GM’s lead bankruptcy attorney dies at 82

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — General Motors’ lead bankruptcy attorney Harvey R. Miller — who was one of the leading restructuring attorneys and helped guide the Detroit automaker through its financial crisis — died Monday after a battle with ALS, the firm announced. He was 82.

Mr. Miller was a partner at law firm Weil Gotshal & Manges and had been at the firm since 1969. He was hired by GM late in 2008 to advise it on a possible bankruptcy filing as it sought a government bailout.

“Harvey was the premier bankruptcy law practitioner,” said Weil Executive Partner Barry Wolf. “He was a trailblazer and set the standard for how to approach, develop and expand the practice. He leaves an unparalleled and indelible impact on the field of bankruptcy law and on Weil and we will miss him greatly.”

Mr. Miller created Weil’s bankruptcy practice and played a key role in nearly every landmark bankruptcy case, including Lehman Brothers, American Airlines, Texaco, WorldCom, Enron, Eastern Airlines, Bethelem Steel, Continental Airlines and R. H. Macy.

“His leadership and vision had a significant impact on Weil’s transformation from a small, two-office law firm to one of the world’s major full service corporate law firms,” Wolf said.

Mr. Miller was born in Brooklyn in 1933. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Brooklyn College in 1954 and graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959. He worked at two small law firms in New York before joining Weil.

Mr. Miller helped GM exit bankruptcy after 40 days as a new government-sponsored enterprise as part of $60 billion in U.S. and Canadian bailouts.

He told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Gerber in July 2009 that objectors were endangering thousands of jobs, the welfare of communities that rely on GM and imperiling the automaker's assets by betting the government is lying about its intention to pull its funding.

"This is an awesome gamble," Mr. Miller said in his closing arguments. "It ignores the interests of all the economic stakeholders. They are essentially asking to play Russian roulette."

In May 2009, the day the Obama administration pushed Chrysler LLC into bankruptcy, Mr. Miller told then auto adviser Harry Wilson that the 40-day timetable for a GM bankruptcy and exit was “impossibly aggressive,” according to former auto czar Steve Rattner’s 2010 book “Overhaul.” He said the government’s plan had even intimidated bankruptcy veterans like Mr. Miller.

As part of the bailout, the Treasury owned an initial 60.8 percent of GM, while the Canadian government received an 11.7 percent stake and a United Auto Workers health-care trust received 17.5 percent.

It wasn’t cheap for GM.

More than 400 lawyers at Weil charged GM a total of $45.2 million in legal fees in 70,000 hours of legal work. Weil earned $54 million in fees for work done before the bankruptcy filing. Mr. Miller billed GM for $641,000, charging $960 to $990 an hour, court records show. Associates at Weil charged anywhere from $355 to $695 an hour.

Mr. Miller testified before Congress in 2009 on GM’s decision to close more than 1,300 dealers in bankruptcy. GM agreed to make cash payments of nearly $600 million.

He recounted the GM bankruptcy.

“And as far as the GM management was concerned, if the United States of America wanted to pay everybody and GM not file a bankruptcy petition, that would have been perfectly fine. But from my observation what the auto team was concerned about is how do you protect taxpayer money? If you're just going to open up the door and everybody is going to be paid, well, then you don't need the bankruptcy,” Mr. Miller testified. “But bankruptcy is a zero-sum game. There's only so much value, and the fight is who's going to share in that value, and there are priorities that are commanded by the bankruptcy code and there are business reasons why, unfortunately, from my perspective, unions have a lot of leverage. And the question is, how much money are you going to put in?”