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Bankruptcy a boon for this law firm

Is there a major company in bankruptcy that Weil, Gotshal & Manges doesn't represent?

Over the weekend, the New York law firm initiated bankruptcy proceedings on behalf of WorldCom Inc., the largest Chapter 11 case in history. The second-largest case _ Enron Corp. _ is also a Weil Gotshal client, as are two other major recent bankruptcy filers, Global Crossing Ltd. and Adelphia Communications Corp.

Stocks are getting clobbered and the economy may be backsliding, but business at Weil Gotshal, which has the nation's best-known bankruptcy-law practice, is getting better every day.

"It's off the charts," says Martin Bienenstock, one of two lawyers who oversee the firm's bankruptcy practice, and who has been heading up the Enron case. The firm says its profits are running at a record clip, when most law firms' earnings are flat or declining.

Keeping up with the demand for its services is a challenge. The firm has been using non-bankruptcy lawyers to keep some cases staffed, and has been looking to other law firms to pitch in on specialized questions of law. The raft of cases involving giant companies is also raising potential conflicts of interest because existing Weil Gotshal clients are more likely to have done business with these clients.

This all comes at a time when the firm's best-known bankruptcy lawyer, 69-year old Harvey R. Miller, recently announced that he is leaving to join an investment banking firm, and when its leadership has been seeking to make a name for itself doing more work for healthy companies rather than just troubled ones.

"It would be a misnomer to call us a bankruptcy firm," says Thomas Roberts, a corporate partner and a member of the firm management committee. In recent years, Weil Gotshal has been beefing up its work for large institutions and diversifying into areas such as patent law.

Weil became a bankruptcy juggernaut through the real-estate debacles of the 1970s and the leveraged-buyout flameouts of the 1980s and 1990s. Over the years, the firm has had a hand, either representing companies or their creditors, in most of the biggest bankruptcies: R.H. Macy & Co., Texaco Inc. and Sunbeam Corp., to name a few. Miller, the combative leader of Weil's bankruptcy department for 30 years, became something of a legend in his own time, once threatening to beat up a partner at a rival firm during a hearing years ago. (He says he regrets the episode.)

Mr. Miller's departure will leave the reins of the department in the hands of two longtime proteges: Bienenstock and Marcia Goldstein, both of whom are 49 years old. Goldstein is handling the WorldCom case.

Weil has about 80 bankruptcy lawyers, considered huge by major-firm standards, as well as scores of corporate and litigation specialists who have lent a hand over the years. The size of the department is about 20 percent below its peak of several years ago, partly because other law firms have picked off attorneys to start their own bankruptcy practices.