Episode 81 — Ken Feinberg — What Is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11
Kenneth R. Feinberg is an alternative mediation and dispute resolution attorney who’s likely best known as the Special Master to the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.
But Ken’s work also extends to other notable settlements, including Agent Orange, the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, and the Boston Marathon bombing — overseeing billions paid in compensation to victims and their families.
In this exclusive no-holds-barred conversation with Ken, we discuss:
- The subjective process of placing a monetary value on a human life
- Why individuals have more power than they may think
- His lessons learned from the unprecedented effort to compensate 9/11 victims
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6:28 – The humanity of law. “The impact of meeting with hundreds of families and surviving victims in private was emotionally debilitating. That’s why 9/11 stands at the top of all the programs I’ve undertaken in terms of the challenges and adverse impact on the psyche.”
8:00 – A great firm helps you do great things. “I had the rest of my law firm — three or four lawyers — diligently doing other payable work so that I could afford to devote all of my time to the 9/11 fund without compensation or reimbursement of any type. The firm continued to function on a reduced basis, but we managed to pay the bills.”
16:02 – Confronting the difficult reality. “Most of the mistakes that we made were mistakes of empathy and emotion. One point in the movie and the book that I emphasize is the mistakes you make in dealing with claimant family victim emotion aren’t in the calculations — it’s the emotion. It’s how you confront the anger and life’s frustrations exhibited by the families and the victims. That is where you better brace yourself for the real challenges.”
25:35 – You’ll always be human first. “I don’t think anybody who designs and administers these programs can remain totally objective. Especially if there are family members or victims who want to talk with you about their plight and how the disaster impacted them personally. Anyone who thinks you can administer these programs with the type of objectivity that appears on the written page will find that unless you have a heart of stone, there’s going to be an emotional component to all of this. It can’t be avoided if you’re a human being.”
30:22 – The effects of a difficult life’s work. “You become much more fatalistic. I don’t think I plan more than two weeks in advance. You don’t know what curveball is going to be thrown at you tomorrow. These innocent victims were just in the wrong place at the wrong time — fate. Also, you become a much better listener. Over the years, I’ve become much more tuned into exhibiting empathy through silence. You’re just listening as a sounding board.”
31:09 – When the nation came together. “I urge people to see the movie Worth, especially young people. That movie is actually quite uplifting today. It shows the American people, today in 2021, how just 20 years ago, the country rallied around the victims. It wasn’t blue states/red states, liberal/conservative, Republican/Democrat. Everybody — apolitical and bipartisan — wanted to help.”
34:32 – There’s an open invitation to aid. “You know, President Kennedy said, ‘Every individual can make a difference.’ Lawyers who are listening to this podcast that want to give back to the country: there are myriad ways that you can provide in the public interest. The 9/11 Fund never would have succeeded the way it did if it weren’t for the 1,500 lawyers who dropped what they were doing and helped represent all of the victims, pro bono, in submitting claims to the fund.”
36:31 – Developing your approach to work. “I’ve always found a great benefit in the fact that I’m an early riser. I’m at my desk by 7:00 AM, and by 9:30 AM, I’ve accomplished a great deal because the phone starts ringing at 9 o’clock. I think you develop discipline. Every lawyer is different, but you develop habits and an approach to get your work done efficiently. My approach is to be an early riser, and I don’t take work home at night.”
37:40 – What does it mean to be a game changer? “Lawyers should practice however they get fulfillment. Don’t be a lawyer or a member of any profession where you don’t think you’ve accomplished what you personally want to accomplish.”
JOIN THE ONES WHO SHOW UP
Ken Feinberg is forever grateful to the 1,500 lawyers who showed up to help make the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund a success. They’re the type who recognize that doing good is at the heart of what it means to be a successful attorney — and they’re the type you’ll find at the Game Changers Summit.
You can still get on the waitlist to join 2,500 of the nation’s top firm owners for a weekend of connection, inspiration, and actionable insight.