Proceeding with Confidence

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

During the year 1923, in Baltimore, Maryland, a Jewish immigrant couple originally from Eastern Europe, welcomed their firstborn. He was named Joseph Flom, son of Itzak Flom, a labor organizer in the Manhattan Garment district. They were so desperately poor that the only way for them to get a roof over their heads, was to take advantage of a month’s free rent offered to tenants in those days. As a result, they moved often, searching for a different place once the free month had lapsed. Eventually, they settled in Brooklyn’s Borough Park in New York City.

As a boy who wanted to be a lawyer since he was six, growing up in the depression era was not easy, but in a way they made ends meet. After graduating from high school, he worked as an office boy in a law firm during the day while attending the City College of New York on a pre-law major at night. Two years into his studies, World War II broke out. He was drafted into the army where he served his time as part of a group of twenty soldiers that were sent to a radar repair school.

After the war ended he was admitted to Harvard Law School on the basis that he had completed military service, since he didn’t have a college degree. At Harvard, he was classmates with Charlie Munger and was also the editor of the Harvard Law Review, an honor reserved for the top students in his class.

During hiring season, he went to interview with the big corporate firms of his day. One would expect that a young man with such a stellar performance and a great capacity for judgment, would get hired in a whiff. This was not the case, other than being an ungainly, awkward, fat kid, he was also Jewish. This was quite a disadvantage for him at that time. At the end of the hiring season, he was one of the two students who wasn’t hired yet, having been rejected by several top tier firms of his day.

At this point in Flom’s story, I have asked myself countless times what I’d have done, if I were in his position back then. The answer has changed with time because I have also learned one important thing: we can always take control of any situation we find ourselves in. We can always refuse to accept the limitations that others have tried to impose on us, which in this case, is the fact that Joe couldn’t get hired because he didn’t look the part and was Jewish. It is also important that we don’t accept any of the limitations that we commonly impose on ourselves. We should never question our ability or worthiness.

Joe got another chance. It happened that, there were some guys starting a firm, called Skadden, Arps, Slate, and Meagher. They didn’t have a single client. Flom met with them. They made sure he was well aware of the risk he was taking to work for a firm with no clients yet. The more they talked, the more he liked them. He took the chance with them and they did whatever law came in the door. Which was mostly litigation and proxy fights.

A proxy fight is a tactic used mainly in corporate takeovers, where an acquirer tries to persuade existing shareholders to vote out company management so that a company will be easier to take over.

This kind of law was disregarded by the top firms at the time. Joseph Flom was the best in proxy contests then. His will to win was unsurpassed and he was often masterful. Gradually, even the white shoe firms began outsourcing such cases to his firm. It was beneath them to deal with that kind of work, which they would later regret.

He later in 1954 took over as managing partner and the firm began to grow in leaps and bounds. The kind of law that Joe’s firm was practicing became more lucrative in the 1970s, when investors were more aggressive and had more money. Companies had to defend themselves against hostile takeovers. Hostile suitors had to be tamed. Skadden-Arps had already created a good reputation for itself in the business of mergers and acquisitions, thus the business came to them first.

It is said that for a period of almost thirty years, if you were a Fortune 500 company being taken over or taking over another entity, Joe Flom was the attorney you had to have on your side and Skadden-Arps had to be your law firm. So feared was Flom, that whenever a take over was announced, the arbitragers were eager to know which side he was on. Some even paid him a retainer to ensure that he would not end up challenging them. In 2015, Skadden became the first law firm to advise on more than $1 trillion of deals in a single year. Forbes magazine has called it “Wall Street’s most powerful law firm.”

Joseph Flom died in 2011, of heart failure, at a ripe old age of 87. He left a mark in this world by being the pioneer of mergers and acquisitions and a philanthropist.

In The Alchemist, best-selling author, Paulo Coelho, says that when you really want something, the whole universe conspires in helping you achieve it. The story of Joe Flom and the quote by Paulo Coelho have always been a source of strength for me.

I have learned that when you really want something, your subconscious mind concentrates on it as well. You are no longer a victim of your circumstances. To be a victim is to justify a lot of frustrations and failures in your life. When you really focus on what you want, everything good will come. Just keep moving forward, with confidence.


To read more about Joseph Flom, you should read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

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