In Memoriam: Ira M. Millstein ’49

The elder statesman of corporate governance, who practiced law for more than 70 years at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, dies at age 97.

Man wearing suit and tie

Ira M. Millstein SEAS ’47, LAW ’49, the oldest and longest-serving partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, a prominent civic leader in New York City, and an ardent supporter of Columbia Law School, where he taught and established the Ira M. Millstein Center for Global Markets and Corporate Ownership, died on March 13, 2024. He was 97.

Dubbed a “boardroom sage” by The Wall Street Journal and a “governance guru” by Bloomberg News, Millstein was an authority on antitrust law and an outspoken champion of corporate governance reform, helping to transform the relationship between boards and shareholders. Over his distinguished career, he counseled the boards of companies and nonprofit organizations including Bethlehem Steel, General Motors, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, The Walt Disney Co., and Westinghouse. He also served as chairman of the antitrust sections of both the American Bar Association and the New York State Bar Association.

As an engaged member of the Columbia Law School community, Millstein served on the Dean’s Council and with his son, Jim Millstein ’82, endowed the Millstein Public Service Fellowship, which provides funding for recent graduates who secure positions with the federal government in the area of financial regulation. He and his son were the first father-son duo to receive the Law School’s highest honor, the Medal for Excellence, in 2014 and 2020 respectively.

“Looking back at law school, it made me,” he said in an interview with the Columbia Center for Oral History. “And it’s one of the reasons why I’m still loyal to it and support it. I would not be here if it were not for that school.”

Millstein was also a generous mentor. “Ira was always willing to share advice with our students on how to get the most out of their legal education and their time at Columbia,” said Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law. “Ira will be remembered for his kindness, his dedication to pro bono and social justice causes, and his civic leadership in New York City, including as a life trustee of the Central Park Conservancy and his stewardship of the September 11 Memorial and Museum. He leaves behind a legacy that will continue to inspire and guide future generations of leaders.”

One of his most visible legacies is the Millstein Center (initially established at Yale University, in 2005), which moved to Columbia Law School in 2012. The center remains at the forefront of corporate governance scholarship and practice, publishing research and convening conferences that address an array of contemporary issues faced by corporations and the capital markets. 

In 2020, Millstein was a guest on the Law School’s limited podcast series, Beyond Unprecedented: The Post-Pandemic Economy, a co-production of the Millstein Center and the Law School. At age 94, he discussed the history of “shareholder primacy,” the source of the pressure on public companies to boost stock prices, and the role he believed government should play in redirecting corporate priorities with host and Millstein Center Faculty Co-director Eric Talley, Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law. 

A Native New Yorker

Born to Harvey and Birdie Millstein in New York City on November 8, 1926, Millstein grew up on West End Avenue. He attended P.S. 165 and graduated from Bronx High School of Science in 1943 when he was 16. After earning a B.S. in industrial engineering from Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (now named for the Fu Foundation), he worked briefly as an engineer in a factory. In an interview with students at Bronx High School of Science when he was inducted into its Hall of Fame, Millstein said he didn’t “have the head” for engineering. So he sought advice from the assistant dean at Columbia Law School, who had taught a law course at the engineering school; the dean encouraged Millstein to switch careers and helped him get admitted to the Law School. 

While he was a law student, Millstein was a faculty assistant to Professor Milton Handler, an antitrust expert; he described the position as transformative. “If I look at myself getting out of law school and compare myself getting into law school, it’s two different people,” Millstein said in the interview with the Columbia Center for Oral History. “I had matured. I had self-confidence. I had survived Milton Handler.”

He had also developed an abiding interest in antitrust law, which appealed to his appreciation for structure that he had acquired in engineering school. “I’ve always thought of everything in terms of structure,” he explained in the Bronx Science interview. “When I get into a problem, the first thing I think about it is: How is this structured? … What do I have to accomplish? How do I get there? … [Antitrust] has to do with organization: how companies are organized, what they’re supposed to do, what are the restraints on what they do. It was comparable to engineering.”

Antitrust and Corporate Governance Expert

Millstein’s first job after law school was in the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. “In those days, my chances of becoming an antitrust lawyer in private practice were nil because there were no Jewish law firms who were practicing antitrust,” he said in his oral history interview. 

