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One Man's Story of the Origins of ERISA

Very few of us really know the story behind ERISA.

W. Scott Simon, 09/02/2010

Have a comment, insight, or burning opinion on this article? Make your feelings known in the comments section at the end of the article.

President Gerald Ford signed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act into law on Sept. 2, 1974--36 years ago on the publication date of this month's column. Among those sitting in the audience in the East Room of the White House that day witnessing this historic event was Jeffrey Mamorsky, a young attorney for Mobil Oil. Mamorsky was invited to the signing ceremony because he played an important part in educating and advising the congressional staffs that drafted ERISA. But how did an attorney for an oil company who wanted to grow up to be a sportswriter wind up in the White House that day, smiling and happy that this great law had finally been enacted and now signed into law?

Many of us deal with qualified retirement plans in our profession every day. Some even become engrossed in the intricacies of the laws of ERISA, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of Labor, and the regulations thereto. Very few of us, however, really know the story behind ERISA, and how and why it came into being. So I thought it might be interesting over the next few months to explore the historical antecedents of modern qualified retirement plans in America and in the process record the oral history, so to speak, of one person who played an important role in shaping the world that many of us inhabit in our professional lives today.

I recently interviewed Mamorsky, who is now co-chairman of the Global Benefits and Compensation Group at Greenberg Traurig, LLP, an international, full-service  law firm with 1,800 attorneys in more than 30 offices in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Scott Simon: Thanks for consenting to this interview, Jeff. I'm sure that many people will find it interesting and enlightening.
Jeff Mamorsky: Glad to be with you.

Did you always want to grow up and be a lawyer?
No. At first I wanted to be a sportswriter. I always loved writing. From the time I was 16, I had to support my mother and my younger brother. I started out writing for the school newspaper in junior high. After that, I managed to work my way through high school, college and law school as a sports writer. I worked for the New York Times, the New York Daily News and the Herald Tribune, and I actually did pretty well; I made about $60 a week and this was in the late 1950s, early 1960s, doing that. 

Where did you go to college?
I went to NYU when they had an uptown campus in the Bronx in University Heights, because they had the best college daily newspaper in the United States, the Heights Daily News--other than Columbia. When I graduated from college, I wanted to go to Columbia journalism school and get my master's degree. But even though I got in, I didn't get a scholarship. I was really disappointed because that's what I really wanted to do, to be a sportswriter.

So what did you do then?
Well, I got a scholarship to law school. My college dean told me I would be a good lawyer because I was a good writer and I liked to do research. So I went to law school at the University of Buffalo but after only one year there, I was drafted by the Army during the Viet Nam war. After I got out of the Army, I looked for a job pending my return to law school. I saw an ad in the newspaper, went to the employment agency, and lo and behold there was my old fraternity brother from college. He said that he had the perfect job for me at Prentice Hall as a legal editor. The only problem was that I was not yet a lawyer but he sent me over there anyway even though I hadn't yet graduated from law school. I got the job but after a couple months, the personnel department contacted me and said, "Mr. Mamorsky, we don't have your transcripts from law school," and I said "Well, I still have to finish law school." Well, that caused a stir and they were going to fire me, but my immediate boss said there was no way you are going to fire Jeff, he's the best writer we have ever had here.

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