Scholar, Swimmer, Lawyer, Trustee and Father
After graduating college, most people visit their alma mater’s campus every once in a while. Maybe they’ll make a trip out for their 20th reunion or when their high schooler adds Amherst to their never-ending list of schools to visit. But some, like Andrew Nussbaum ’85, find themselves returning to campus year after year. A lawyer at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, the chair of Amherst’s board of trustees, an avid swimmer and a dedicated father to three daughters, Nussbaum embodies so many of the qualities that Amherst hopes to nurture in its students.
I spoke with Nussbaum on campus during one of his few free hours between various board meetings and events. What became clear to me almost instantly was his undeniable charisma and openness, but also his humility.
Nussbaum is, by almost all meanings of the word, accomplished. He graduated from Amherst summa cum laude, won a Rhodes Scholarship to earn his master’s degree in modern Russian language and history from Oxford University, attended law school at the University of Chicago, clerked for both Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia and now works at one of the nation’s top law firms. But he doesn’t condescend or put on airs. Instead, Nussbaum is exceedingly earnest and humble in his recollection of his time at Amherst and beyond.
Swimming Into Amherst
Nussbaum grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, as the youngest of three brothers. Throughout his childhood and high school, Nussbaum was a competitive swimmer and water polo player. When it came time to look at colleges, Nussbaum knew that he wanted to continue swimming and found himself deciding between two schools: Yale and Amherst.
While he was “quite taken with Yale,” he also loved Amherst. The only issue was that his older brother was also a student, and a swimmer, there. When decisions came around, Nussbaum got into both schools and after some convincing from other students on the swim team and the “legendary” swim coach Hank Dunbar, Nussbaum ended up at Amherst.
“The truth is, once I got here, my brother didn’t pay much attention to me, except every once in a while, when I needed course advice, I could go to him and his friends,” Nussbaum said.
At Amherst, Nussbaum majored in Russian and cites many of the professors in that department as having a significant impact on his education in college. Nussbaum still counts Professor Emeritus Stanley Rabinowitz, who was his advisor, as one of his close friends. Rabinowitz even attended his wedding.
But Nussbaum went beyond Russian during his time at Amherst. He took classes in the math, physics, English and American studies, among other subjects, and none of them were a disappointment.
“I did not have a single class I didn’t enjoy,” he said. “It was just a matter of how much I loved it. Even if you didn’t love the material, the class was still amazing.”
When his senior year rolled around, Nussbaum wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do after graduating from Amherst.
“I knew I loved Russian, but I was pretty sure I didn’t really want to be a professor … So, what could I do?” he recalled. “People said, ‘There are these scholarships.’ I’d heard of the Rhodes, but I didn’t know anything about it.”
Nussbaum applied for a Rhodes Scholarship, one of the most prestigious academic awards, and won it. This meant he would have the opportunity to spend two years at Oxford University in England to earn his master’s degree in modern Russian language and history.
“Honestly, I hate to put it this way, but at the time, it was sort of an excuse,” he said. “If I got it, then, ‘Okay, I wouldn’t really have to make any big decisions for two more years.’ I got lucky, but it turned out to be an amazing experience.”
At Oxford, Nussbaum noted the international population at the university, along with its incredibly customizable curriculum, as two reasons the experience was so “eye-opening” for him.
Clerking for Giants
When his time at Oxford was up, Nussbaum reached another crossroads. “At that point, I had a lot of friends who were in medical school or law school. Some were teaching, some were banking, people were of doing whatever,” he said. “And here I was in England, getting this degree that was never really going to add value, even though I loved it.”
Even after applying to law school and earning a scholarship, Nussbaum decided that he wasn’t quite ready to make the jump straight away. Instead, he went to work for a year as an assistant to a businessman in Chicago. During that year, Nussbaum traveled all over the world, from Russia to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and beyond. After that, Nussbaum realized law school was the path for him.
“What I saw from [the businessman] was the people who he listened to when he wanted advice,” he said. “It wasn’t usually the bankers. It wasn’t usually the consultants. It was the lawyers.”
During his time at the University of Chicago Law School, Nussbaum became editor of the institution’s law review and clerked with two judges who are now household names: Ginsburg and Scalia.
Nussbaum applied to clerk with Ginsburg at the end of his second year of law school while she was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
“Back then, she was a very hot ticket among lawyers and students because her clerkship was regarded as very desirable, just because she was so well regarded — but she wasn’t famous yet,” Nussbaum said.
