Not After the Big Part

Anne Vladeck and her family have been taking on big, fat firms for 70 years

Published in 2019 New York Metro Super Lawyers Magazine

“You won’t do it casually.”

Anne Vladeck is talking plaintiff’s employment law in a nondescript conference room in the law offices of Vladeck, Raskin & Clark in Midtown. She knows the law school drill—you should be able to argue either side of a case—but she also knows there’s a difference between a job and a calling. “It’s really how you want to spend your time,” she says. “It’s not an accident that you will find mostly liberals doing plaintiff’s employment and union-side employment and labor.”

If you don’t have the calling, she suggests the management side. It’s more lucrative, for one. “You have a lot of support, a lot of paralegal help, a lot of executive assistant help. And you have the status, because your clients are big, fat firms.”

Vladeck, of course, has the calling. She likes being the underdog. “Oh, yeah,” she says. “Big time.”

“That’s what Anne does,” adds Robert Anello, a white-collar litigator at Morvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Anello. “She goes against these enormous companies—Fortune 500 companies, sports franchises ... with their enormous war chests. … When you’re going up against that firepower, and you build a case and you’re not afraid to take it to trial, that’s why her reputation is what it is. When you hear Anne is on the other side, you check your checkbook and hold on to your belt.”

Fighting for the little guy runs in the family, says brother David Vladeck, a Georgetown law professor and director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection from 2009 to 2013. “We all have followed in the footsteps of our parents.”

Vladeck’s firm was co-founded by her father, Stephen, in 1949; her mother, Judith, a 1947 Columbia Law School graduate, joined in 1957 after having Anne and her two brothers. The firm repped unions and won cases against Wall Street investment firms (Shearson Lehman Brothers), large universities (CUNY, Pace), major companies (Union Carbide), banks (Chase), and hospitals (New York Hospital). Her father was general counsel to the New York Civil Liberties Union from 1955 to 1965. Her mother called the firm “the last socialist law firm in America.”

“There’s a lot of dark humor in practicing on the employee side,” says Debra Raskin, Vladeck's law partner since 1988. “This is an area of the law that does not favor our clients, and that shapes everything. So you have to have a sense of humor about that. Otherwise, you will consider yourself to have spent 40 years hitting your head against the wall.”

She adds: “Humor was, I think, totally valued in the Vladeck family.”

Vladeck, who can hold her own in the humor department, has a tendency to deflect attention from herself. As she’s talking up the talented people at the firm, many of whom she’s mentored, and it’s suggested she’s like a gardener nurturing plants into a prize-winning bouquet, she cuts the metaphor short. “I have a black thumb,” she says. Then she deflects again.

VLADECK: There’s a woman in our firm now who has a row of flowers and orchids that she’s revived. SL: Orchids are tough. VLADECK: I really think there should be a séance on some of them.

For dark, employee-side humor, she quotes her mother. “‘Some people believe they’ve worked on their diversity when they’ve hired a white man from New York and a white man from New Jersey.‘ It’s true. We have not really come as far as we should have.

“She was almost 80, or actually older than 80, when she stopped working,“ Vladeck says of her mother. “Somebody asked her, ‘Why are you still doing this?‘ She said: ‘Rage.‘”

SL: Now to focus back on you and who you are … VLADECK: Oh, God …

Despite her upbringing—or possibly because of it—Vladeck says she originally didn’t feel the calling.

“It’s nice to try something where not everyone in your family does the same thing,” she says. “I would have wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t have enough talent. I could draw, but I was the only one who could tell it was a pony.” In the ’70s she enjoyed doing tie-dye and batik. She says her mother used to comment about her prospects: “She’ll be a doctor, lawyer, or do batik.”

For a time, she worked in retail at the first Marimekko in Midtown, where O.J. Simpson would shop with whatever fashion model he was dating, then at Brentano’s books, where men used to steal pornography. She wound up at law school because it seemed like a natural progression. “You went to high school, then you went to college, and then you went to law school,” she says with a shrug. “And as my mother said, ‘It can’t hurt.’”

