Stan Levy: The exact opposite of founder’s syndrome

Stan Levy, a lawyer with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, sat down with a journalist at the firm’s offices in West Los Angeles on a Monday afternoon earlier this month. At one point during the conversation, Levy threw out a few favorite quotations, one of which concerned the difference between the law and justice.

The quote came from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1962 book, “The Prophets.”

“ ‘An act of injustice is condemned not because the law is broken,’ ” Levy said, “ ‘but because a person has been hurt.’ ”

It’s the rare commercial litigator who quotes Heschel, and rarer still to find one who can say that the 20th century Jewish philosopher was one of his teachers.

But Levy, who turns 70 this month, is a special kind of lawyer, and not just because he’s also an ordained rabbi. Levy has had, by any accounting, a unique and remarkably productive career. As a lawyer, he helped found three public interest law firms in Los Angeles while maintaining a successful commercial practice. As a rabbi, Levy founded a congregation that is still going strong in its fifth decade, and a rabbinical and cantorial school that will celebrate its 10th anniversary this month.

Levy managed the careers of a handful of recording artists and managed to raise a family, too — and last month, this multifaceted man was honored at a black-tie dinner in New York City as one of the recipients of The American Lawyer magazine’s 2011 “Lifetime Achiever” award.

“To me, the real honor is having done the work,” Levy said, in a humble fashion that those who know him say is typical.

“He’s truly a renaissance person,” Mitchell Kamin said of Levy. Now a litigator in private practice, Kamin spent eight years leading the Jewish legal services agency Bet Tzedek, which Levy co-founded in 1974.

But Kamin, who grew up as a close childhood friend of Levy’s oldest son, said his first impression of Levy was as a “young lawyer and manager of rock and jazz musicians.”

“I used to hang out at his house, listen to great music, and he would take us to concerts,” Kamin said.

Years later, in 1994, Levy — the rabbi — married Kamin and his wife. But it was when Kamin was hired as Bet Tzedek’s executive director in 2003 that he truly saw the extent of Levy’s humility and openness to that which others have to contribute.

“There’s a condition known as ‘founder’s syndrome,’ ” Kamin said, referring to a tendency among those who establish organizations to hold onto control for too long and become resistant to change. “Stan was the exact opposite of that in every way.”

For evidence of Levy’s success as a founder, one need only look to the long line of successful organizations he’s left in his wake.

In addition to Bet Tzedek, Levy was involved in the founding of two other public-interest law firms, both of which are still operating. In 1968, Levy, who was just two years out of the law school at UCLA, joined the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a firm focused on class-action litigation. He later served as its second executive director, overseeing 54 attorneys.

Then, in 1970 — before his 30th birthday, for those keeping track — Levy helped launch another public interest firm, now known as the Public Counsel Law Center. As its founding executive director, Levy set up the organization’s structure, financing and mission, and today Public Counsel is the largest pro bono firm in the country, counting more than 32,000 low-income clients in 2010.

Wearing his rabbi hat — this past Sukkot, it was a large, multicolored, thick-gauged knitted kippah — Levy established B’nai Horin in 1968. The spiritually centered congregation, whose name translates as “Children of Freedom,” has never had a building nor has it been affiliated with a particular movement, yet is still going strong, drawing hundreds to its High Holy Days services and b’nai mitzvah, and a smaller but dedicated core group to its monthly Shabbat morning services.

Levy founded the congregation even before he had been ordained as a rabbi through the ALEPH — Alliance for Jewish Renewal rabbinical program. But his experience as a rabbi was so fulfilling, he figured he probably wasn’t the only professional who would jump at the chance to become one. So, in 2001, Levy co-founded the transdenominational Academy of Jewish Religion (AJR), California, which ordains rabbis, cantors and chaplains.

“He’s a can-do person, almost to the degree that you think he’s living in his imagination rather than reality,” Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, the president of AJR, said of Levy. “Ninety percent of the time, it does become true reality.”

“There are plenty of lawyers who are complete workaholics and are extremely dedicated to their clients,” said Robin Sparkman, editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer, explaining Levy’s selection as a “Lifetime Achiever.” “This award is actually broader than that. The recipients both have to be great lawyers and have to have done things for the general good in their careers, as well.”

