “I’m going to keep trying cases as long as I can,” he says.