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2009 Lawyers of the Year

Best Lawyers has named three individuals as Lawyers of the Year in the New York area, based on their particularly high level of peer recognition.

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From left: Robert B. Fiske, Jr., Eleanor Breitel Alter, Bruce G. Habian  

Eleanor Breitel Alter
Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman
Family Law

People might be hard pressed to believe that tenured family law attorney Eleanor Breitel Alter’s foray into family law wasn’t a conscious one.

As a commercial litigator at a large firm in the early 70s, Alter found herself in the unenviable position of taking on a divorce case when none of her colleagues was available. Describing the case as “dreadful,” Alter admits there was still something contagious about matrimonial law.

“I really learned the practice of family law through that case because everything that could happen in a case happened in that case—absolutely everything!” she says. “I thought it was probably a career dead end for me, but I accepted it because I liked it.”

The business acumen Alter brought to her approach earned her a reputation in the field, and in short time she was a leader in her practice area. In 1997, she arrived at her current firm of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman as a partner, bringing with her the entire matrimonial department from her previous firm.

Though likely best known for representing Mia Farrow in her contentious divorce from Woody Allen, Alter chronicles years of lesser known precedent-setting cases and courtroom battles. However, she says her greatest successes are outside of the courtroom.

“I’d always rather settle,” says Alter. “I think if it ends up in court, somebody has failed.”

A graduate of Columbia Law School, Alter has taught family law at New York University Law School and the University of Chicago Law School. Since 1985 she has chaired the New York Lawyers Fund for Client Protection, and is a member of the Board of Editors of the New York Law Journal.


Robert B. Fiske, Jr.
Davis Polk & Wardwell
Bet-the-Company Litigation

Watergate. The Three Mile Island accident. The conviction of drug kingpin Nicky Barnes. Griffin Bell and the Socialist Workers Party litigation.

Aside from being some of the most captivating legal battles in recent history, these cases all have one common denominator: attorney Robert B. Fiske, Jr., a former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and now a senior partner in Davis Polk & Wardwell’s litigation department.

When it comes to bet-the-company litigation, Fiske’s work exemplifies the endeavor, with cases like the Three Mile Island accident involving some of the profession’s highest stakes ever.

“That was a classic bet-your-company case because the amount that [General Public Utilities] was seeking was more than the net worth of the company,” Fiske says of his successful defense of a $4 billion suit against Babcock & Wilcox, the designers and manufacturers of the nuclear reactor involved in the infamous 1979 incident. “We were basically on the offense to demonstrate that the operators at the plant were negligent in not recognizing the symptoms and solving the problem.”

Currently, Fiske is involved in the high-profile representing of Siemens in an investigation of violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He counts among his other successes the reversals in the Missouri Supreme Court of two multi-million dollar verdicts against Suzuki after a rollover accident; the labor racketeering conviction of Anthony Scotto and Anthony Anastasio; and the representation of Clark Clifford and Robert Altman in investigations into the BCCI banking corruption scandal.

Having battled on both sides of the courtroom, the Yale graduate says his skills translate successfully to both, and that he has no plans to depart the courtroom anytime soon.

“I’m still enjoying what I’m doing,” says the 78-year-old attorney. “I feel that there are cases where my being in the case makes a difference, and that’s what keeps me going.”


Bruce G. Habian
Martin Clearwater & Bell
Personal Injury Litigation

Attorney Bruce G. Habian’s track record is clear. In the successful defense of his last three personal-injury cases alone, he estimates he prevented verdicts that could have reached into the $20 million range and these are figures the Martin Clearwater & Bell attorney is used to dealing with.

Specializing in the defense of cases involving severe infant neurological injuries, spinal pathology and cancer medicine, Habian is no stranger to huge financial risk on behalf of his clients. As a result, he has worked tirelessly to put forth groundbreaking defense theories and causation arguments to win an estimated 80 to 90 percent of his trials, learning along the way to balance complex science with straightforward facts.

“A lot of lawyers used to say ‘I’ll do a cross (examination) and make believe I’m kind of dumb,’” says Habian. “If you demonstrate to the jury complete knowledge of a subject by reason of your questions, not only will they respect you, but subconsciously they’ll respect the position that you’re trying to advance.” A graduate of Villanova University law school and Boston College, the professional liability defense attorney has written extensively on spinal surgery and neuropathology for leading medical publications, and has contributed to handbooks concerning structured settlements in the field. Additionally, he co-heads the firm’s legal professional liability department.

Habian credits his success to an approach that balances the intense emotions involved in a lot of his cases, but never goes soft in defending his clients.

“I take the long view as to whether overall your reputation is intact by reason of long range statistics,” he says. “In other words, I have a good reputation with a lot of judges because they know I treat everybody fairly, but I’ll cross-examine the hell out of the witnesses.”


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