As a clerk for Ginsburg, Nussbaum found himself enamored with her work ethic and demeanor in the courtroom and with other judges.
“Working for her was extraordinary. She was just as smart then as she is now. The amazing thing I always found with her was that she just never got overwhelmed by the work,” he said. “There would be a stack of briefs on her desk and you would have the same stack of briefs on your desk, and it would take you two weeks to get through it, but it would take her two days.”
“It was almost like if you could just watch her work and watch how she thought about a case … Yeah, I had to read a lot and I had to keep up and write memos and so on. But, fundamentally, if you could just get a chance to see how she was thinking about a case, you could learn by watching,” he added.
The year after he clerked for Ginsburg, Nussbaum applied for clerkship positions at the Supreme Court. He interviewed with several justices, including Scalia.
The etiquette at the time, he said, was to apply for clerkships with all of the Supreme Court justices and accept the first position offered, whether or not you agreed with their political stances.
“I thought the interview with Scalia went fine,” he said. “But the interview that I had with his law clerks went terribly. The law clerk interviews were all substantive. They’d ask you questions about cases and this and that. I left and I didn’t get a phone call for a month or whatever. I thought, ‘Okay, well that’s that.’”
Nussbaum was sitting in the law review office when the office phone rang.
“One of the other editors picks up the phone. They go, ‘Oh, Nussbaum, it’s Justice Scalia’s chambers on the phone for you,” he said. “And I looked at the guy and I go, ‘Buddy, that’s not funny. It’s really not funny.’ And he goes, ‘No, no it is Justice Scalia.’”
“I picked it up … Scalia gets on the phone and he says, ‘Andy.’ I say, ‘Yeah?’ He says, ‘Ruth told me I had to hire you. Do you want to come work for me?’ I mean, it was the most awesome moment,” Nussbaum continued.
The friendship between Ginsburg and Scalia was one point Ginsburg touched upon at Amherst earlier in October, which Nussbaum helped arrange. He introduced Ginsburg to the audience before her conversation with President Biddy Martin.
Clerking for Scalia was quite the change from his time with Ginsburg.
“He was very different personality-wise from Justice Ginsburg. He’s very gregarious, loves practical jokes, loves banter,” Nussbaum said. “The way it worked was, the cases were divided up among his clerks and if it was your case, then your job was to be prepared, read the briefs, maybe write a two-page or three-page memo … Then you go sit down with him.”
“Always before he told you what he thought, he would say to you, ‘Well, what do you think?’ And you’re like, ‘Well, actually, what do you think?’” Nussbaum added. “Only after oral argument would he really tell you what he thought about the case. He wanted you to stew on it. He would give you feedback, ask you questions, but it was a very dynamic process.”
In perhaps one of the best moments I’ve had while interviewing someone, Nussbaum recounted one instance that particularly highlighted Scalia’s personality.
It was tradition for Scalia to take each justice’s law clerks to lunch, one by one, at an old-school Italian restaurant in Capitol Hill. At the restaurant, it was expected that the clerk would order anchovy pizza, which Nussbaum said was “fundamentally awful” to him. When it was Nussbaum’s turn, he decided to forgo the anchovy pizza and order something else.
“He looks at me and goes, ‘You don’t have anchovy pizza.’ I go, ‘I can’t have anchovy pizza.’ He said, ‘Why not?’ I go, ‘Justice, Jews can’t eat hairy fish,’” said Nussbaum, who is Jewish. “He took religion seriously and had a lot of respect for religion. He looked at me, but he didn’t push back. It’s a lie, by the way. It was complete fabrication in the spur of the moment.”
“We go back to chambers, we’re sitting there for a little while doing whatever our work is. And my intercom goes off and he says, ‘Andy, can you come in?’ I come in, he goes, ‘I looked it up. There’s no such rule.’ But I did get away with it,” Nussbaum added.
Nussbaum’s time as a clerk for Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg transformed the way he saw his profession. He is pictured here with his family. Photo courtesy of Andrew Nussbaum ’85
From Supreme Court to the Corporate World
In 1993, after finishing up his clerkship with Scalia, Nussbaum began working at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, a law firm in New York City. He became a partner in 1999 and still works there today as a corporate lawyer, mostly dealing with acquisitions, mergers and initial public offerings, among other areas. In his job, Nussbaum said he enjoys working as “a business adviser but also having to actually know a lot of substantive law.”
