Charney never came close to coming out in college or law school. “It’s one of the issues that you know is creeping in the back room, and you’re not quite sure how it’s going to play out,” he says. He had a serious girlfriend in college. They broke up early on in law school mostly because, he told friends, she wasn’t Jewish. At Columbia, he never seemed to date anyone, male or female. Friends say he asked to be fixed up with women but stacked the deck against a relationship by listing very hard-to-match criteria for his perfect mate. Once Charney did come out, he didn’t tell many of his old friends; they learned about it from his lawsuit.
But in at least one way, he found his tribe at Columbia: More than any other law school, Columbia offers a fast track into the big corporate law firms, and Charney was one of the students who knew this was what they wanted. The summer after his first year of law school, he worked in-house for AIG, the insurance giant that is a huge client of Sullivan’s. There, he fell in professional love. Some lawyers want to prowl the courtroom; others want to shape new laws: Charney was meant for M&A. “Even if you’re on one big deal, at different points of the deal it’s different,” Charney says, enthusiastic for the first time in our conversation. “You have to know a little bit about everything.” Back at school, he interviewed for the next summer’s class of associates. While most students entertain lots of offers before deciding, Charney accepted his offer from Sullivan on the spot.
From his first day at Sullivan & Cromwell, Charney put himself on the fast track, deftly sidestepping the requirement that all associates be “floaters” before settling on one department. His first assignment, in the summer after his second year of law school, was an M&A deal, Anthem’s $4 billion purchase of Trigon Healthcare. He loved it, and the process went smoothly enough that the partners put him on Anthem’s next deal as well: a $16.5 billion merger with WellPoint that created the country’s largest health-care company.
It was on the second Anthem deal that he met Grinberg, a Canadian-born associate with a few years’ more experience. “We were lumped in together for fifteen months and did a really good job,” says Charney. “So, they just staffed us on other things together. Gera actually worked to juggle our schedules so that we would work together.” Though Grinberg was the more senior of the two, at least one lawyer remembers Charney as the more impressive. “Aaron had ambition,” he says. “He was doing great work. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had unblemished reviews. Gera was a nice guy, and he was competent, but he wasn’t a rising star.” (Grinberg would not comment for this story, nor would any Sullivan lawyer whose name appears in the suit.)
Just as he had in law school, Charney felt like a master of the meritocracy, doing the work and getting ahead. But by the fall of 2005, he was entering the adolescence of the typical career life span at a corporate firm: no longer a beleaguered anonymous junior lawyer, now a pressured mid-level associate. This is when even some of the best lawyers get weeded out; alienating just one partner could mean the end of a lawyer’s dreams of making partner himself. But Charney seemed oddly tone-deaf to the office politics on the 28th floor. He came off as aloof—as if he didn’t need to be friends with anyone else as long as he was working with Grinberg on high-level deals. “A lot of lawyers are very smug about their work and their capabilities,” says one former co-worker. “But he came across as smarmy.”
This was also around the time that Charney was starting to come out. The talk with his parents, toward the end of 2004, went well; then there was his first romantic encounter. But there was never a chance for anyone at work to react to his decision. Although he never hid the fact that he was gay, he didn’t advertise it either: He belonged to no gay-lawyer groups and wasn’t active on gay issues. It’s unclear how many people in his department had any inkling he was gay. “I wasn’t that close to that many people,” Charney says. “They may have inferred it, but it was never from me. I didn’t walk around saying, ‘Hey, world. Here I am.’ ” The very idea that he would trumpet his sexuality seems to make him uncomfortable. The firm was still a kind of closet for him.