A conversation with Abby Sniderman Milstein and Howard Milstein
“Helping Harvard is helping way beyond Harvard”
Howard and Abby Milstein met while students at HLS. Both serve on the Executive Committee of the Dean’s Advisory Board, and on the boards of numerous philanthropic, civic and professional organizations. Abby S. Milstein ’76 is a founding partner of Constantine Cannon, is president of the New York Legal Assistance Group, and was recently appointed to the HLS Visiting Committee and also the Visiting Committee for the Harvard Libraries. Howard Milstein ’77 (J.D./M.B.A.) is chairman and CEO of New York Private Bank & Trust Corp., and of various Milstein family operations in real estate development and management. He has just completed two terms on the HLS Visiting Committee. Recently, the Milsteins dedicated a gift to the construction of a conference center in the law school’s new Wasserstein Hall, Caspersen Student Center, Clinical Wing project. In May, the Bulletin’s Margaret Salinger spoke with the couple at Howard Milstein’s offices in New York City.
Bulletin: Were there experiences in your own education that particularly inspired you?
AM: I would answer that by talking about what was for me the highlight of my years at HLS—The Lawyering Process course taught by Gary Bellow, a pioneer in clinical legal education. He infused the course with all his passion for improving the lives of people in need by using the law. I have very vivid memories of my clinical experience. There I was, a 2L, sitting in the kitchen of a lady in Roxbury who had come to us for help about a housing matter. Sitting there with her, I realized that I could use the law beyond helping her with the housing issue; there were benefits to which she was entitled that I could help her to get, and I could help her to write a will so that her few treasured possessions could go to the people whom she wanted to receive them. That was very significant and meaningful for me, and inspired me more than the classroom, no matter how intellectually stimulating the standard courses were.
HM: Abby has always had a passion for justice.
Was that what you had in mind when you went to law school? I mean, some people go to law school wanting to “change the world.”
AM: Yes, sure, I was an “I want to change the world” person. I came to law school thinking that I might end up going more in a constitutional law direction, but the clinical experiences I had in law school sent me a little bit more in this direction.
How has your HLS education contributed to your success in business and as a philanthropist?
HM: It applies to both areas equally well. Compared to most businessmen, I have an additional arrow or two in my quiver by having an understanding of the law. In the business world, legal elements are some of the issues that you need to consider, and consider effectively. And if you have the confidence to be able to evaluate these matters, then you’re not afraid of some things, and you take other things seriously, because you know the import. So it definitely gives you an advantage to understand how legal risks or opportunities relate to business opportunities. But I think the more important thing comes from having that high standard of a rigorous intellectual approach to both situation analysis and problem-solving.
I have a feeling of responsibility to help in the areas that I think are important. And when I serve on a board, I do that only if I feel I can make a difference in the direction of the institution. I frequently end up leading the institution, but I always bring a different perspective, so if I felt there was nothing for me to add, then I wouldn’t do it. Part of what I bring to my philanthropy is a certain level of intellectual rigor to think through what are the strategic objectives and tactics of any organization—in this case, philanthropic organizations—and that intellectual rigor, the standard for that, was set at Harvard Law School.
You once said the Socratic method had nothing on what went on at your dinner table growing up.
HM: That’s true! A lot of people felt intimidated by the process, and they felt that the professors were very fearsome. And because I was not at all intimidated—I enjoyed the process—I was frequently called on. One day I sat in Contracts class—we had Clark Byse—and the person sitting next to me was shaking. I asked him why, and he said, “You were called on seven times today!” “But you weren’t called on at all,” I said. “Yes, but I could have been at any time because I’m sitting next to you!” So the exposure that I had, and the experience I had at the law school, were unusual in some ways because of the fact that I enjoyed the classroom. I think that the Socratic method served me well. I didn’t have too much invested in having to prove I was right in the exchange; I had my point, which I thought was good, and they had their point, which they thought was good. Between the two, you learned.
I had a particular experience with Paul Freund early on in our Constitutional Law class. He called on me in a case involving pamphleting in a shopping center (of course, we’re in the real estate business). It had to do with freedom of speech in a private space. He called on me, and evidently I said something he hadn’t thought of before. I should say that a big difference between the business school and the law school (because I have degrees from both) was that it was almost impossible to ask any question or make any observation to law school professors that they hadn’t heard before and weren’t prepared for. On the other hand, at the business school, I think I did make comments and ask questions that were being heard for the first time by the teachers there. So the intellectual standard at the law school was much higher, and as you can imagine, Paul Freund would sit at the top of that pyramid. He’d been teaching the class for about 50 years, so there really wasn’t anything he hadn’t heard, but for some reason he liked what I had said, found it original. And he used to open the classes afterward by looking around and saying, “The first case is thus and such, and well, let’s see. Ah, Mr. Milstein, do you have any thoughts about this case?” Well, I came up with that one idea that he hadn’t thought of before, and I don’t think I ever struck gold again!
