Bradley Butwin ’85 has made a career of not choosing the easy or expedient path.
He was condemned to die, yet he didn’t lose hope: Aden Harrison, Jr., a black man from Georgia, had been sentenced to death for murder. His 83-year-old counsel, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and his cocounsel failed to provide him with a constitutionally adequate defense. Harrison decided to appeal. He needed a new lawyer—and a miracle.
Bradley J. Butwin, a newly minted Fordham Law graduate and then attorney at Davis Polk & Wardwell, decided to take the pro bono case. He and his team petitioned the Fulton County Superior Court for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that had Harrison’s lead attorney—the only lawyer his family could afford—adequately defended him, Harrison would not have lost the trial for his life.
“Legal aid groups implored us not to go for the jugular at the state habeas phase and make our best arguments there. They said, ‘If you go for the win now, you’re going to allow the state court to make factual findings against your client, which will doom future federal habeas appeals and put him in the grave.’ But given the facts of our case, this advice went against our instincts,” Butwin says. “The habeas hearing was held in a segregated courtroom with a Confederate flag hanging behind the judge, Aden next to me in chains, and his mother behind him begging me to save her son’s life. That morning, I had rehearsed my opening statement in front of the mirror for the hundredth time and I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I had no Plan B.”
Butwin didn’t need an alternate plan: he won a new trial for Harrison. Not only was the case notable in convincing a Georgia state judge to take the highly unusual step of reversing both a death sentence and the underlying conviction, it was only the third Georgia state court to make such a decision since the Supreme Court had decided the seminal Sixth Amendment case Strickland v. Washington.
“Most of my peers were spending the bulk of their time on billable work for clients, as was I, but rather than playing it safe on commercial work, I was running around the back roads of Georgia and Alabama looking for mitigation witnesses and the truth,” Butwin says. “I learned more about the law and about myself from that case than from anything else I’ve worked on.”
Nearly 30 years later, Butwin is the Chair of O’Melveny & Myers LLP, where he oversees the 130-year-old international law firm of approximately 700 attorneys in 15 offices worldwide and has been praised as one of the nation’s top securities litigators. He has represented financial institutions in their most important and sensitive litigation, from matters involving subprime mortgages to claims related to Bernard Madoff’s fraud. In the little free time he has, he roots for the Mets, the New York Giants, and the Wisconsin Badgers, but he reserves perhaps his most sportsmanlike enthusiasm for Fordham Law School.
Recently Butwin has been helping the School pursue new growth opportunities and reach its fundraising goals. He chairs the Dean’s Scholars Initiative and has made a leadership gift to an endowed scholarship in his name. As a member of the University’s Financial Aid Campaign Committee, he works with other alumni advisory groups to garner support for the University’s $175 million financial aid campaign, $25 million of which will directly benefit the Law School. Butwin wants to foster the spirit of diversity, intellectual curiosity, and public service for which the School is known, while helping it stand out amid a more competitive and global legal landscape.
“Fordham has a mission to make students not only better thinkers but also better people,” he says. “As you’re entering law school your vision is of The Paper Chase; that you’re going to get humiliated in class by professors and deal with sharp elbows from students. Fordham Law is just the opposite. The faculty, administration, and students are in it for the right reasons, which is for the students to learn, expand their horizons, give back to society, and take chances.”
Butwin took his own chance after graduation when he decided against working for his family’s business on Long Island. Instead, he took a clerkship with Hon. David N. Edelstein ’32 of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The esteemed judge carried on the intellectual training and skill-building Butwin began at Fordham, as he helped Edelstein write historic decisions.
“He gave me a lot of responsibility and encouraged me to express my views and think outside the box. He would say, ‘If you’re going to be a bobbing head, then you’re of no value to me,’ ” Butwin says. “If he called me into his chambers to discuss a draft opinion, and I came over without a legal pad, he would say, ‘a long pencil is always better than a short memory.’ He would always test whether my views were thought out; he would allow me to dissent until the point where I was clear that he was clear on what I was saying.”
From the district court, Butwin went to Davis Polk & Wardwell, then became a partner at O’Sullivan Graev & Karabell LLP, a private equity boutique firm that O’Melveny merged with in 2002. Since becoming Chair of the firm in January 2012, Butwin has embarked on a strategy “for the firm to form deeper relationships with clients across many practice areas and geographies, deliver legal services more efficiently, and offer innovative fee arrangements while maintaining O’Melveny’s collegial culture.”
To that end, Butwin hired a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist to serve as the firm’s in-house editor and writing coach, instituted innovative practice management software, and has encouraged the hiring of Fordham Law graduates, for their “street smarts, judgment, and ability to play well together.”
While Butwin’s memory of the Harrison appeal seems as vivid as the day he took the case, he also keeps close in thought his Fordham Law days, one in particular: his student orientation in 1982. Butwin walked into the Fordham auditorium to hear the legendary Dean John D. Feerick welcoming students.
“It was Dean Feerick’s first day as well and, in his disarming way, he said something like, ‘I’m not sure if any of you are nervous, but I surely am because this is my first day as dean. I promise you, however, we’ll get through this together.’ That comment epitomizes the relationship that Fordham cultivates with its students.”