NYLJ Lifetime Achievement Award

Robert Fiske

, New York Law Journal


Photo by Rick Kopstein/NYLJ

It would be easy to lament that our profession is no longer minting lawyers like Bob Fiske: giant of the bar; counselor to the world's biggest clients; dedicated leader of bar associations; someone who has repeatedly left his lucrative career to serve in important positions in government; universally recognized for integrity, honesty, and humility.

And, at first blush, it might indeed appear that Bob is a lawyer from a bygone era. Today's focus on profits per partner, billable hours, and obsessive talk about insourcing, outsourcing, disaggregation and alternative fee structures, have caused many to portray our legal community as one where lawyers have neither the time nor the interest to pursue public service, service to the profession, or anything other than the hunt for clients and increasingly elusive profits.

But I'm happy to say that this cynical view of our profession is misguided and wrong. It also does a disservice to people like Bob and his legacy. If you look around at the 'public service' sectors of our profession, you'll see that they are brimming with lawyers who are eager and inspired, and whose dedication is broad and deep. This is in no small part due to people like Bob, whose career and message over the last five decades have inspired generations of lawyers to follow his lead into public service, bar activities, pro bono and government work. And these lawyers serve, like Bob, with integrity, honesty and humility, while mentoring and encouraging others along the way.

If you ask any of the scores of attorneys who worked for Bob in the Southern District U.S. Attorney's Office in the late 1970s, you will hear about his successes, the high quality of the cases and the famous integrity of that office. But you will also hear how Bob was a role model for all who worked there. He took a personal interest. He worked with younger colleagues on the facts and law. He mentored everyone, including young women at a time when that wasn't expected or routine.

If you speak to any of the hundreds of associates and young partners who worked with Bob at Davis Polk during his 56 years of active practice at the firm (itself a reflection of his dedication and loyalty), you will hear how all of us sought out the opportunity to work with the legendary Bob Fiske, not only because his cases were fascinating and challenging and high profile, but because he was involved, kind, intelligent and committed, not just to the client but to you. You were guaranteed to have an experience and a mentor like no other. The legions of other lawyers who had the opportunity to work with Bob over the years, whether on the Whitewater investigation team, or in his work with the American Bar Association or other bar organizations, or on court commissions or other matters all consider themselves lucky indeed.

Throughout all of this, Bob's message has been constant: participate, give back, help your community, improve the profession, work for the government, and at the end of the day, it will benefit you, your career, and everyone else you have contact with. And the world will be a better place for it. And you know what? He was right, and lawyers have listened. I've heard Bob make this exhortation to service countless times over the 26 years I've worked with him. The latest was this summer, where, as he always does, he spoke to a roomful of law students at the New York City Bar about their future in the profession.

As Bob described (with usual humility) his illustrious career, his government positions, the role he has played in some of the most complex and challenging cases of our times, the audience was rapt. But, again, the most important message was: get out of the office, spend time on a broader legal stage, play a role in the profession and society. The summer associates were transfixed (I know because they told me so).

Over the years, Bob has inspired hundreds of lawyers to follow in his footsteps. We now see them in our U.S. Attorney's Offices, in the Justice Department, in other government offices, in bar organizations and NGOs, in legal aid organizations, in federal and state judicial positions, and as elected and other officials around the country. In light of this, the notion that the legal profession has devolved into a self-involved, profits-only business falls flat. The ideal of the public-spirited, public-service legal leader is alive and well, and we owe that immeasurably to lawyers like Bob.

Carey Dunne is a partner in Davis Polk & Wardwell and president of the New York City Bar.


Senior Counsel, Davis Polk & Wardwell

J.D., University of Michigan Law School, 1955; LL.D., University of Michigan, 1997

Joined Davis Polk as an associate in 1955; became a partner in 1964; named senior counsel in 2010

• Served as Southern District U.S. attorney from 1976 to 1980.

• First chief prosecutor in Whitewater investigation (1994); released interim report that in summary concluded that President Bill Clinton and White House officials had not interfered with the Resolution Trust Corporation.

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