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Yale 62

Stephen Daily Susman

Steve at the dedication of the Susman Wing or the Yale Art Gallery, 2012

Born: January 20, 1941
Died: July 14, 2020

After a bicycle accident (in biking as in everything else in his life he was always full speed ahead) and in recovery in hospital, Steve Susman contracted Covid-19 and died on July 14, leaving behind a grieving family and the members of his eponymous law firm whom he always treated as family.

Stephen Daily Susman was born in Houston, son of Helen Gladys Daily Susman and Harry Susman, Yale College 1921 and Law 1923. Steve graduated from San Jacinto High School in Houston. His father died when Steve was 8 and his father’s classmates contributed scholarship aid which permitted Steve to attend Yale.

At Yale, Steve was a member of Timothy Dwight, rooming with Andy Halperin and Al Johnson. He was an English major, on the Dean’s List and a Ranking Scholar. In TD he was captain of the infamous Tang Cup team, swam and played football. He managed the Laundry and Cap and Gown Agencies. Beyond TD, he was in the Political Union and the Debating Association. Hillel, where he was a member, will always be grateful for his gift of Susman Hall, a gathering room known to its habitués as the “purple couch room.” His J.D. was earned at the University of Texas, where he edited the law review, before beginning his spectacular legal career.

Steve immersed himself in the law after graduation. He obtained his degree from University of Texas Law School in 1965 having served as Editor-in-Chief of the Law Review. He then clerked for two years, the first with U.S. Court of Appeals for 5th Circuit followed by a year clerking for Associate Justice Hugo Black of the U.S. Supreme Court, where he was a co-clerk with another young Yale graduate, Benno Schmidt (who was destined to serve as President of Yale).

After his clerkship, Steve practiced law with a prominent Houston firm and became a partner. Steve, however, sought higher challenges and more exciting futures on his own. In 1976, he founded what has become the nationally acclaimed firm of Susman Godfrey. In 1981, Steve tried and won the largest class action verdict in history (the Corrugated Container anti-trust class action) for a total recovery more than $500 million, and a multi-million dollar fee for himself. His firm ever since handles only complex commercial litigation, representing plaintiffs and defendants alike. It has grown to over 150 attorneys with offices in Houston, New York, Seattle and several other locations.

Steve was acknowledged as a Titan of the American Trial Bar and a pioneer in the use of contingency fees in commercial litigation. He was celebrated and respected by the Bench as much by his clients and colleagues as by his adversaries.

Steve had often spoken about teaching trial advocacy if he retired from the active practice. In fact, he never retired nor did he wait for retirement but created the Civil Jury Project at New York University, which studies the decline of the civil jury trial and holds educational program and forums for federal and state judges.

Houston’s fickle clouds churned outside of Stephen Susman’s office window as the $2,000-an-hour trial lawyer thundered: “What the f’s going on here?” (credit: Kvork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In the 50th Reunion Class book, Steve wrote: “Yale continues to be the most significant thing that has happened to me in my life…. Both of my children attended Yale. I have served on the University Council, The Yale Art Gallery Board, (his 2011 eleven million dollar gift toward expanded exhibit space is known as the Stephen Susman Galleries) as well as the Advisory Board of the School of Forestry and Environment.” Steve’s life was a tribute to Yale.

Steve’s extraordinary career and achievements were not restricted to the law. He became a prominent art collector and a remarkably generous benefactor of the arts and education. As mentioned, he endowed the Susman Galleries on the top floor of the Yale Art Gallery building. In addition he established the Susman Academic Center at Texas Law School, the Steve and Ellen Susman Gallery at the Blanton Art Museum in Austin and served on the National Committees of the Whitney Museum of Art and the Aspen Art Museum.

Steve and his first wife, Karen Lee Hyman, had two children, Stacy (Tom Kuhn) and Harry (Karen). Karen died of cancer in 1997. He subsequently married Ellen who brought her two daughters into their union, Whitney (Matt Gordon) and Amanda (Matt Shiffrin). Steve’s son Harry is a partner in the Susman Godfrey firm, much to Steve’s proud delight.

In addition to Ellen Susman, Steve is survived by Stacy and her husband, Harry and his wife, Whitney, and Amanda and their husbands and eight grandchildren, Nicholas Kuhn, Miles Kuhn, Rachel Kuhn, Sam Susman, Ana Susman, Jack Susman, Charles Gordon and Isla Gordon and his brother T. M. Susman ’64.

Funeral ceremonies were impacted by the pandemic and “drive-by” and zoom Shivas were held July 19, 2020. A celebration of Steve’s life will be held in the future when health conditions permit.

At the Zoom Shiva service, attended by more than 330, he was remembered with great love and affection by his brother T. M. Susman, and a number of his law colleagues and partners, adversaries, clients and judges alike, as a great lawyer, a great friend who believed in courtesy towards all and a beloved family man.

Here are comments from classmates – just a sampling.

Bill Nye: As I recall, Steve surprised us by joining our lunch in January. I had known him from early in our freshman year when we would often walk back from Commons together after putting in our shifts clearing tables as bursar students. Over the years, he’s been my go to person when I’ve needed a referral to a good lawyer. It was impressive how accommodating other lawyers were when I mentioned Steve’s name! I felt a sharp pang of personal loss at the news yesterday. He is the first person to die of the coronavirus who I have known.

Larry Price: Also like you, I am shocked by Steve Susman’s death. There are some people who are larger than life. Steve was one of them. And Steve had money, influence, and access. And in the end, none of that mattered. It is a reminder of the fragility of life. Something none of us needs at our stage of life.

Ellery McLanahan: One of our greatest! Proud to know him. RIP dear classmate and friend.

Mark Cohan, M. D.: I only knew Steve slightly at Yale, but saw him more at AYA conclaves. Our loss, in many ways. A true gentleman.

Dick Riseling: Steve’s contributions to a better world and the impact of his very special personality live on. Thanks to his family for providing the love and support he so richly deserved.

Tom Sherman: Remembering a large and generous spirit.

Larry Lipsher: As a classmate, fellow biker and CT friend, I’m feeling a great sense of loss. Lainie and I send our sincere condolences.

Bob Oliver: A final personal note. Steve was always a strong supporter of our class and more than any other person made our 50th Reunion special and successful. It was his contacts with President Levin which cleared the road blocks and resulted in the president changing his schedule and coming to Davenport for our class dinner. Steve’s position as a major benefactor of the Art Gallery also facilitated the unique reception we were accorded in the Susman Galleries.

 

– John H. Stewart
– Robert G. Oliver

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