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    February 15, 2008  

Ken Feinberg:
A Changed Lawyer

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Some cases affect you, and then there are Ken Feinberg's.  As Special Master of the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, he was given wide discretion to design and implement a system that distributed $7 billion to the families of 9/11 victims. Working pro bono, he offered personal hearings to any family member who requested one and ended up listening to 1,800 stories. By the time the Fund wrapped its operations, the personal impact on him had been great:  "I wouldn't have been comfortable going back to a regular practice again."


The Sept. 11th Fund stopped getting applications in December '03, and made its final payments by July '04.  That year, Feinberg was named the National Law Journal's Lawyer of the Year.


Before his work on the Fund, he'd been a Special Master in disputes over Agent Orange, asbestos personal injury claims, and DES.  In 1993 he founded The Feinberg Group, a firm specializing in mediation and other forms of ADR, often acting as the neutral.  While his practice found him negotiating disputes among Fortune 500 companies (and on occasion still does), most of the cases he accepts today have a strong "public interest or challenging emotional component" to them. Since the close of the 9/11 Fund, he's mediated employment discrimination claims within the NY police department and a sexual abuse claim against the Catholic Church.  Most notably, he also administered the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, a $7 million pool of private donations distributed to families of the victims in the Virginia Tech shootings.


Feinberg's book, What Is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11, was published in 2005.  He lectures and teaches about his experience frequently—this semester alone, he's giving classes at Duke, NYU, New York Law School, and Vanderbilt.


The Feinberg Group had grown to six lawyers and a support staff of 17 by early '04, when he brought the attorneys together to discuss the future of his practice—one that would involve fewer traditional mediations between large corporations, and require less infrastructure.  All agreed that an eventual downsizing was in order, and within the year former partners Deborah Greenspan (now at Dickstein Shapiro) and Peter Woodin (JAMS) landed solidly on their feet. Today, there is only one other full-time attorney at The Feinberg Group—partner Michael Rozen, a former student of Feinberg's at Georgetown who has been there from the start—and five support staff.


During his time in New York on the Sept. 11th Fund, Feinberg attended Carnegie Hall twice a week as a release.  He now serves as President of the Washington National Opera and goes to musical performances weekly.


Feinberg's most rewarding current matters, he says, are related to Hurricane Katrina. Liberty Mutual and Zurich separately asked him to design and administer programs to resolve without litigation thousands of property damage claims resulting from the disaster. He developed a four-phase program (standard claims review, "blue ribbon review," mediation, and binding arbitration); established an office for the program in New Orleans; trained mediators; and has mediated some of the thornier cases himself. In total, fewer than 200 lawsuits have resulted. In some ways, that success mirrors his achievement with the Sept. 11th Fund:  families representing 97% of the dead participated in that fund (and agreed to withhold tort claims). Ultimately, only 94 lawsuits resulted. But for his "watershed" experience with the Fund, he says, life would be different today at The Feinberg Group:  "We would have continued to grow—more lawyers, more mediators, more support staff. The 9/11 Fund changed my perspective."

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