Hausfeld was raised in Brooklyn; his father sold material to furriers out of a small shop. Walter Hausfeld had grown up in Poland. Shortly after Germany invaded in 1939, Walter and his brother Meyer fled to New York to join two other brothers who had urged the family to escape. A fifth brother stayed behind. When the Nazis arrived in the Hausfelds' hometown, they liquidated the Jewish population. The brother who had remained behind was marched into the forest and shot. Hausfeld is named after that late uncle, Michael David Hausfeld.
In the early 1970s, Hausfeld met his mentor: Jerry Cohen, a muckraking class-action lawyer who had been chief counsel to the Senate antitrust subcommittee and represented the United Farm Workers. "It was like a father-son relationship," said Marilyn Hausfeld, an actress and singer who met her husband at Brooklyn College. Cohen harbored a suspicion of big business. His 1971 book "America Inc." argued that the growing concentration of economic power was dangerous to society. Ralph Nader wrote the introduction. Cohen "always encouraged me to take the cases that I was most interested in on a social basis," Hausfeld said, "and he always supported me in doing them despite opposition in the firm and whether it made economic sense or not."
Hausfeld stayed at the firm for 37 years, becoming a partner and chairman with a significant equity stake. "Michael was looked at as this absolutely creative, independent-minded genius who would pursue cases that others couldn't identify and then run with them," said Steven Toll, the firm's managing partner. "We looked at ourselves as the white hats -- individuals against corporate misconduct and greed."
Hausfeld initially took on the Swiss banks pro bono; invoking international law and even the Nuremberg trials, he won a $1.25 billion settlement on a lawsuit involving incidents that had taken place in Europe 50 years earlier. Hausfeld won a $176 million judgment for African-American employees who accused Texaco of discrimination and, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, represented Alaska Natives who sometimes paid him in salmon.
But in addition to his gift for making implausible cases real, Hausfeld's style sometimes grated on those around him. Some colleagues viewed him as imperious and condescending. He frequently fought with lawyers ostensibly on the same side he was. He launched projects over the objections of his partners. In the mid-2000s, Hausfeld made it known that he wanted to open a London office. Europe had little experience with class-action litigation, and his ambitious project aimed to expand European law. It was a classic clash between Hausfeld's visionary impulses and the practicalities of running a law practice.
To some, the London project came to symbolize what they saw as Hausfeld's attempt to take total control over the firm. It eventually ripped the firm apart.
For months in 2008, Hausfeld and his partners rarely spoke even though they sat within a few feet of one another. "The tension inside the office became unbearable," Toll said. One afternoon, with Hausfeld present, the firm's compensation committee voted to reduce his stake. Almost immediately, Hausfeld's opponents used their new majority to fire him.
The partners dispatched a delegate to give Hausfeld notice he'd been ousted. Hausfeld was away at a settlement conference, and when he returned he found the notice on his chair.