Leonard Rivkin, a decorated World War II Army hero and the founder of Long Island's largest and most influential law firm, died Friday at his home in Garden City after a battle with kidney failure. He was 95.
The firm that would later become Rivkin Radler LLP was founded in 1950 in a small office space on Merrick Road in Freeport for $25 per month. It has since grown to five offices, including its Uniondale headquarters, and employs 200 attorneys.
Rivkin's clients included Fortune 500 corporations and insurance companies involved in complex, multimillion-dollar litigation. He defended the Dow Chemical Company in the Agent Orange class action case against Vietnam veterans who said the defoliant sprayed during the war severely damaged them and caused birth defects in their children. And he defended the Fireman's Fund Insurance Company in the Franklin National Bank collapse of 1974, then the largest bank failure in American history.
"He was a ferocious litigator with an incredible desire to succeed for his clients," said his son, John Rivkin, 64, of Westhampton Beach, a retired partner at the firm. "He was also an innovator; never afraid to take a risk or to take a loss. And he was incredibly decisive, never afraid to make a mistake."
Rivkin grew up in Far Rockaway, the oldest of two children to Hyman Rivkin, Long Island's first radiologist; and Nettie Rivkin, a homemaker. The couple later had a daughter, Judy Feldman, who died earlier this year.
Leonard Rivkin attended the University of Virginia but enlisted in the U.S. Army after one semester. As an 18-year-old, he helped capture 80 German soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge, earning him a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.
Rivkin returned to the University of Virginia and completed his undergraduate and law school degrees in three years.
In 1950, Rivkin married Lenore Friedman and the couple had two children, John Rivkin and Janet Zuckerman, 67, a clinical psychologist from Mamaroneck. They settled in Hewlett. Lenore Friedman died in 1985 and he later remarried Betty Friedman, who died in 2013.
Rivkin's law firm started modestly and his few clients were relatives, friends and neighbors.
"I was a neighborhood lawyer," Rivkin told Newsday in 2000. "That's what I was at the beginning. That was the only way to build a practice."
William Savino was among the young attorneys recruited by the firm in 1978. Savino, who served as managing partner for 14 years, recalled Rivkin as a consummate profession who stressed accountability. Once an attorney earned Rivkin's confidence, he let them lead, he said.
"His approach was 'let's take the initiative,' whether it be in legal strategy or in client relations," Savino said. "He would say 'opportunity is 99% taken and 1% given. Len took the approach that life is what you make of it. He really did not tolerate excuses but did reward those who made life happen."
In his memoir, “May It Please the Court,” Rivkin discussed his philosophy: "Do not sit on your hands waiting for something to happen: make it happen. Do not react to your adversaries; make him react to you”
The Dow Chemical case was the firm's largest, with a team of 12 attorneys, and 22 paralegals working full-time on the class action. The case became so heated that Rivkin and his defense team wore bulletproof vests to court and once found a bullet hole in the window of his office. The firm erected a steel bombproof door on the office's file room while all incoming mail was passed through an X-ray machine.
Rivkin attracted numerous luminaries to the firm's masthead, including former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana; ex-State Sen. John Dunne and prominent litigator Warren Radler, who became a named partner in 1981, leading the new Chicago office.
Over the years, the firm added offices in Los Angeles and Santa Rosa, Calif; Washington, D.C., New Jersey, White Plains, Manhattan, and Massachusetts. Today, the firm, which ranks as the 209th largest law firm in the country, has five offices, including on Long Island, Manhattan, Hackensack, N.J., Poughkeepsie and Albany.
Rivkin retired in 1989. He continued to visit the firm weekly, but largely concentrated on his family and his love of boating and fishing.
He is survived by his two children, a daughter-in-law, Nancy Rivkin; a son-in-law, Joseph Zuckerman; and five grandchildren.
The family will have a private graveside service and sit Shiva.