I got to know Paul Freund very well. I’m a big believer that all of us today, as Newton observed, are “standing on the shoulders of giants,” and I feel in my institutional relationships—also in my personal and family relationships, I’m the third generation in a family business—that through my intellectual antecedents, through Paul Freund, through Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom Freund idolized, I really trace myself back to the Civil War in America. In my own modest way, I like being part of that tradition.
One of the reasons I’m a very committed supporter of the law school is because of that tradition and the greatness of the institution and the people who preceded me. So I honor that, I respect that, and I really am privileged to be involved with the law school, with the Visiting Committee, the Dean’s Advisory Board, etc., and having known the deans—the last several deans, especially Bob Clark and Elena Kagan. These are outstanding people, so it’s a privilege for us to be involved.
What’s the significance to you of your recent support of the HLS “Setting the Standard” campaign?
AM: It’s really the result of a long process. After my graduation from the law school, I did not have warm feelings about the school. It was not so easy to be a woman there in those years, and I was put off by what I perceived to be a sort of ugly competitiveness. I went from being someone who loved school to being someone who no longer did, and so I was feeling cool. But around 10 years ago, Bob Clark began a persistent campaign to re-engage and reconnect Howard and me with the law school. Eventually he won us over and we joined the Dean’s Advisory Board. We were both on the Dean’s Advisory Board and the Executive Committee for all of Elena Kagan’s deanship, and I have to say we watched with great enthusiasm all the great things she did to strengthen and humanize the school. I think she’s made a tremendous difference.
HM: When Abby was at the law school, it was about 10 percent women, 90 percent men. Now it’s 50 percent men and 50 percent women. It was a very different environment. It wasn’t that long before we got there that Dean Griswold used to ask each of the women in the class, “Why are you taking the place of a man?” He’d invite them all to dinner and ask them that question.
AM: When we began to think about our gift to the campaign, we wanted it to be something that would be meaningful to the school and meaningful to us as a couple who met there, and so we hope that this conference center will be a place where people meet; and that it will be a vibrant center that’s going to be important to students, faculty, alumni and visitors.
Do you have any fond memories of being at the law school together you’d like to share?
HM: I met Abby on September 5, 1973, and I had in my wallet that day a lottery ticket—this one, I keep it right here in my wallet. It says, September 5, 1973, $1 million payable $50,000 a year for life. The reason I had it was a co-worker had said to me over the summer, “Gee, you’re such a lucky fellow, I want to buy a lottery ticket with you.” It’s the only lottery ticket I ever owned. So we each put in a dollar, and he said, “You carry it for luck.” So I carried it. Needless to say, I did not win a million dollars or $50,000 for life; I met Abby.
AM: He did court me, and had a very clear track of what my schedule was, and he’d wait outside the Langdell classroom and have his pockets full of my favorite treats, which were pistachio nuts and Reese’s peanut butter cups. I lived in a dorm. He had an apartment, but each morning he’d come eat the horrible eggs with me at breakfast.
HM: I used to have to elbow my way in.
AM: Well, there weren’t many women at the school.
HM: That wasn’t it! And I used to hang out in your living room too. She had study groups while I read the newspaper.
AM: Howard wasn’t a study-group type; he was a loner as a student. He’s an individual.
What would you say to law students concerned about the challenges they face in today’s economy?
HM: It goes back to what your attitude is when you’re a student. If your attitude is that you’re a victim of the system, you have to grow out of that. Sooner or later you have to make your own opportunities. These conversations are fresh in my mind because as part of the Visiting Committee, we do speak to students, and I find that many of them don’t realize one important thing: Although at the law school, teachers will recommend what you should get out of it, in the end you get out of it what you want to get out of it. You make your own opportunities. Whenever I mention that to students, that shocks them!
The opportunities of today are obviously not principally financial opportunities, because of the state of the economy, although there are always business opportunities in any situation. But certainly for someone who expects to practice law, the opportunity is to affect society, because society is now in a transition. We’re moving from structures, especially regulatory structures, and a certain high level of materialism, to some other place, and anyone who has a law degree, particularly a Harvard law degree, is well-equipped to be part of directing that trajectory. As we build new regulatory structures for the financial world, that’s going to be an important thing to do. Similarly, being involved with the public sector, or national service, or Teach For America—those many things are really more to the fore now than they ever have been in the past.
This is actually something I’ve been talking about for many years now: the question, what does it mean to be an American citizen? What service opportunities, or Peace Corps opportunities, or other opportunities should be expected of individuals, required of individuals, and aspired to by individuals? Those are all different questions but they have a similar theme. They all involve finding how you can make a contribution to the society and the community, as well as developing your own skills and experiences. So there’s more of an interlaced opportunity and need now. It’s a different kind of opportunity: It’s uncharted waters, but not everybody is comfortable with that. So the person who is thinking, “Well, gee, what I want to do is come out of law school, be a first-year associate at a law firm and become partner some day, and there’ll be certain financial consequences to that.” Well, that path is going to be a less-traveled one in 2009-2010-2011—the next several years—as law firms are shrinking. But again, the skills that they have, as I mentioned earlier, in terms of problem-solving and developing a thoughtful analysis of alternatives, are things that HLS graduates are well-equipped with, and that’s really what’s needed in the world today.
