News Corp. has tapped a Washington partner at Williams & Connolly to serve as the media giant’s group general counsel.
Gerson Zweifach, who has experience in patent, litigation, first amendment and media law, will serve as the senior executive vice president of News Corp.
Zweifach takes over for Janet Nova, the interim general counsel for the past six months, and will report directly to News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch. He inherits a high-profile in-house job, especially as the company continues to deal with the phone-hacking scandal that included allegations against journalists at the now-closed London-based tabloid News of the World.
Zweifach said in an interview that it was tough to leave the firm he’s called home for 30 years. “I’m part of the furniture here. It’s family,” he said of the firm.
But he said he's looking forward to the “unique opportunity to play an important role in this global media company at a critical time in their history.”
It is clear that the biggest challenge he'll be facing, at least in the immediate sense, is the investigation into the phone-hacking scandal. Zweifach noted that it will important to understand where and how the activities in question unfolded—and then to put policies and procedures in place to “ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Zweifach will still be working closely with some of his former Williams & Connolly partners who started representing News Corp. in June. They'll include renowned litigator Brendan Sullivan Jr. News of Sullivan's hiring broke in July.
Soon after, he said got a call from News Corp. president Chase Carey inviting him to discuss the general counsel position over a cup of coffee. Later that fall, their discussions became more serious. Zweifach said he also spent significant time meeting with Rupert Murdoch and his son, News Corp. executive James Murdoch, before accepting the position.
Zweifach will be heading a team of attorneys hired since the scandal erupted this past summer. The team that's been handling News Corp.'s response has included a number of legal heavyweights, including Joel Klein, the former head of the Justice Department's antitrust division who, according to news reports, oversaw the process that led to Zweifach's hiring, as well as Viet Dinh of the boutique Bancroft, who serves on News Corp.'s board.
A number of other top firms have long been associated with News Corp., including Hogan Lovells and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, both of which aided in News Corp.'s purchase of Dow Jones & Company in 2007 (Hogan was then called Hogan & Hartson). In addition, the company also retained Debevoise & Plimpton and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to assist with its phone-hacking defense, as was previously noted by Legal Times' sibling publication Am Law Daily.
Zweifach, along with Klein and Dinh, likely will soon be faced with formulating responses to criminal investigations moving forward in the United States and the United Kingdom. There also have been lawsuits filed in both countries.
During his time at Williams & Connolly, Zweifach developed a reputation as a seasoned attorney able to deftly handle crises for clients both in and out of court.
In one highly publicized case, he defended former chief of the New York Stock Exchange Richard Grasso in a lawsuit brough by former New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer. The suit, which stemmed from a $140 million pay package, was formally dismissed by the New York State Court of Appeals in 2008.
Robert Barnett, a Williams & Connolly senior partner and member of the firm’s executive committee, said that in the 30 years Zweifach has been at the firm, he became not just a rising star, but a risen star.
“He understands the intricacies of business situations and helps a client make good judgments outside the context of pure litigation,” Barnett said. “Because of the work he’s done here, he has an extremely good understanding of how corporations work and the challenges they face, economic, regulatory, investigatory, litigation and public relations. He’s a counselor in the traditional sense, not just a litigator.”
Steven Farina, a partner at Williams & Connolly, said that Zweifach has served as a mentor to him since he came to the firm in 1992. Since that time, the two have worked together on numerous cases, including the Grasso case. "We worked on a lot of high profile cases where media attention is not unusual,” Farina said. “The attention to that case was quite intense and the litigation with the AG’s office was hard fought."
Farina described Zweifach as a hard-working attorney who cares about his clients and their cases.
“We are sorry to lose him, but I think he’ll be an extraordinary general counsel,” Farina said. “If I needed a lawyer, he would be the first person I would hire.”
Rupert Murdoch apparently agreed. “We are fortunate to have such a renowned attorney join our Company as we navigate the rapidly changing media landscape,” he said in a written statement.