Or just a little. Her first day at Columbia, she was called upon by Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “She asked me a question about a labor and employment issue. I was like, ‘I’m never going back.’ … I didn’t have a clue.”

Legendary legal names keep coming up in her conversation. While working as a summer assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, she used to see a man regularly at the courthouse. “He had a suit that was green. The cufflinks and the tie were green, and [he wore] a shirt that would go with it. Coming out of court at the end of the day, you would see him in a Rolls-Royce. The car sometimes matched.” It was Roy Cohn. “Totally pimpy,” she says with a laugh.

She bounced around a bit. At an environmental law firm, she assumed she would help animals and nature. “They forgot to tell me it wasn’t that kind of environmental law,” she says. Her next firm, Frankfurt Garbus Klein & Selz, was a better fit. “Marty Garbus was an interesting character. That was an entertainment litigation firm, and we represented a lot of publishers. I loved it.”

Her father's death in 1979 led to deep discussions with her brother David. One of them, they felt, should join the family firm, and David was already in D.C. After Vladeck joined her mother, she feels they were up against it immediately. “They didn’t think a firm run by a woman in the ’70s was going to survive [since] there were no others,” she says. “And then, God forbid, having other women?”

But Anello says they immediately became a force. “She and her mother, for maybe the 25 years before her mom passed away, were a very tough combo. They would work on cases together and singly.”

“I remember sitting in the car with Anne and her mom,” says Michelle Alifanz Carson, a close friend since college, “going to the country. They’d be discussing a case. She really respected her mom. She’s very much like her. Anne’s clever, and funny in a sophisticated way, and her mom was the same.”

“They did a lot of work for the carpenters union and the like,” Anello says. “They were known for being able to handle the toughest labor union people.”

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, as unions lost power, influence and members, the firm became involved in more cases representing employees on sexual harassment and retaliation.

“To establish the need for protections for retaliation was a very big part of the development of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and employee rights,” Anello says. “Because what is frequently the case is that you may win the battle but you lose the war—because the employers make your life miserable. And getting the law established for retaliation, and Anne’s role in that—just by bringing the cases and getting the damages—I think changed the way employers deal with their employees. People now are very conscious of the fact that when a claim is raised, you can’t go off and do something retaliatory.”

“If you’re following just what the law is,” Raskin adds, “you will often reach a dead end to the effect of, ‘Well, you have no rights,’ or ‘We can’t fix this.’ But Anne never stops there. She doesn’t let herself be limited by [precedent], and pushes forward with great creativity, which will let her come up with solutions—either strictly legal or strategic or negotiating. And she will pursue those creative ideas with great determination and without flagging … to get terrific results for the clients that other people, me included, would have given up on long ago.”

Vladeck enjoys the strategizing. “I like saying, ‘We should do this because they will not expect it,’ or, ‘We should do this because our client is good at that.’ … I like the puzzle of doing discovery and doing depositions. I even like looking at documents. I think you win or lose a case on the discovery. What you say to the jury is obviously important, but you’ve got to know where to dig and where to look.”

Then there’s the buzz of the case itself. “I think for most people who are litigators,” she says, “it’s the kind of adrenaline that’s hard to explain. You become totally obsessed. You have a group of people that you are essentially living with, and you’re all thinking only about the case, the judge, the client. It’s a very all-consuming time, but you are totally hooked.”

“I assume you know about the New York Knicks case, right?” asks Anello.

 

In 2005, Anucha Browne Sanders, senior vice president of marketing and business operations for the New York Knicks, came to Vladeck’s firm with a problem: She was being sexually harassed by her boss, head coach Isiah Thomas. With Judith Vladeck’s help, Sanders filed a complaint. Shortly thereafter, Sanders was fired by Knicks and Madison Square Garden owner James L. Dolan due to her “inability to fulfill professional responsibilities.”