I gave a speech along these lines at Harvard 15 or 20 years ago to J.D./M.B.A. s. If you’re at Harvard Business School or Harvard Law School, you’re going to be successful, but the main thing you want to do is have a full life. You want to take the time to smell the flowers along the way; you want to have time with your family; you want to take vacations. It’s easy to be good at working. The people who are at the law school are very good at working, but you have to have other things that are important in life. That’s actually my number-one bit of advice to everybody.
My second piece of advice involves the attitude I have that when you get out of law school, your job, has to serve your objective. You have to know what it is that you’re trying to accomplish, and get out of it what you want to get out of it. It can’t be that somehow you find yourself doing something you really don’t like, with people you really don’t like, and you’re not sure why you’re doing it, but it uses up 75 hours a week.
I consider law school to be the apex of our liberal education as we know it in America. You can get knowledge, but you will want to start to glimpse wisdom, and the law is a great introduction to this.
Of all of your outside accomplishments, what are you proudest of?
AM: I am of course very proud of Howard—and we have a wonderful son, Michael, who is finishing his sophomore year at Cornell—but in the wider world, I would point to the work that I’ve done with the New York Legal Assistance Group, where I’ve been a hands-on chairman for more than 10 years. It’s grown tremendously in the period of my chairmanship: I think the budget was about $1 million when I became chairman, and now it’s over $8 million, and we’re largely privately funded so we don’t have any of the restrictions that have existed when you take government money.
We have 85 full-time paid staff, we have more than 140 in-house volunteers who give 20 hours a week, we have all kinds of students from clinics around the city. We partner with more than 500 lawyers in 50 law firms around the city doing pro bono work, and we provide high-quality civil legal services to the poor and near-poor in New York. We work in an ever-increasing list of practice areas: We do elder law, family law, immigration law, workers’ rights, special ed.; we’re constantly increasing the range of our practice. We do a lot of class actions. In fact, we just brought one that was covered recently in a big feature article in The New York Times: We’re suing the city over the utterly inadequate maintenance of the elevators in public housing. We have a great staff, and we really make a serious effort to have great morale among the staff, and give the lawyers lots of room to be creative and even entrepreneurial, and all sorts of exciting ideas bubble up from that. We have a great project called Legal Health created by one of our lawyers; she’s trained a thousand doctors in local hospitals and many more social service providers to identify when bringing in a lawyer can do something to improve the health of the patient and make the whole situation better.
NYLAG is a great organization, and I really am extremely proud of the work that I’ve done there.
HM: The most meaningful thing I’ve done, the thing I’m most proud of, is what I’ve been able to do with the New York Blood Center. This very important organization in New York serves the 20 million people in the New York metropolitan area, and we supply almost all the blood to the 200 area hospitals. We also do basic research. Under my leadership, first as chairman of the Executive Committee and then as chairman of the Board, we’ve strengthened the financial structure, so that 10 years ago we had no endowment, and we now have an endowment of hundreds of millions of dollars, which we created by running the place better.
One of the areas I’ve taken a particular interest in there is the Cord Blood Center. Through the work of Dr. Pablo Rubinstein, who works at the Howard Milstein National Cord Blood Center at the New York Blood Center, we have saved thousands of lives.
We also have, at the Abby and Howard Milstein Program and Core Facility in Chemical Biology at Cornell Medical College, research where we’re looking for double antigen cures to tuberculosis and malaria. Now if that works, we’ll be proud of that, because that will save millions of lives.
What do you most hope to accomplish in the years ahead?
AM: I hope that I can continue to give back in meaningful ways. I do work for lots of organizations that I find very gratifying, particularly the New York Public Library, and I’m a commissioner on the New York City Public Design Commission. I’m also involved in the National Humanities Center and other organizations. And I do look forward to an increasing role at Harvard. So, there will be more reasons to come to Cambridge and more reasons to see various aspects of what’s going on at Harvard.
Do you see a connection between helping HLS and helping to make education and legal services available to all?
AM: I really think that helping Harvard is helping way beyond Harvard, because I think that it’s, let’s say, “Setting the Standard.” It sets standards, and it does pathbreaking things that resonate through higher education and throughout many spheres of life. To me, helping Harvard is not an inward-looking parochial activity. I see it as having great societal resonance.
And your hopes for specific accomplishments in the future? Or am I right in guessing that you prefer, as you mentioned, to keep your focus on doing what you’re doing?
HM: Yes, that’s right. I’m doing lots of things, and I’ve actually been spending quite a bit of time in Washington over the last months trying to work with people who are trying to put together solutions to the economic problems we have today. And I’m not sure that we have the right policy programs in place now to avoid even worse economic conditions than we have now, so that’s taking up a little bit of my time as well.