Alumnus Noah Heller ‘00, current CEO of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, addressed Fordham Law students in a February 15 talk hosted as part of the Corporate Law Center’s Business Law Practitioners Series. Heller provided a summary of his career, a description of his current duties as head of a full-service law firm, and several pieces of advice for students embarking on their own professional journeys.
“If you have your eyes open, you can get really amazing experience in several different ways,” Heller said. “It’s not about trying to imitate somebody who’s successful; it’s about trying to take things that you can watch other people do and do them in your own voice, in your own way.”
Heller said that the timing of his graduation from Fordham Law, which coincided with a historic boom in the legal services industry, opened for him the unique opportunity to work with the SEC litigating cases of securities fraud, despite having no professional experience practicing law.
While at the SEC, Heller says he learned many of the interpersonal skills essential to his later success in business. When the terrorist attacks of September 11 cut short his stint at the agency by rendering its lower-Manhattan offices uninhabitable, Heller was quick to secure himself a position at the law firm of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, working to broker distressed debt from such high-profile bankruptcies as Enron, Adelphia, and WorldCom. He then took his knowledge of the distressed debt market to Katten Muchin, where history once more treated him to a favorable turn.
“I get to Katten in 2008,” Heller said. “Two months later Bear Stearns collapses. Probably six months later, Lehman collapses. There was more debt out to failing companies than you could possibly imagine.”
After several years spent building out Katten Muchin’s highly successful distressed debt unit, Heller says that the firm approached him with the possibility of taking on a management role. Engaged by the challenges of management-level decision making, Heller jumped at the opportunity, beginning in 2013 to serve as one of the firm’s two executive leaders.
“Day to day I’m wrestling with a lot of the same issues that I feel you [law students]are probably wrestling with,” Heller said. “Is the impact of corporate spending on legal services causing law firms to change their thinking? Change their offerings? Change their business models?”
Despite the shifting character of the legal industry, Heller said that much of the wisdom he has gathered in the course of his career still holds true. To the students in attendance, he offered three pieces of advice: 1) find mentors eager to teach younger lawyers, 2) be willing to embrace unconventional opportunities, and 3) cultivate your relationships.
“Everything that I’ve ever done I owe to the quality of my relationships and to the quality of my network,” Heller said. “So the advice that I’ll give to each of you…is if you’re not maintaining relationships with people who you met in high school, in undergrad, in law school…you’re going to lose those relationships and the opportunities that they may bring.”