William Taylor is the man in the suit next to the man in the suit. He’s the lawyer Dominique Strauss-Kahn called after he was pulled off a Paris-bound plane, arrested and accused of sexually assaulting a Manhattan hotel housekeeper — charges that were later dropped after prosecutors questioned the accuser’s credibility.
Taylor and co-counsel Ben Brafman — best known for defending Michael Jackson against child molestation charges and Sean “Diddy” Combs in a weapons and bribery case — continue to represent Strauss-Kahn in the ongoing civil case filed by the housekeeper, Nafissatou Diallo, in New York State Supreme Court. (They have filed a motion to dismiss the case; Diallo’s attorney, Ken Thompson, said the motion is “baseless” and plans to file a response in court by today.)
Taylor is a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder, the District-based litigation boutique. The 36-year-old firm has 95 attorneys in four U.S. offices, including 65 in Washington, and has built its reputation defending high-profile clients in high-stakes litigation and investigations. Taylor represented the Clinton White House chief of staff and Democratic National Committee finance chairman in the Whitewater investigation, and Los Angeles plaintiffs firm Milberg Weiss (now known as Milberg) when some partners came under fire for covering up millions in illegal kickbacks to plaintiffs.
Zuckerman Spaeder has in the past month added a trio of former prosecutors to expand its presence in New York: Steven Cohen from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office; Paul Shechtman, a former director of criminal justice under Gov. George Pataki; and Andrew E. Tomback. Taylor and firm Chairman Graeme Bush say plans to grow the New York office were under way long before the Strauss-Kahn cases.
Capital Business spoke with Taylor and Bush about the origins of their professional relationship with Strauss-Kahn, how to market a business when you have a headline-making client and their firm’s plans. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
How did you come to represent Strauss-Kahn?
Taylor: I had another case involving a French client [who he declined to name, but continues to represent] and met some French lawyers. We became friends and colleagues and collaborators. When Dominique had his problem with the International Monetary Fund in 2008 (an investigation into an affair he had with a female IMF economist), one of those lawyers suggested he call me. That’s how I got to know him and his wife. From time to time, my wife and I saw them socially. It was relatively natural that when he was in custody at Port Authority, he would reach out.
When you have a client like Strauss-Kahn who’s getting a lot of negative attention in the press, and at the same time you’re trying to grow your firm, how do you channel that attention?
Taylor: When you’re representing a client in that circumstance, the best thing you can do for him is to keep it completely out of public view. It’s totally inconsistent with anybody’s notion about how to market yourself. We will be successful in continuing our business if we’re successful in litigating the case. The Strauss-Kahn case is an interesting study in how, if lightning should strike, you should be a tree. In that sense, it brought a lot of attention to the firm. We had a New York office and were in the process of discussing expanding the office. And it just happened that the interest from Steve Cohen and Paul Shechtman occurred. Before the Strauss-Kahn case hit, we were talking to Steve for awhile. That’s a complete coincidence.
Was there an “a-ha” moment when you knew the criminal case wasn’t going to stick?
Taylor: I thought from the beginning ... there were too many things that were improbable about the story. Whether it would be dismissed by the prosecutors or at trial, I felt it was likely the prosecutors would find the story had many holes in it. Her story was that he didn’t say a word to her. He just attacked her. I know the man. He may not be an angel, but he is not an attacker. He had a reputation, but it was for seduction and consensual affairs, not violence. [Diallo’s civil complaint disputes this, describing her encounter with Strauss-Kahn as a “violent and sadistic attack.”]
What’s next for Zuckerman Spaeder?
Bush: The expansion in New York brings people into the firm with great reputations. We’d like to do similar things in D.C. But we don’t want to become so big we’re like every other big firm. We want to keep the small firm culture we have. We’ve been sought after by a number of larger firms who would’ve been delighted to absorb us, and we have steadfastly resisted doing that. I don’t want to be the next small firm that gets absorbed because it hasn’t built the team it needs to be able to survive.