At the end of my career, to have to listen to people say, ‘You lied to us, you cheated, you did this to us!’”—Burt Neuborne is practically pounding his right hand on the table now, momentarily channeling the anger of his accusers—“it hurts,” he tells me, “especially since they are survivors.”
In the dark art of lawyering, Neuborne has always been considered a white knight. He is one of the nation’s leading public-interest lawyers, a defender of lost causes: Air Force pilots who refused to bomb Cambodia in the Vietnam War, the Socialist Labor Party when it wanted to get on the ballot, legal-aid lawyers suing the government. Yet when Neuborne takes up the cause of the little guy, the little guy often wins. Of the twelve cases he’s argued before the Supreme Court, he’s won eight. Now he is sitting in his office at the NYU School of Law, where he teaches, second-guessing his decision to represent the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The crusading attorney helped to win $1.25 billion for his clients, but some of them now regard him as just another big shot looking out for himself.
The battle is over legal fees. Neuborne is seeking $4.76 million for almost eight years of work representing Holocaust survivors in the distribution of the Swiss-bank settlement for plundering Jewish assets in World War II. Some of the survivors are furious. They thought he had been working for free. They had heard him say so several times, or so it seemed. They were already angry at Neuborne for backing the judge and opposing them—“betraying” them, in their view—in a crucial decision that diverted more than $100 million of that payout to needy survivors in Russia. Now here he is, staking a claim to settlement funds they regard as “holy.”
Elan Steinberg, former executive director of the World Jewish Congress, calls Neuborne’s $4.76 million bill a “moral disgrace,” pointing out that in a similar class-action suit against German industry, Neuborne already made $4.4 million. Menachem Rosensaft, a lawyer and the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, says, “There is a point at which even greed becomes unseemly.” Robert Swift, a Philadelphia human-rights lawyer who also worked on the case—and clashed with Neuborne—says flatly, “Burt did a lot of things here that we would not want to teach our kids in law school.” Others disagree: “In my opinion, he has done a superb job, in the finest tradition of what lawyers should do,” says Michael Bazyler, a Whittier Law School professor who has written about the case. And the dispute has split the Jewish community. Next week, the Anti-Defamation League will give Neuborne its annual American Heritage Award, recognizing his work on behalf of the survivors and others. Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, wrote in a column, “Whatever number ultimately is determined to be fair pay for Neuborne, he should be compensated with a sense of gratitude, not bitterness, and the focus should return to pressuring those governments and banks and other institutions to pay what they have long owed.”
For Neuborne, it is all a giant misunderstanding: “To the extent that the survivors are confused and misunderstood that I would be seeking fees,” he says, “I feel terrible.” The outcome of the Swiss case could not have been more successful, he believes. He spent years as the lead settlement counsel, and the pace was relentless. After collapsing with chest pains in 2002, he worked on his laptop as he was being prepped for open-heart surgery. “After all these years, the last thing I want is for survivors to think that I was not straight with them,” he says. Yet how could anyone think he was donating all that time, he wonders; he certainly wasn’t doing it for his health. “My doctors were so pissed at me for continuing this stuff,” he says. Neuborne sits in his NYU office, arms folded across his chest, as if trying to restrain himself, fulminating. He’s leaning forward now, almost on the edge of his chair, and his voice begins to rise. “Sometimes I think, would I have been better off just staying in my own world ... and not having to deal with people who, at the end of my career, call my integrity into question on something that I literally”—he pauses—“almost killed myself working on?”
It has been ten years now since Burt Neuborne suffered what he calls “the worst thing that could ever happen to anybody.” In 1996, his youngest daughter, Lauren, died of a heart attack. She was 27, and Neuborne, then 55, was devastated. His passion and sense of purpose evaporated. “He was beyond a state of sadness,” says his friend, the lawyer Richard Emery. “I was very concerned about Burt’s future.” So Emery staged an intervention. He asked Neuborne to join a long-shot legal assault against a smug and impenetrable target.