NEW YORK — Wriggling uncomfortably in their chairs, the law students looked on as the professor mercilessly scolded one of their own for misstating a point of New York law.
Only one took exception. "Sir," the budding lawyer bravely began, "I believe you are mistaken."
By the time he had finished, Simon Rifkind had extracted a rare admission of error from the Columbia Law School professor and won the awe of his classmates.
"If an argument was faulty, it wouldn't get by Rifkind, even as a student," recalls New York lawyer Merwin Lewis, who witnessed the episode and was, at the time, Rifkind's roommate. "The professor, and all of the rest of us, were open-mouthed while Rifkind laid out the professor and analyzed the law.
"Si had been my friend for a long time," Lewis continued. "From then on, he has been my hero."
Some 60 years have elapsed since that day. Rifkind has advised presidents and generals, helped shape Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, served nine years as a federal judge, allocated the waters of the Colorado River among the Southwestern states, helped rescue New York City from bankruptcy and defended such luminaries as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
Dean of New York Law
And at age 85, he is still winning accolades for his knowledge of and eloquent argument of the law. The man who all but his closest friends call "Judge," even though he left the bench 36 years ago, is widely acclaimed as the undisputed dean of New York law and as one of the most gifted trial lawyers ever.
"The most outstanding (courtroom) advocate of them all," Douglas said of Rifkind in his book "The Court Years," citing his "powerful and animated" style in the courtroom.
It is his combination of skill, knowledge and esteem that earned Rifkind his latest assignment, one that many are saying may be the octogenarian's last great case: Pennzoil versus Texaco.
Pennzoil enlisted his help in May, six months after a Texas jury decided that Texaco owes Pennzoil $11 billion for wresting control of Getty Oil from Pennzoil in 1984.
When oral arguments in Texaco's appeal of that decision begin Thursday morning before a three-judge panel in a Houston auditorium, Rifkind will be found arguing one of the most critical portion's of Pennzoil's case: his specialty, New York law.
New York's is the pertinent law in this, the largest civil case in the history of the American legal system, because New York is where the alleged wrongs occurred. And in citing 90 "points of error" in the trial, Texaco hits particularly hard on what it considers serious misstatements of New York state law by the trial judge.
Rifkind has had only two months to prepare for a case that has produced hundreds of thousands of pages of court documents, a situation that Rifkind acknowledges creates "a very special challenge."
But Lewis, his former roommate and friend of 70 years, says the quick read is another Rifkind specialty.
"Columbia was a hard-task school. But Si had to support himself, so he didn't have the time for studying most of us had," Lewis recalls. "He would go to class all morning, supervise the activities of a parochial school . . . the entire afternoon, study a little here and there. And despite that, he was still the best in our class."
Rifkind also has a support staff that is intimate with the case. The Wall Street law firm that has risen from a tiny team of 20 lawyers in 1950 to one of the nation's largest and most prominent with 325 attorneys--Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison--has been an integral part of the Pennzoil team from the beginning.
It was Paul, Weiss partner Arthur Liman, a Rifkind protege and one of the nation's best corporate litigators, who represented Pennzoil in the Getty negotiations. And it was Liman who advanced Pennzoil's arguments in a New York federal court earlier this year on the question of how much bond Texaco should have to post for its appeal.
But because Liman was also a key Pennzoil witness in the 4 1/2-month trial, he excused himself from this assignment.
'Just a Taxicab'
Rifkind says Pennzoil hasn't told him why he got the nod. And he didn't ask.
"I'm just a taxicab," he says. "People hail me."
It is clear to almost everyone else familiar with the case, however, that Pennzoil was looking not only for someone well versed in New York law but for a name that the Houston appellate judges will recognize.
"When he walks into a courtroom," says one attorney who has argued against Rifkind, "the judges all know him by reputation. They call him 'Judge.' And that can be very intimidating to the other side."
Joseph D. Jamail, the Houston personal injury lawyer who was Pennzoil's chief trial lawyer and who continues to head the legal effort as the battle moves through the Texas appellate system, says that "we needed someone renowned in the law of New York, and I think anyone would tell you Judge Rifkind is Mr. New York law."