The Faculty of Law’s Lifetime Achievement Award
The Faculty’s Lifetime Achievement Award for 2014 was presented to Professor Yaakov Neeman in a moving ceremony held in June in the presence of leading figures from the Israeli legal world. “Professor Neeman was a natural choice for the award given his prominent role in the profession, the law firm he founded, and his numerous achievements in the public sphere,” commented Professor Yoav Dotan, one of the academics who initiated the ceremony. We met the recipient of the award for an exclusive interview in the hope of providing some inspiration for current and future practitioners in the legal field.
Photos: Yair Meyuhas
Professor Neeman, after an impressive ceremony celebrating your extensive work in the legal sphere, let’s begin with a rather banal question: Did you plan a career in law from an early age?
Not at all. I wanted to study medicine and I even enrolled for medical studies. But my parents told me: “If you study medicine, you’ll never have a moment’s peace. Choose law, instead. You’ll be able to take a siesta during the day and have time to go out to concerts and cafés.” In fact, I later discovered that as a lawyer I never had a moment’s peace. Once I’d decided to switch to law, I threw myself into it. I was very busy. I used to get back from work or from a class at university and sit down to review the material we’d studied. I don’t remember a single evening when I went to bed before midnight.”
Tell us about your first steps as a lawyer.
I was living in Tel Aviv at the time and married with two daughters. I opened an office in my living room in a three-room apartment. After I provided consultation for my first client, I remember how proud I was when I gave him a receipt for the fee. He went into the bathroom, tore up the receipt, and told me: “Attorney Neeman, if you work with receipts you won’t get far.” I replied: “I’m sorry, but that’s how I was raised. I’m not willing to work any other way.” After I was appointed director-general of the Ministry of Finance in 1979, he called to congratulate me. He also apologized for his comment years before. “I’ve just got out of jail after serving nine months for tax offenses. I guess you were right.”
I worked on my own out of the office in my home for several years, until in 1972 Attorney Chaim Herzog and Attorney Michael Fox made me an offer. They wanted to open a law firm concentrating mainly on multinational deals between foreign companies that come to Israel and Israeli companies that are interested in investing abroad. In July 1972 we opened an office in the Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv. We had three rooms and one secretary. Chaim’s wife Ora was responsible for the furniture.
Later we began to employ interns. We developed a system based on bottom-up growth: we took on outstanding interns as lawyers, and after four to six years they could join us as partners. Another important principle we established was that those who join us as partners do not have to pay anything toward the firm’s assets. This method helped us grow and today we have about 230 attorneys and several dozen interns. We really grew from the bottom up.
What values and qualities do you think led to your success and are vital for a good lawyer?
First of all – people skills. It’s important to look the person you are dealing with straight in the eye, not from above or below. That’s the most important thing. A second principle is to be true to yourself and not to say anything that you know is untrue. Unfortunately, many lawyers fail to respect this principle. Thirdly, one of the main reasons for the firm’s success is the value of friendship. We don’t have ranks or a sense of hierarchy in the firm. When I was the director of the firm, no-one called me “Mr. Director,” and after I became a senior partner no-one called me “senior partner” or “founding partner.” They simply called me Yaakov. We also have a tradition of not wearing ties when we walk around the office in order to avoid an excessive sense of self-importance. When we cross the road to the court, we have no choice and we put a black tie on. It’s very important to encourage a collegial atmosphere among all the lawyers, interns, and clerics and we work hard to create that atmosphere in our firm.
Later you moved over to the public sector. Which sector gave you a stronger sense of satisfaction and achievement?
I’d always been interested in public affairs. Back in 1972, as well as working in my firm, I served as a member of various public committees discussing tax issues, education, and so forth. In September 1979, Eli Hurvitz, with whom I was already acquainted, told me that he wanted me to take on the position of director-general of the Ministry of Finance. I told him that I had my own law firm and didn’t need the position. He replied: “I wasn’t asking you.” Three days later, the government appointed me to the position. I spent two years in the position. I don’t have to tell you that there’s quite a difference between a public salary and a private one, but I had enough savings and I wasn’t worried. I felt that I was serving the public and that gave me a great sense of satisfaction.
Professor Yaakov Neeman receiving the Award from Professor Aharon Barak
Turning to less personal matters, what is your opinion of the procedure for the selection of judges?
The most important thing is to focus on the person themselves. You shouldn’t appoint someone because of political pressure or because some judge is demanding that you do so. It’s also important that those involved in making the decisions should not have any personal interest in the matter. Thirdly, it’s worth making an effort to secure consensus on the Judicial Selection Committee. When I was a member of the committee, I tried to reach understandings and agreements with all the other members. Sometimes it needed some work using the game theory, but the bottom line was in my time all the decisions regarding Supreme Court justices were agreed by all nine members of the committee. I’m glad that we worked that way.
Another important piece of advice: don’t gossip, don’t give interviews, and don’t talk to the media. Everything should be done modestly, honestly, and on the basis of mutual understanding. I’ll give you a good example. Just before the Judicial Selection Committee was due to meet, a newspaper headline proclaimed: “The meeting will not take place, and if it does – the committee will not choose a single judge.” That very morning the committee appointed four judges by an unanimous decision. How can that happen? Because I held discussions behind the scenes with the committee members in order to build a consensus. Consensus is the best way to go. When a judge is appointed by a unanimous decision of the committee, that means that they enjoy full confidence and it shows that it wasn’t the result of individual pressure and that no-one was trying to promote a different candidate.
What do you think the solution is to the problem of overload in the courts?
The overload of work in the courts is terrible and everyone shares the blame. Firstly, the fact that the courts do not impose real expenses on the losing party means that any individual or insurance company that is sued has an interest in dragging the trial on for years. Those who lose out from this are usually the weaker members of society. I’ve talked to judges many times about the solutions I see to this problem, and I’m glad to say that things are starting to move in the right direction. Every trial should take place “from one day to the next,” as it says in the Criminal Proceedings Law and the Civil Proceedings Regulations. In addition, the ruling should be granted within 30 days. It is important to impose realistic expenses on the losing party and to take into account the manner in which it managed its defense or its suit.
Something else that I learned from my teacher and mentor, the late Justice Vitcon, is to write short and succinct rulings. Even in the Yohananoff case, one of the most complicated arbitrations I have ever been involved in, which took six years and include real costs running into millions of dollars – I wrote a short ruling extending over just a few pages. This is the only way to avoid a situation where people are forced to wait for years before receiving their rights or the reliefs they deserve.
Lastly, how did it feel to receive a Lifetime Achievements Award from the Faculty?
I found the ceremony very moving. I was touched by the comments of Professor Aharon Barak, Supreme Court President Justice Grunis, the president of the Hebrew University, and all the other speakers. As I listened to their comments I found myself wondering whether it was really me they were talking about. I’ve realized that these are the tasks I have to confront, and I hope to continue to be active in my own way in these areas.
Right: Prof. Barak, Prof. Neeman, Supreme Court President Justice Grunis and the Dean Prof. Shany