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Meet Leo Strine, the Judge Fighting to Uphold Delaware’s Corporate Fairness Reputation

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Meet Leo Strine, the Judge Fighting to Uphold Delaware’s Corporate Fairness Reputation

Nov 16, 2012, 05:37 pm CDT

On a chilly December morning a week before Christmas, Leo Strine, the top judge on the Delaware Court of Chancery, is in a giving mood.

A group of lawyers that won a $1.26 billion award in a dispute over the acquisition of a mining company has returned to court seeking a large fee for services rendered. At a hearing, the buyer’s lawyer, Stephen Jenkins, derides the request as a potential windfall and quickly finds himself on the defensive.

“Well, what’s a windfall?” Strine asks. “A windfall is: Someone else bought a [winning] Powerball ticket, and the wind blew it and it fell in someone’s lap.”

A windfall, the judge says, is when companies settle nuisance suits that yield a lot of money to shareholder lawyers and “bubkes, zero, nada, nothing” for their clients. Strine tells Jenkins that he and other defense lawyers “have shaped a world of windfalls.”

“I just actually think there are a lot of actual people who would say, ‘If my lawyer hits a grand slam for me, I’m OK with him getting one or two of the runs,’ ’’ he says.

Indeed, by day’s end, the plaintiffs lawyers have scored. Strine grants them a fee of $285 million, a stunning sum equal to about $35,000 an hour, by far the largest in Delaware history. “I don’t think there’s anything about this that is a windfall,” he concludes. “Nothing fell into the laps of the plaintiffs.”

Back in chambers during lunch, a conversation with a visitor turns to another passion. Strine is a huge music fan. Two posters of singer-songwriter James Taylor hang on the wall over his desk. A CD collection on his bookshelf spans from the classics to the Ramones. He finds his groove writing judicial opinions to Coltrane.

“You want to hear a truly magical performance?” he asks, with a conspiratorial smile. He pops in a CD of singer Johnny “Bowtie” Barstow, an obscure artist who has a decidedly nontraditional take on the holiday classics. A hilarious, cringe-inducing version of “Joy to the World” soon fills the air.

The 48-year-old jurist has impressed people with his own kind of offbeat performance and earned a reputation as one of the nation’s leading figures in corporate law—a probing, thoughtful judge with an unusually disarming and outspoken style.

Over the years, he has shaped the corporate legal landscape, calling out greedy executives and feckless directors, blocking management-led buyouts, and ordering reluctant merger partners to the altar. He has turned out scores of opinions, many precedent-setting, and more than two dozen law review articles. He has lectured on three continents and taught at four law schools, including those at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1988.

Continue reading, "Judge Fights to Uphold Delaware’s Reputation of Being Fair to Corporations" here in the November issue of the ABA Journal.

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