Delaware Skadden founder, law ‘titan’ Ward Jr. dies at 88
WILMINGTON – Rodman “Rod” Ward Jr., one of Wilmington’s top corporate litigators who mentored generations of lawyers and founded the vastly successful office of the global law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, died March 18 at age 88.
He was the son of Rodman Ward Sr., who was a vice president and director of the Bank of Delaware, and the grandson of Christopher Ward, who founded today’s business services giant CSC now run by Ward Jr.’s son, Rod III. While he never worked at the family company, he served on its board of directors for 53 years.
A 1959 graduate of Harvard Law School, Ward served in the Air Force for three years as a judge advocate at an air base in Japan before entering private practice. He would return home and first became a partner in the Wilmington law firm of Prickett, Ward, Burt & Sanders, where he earned a reputation as a top corporate litigator and commercial lawyer.
That reputation led to his recruitment by the rising New York-based firm Skadden. He was reportedly asked by firm partner Joe Flom to leave his successful practice and head a new office in Wilmington.
The office was founded in 1979, making Skadden the first firm not headquartered in Delaware to establish a local office. Its arrival undoubtedly helped to change the view of Wilmington as a place where major corporate law firms needed to have an actual presence, rather than relying on local co-counsel.
Today, Skadden is the sixth largest law firm in Wilmington by number of attorneys and the largest firm not based in Delaware, according to Delaware Business Times records.
“There wouldn’t have been a successful Skadden office in Wilmington without Rod,” said Paul Lockwood, a Skadden partner who leads its Wilmington litigation department today and trained under Ward. “He was not just the founder of the office, but really critical to its success because he made us credible as a Delaware firm as well as the national firm.”
Delaware State Bar Association President Charles “Chuck” Durante, who knew Ward for decades, said he considered him a “titan of the corporate bar and the practice of law, generally, in Delaware.”
“[Ward] was one of the corps of Delaware lawyers who took the practice of corporate law to a higher stage than it had ever been practiced before,” Durante added. “He was a respected, nationally recognized author in the governance of Delaware corporations, both large and small.”
Lockwood recalled his litigation approach as “argument without adjectives,” stressing the facts of a case without over-embellishment.
Ward’s formation of the new Skadden office coincided with a transformative time in Wilmington’s legal scene, as the Wall Street merger and acquisition craze of the 1980s took hold. Skadden grew in stature as a firm to represent buyers and sellers in the deals and in any ensuing shareholder litigation.
He won the oft-cited Delaware Supreme Court case of Mills Acquisition Co. v. Macmillan Inc. that overturned a Chancery Court decision in a takeover deal that featured unfair bid practices including the insider tipping of one bidder’s price to another.
On the losing side of that case was future State Supreme Court Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey, then with local powerhouse Richards, Layton & Finger.
“Rod was a nice person, a very intelligent person and a kind person who wanted to be helpful to people. But he was also a fierce and formidable adversary in the quality of his work,” Veasey recalled. “Rod being on the other side of the table assured you that the case would be well-litigated and you wouldn’t have to put up with a lot of garbage.”
Mentor to many
One of the lasting impacts of Ward’s legal career is the scores of lawyers who have been mentored and encouraged by him.
Counted among them is current state Supreme Court Justice Karen Valihura, who worked with Ward at Skadden for 15 years before joining the bench.
“When I joined Skadden Arps in 1989, Rod was the managing partner of the Wilmington office. Like many, I had the great privilege of his mentorship for many years. He was not only an outstanding lawyer, but he was a pillar of the community at large. Rod taught generations of lawyers not just how to practice law but how to be public-minded citizens. He will be greatly missed,” she said.
Another colleague and longtime friend is Leo Strine Jr., a retired Supreme Court chief justice who worked with Ward at Skadden early in his career. Strine called Ward “one of the finest corporate and commercial litigators who ever practiced in the Delaware courts.”
“But, he was also one of the most important people to making our community stronger. Not only did he catalyze the growth of two great employers and business citizens of our state — Skadden Wilmington and CSC — his countless hours of public and charitable service, for which he never sought recognition, were exemplary of what it means to be a real citizen. The list of distinguished judges, public servants, professors, in-house counsel, and successful lawyers who count him as a mentor is a legacy that continues to make Delaware — and our nation — a better place. Most of all, he made life fun and others feel valued,” he said.
Service with wit
Ward also helped further the legal community as president of the Delaware State Bar Association from 1989-90. Durante noted that Ward was committed to helping the indigent, campaigning for better funding for agencies that provide legal services to low- and moderate-income Delawareans.
After assuming the state’s top judgeship, Veasey turned to Ward to co-chair the Courts 2000 initiative in 1993-94.
The committee’s recommendations helped to modernize and streamline the state courts, including making the Family Court and Court of Common Pleas a part of the state Constitution and establishing a senior judge program.
“I liked working with Rod when we had the chance because he was very professional. It was a pleasure,” Veasey said.
Lockwood recalled that Ward was incredibly well-read and possessed a sharp wit, saying, “If you didn’t have an education in the classics, you couldn’t always keep up.”
“One opposing counsel once quoted the classic story of a Jewish scholar being challenged to recite the Talmud while standing on one foot, and he said it was Maimonides. Before Rod started his argument he stopped and corrected him, saying that was actually Hillel,” Lockwood recalled with a laugh.
Ward’s son concurred on his father’s well-educated wit, remembering the Christmas when he bought his grandchildren stationary topped with the phrase “Never spend more than you earn” in Latin.
At home, Rod Ward III said he was lucky to have a father who was so successful but also committed to his family and hometown.
He worked long hours at Skadden but always seemed to find time to take the four Ward children to school or attend their functions, his son said. He also imparted the importance of working hard and treating everyone they met with respect.
“He was truly the definition of a Delawarean,” Rod Ward III said.
After retiring in 2004, Ward continued to remain involved at Skadden, including mentoring young attorneys, but he also increasingly spent more time exploring passions like gardening. He maintained large home gardens in Delaware and on Great Cranberry Island, Maine, along with his wife of 63 years, Susan.
He also supported horticulture through serving on the boards of the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library near Wilmington as well as The Garden Conservancy in New York.
“My parents spent a lot of their time in their garden just doing the work together,” Rod Ward III said. “I think for my dad it was really peaceful for him. He really enjoyed the beauty of it.”
Ward is survived by his wife, Susan; their children, Gigi, Emily and Rod III, and numerous grandchildren. He was predeceased by his daughter, Jennifer.
Details on services are forthcoming.
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