Pavia & Harcourt: “A Lawyers’ Dynasty Between Genoa and New York”

These days, the iconic law firm Pavia & Harcourt is at an historic turning point: George Pavia, who is almost 90 years old and still working every day, has passed the baton to Giovanni E. Spinelli, 50; today, he is the one leading the firm, consisting of about twenty professionals.  Spinelli has always had an international vocation: he was born in London where his father was CEO of Fiat UK, grew up in England, then in Sweden and finally back in Italy, Florence, the family base, where he graduated in law and began to work at Mastellone law firm.

He then moved to the US to obtain an LLM at Yale Law School, where both Bill and Hillary Clinton graduated (and where the two Presidents Bush attended College).  He ended up in New York, working for two of the most prestigious American law firms, Skadden Arps and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius: “I take over from George a professional relay with a broad transatlantic vocation.  In our firm, we have American attorneys with Italian expertise and actual Italian attorneys, almost all of them with American and European degrees.  We are at home in different countries.”

In addition to managing the firm, Spinelli deals with corporate and commercial law with a special focus on corporate transactions, mergers and acquisitions and international finance operations.  The firm serves as a bridge for Italian and European companies that decide to expand their business in the United States, especially in the field of banking, fashion and luxury goods.  Among the clients of the firm there are Valentino, Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, Unicredit (for 60 years), UBI banca.

In Real Estate, the firm has worked with Sorgente, while also keeping a strong focus on assisting individuals, for example in civil and international corporate law issues, Trusts & Estates, employment law, immigration, litigation and arbitration.  The firm’s clients are assisted in every phase of US growth, from inception to the search for key partners.  “One point linking George and me is the equidistance between the two worlds” – continues Spinelli – “there is a conservative approach to the role that George has taught all of us, with an additional technique: it is important to show some aggressiveness in order to prevent your client from being overwhelmed by a fierce American counterpart.  Our old roots remain.”

George Pavia was born in Genoa, his father Enrico was an internationalist and one of the most respected lawyers in town.  The family, with Jewish origins, came from Casale Monferrato, located a hundred kilometers north, in Piedmont.  In the main square of Casale there is still a sign “Mercato Pavia” near the small synagogue, one of the most beautiful in Italy.  The family strived: George’s grandfather, Tobia Pavia, founded with Max Vitale a trading company to engage in the import and export business, mainly whiskey and mainly with Great Britain.  Later the family members exited the company, but Max Vitale is still the leading Italian importer of Scotch whiskey.

Enrico Pavia left for the battlefront during the First World War when he was 16 years old; he joined the cavalry, going back and forth between the French and Italian troops; he was decorated for bravery; thereafter he began to practice law, until Fascism and racial persecutions burst in.  In 1938 he was forced to quit his job, and his children had to leave school.  Through his connections in England (where he studied), he was interned on the Isle of Man, and prepared for the great crossing of the Atlantic Ocean with his family.  They escaped to America in 1940 on the Western Princeocean liner, which sank on its return journey.

In New York, Enrico worked hard and joined Citibank. His sons, George and Bruno, studied law.

Enrico became a partner in a law firm which some years later would become Pavia & Harcourt and his sons joined the firm.  After the Second World War, Enrico returned to Italy and reopened the law firm in Genoa, “he asked – George says – why should I be one of the last lawyers in New York when I can be one of the first in Italy?  My brother went back with him and I stayed in New York.  Quickly the new Pavia & Ansaldo law firm opened offices in Milan and Rome and became one of the most prominent talian law firms.  The American and the Italian firm worked together until the rift: “when a certain Gian Paolo Zini arrived in the New York firm, sent from the Milan office for the Parmalat scandal; this gentleman pulled some dirty tricks that generated tension between the two firms.  My brother stayed with Pavia & Ansaldo in Milan and I stayed with Pavia & Harcourt.  No complaints, but the relationship was compromised, and that’s it.”

Today George continues to work and serves on several boards of directors.  He is happy to have passed the baton to the young Spinelli: “It represents the continuation of a long history that has its roots in the last century, and in the previous one,” says George, who, among other things had in his firm Sonia Sotomayor, currently a US Supreme Court justice.  I ask him what his best deal was.  “My house, which I bought for $365,000 in 1976, and sold a couple of years ago for $20 million.  I always say: one of our greatest strengths is Real Estate.”

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