Ken Feinberg fills in after the disaster
In 1984, federal judge Jack Weinstein appointed a young attorney named Kenneth Feinberg to help settle a complex legal case. The lawyer has excelled in his new role.
“I went from being one of thousands of (Washington) DC attorneys overnight to a unique mediator who resolves sensitive financial disputes,” recalled Feinberg, 77. He never planned that kind of career. “I never thought it would become my life’s work.”
But Feinberg has spent the last four decades administering compensation for victims and survivors of seemingly every high-profile disaster or tragedy. These include 9/11, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Boston Marathon bombing, and mass shootings at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
He is considered a leader in this specialty.
Like Kenneth Feinberg, build on your success
By the time he was tapped by Weinstein in 1984, Feinberg, then 39, had already established himself as a rising star. A graduate of New York University Law School in 1970, he worked for Stanley Fuld, Chief Justice of the New York Court of Appeals. He also worked at the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and served as US Senator Edward Kennedy’s chief of staff.
When Weinstein, one of America’s most respected federal judges, chose Feinberg as a special judge to settle a long-standing dispute between Vietnam veterans and the makers of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange, it made perfect sense.
“If he were a painter or an artist, he would be the Picasso of the legal system,” Weinstein said.
Get up close and personal with your work
With each assignment, Feinberg meets with people affected by these horrific events and decides how much money to get from the company or government providing the funds. It requires a lot of empathy, perseverance, dry eyes and commitment to the task at hand.
For Feinberg, controlling his emotions is a job requirement. He has spent countless hours in rooms with people crying, screaming and dealing with the colossal loss.
“In my line of work, it’s very important to suppress emotions and show a calm demeanor,” he said. “Being in public requires enormous discipline and professionalism. In private I will break down and sob.”
Don’t be afraid of tough jobs
Among Feinberg’s responsibilities is the magnitude of his work as special director of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund.
“I was never fully prepared for 9/11,” he said. “The role that George W. Bush and (Attorney General) John Ashcroft gave me – that was a pivotal moment in my career.”
He held up to 10 hearings a day and worked for free. He spent 33 months mired in unspeakably tragic stories of loss. In 2006 he wrote about his experiences in his book What is Life Worth?
In 2020, Netflix released Worth, a film based on the book. Actor Michael Keaton plays Feinberg.
“It conveys pretty well what we’ve been going through emotionally and how the country has rallied around me,” Feinberg said. He previously met with Keaton to share his experiences and his relationship with victims, which helped the actor capture Feinberg’s manners and communication style.
Master self control
As a mediator, Feinberg encounters a range of emotions. He has learned the benefits of self-control.
After the BP oil spill in 2010, he made repeated visits to Gulf communities decimated by the Deepwater Horizon explosion. He addressed a packed audience of angry residents.
“You gain a lot of credibility just by showing up,” he said. “I confronted 300 people in a muggy, muggy gym. It was the lion’s den, 300 to one.”
He listened as angry fishermen and hotel managers grumbled about their ruined livelihoods – and demanded immediate redress. He calmly explained how they could be compensated for their losses.
“Never react in the same way,” he said. “You don’t yell back. You explain what you can and cannot do with a certain degree of certainty and urgency.”
Embrace lasting lessons
Feinberg has found that convincing skeptics takes time. He recalls some of the people affected by the BP oil spill yelling, ‘Lots of talk! Write me a check immediately!”
“Watch what I do over the next few weeks and you’ll see how this works,” he replied in a neutral but emphatic tone. As a result, he made her put her faith in the process and let him play.
“Then you have to back up your promises with the delivery of the goods,” he said. “If you buy time by telling people to watch what happens, you better make sure the money drains in weeks.”
It’s all part of setting and managing expectations. In 2012, he wrote Who Gets What, a book about how he settled claims after disasters and reached settlements with aggrieved parties.
Feinberg recalls five years serving Senator Ted Kennedy as special counsel (when Kennedy chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee) and then as chief of staff, and credits his former boss with teaching him leadership lessons.
“He taught me that if you promise to do something, you do it,” he said. “You don’t falter. You don’t change your mind That has been with me for 50 years.”
Share the credit
Another lesson Kennedy taught Feinberg is to share the credit for triumphs. Kennedy would invite other lawmakers to bask in victory rather than in the limelight.
“Make sure you give credit to those who worked with you to get it done,” Kennedy told Feinberg.
In 1975, Feinberg met another Kennedy aide, future Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Feinberg then worked on an ambitious project to rewrite the Federal Criminal Code.
“He would ask Republicans, ‘What do you think?’ Then he would listen carefully to her answer and find matches,” recalls Breyer, who is now retired. (Criminal code reform passed the Senate but died in the House.)
Know how to listen
Looking back on their long friendship, Breyer says he learned from Feinberg to keep quiet and listen.
“Be careful not to talk too much,” Breyer said. “You are smarter when you stop talking and listen to where the other is coming from.”
As an associate professor of law at Harvard, Georgetown, and other leading law schools, Feinberg frequently provides career counseling to law students. When considering a career move, they may be looking for Feinberg’s input.
He challenges them to ask themselves, “What is the alternative? If you don’t take Avenue A, what is B?”
“It can be extremely helpful to compare a decision you might make against the alternative,” Feinberg said. “Understanding the contrast between A and B helps speed up the decision-making process.”
In any case, he reminds young people not to crane their necks into the future and assume that they will follow a certain path and achieve their goal. He has seen too many people whose plans have been torn apart by cruel fate.
“Life has a way of throwing curveballs,” he said.
Ken Feinberg’s key
- Hailed as the “Picasso of the legal field,” Feinberg has provided compensation for victims and survivors of events such as 9/11.
- Overcome: Harsh public treatment after disasters before disbursing payouts.
- Lesson: “Compareing a decision you might make with the alternative can be extremely helpful. Understanding the contrast between A and B helps speed up the decision-making process.”
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