Living and working in Washington was a turning point. “Until then, I was basically homegrown. I didn’t have much in the way of experience outside of my own family, close friends, and students,” he said. “I was exposed to the other 99.9% of the world. It was a good place to begin.”

In 1951, he went to work at Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York, where he eventually focused his practice on antitrust law. When President Ronald Reagan pushed for deregulation and antitrust laws were less frequently enforced, Millstein shifted the focus of his practice to corporate governance.

In 1981, Millstein was part of a team that authored “The Statement of Corporate Responsibility” for the Business Roundtable, an association of corporate CEOs, which said it was a board’s duty to be responsible for the social consequences of a corporation’s actions. “That was my entrance into corporate governance,” he said. “When I started the Institutional Investor Project at Columbia [in the late 1980s at the Law School’s Center for Law and Economic Studies] and all the other undertakings, it was really to help push the subject along.”

In 2010, Millstein teamed up with Professor Harvey J. Goldschmid CC ’62, LAW ’65 to lead a popular Columbia Law School seminar on corporate governance. (The two also worked together on the Systemic Risk Council, an independent nonpartisan volunteer group established to monitor and encourage financial regulatory reform.)

“I cannot talk more highly of a lawyer becoming a part-time academic and passing on not only the law in which he or she might have become expert but, more importantly, passing on the experience of practicing law,” he told The American Lawyer in 2021. “Moreover, the interaction with young students is broadening for you. … I cannot overstate the necessity of staying current through this interaction.” Over the years, Millstein also taught at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, New York University School of Law, and Yale School of Management.

Millstein’s opinions on corporate governance were deeply influential. He shared his philosophy and lessons learned in scholarly articles and several books, including The Recurrent Crisis in Corporate Governance (written with Paul MacAvoy) and The Activist Director: Lessons From the Boardroom and the Future of the Corporation, which John C. Bogle, the founder and former chief executive of The Vanguard Group, called “a powerful and articulate book” in which Millstein “aims to drive a stake into director passivity.”

A Power Player

Millstein took great pride in his role helping in the judicial confirmation process for his longtime friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 (whose husband, Martin Ginsburg, was a fellow partner at Weil). When she was nominated in 1980 to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Millstein arranged for Ginsburg to have lunch with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, an acquaintance of his who held sway on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Twenty-three years later, Hatch asked Millstein to testify before the Senate at Ginsburg’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Millstein not only spoke of Ginsburg’s integrity and non-ideological scholarship, but he also lectured the senators on the ingrained gender bias and inequity in the legal profession and American society.

Outside of the law, Millstein played an active role in the civic life of New York City. “As you become more successful your obligation to the community which fostered your success is obvious,” he told The American Lawyer. During New York City’s fiscal crisis in 1975, he served as pro bono counsel to Mayor Abraham Beame and helped prevent the city from having to declare bankruptcy. “I don’t know where private practice ends and public service begins,” he told The New York Times in 2005.

Millstein was a life trustee of the Central Park Conservancy and served as its third chairman, from 1991 to 1999. He was chairman emeritus of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and of the American Red Cross of the Greater New York Region.

He served on numerous task forces and committees, including the U.S.-Russia Capital Markets Forum Working Group on Investor Protection, the New York State Commission on Public Authority Reform, and the National Commission on Consumer Finance, which he chaired. His long list of honors includes the New York Law Journal’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Benjamin Botwinick Prize for Ethical Practice in the Professions from the Columbia Business School, the National Law Journal’s 2006 list of the 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America, and the rank of Chevalier of the National Order of Merit from the French government.

In 2002, Millstein was tapped by John C. Whitehead, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, to serve as pro bono counsel to the board of directors of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which was formed in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to oversee the revitalization and rebuilding of the areas surrounding the site of the World Trade Center. The group was instrumental in creating the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which honored Millstein with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2022.

On the occasion of his 70th anniversary practicing at Weil, he shared some of his wisdom for the next generation of lawyers. “The advice I would give younger attorneys is never stop learning,” he said. “Life is just one change after another, and staying current through teaching, representing the community, and doing a hell of a good job with your clients is not just what your career is about, but the capacity to successfully meet the challenge of change.”

In addition to his son, Jim, Millstein is survived by his daughter, Elizabeth Millstein Tremain, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.