Oftentimes, people ask Nussbaum why he clerked if he was going to end up in corporate law. He explained that on a more logistical level, he didn’t know he wanted to end up in the field he’s in today and that when a justice offers you a job, “Why wouldn’t you?” At the same time, Nussbaum found that working for both justices was an important analytical and learning experience that still applies to his position today.
“When you sit on the other side of the bench and watch lawyers argue and watch judges or justices reacting to arguments, you get an interesting perspective,” Nussbaum said. “Like, ‘Okay, I think I’ve done this brilliant contract and my side is totally protected.’ But when some third party looks at those same words, are they going to read them the way I meant them to be, or is there a better reading or another reading or an equally plausible reading?”
“When you’re writing or drafting opinions, you’re always worried about each sentence. This is the reason why Justice Ginsburg is so parsimonious with words. Does this sentence actually say what I want it to say and only what I want it to say?” he added.
One of Nussbaum’s clients at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz is celebrity businesswoman Martha Stewart. They first met when Stewart was preparing to take her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, public. Stewart described Nussbaum as “very pleasant and smart” and “calm under fire.”
While Nussbaum has faithfully served Stewart, she has had quite the impact on his personal life: she introduced him to his wife, Darcy Miller Nussbaum, who works as the editor-at-large at Martha Stewart Weddings.
Stewart recalled “roasting” Nussbaum at his wedding, pointing out that he had memorized every preposition in the English language. “I just had to tease him about that,” Stewart said in an email interview.
In addition to spending time with his three daughters and wife, Nussbaum makes it a goal to swim several times a week at Asphalt Green, a nonprofit that supports sports and fitness programming for New York City residents. Nussbaum was the chair of the board there for 13 years before resigning in 2018 to chair Amherst’s board.
Maggy Siegel, the executive director of Asphalt Green, first met Nussbaum when she was interviewing for the position she’s in today.
“He is just an amazing leader and, I have to say, one of the favorite bosses I’ve had in my career,” she said.
During his time as chairman, Asphalt Green saw impressive growth, Siegel remarked, noting that Nussbaum is “an amazing, rare individual” whose commitment to Asphalt Green is “unlimited.”
From growing in physical size (the organization opened a second location) to doubling the number of scholarships and producing a medal-winning Olympic swimmer, Nussbaum was present and deeply involved with it all.
Siegel noted that Nussbaum was particularly dedicated to a program that teaches children who might otherwise not have the opportunity how to swim. “I would say that he has saved a lot of lives,” Siegel said.
Returning to Amherst
Although Nussbaum graduated from Amherst 34 years ago, he has continued to play a pivotal role in the institution and its future. Originally, Nussbaum fundraised for the Alumni Fund at Amherst as an associate agent before becoming a class agent, a position he stayed in for almost 20 years, by his estimate. After serving on an advisory committee, he was elected to the board of trustees in 2010 as an alumni trustee.
Eight years later, Nussbaum became chair of the board in 2018.
Nussbaum credits Amherst as the reason he is where he is today. In fact, he said, Amherst made him who he is today.
“I came to Amherst as a grown child and Amherst developed me into a young person … Amherst has taught me a combination of just developing my intellect, but also giving me a willingness to push myself and not be too afraid … Plus, frankly, the willingness to actually consider the possibility, or maybe even the likelihood, that somebody else might be right and I might be wrong,” he said.
During his time on the board, Nussbaum has been able to view Amherst with a new perspective, one that can better see how the college functions as an institution (or a “city,” as Nussbaum called it).
But what seems to amaze him is the way that Amherst has retained its identity and meaning for him, even as it has changed since the day he stepped foot on campus as a first year.
“One of the most fascinating aspects of what I’ve been able to see since 1981, is Amherst today is different in extraordinary and, at the time, totally unpredictable ways. But honestly, when I come back, I feel at home,” Nussbaum said. “We have a totally different kind of student body. We have much more diverse faculty. We have buildings that didn’t exist … But the culture of the community, the emotion of the community and the values of the community — it’s like I left yesterday.”
“That to me is something really meaningful in terms of what it says about an institution and the people who take care of it. It’s a lucky place. It’s a happy place, even in the times when we have stress … There are only a handful of these in the world,” he said.