In nine years, the magazine has given “Lifetime Achiever” awards to a U.S. senator, two secretaries of state and, this year, to former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Levy, Sparkman said, was an easy choice.

“He founded three public interest law firms,” she said. “He’s a rabbi. He’s a record executive. And he’s a great lawyer.”

Levy has worn enough hats to fill the shelves of a walk-in closet. His profile on the firm’s Web site mentions a four-year stint in the 1990s as general counsel for the Guess? clothing company, and his profile in the September issue of The American Lawyer notes his representation in the 1980s of uninsured depositors in a case against their failed bank, but in person Levy seemed more interested in talking about the public interest and pro bono cases he’s been involved with over the years.

While he was running Public Counsel, the firm helped break “an unwritten but absolute firm rule” that prohibited minorities from hosting shows on radio or television stations. “They could be guests, but they couldn’t be hosts,” Levy said. “We broke that color barrier in the media.”

It was his recent work with Bet Tzedek in creating the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network that drew national attention.

For about 10 months in 2008, Levy worked pro bono — and basically full time — with two staff lawyers at Bet Tzedek to create an international network of more than 5,000 attorneys and paralegals.

The goal was to help as many individual survivors as possible fill out a specific German government pension form. The project may sound bureaucratic and mundane, but behind the alphabet soup of German government acronyms and complex filing guidelines, the volunteers were helping survivors qualify for German government pensions, compensation for the so-called “voluntary work” they had performed during the Holocaust in ghettos under Nazi control.

Since the network was launched in May 2008, its impact has been impressive — and easily quantifiable. As of September 2011, it has helped 2,200 survivors around the world secure more than $11 million in reparation payments from the German government. Over the next five years, the total payout to survivors eligible for the pensions could end up being close to $200 million. In 2009, Levy accepted the American Bar Association Pro Bono Publico Award on behalf of the network.

That Levy was loaned by his firm to Bet Tzedek came, Levy said, as a complete surprise — and not just to him.

Kamin, who was executive director of Bet Tzedek at the time, had asked Manatt’s director of pro bono work, Cristin Zeisler, if the firm could spare someone to help Bet Tzedek launch the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network.

Kamin was expecting “a paralegal or a junior associate to help us get the program off the ground,” he said. “We were completely blown away when I got a call from Stan, saying, ‘I’m the guy.’ ”

“He was basically volunteering full time with the organization he founded on this new initiative, and was instrumental to its success,” Kamin said.  “That’s the kind of guy he is.”

Levy is also the kind of guy people turn to when they’re searching for words of wisdom.

“I had to preside over a service for a staff member who died,” said California State Assemblyman Mike Feuer, thinking back to something that happened while he was executive director of Bet Tzedek. “I wanted to find just the right words from Jewish tradition to invoke. I turned to Stan.”

Levy’s preferred primary sources extend far beyond traditional Jewish texts, though.

Ask him about his accomplishments, about his service to the community, and Levy will almost certainly downplay the importance of his qualifications — law degree, rabbinical ordination and prestigious national awards — and insist that all must serve, no matter their position in society.

During his conversation with The Journal, Levy relied on the words of a Christian pastor and of a prominent Muslim-American to make these twin points.

“You need to have a heart full of love and of compassion and of kindness, but anybody can serve,” said Levy, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. “You don’t need a Ph.D. to serve, you don’t need to make your subject and your predicate consistent, you just have to want to do something to try to help other people.”

For Levy, it is King who teaches that anybody can serve, and Muhammad Ali who teaches that everybody must.

“Muhammad Ali, after one of his championship fights — and this is in the mid-’70s — went to an old-age home in New York,” Levy said. “I’m pretty sure it was a Jewish old-age home, and he gave them a very large contribution. And someone asked him why, and his response was, “Service to others is the rent I pay for my room here on Earth.”

Levy has been urging those in the legal profession to serve others for his entire 46-year career. He makes the case that it’s the right thing to do, sure — but also reminds his colleagues that the experience is tremendously rewarding.

“For me, personally,” Levy said, “the feeling of bringing some meaning and purpose in my own life through service to others, and also having had a very successful commercial private practice career, has just felt wonderful.

“That sense of gratitude, for the opportunity to be of service, is everything in the world to me.”