Attorney of the Year Finalist: Roberta Kaplan

New York Law Journal
Published on:
October 27, 2020
David Handschuh
New York Law Journal profiled Roberta Kaplan as one of their finalists for Attorney of the Year. "She knows her law cold, she knows the Constitution cold and she’s not afraid... to go figure out some law that’s going to allow her to fix it.”

No one seems busier than Roberta Kaplan.

In the past four years alone, she’s founded her own litigation boutique, Kaplan, Hecker & Fink, helped to launch the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund to help women facing workplace sexual harassment and represented clients from Airbnb and Uber to counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., and a woman who has accused the president of rape.

The breadth of her practice defies quick summary, and that’s by design, Kaplan said.

“Broadly speaking, everyone at the firm kind of does everything, and we think that what you learn from one kind of case often is incredibly advantageous and to your client’s benefit in another,” she said.

The “interdisciplinary approach” has served Kaplan well in cases like her defense of Melanie Kohler, who accused Hollywood director Brett Ratner of rape as the #MeToo movement gathered steam in fall 2017. Ratner sued Kohler for defamation.

Kaplan, who started her career working on securities cases at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, said she’d hardly ever had a case that didn’t involve a motion to dismiss, but she nevertheless consulted attorneys with expertise in First Amendment cases to discuss the best way forward.

“Most of the defamation lawyers I spoke to, I think to a person actually, told me it’s not worth it, to just go straight into discovery,” she said. “We weren’t willing to do that, we did file a motion to dismiss.” Part of the argument in the motion was successful, and the case settled soon after.

Kaplan’s refusal to let the “schedule take control” is part of why she’s so effective, Kaplan Hecker managing partner Julie Fink said.

“A lot of lawyers are great lawyers, but … you know, they’re in discovery, then they’re taking depositions, and everything follows a very ordinary course,” Fink said. “Robbie is always thinking and rethinking and reanalyzing how she can get her client the best result and what the best result is.”

Fink first worked closely with Kaplan on Windsor v. United States, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 and which brought Kaplan’s name to national prominence.

Since then, she said, Kaplan has demonstrated fearlessness and a mastery of the law at every turn. In August 2017, when President Donald Trump reacted to white nationalist protests in Charlottesville by saying there were “very fine people on both sides,” Kaplan, Hecker & Fink had only officially existed for a month, Fink said.

“We had just moved into an office space, we were still on folding tables and chairs … Robbie called me and said that we should order an extraordinary amount of Chinese food, we should ask everybody to stay for dinner and we should just be together, and watch [Trump’s] press conference again together and talk about why we started the firm and what we could be doing,” Fink said.

As the firm’s attorneys and staff talked, Kaplan started planning, Fink said.

“By the end of the conversation Robbie was saying, you know, if we can’t rely on the Department of Justice to hold the people who organized this accountable, we should do it,” Fink said.

Within three days, Fink estimated, she and Kaplan and another of the firm’s attorneys were in Charlottesville meeting with counterprotesters. With co-counsel from other firms, including Boies Schiller Flexner, on board, they filed a lawsuit in Virginia federal court that fall. Fink described the response as “quintessentially Robbie.”

“She just has no hesitation about doing what’s right in the face of something that’s scary, and frankly, for her, potentially life threatening,” Fink said. “She’s gotten death threats, she’s had these horrible horrible things said about her on Twitter and in the media by these white supremacists and neo-Nazis who target her not just for bringing the case but for being a Jewish lesbian, and it never slows her down for a second.”

Sullivan & Cromwell partner Sharon Nelles, who has known Kaplan since they were both associates at large law firms in the early 1990s, said sometimes Kaplan moves so fast she has to ask her to slow down and explain.

“She just sees things from a thousand different angles all at once, it’s hard to keep up with her thought processes,” Nelles said. “She knows her law cold, she knows the Constitution cold and she’s not afraid, if she sees a problem, to go figure out some law that’s going to allow her to fix it. She’ll find it.”

On at least one occasion, Kaplan decided the law was inadequate and helped write a new one, Nelles said. The “Time’s Up Safety Agenda,” which extended the statute of limitations for second- and third-degree rape among other changes, was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September 2019, and Nelles said Kaplan started planning during a kitchen-table meeting related to Time’s Up.

“Robbie busts in and she’s just like ‘We need to change the law in New York, we need to change the law. New York is not safe for women. We need a women’s safety agenda,’” Nelles said.

Nelles said her immediate impression was that it sounded like a great idea, but “those are things people say all the time.” Meanwhile, Kaplan was already sketching out ideas on a yellow legal pad and calling contacts in Albany, Nelles said, and her ideas were quickly turned into legislation.

“Robbie has always been that person,” Nelles said. “She’s always at the front of the line, she’s always a little bit louder than everybody else, and I mean that in the absolute best way.”

Kaplan’s commitment to action has served her as chair of the board of directors of GMHC, formerly the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and as chair of the board of directors of Time’s Up.

The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which she co-founded, arose partly from the Melanie Kohler case, Kaplan said.

When Kaplan was asked to take the case, her firm was still new, she said, so she needed to figure out how to afford travel to and from Hawaii, where Kohler lived and the case was filed.

“There were obviously a lot of other influences, but … we realized there were gonna be women who would get sued for speaking out and that they wouldn’t have the resources to defend themselves in a defamation suit,” she said.

Overall, Kaplan said, obtaining justice for her clients has made “all the long hours and all the aggravation and everything else worth it.”

Fink said Kaplan seems to spend every moment reading or thinking about her cases, but that’s because she loves what she does.

“It’s just a part of her, and she finds a great amount of joy in it,” Fink said.

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