When Judith became ill, Anne took over.

“She had to devise a strategy, had to push the envelope on the legal theories, she had to develop the evidence,” Anello recalls. “You hear about cases getting settled all the time, but you don’t hear about a lot of them going to trial. Anne had no fear of taking that thing to trial. Imagine, you had Anne Vladeck and Debra Raskin andtheir small firm up against the firepower that the Knicks could assemble. I mean, the Knicks had an awful lot of money.”

“The other side had 10 times what we did,” says Vladeck. “Literally. They had investigators who talked to 85 to 100 people, going back to our client’s early childhood, to see if they could find lying somewhere in there.”

Vladeck thinks this wealth of resources actually worked against them. “When you’re in a case and there are 30 lawyers on the other side,” she says, “that’s overkill. They’re going to make a mistake because nobody’s going to know the whole case.”

The trial began in September 2007 and lasted three weeks. Her brother David recalls: “My kids, both boys, were in high school then. They’re both athletes, and it was all on the sports page. So every day, they could read about their aunt’s riveting cross-examination, her complete teardown of Dolan on the stand.

“It was your classic David-and-Goliath adversarial conflict, because Dolan had a firm doing a trial, another firm sitting there waiting to take the appeal. These were massive institutions, and Anne with two of her colleagues and a paralegal. I went up to New York and watched a couple of days of the trial just because it was so much fun. As a sibling, I was proud of her. But as a lawyer, I was deeply impressed. She was very calm; she never overstated anything. It was really, really skillfully done. It was just as low-key, and as matter-of-fact, and as nontheatrical as she could possibly be. The result was, the focus wasn’t on her.

“I was watching the jury. They were just absolutely fixated on her examination. Her questions seemed to be fairly bland, but they were devastating. No drama, because that was the best way for her to focus attention on what she wanted [them] to focus on, which was: Were Isiah Thomas and Dolan telling the truth or not? And their stories didn’t hold any water. And she made them leak like a sieve.”

The New York Times put it this way: “[T]estimony by witnesses made the inner workings of the Garden appear dysfunctional, hostile and lewd.”

“She made that basketball team understand what it was like to not have home-court advantage,” Anello says. “The federal court is Anne Vladeck’s home court, not the Madison Square Garden’s home court.”

On Oct. 1, the jury announced the award: $11.6 million for Sanders.

“Everyone was shocked,” Vladeck remembers. “Everyone. [The Knicks group] apparently had very nice champagne waiting. There is no way they thought we would win.”

Apparently they still do. In December 2018, ESPN wrote a feature on the Knicks owner, “James Dolan, Unplugged,” in which he says the case was stacked against them, they made several mistakes and the truth never came out. The article includes a response from Vladeck: “The truth did come out. And I think the deck is stacked against an individual when you have a billionaire on the other side.”

 

Judith didn't live long enough to see the trial; she died in January 2007.

“Judy’s heart was so big,” says Anello. “Anne is the same way.”

Carson adds: “We often spend Saturday or Sunday together, and she’ll often be taking calls, talking to clients. You know, when you’re in a very emotional situation, everything is an emergency to you. I think she spends a lot of time doing that for her clients—consoling them. She is … I’m going to cry now.” Her voice trembles. “She is generous beyond anything you can think of.”

Raskin adds: “You know, there are CLEs about networking ad nauseam, but the focus on that networking is how do you drive your own career? And Anne sort of reverse-networks for everybody else. What do they need? It’s not about blowing her own horn. That was her mother to a T.”

Asked about all of this, Vladeck pauses. “There are a lot of people,” she says, “who want the big part. That’s never been me.” She talks about trying out for theater at the University of Pennsylvania even though she couldn’t sing; she liked making backdrops and being part of the group. “People who want to be the star are different than people who want just to be part of the thing. I was much more comfortable just being part of the thing. I don’t care about the attention.”

She adds: “Unless it’s a real jerk who I want to strangle.”

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