What do Watergate, the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, and the World Series of Poker have in common? Not much beyond Ken Adams, the long-time Dickstein Shapiro partner who has re-invented his career more often than Madonna. Ken has a few years on the Material Girl and has relinquished his post as Dickstein’s litigation head to make way for younger blood, but he isn’t calling it quits yet. Instead, the jack of all trades is looking for one last legal subject to tackle . . . and it may involve his beloved game of poker. Bisnow asked Ken to lay his cards on the table.
Ken placed 10th among 2600 entrants in a World Series of Poker event this year. If he had survived one more round, he would have made ESPN’s telecast of the “final table.” He writes about poker for the CBS News website and plays a regular game in D.C. with the likes of a commercial fisherman and a music producer.
Ken says his career has passed in seven-to-ten-year “chunks” in which he’s developed expertise in seemingly unrelated matters. He came to Dickstein in ‘73 after Ralph Nader told him about a firm doing consumer class actions. But after arriving, Ken got detoured—representing new partner Chuck Colson in connection with Watergate prosecutions. Later, Ken headed up Dickstein’s asbestos practice, representing affected workers. (Ken says that by approaching clients’ cases individually instead of going for volume, Dickstein was the only firm on the plaintiffs’ side that didn’t make a mint off asbestos. Don’t feel too sorry for them; Dickstein has become legend for how well it’s done via contingency fees for corporate clients in matters such as the vitamins price fixing litigation against ADM and others.)
Ken keeps momentos of Alaska from his Exxon-Valdez days. The whale-shaped item is—you guessed it—an artistically marked piece of whalebone.
With later dips into environmental work—he was a lead counsel for 40,000 plaintiffs against Alyeska in suits arising from the Exxon Valdez spill—and class actions behind him, Ken is once again restless for a new challenge. “I’ve always been a dilettante,” he says. “When the learning curve starts to level off, I can get distracted.”
Ken thought his last frontier might be anti-terrorism litigation: going after banks, charity fronts, and others who knowingly facilitate terrorist financing, on tort theories. “Nothing is scarier than an American tort lawyer,” says Ken, who theorized that the plaintiffs’ bar might be the one force powerful enough to stop terrorists. But only one of his cases is proceeding nicely—it’s in the Eastern District of New York, brought by victims of the second Intifada, against bankers for Hamas—and anti-terrorism tort law might take a decade or more to evolve.
In 1980, Ken represented a man who escaped East Berlin by using a toy gun to hijack a plane and have it land on a U.S. base in West Berlin. The Dickstein team got a jury trial (the first of its kind in Germany in 50 years), and the result was a slam dunk before sympathetic West Berliners. Hollywood turned it into a movie called “Judgment in Berlin,” starring Martin Sheen and Sean Penn. Ken’s review: “Don’t bother; it’s boring.”
Lately, Ken has been looking to develop a practice that draws on his poker expertise. He represents a woman appealing the tax treatment of her poker tournament entry fees before the Eighth Circuit. Then again, maybe he’s just looking to slip in another tournament or two as “research.” Ken and his wife Anita both like his sticking around the house, so they have a “poker contract” that limits the time he spends traveling to tournaments. Nonetheless, he entered six last year, including one in the Caribbean.