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Joe Flom is the last living named partner of the prestigious law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom. The son of Jewish immigrants, he grew up extremely poor in the Great Depression. After attending Harvard Law School and being named to the Law Review (an honor reserved for the top students), he had difficulty finding a job but was finally hired as an associate by Marshall Skadden and Leslie Arps. In 1954, after Flom took over as managing partner, the firm began to grow quickly. It now has nearly two thousand lawyers, in twenty-three offices around the world.
Joe Flom’s story seems like a typical rags-to-riches story, of someone overcoming adversity, but once again, Gladwell says, it is worth investigating where Joe Flom came from. Flom’s challenges—growing up poor, being Jewish at a time when Jews were discriminated against, and growing up in the Great Depression—were actually advantages, according to Gladwell. The lessons of Joe Flom’s life, he claims, make it possible to predict the background, age, and origin of New York’s most powerful attorneys, without knowing any other fact about them.
Lesson Number One: The Importance of Being Jewish. Alexander Bickel, one of Joe Flom’s classmates at Harvard, was also born to Eastern European Jewish immigrants and earned a Harvard law degree. The first firm he applied to told him they could not hire someone with his antecedents. A lawyer not of the desired background, religion, or social class in the 1940s and 1950s had to go work in a smaller, upstart firm. The cases such firms handled were those the larger firms did not want.
In Flom’s day, Wall Street law firms represented large corporations and dealt mainly with taxes and the legal aspects of issuing stocks and bonds. They did not do litigation and rarely had divisions set aside for defending or filing lawsuits. In that era, corporations rarely sued each other or orchestrated hostile takeovers: it was seen as uncivilized. Much of the work that fell to smaller firms handled consisted of litigation and “proxy fights,” a type of maneuver used in hostile corporate takeovers bids. Joe Flom excelled at proxy fights and was even called in by larger firms for advice.
In the 1970s, federal regulations were relaxed, investors became more aggressive, and companies began to take legal action against one another. By the end of the 1980s, the amount of money involved in mergers and acquisitions every year on Wall Street had increased 2,000 percent. Joe Flom’s experience is like that of Bill Joy and Bill Gates, who spent all of their free time engaged in an obscure hobby but were rewarded when personal computers were released. Joe Flom had spent the majority of his legal career working cases no one wanted, but he was later rewarded when those types of cases became the most lucrative.
Lesson Number Two: Demographic Luck. Maurice Janklow, the eldest son of Jewish immigrants, started law school in 1919. While he was intelligent and well educated, and his family was fairly successful, he did not meet with notable success. His son, Mort Janklow, however, was very successful. After selling an early cable television franchise, Mort Janklow created one of the most prestigious literary agencies in the world. Gladwell proposes that the difference in success between the two generations of Janklows is a function of the different eras.
There is another way to break down the data from Terman’s genius study: Termites born between 1903 and 1911 versus those born between 1912 and 1917. Far more of Terman’s failures are in the first group. Although parents’ occupations and values matter, birth era is just as important. Those born in the first group graduated college during the height of the Great Depression and would have had to interrupt their careers if drafted in World War II. The second group graduated college after the worst of the Depression had passed and, if they survived World War II, would have been young enough to pursue careers. The same logic applies to Maurice and Mort Janklow. Maurice Janklow, born in 1902, was economically and psychologically crushed by the Depression; later in life, he survived by doing the paperwork for real estate deals.
By contrast, Mort Janklow was born in the 1930s, during a “demographic trough”: his generation was much smaller than the ones before and after. Consequently, Mort Janklow had smaller class sizes in school and less competition when applying to university. For an aspiring lawyer, being born in the early 1930s was the same as being born in 1955 was for software programmers and 1835 was for entrepreneurs. Mort Janklow described the events that his father endured: the 1918 flu epidemic, two World Wars, and the Great Depression. His father would have been more successful “in a different kind of world.”
Lesson Number Three: The Garment Industry and Meaningful Work. Louis and Regina Borgenicht left Hamburg, Germany for America in 1889. They were the descendants of Eastern European Jews, seeking economic opportunity in New York City. With the rise of clothing stores, Louis noticed that none of the stores offered aprons for little girls. He decided to purchase a large volume of cloth so he and his wife could make aprons in their apartment.
Like many Jewish immigrants at the time, both Louis and his wife had worked in the clothing trade before moving to America. New York City became the most prominent city in clothing manufacture in the world, and by 1900, the city’s garment industry was almost entirely controlled by Eastern Europeans. Arriving in New York City in the 1890s with a background in clothing manufacture was “a stroke of extremely good fortune.”
Louis Borgenicht used the money from the first 40 aprons to buy enough cloth to make 120 aprons, which sold out in two days. He and Regina hired employees and purchased more sewing machines, and by 1892, they had twenty people working for them. By 1913, New York was home to approximately 16,000 garment manufacturing businesses. Louis eventually started making girls’ dresses as well, trying to create a product that was affordable and popular, since there was little competition. As Louis was expanding his business, he was learning manufacturing, market research, and negotiation skills. This was excellent training for advancement, compared to the limited knowledge most immigrants at the time could acquire working as day laborers. While the work was very difficult, Louis also had a job that supplied “autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward”—the most important qualities to make work satisfying. It was meaningful work, much like the hours Bill Gates spent programming or the Beatles spent in Hamburg. It was also very impactful for the children that grew up in homes where their parents engaged in meaningful work.
