“As one Jew to another, I deeply regret that the Sorkin family did not perish in the Nazi death camps.”
That is just one of the angry messages that have poured in to Ira Lee Sorkin since he became lawyer for Bernard L. Madoff, expected to plead guilty this week to a fraud that prosecutors call a giant Ponzi scheme.
Soon after he took on the case in December, Mr. Sorkin received one message so threatening that he said he had to refer it to the F.B.I.
Ike Sorkin, as he is known everywhere but on his business card, provokes strong feelings — among those who like him and those who do not. And he has done so for a long time.
On a shelf in his corner office at the Manhattan law firm of Dickstein Shapiro, he keeps a yellowed newspaper clipping about the first death threat against him, by an alcoholic stock swindler back in his days as a prosecutor in 1975.
“Oh, that was a great case,” said Mr. Sorkin, now 65. He recounted each slapstick twist in that 30-year-old case as if the jury had just brought in its verdict — a verdict for the prosecution, of course.
There are fewer juries in his current life as a defense lawyer. More often, he serves his clients now as the master tailor, cutting the best deal possible and, where he can, trimming a few years or a few thousand dollars off a guilty client’s sentence.
Unlike the penny stock brokers and dubious financiers that the lawyer has represented often in the past, Mr. Madoff seems to have given him little room to maneuver.
In court on Tuesday, Mr. Sorkin indicated that his client would plead guilty to charges that would send him to prison for the rest of his life. The prosecution said there had been no agreement to shorten the prospective sentence of 150 years. That rather surprising development may soften some of the blows directed at Mr. Sorkin, though surely not Mr. Madoff.
Mr. Sorkin got his first backstage look at securities litigation as a summer intern in the federal prosecutor’s office in Manhattan in 1967, the year before he earned his law degree from George Washington University — and he was smitten.
After graduation, he spent three years as a staff lawyer in the New York office of the Securities and Exchange Commission and five years as a busy federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
“I tried 15 cases in 11 months,” he recalled. “In those days, we tried everything — stolen mail cases, food stamp cases. These days, if you’re prosecutor for five years, you might get to try five cases.”
In the last eight years, Mr. Sorkin has defended at least a half dozen clients at trial — most recently, Monzer al-Khazar, a Syrian convicted in November of supplying arms to undercover agents posing as anti-American terrorists.
But he has also represented numerous stock hustlers over the years, fighting tenaciously for months, or even years, to keep the government from shutting them down before finally sewing up one of his well-tailored deals.
Mr. Sorkin had returned to the S.E.C. in May 1984 for a two-year stint as its New York regional administrator, where he fought just as fiercely to shut down penny stock frauds, he said. So what would he say to the investors who were swindled during the months that he, as defense counsel, stood in the regulators’ way?
“That’s a great question,” he said. After a pause, he continued: “I would say that it is not my job to lean over to the other side of the table and whisper, ‘Listen, if you just did this or that, you could shut my client down tomorrow.’ If they can’t figure out what to do, the problem isn’t that I am a vigorous advocate for my client — the problem is that we need better people, more experienced people on the other side of the table.”
After eight years as a government lawyer, he first moved to the other side of the table at the end of 1976. “I had a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, and I was broke,” he said.
He joined a small firm led by Howard Squadron, Theodore Ellenoff and Stanley Plesant — and on New Year’s Day 1977, before he had even moved into his desk, they called him in to help a new client, an unknown foreign publisher named Rupert Murdoch, who wanted to wage a proxy fight for control of The Village Voice and New York magazine.
“I hadn’t a clue about what to do, and there were these huge legal guns on the other side,” he recalled. “But we won.” What the little firm won, it turned out, was an enormous chunk of Mr. Murdoch’s legal business over the next 20 years.
Somewhere along the way, Mr. Squadron also became friends with another man with an unexpected future: a smoothly confident stock trader and philanthropist named Bernie Madoff. Mr. Squadron and several other partners invested with him, and the firm’s pension account, including about $19,000 belonging to Mr. Sorkin, was entrusted to him, as well.
Mr. Sorkin’s parents had about $900,000 invested with Mr. Madoff, but Mr. Sorkin said his father had made those arrangements without consulting him. The accounts were closed when Mr. Sorkin’s mother died in 2007 and, under her will, the money was distributed to Mr. Sorkin’s two grown sons.
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These connections raised questions of potential conflicts of interest in the current case that were resolved on Tuesday, when Mr. Madoff told Federal District Judge Denny Chin that he wished to retain Mr. Sorkin.
Judge Chin found that the defendant understood his rights to a counsel without conflicts and allowed those rights to be waived. “Mr. Sorkin can continue to represent Mr. Madoff in this matter,” Judge Chin said.
After the Squadron firm was sold to Hogan & Hartson in 2002, Mr. Sorkin and some of the young litigators he had recruited eventually wound up at Dickstein Shapiro. Three of them — Daniel J. Horwitz, Nicole P. De Bello and Mauro M. Wolfe — are part of the team defending Mr. Madoff.
Mr. Sorkin is careful to share the spreading, worldwide spotlight with them. But he keeps for himself the role of lightning rod when flashes of white-hot rage fill his e-mail and voice-mail in-boxes.
He knows that the angry, injured people behind those messages could have been in the crowd at some fund-raiser for the American Friends of the Hebrew University, which he serves as chairman. Or they might have been across the aisle on one of his frequent flights to Israel, whose tourism he has helped promote through ads and testimonials. He might even have attended their family funerals, or shared their celebrations in those sunnier pre-Madoff days.
Mr. Sorkin said he understood the anger and grief of Mr. Madoff’s former customers, but “to preserve a system that can protect the people who didn’t do bad things, you have to represent people who did do bad things,” Mr. Sorkin said of his belief in the system. “That’s the role we play.”
William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.