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One of the giants – Bankruptcy legend Harvey Miller dies at 82 after defining US workouts for decades

Bankruptcy pioneer Harvey Miller, one of America’s leading commercial lawyers of the post-War period, has died at the age of 82, it was announced this week.

The Weil Gotshal & Manges partner was America’s most prominent bankruptcy practitioner, playing a pivotal role in a string of landmark cases, including the wind-up of Lehman Brothers, the largest corporate bankruptcy in US history.

Other mandates handled in a lengthy career included the bankruptcies of General Motors, American Airlines, Texaco, WorldCom, Enron and Drexel Burnham Lambert.

Miller joined Weil in 1969 as the firm’s 14th partner. At the point of joining, the firm only had two offices and 45 lawyers, though its restructuring practice would become the cornerstone of Weil’s expansion into an institution with 20 offices worldwide, employing over 1,100 lawyers and earning $1.15bn a year.

The Brooklyn-born lawyer rapidly established a reputation as among the true heavyweights of US commercial law alongside Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz’s Marty Lipton, Rodgin Cohen of Sullivan & Cromwell and Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom’s Joesph Flom, who died in 2011.

Miller remained in active until shortly before his death, which followed a diagnosis of motor neurone disease.

Miller was also an instrumental figure in developing bankruptcy proceedings as a means of restructuring and relaunching businesses rather than liquidation. The Lehman bankruptcy saw its still-functioning brokerage unit sold to UK bank Barclays for $1.75bn saving thousands of jobs. So far, over $45bn has been recouped for investors since filing for bankruptcy in September 2008. In July 2009, a plan Miller helped draw up for partial nationalisation contributed to the rescue of iconic American carmaker General Motors, with the manufacturer’s best assets put into a new company part-held by the US Treasury.

Also a senior figure in Weil’s leadership, Miller was elected its first executive partner in 1989. He left the firm for five years in 2002 to join the investment bank Greenhill & Co, a period during which Weil was perceived by some peers to have lost some of its dominance in the bankruptcy space, but returned just ahead of a wave of high-stakes assignments as the banking crisis reshaped the global economy.

‘Harvey was the premier bankruptcy law practitioner,’ said Weil executive partner Barry Wolf. ‘He was a trailblazer and set the standard for how to approach, develop and expand the practice. He leaves an unparalleled and indelible impact on the field of bankruptcy law and on Weil and we will miss him greatly.’

Ira Millstein, a veteran partner at Weil who recruited Miller to join the firm and who managed Weil alongside him, said: ‘He was an unforgettable leader, my personal colleague and friend. He will be missed greatly by me and many at Weil and beyond.’

Stephen Karotkin, a partner in Weil’s business finance and restructuring group, added: ‘Harvey was an incredible mentor and teacher, not only with respect to how to practice in the restructuring arena but, more importantly, in how to be a lawyer. The impact he has had on those with whom he worked at Weil and the multitude of clients he represented is unprecedented. The respect and admiration he engendered from the judiciary, his peers and his colleagues cannot be overstated. He truly was a legend in the practice and he will be sorely missed by so many.’

In an interview for the May edition of Legal Business, Linklaters partner David Ereira, who took a senior role on Lehman’s European bankruptcy, described Miller as ‘one of my heroes’, adding: ‘He’s done most of the major bankruptcies in NY and he does them – he’s the guy in court and he’s the guy giving the advice.’

Miller was born in 1933 and graduated from Columbia Law School. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Ruth Miller.