In 1982, Louise Farkas, a sociology graduate student, studied the descendants of people like the Borgenichts—Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century. One representative family tree shows a tailor/garment maker in the first generation, garment makers in the second, and lawyers in the third. In another family tree, a leather tanner is followed by bag manufacturers, who are followed by doctors and lawyers. A third tree starts with a small grocer and ends with seven doctors, three lawyers, and a psychologist.
According to Gladwell, a Jewish lawyer in New York would ideally be born in 1930, to parents who did meaningful work. The greatest rival to Joe Flom’s firm, the firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, is one of the finest in the world. No firm of its size has made more money over the past two decades. The four founding members were Herbert Wachtell, born in 1931 to a Jewish immigrant clothing worker; Martin Lipton, born in 1931 to a Jewish immigrant factory manager; Leonard Rosen, born in 1930 to Jewish immigrants who worked in the garment district; and George Katz, born in 1931 to Jewish immigrants whose parents were in the garment trade. Instead of obstacles, the culture and generation of these men were opportunities.
Challenges may build the solid background required for success. Gladwell continues to reinforce the notion that talent and intelligence are not the only indicators of success. High-achieving individuals need the right background. With Joe Flom, Gladwell appears to disprove his own argument. He points out the irony that Flom’s apparent disadvantages, including poverty and discrimination, contributed to his success. He accepted a position with an upstart firm that has grown to a billion-dollar business. Gladwell even drives the narrative with some foreshadowing, stating that, with Flom as a model, we can likely predict the family background, age, and origin of other top New York attorneys. He goes on to dispel the notion of individual accomplishment with the story of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Gladwell shows how the founding partners check off all criteria for the perfect lawyer: smart, ambitious, hardworking, born at the right time, from the right background, outsiders, with parents who found meaningful work in the garment industry. For Gladwell, the irony of these attorneys who were unacceptable to elite law firms rising to the pinnacle of success proves a pattern and reinforces his definition of an outlier. Challenges may be perfect opportunities.
Being an outsider may, ironically, provide the type of luck that leads to success. Gladwell introduces Alexander Bickel and compares him to his law school classmate Joe Flom. The two attorneys share a similar background, and Bickel also doesn’t fit with the high-end law firms of the time. In spite of Bickel’s proven legal talents, the fancy law firms wouldn’t hire him because of his antecedents — a euphemism for his Eastern European heritage. Gladwell foreshadows the outlier status of both Flom and Bickel, revealing the opportunities hidden in their setbacks. Gladwell expands on his setbacks to opportunities notion with a bit of legal history. Lawyers like Flom, who once had to take any case that came through the door, had years of practice in cases other firms were not equipped to handle. Gladwell compares Flom to Bill Joy and Bill Gates. They all had the talent and put in the practice time, so when the right moment struck, they were ready. Unlike Joy and Gates, Flom was at a disadvantage because of discrimination. However, because of his difficulties, Flom was in a perfect position to succeed.
The pure luck of a birthdate can give an individual a better chance at success. Gladwell ties together two previous elements: Termites and birthdates. The less successful Termites tended to be born between 1903 and 1911, while the more successful members of that group tended to be born between 1912 and 1917. Gladwell shows that these aren’t magic numbers, but impacts of the Great Depression and World War II. He applies the same metric to the Janklows to explain Mort’s success and Maurice’s struggle. Like the industrialists born in the 1830s, the computer programmers born in the mid-1950s and Canadian hockey players born from January through March, Gladwell suggests there’s an ideal time for the birth of a highly successful Jewish lawyer from New York. Demographics play a vital role in the opportunity for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Being born in a demographic trough, a generation that’s smaller than the ones before and after, puts a person in a better position to achieve. Children of these smaller generations experience advantages from birth: for example, hospitals and classrooms are less crowded, and they face less competition for college admissions and job offers. Gladwell proves his argument using the Janklows and successful litigator Ted Friedman as examples. He reinforces it by noting the prime years for lawyers, programmers, and entrepreneurs to be born. Talent, intelligence, and family background impact success, but so can being born at the right time.
The value of meaningful work drives success for generations. Gladwell introduces immigrants Louis and Regina Borgenicht. They brought their garment industry expertise from Europe and used it to turn a challenge to an opportunity. Gladwell states that this struggle transformed to good fortune continues for the next generation as these garment workers share critical lessons for success with their children. Gladwell uses the Borgenichts to demonstrate the idea of meaningful work — work that offers “autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward.” Though Louis Borgenicht may not be a household name like Bill Gates or the Beatles, he shared similar exhaustion and satisfaction from work he loved. Gladwell talks about the garment industry as a miracle, not only because of the opportunity it provided for these recent immigrants, but also for the lessons it offered their children. Achievement comes from using intelligence and imagination to create work that has meaning.