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Selinda Melnik: 1951-2018

Kyriaki Karadelis

27 November 2018

Selinda Melnik: 1951-2018 Selinda Melnik, 1951-2018

Former DLA Piper partner Selinda Melnik, a founder of the International Women’s Insolvency and Restructuring Confederation (IWIRC) and its first chair, as well as an active member of GRR’s editorial board, has passed away after a long illness.

Melnik set up the foremost global professional organisation for women in the insolvency and restructuring field, was seminal in working with UNCITRAL to develop its Model Law on Cross-Border Insolvency, and then helped incorporate that Model Law into the US Bankruptcy Code as Chapter 15.

She later put together some of the very first pleadings for a non-US debtor in a Chapter 15 case – and obtained the first Chapter 15 order granting recognition to an international bankruptcy process.

Moreover, she did all this in what was effectively her second successful career, having initially worked in international policy and economic development for a range of non-profit organisations.

“She was one of the most internationally-minded practitioners I’ve ever known, long before cross-border insolvencies were widespread,” says Mahesh Uttamchandani, manager of the Finance, Competitiveness and Innovation global practice at the World Bank, who adds that he was “privileged to know Selinda for close to 20 years”.

Her early contributions to the World Bank’s work, both on Doing Business – a project ranking the business regulations in different global economies – and on the 2001 Principles for Effective Insolvency and Creditor/Debtor Regimes were “invaluable”, Uttamchandani adds.

“Selinda was a shining practitioner, an erudite scholar in the field of cross-border insolvency and above all, a wonderful person,” echoes Scott Atkins, head of risk advisory at Norton Rose Fulbright in Sydney.       

Atkins recalls how, several years ago, Professor Rosalind Mason of the University of Queensland, who now chairs the INSOL International Academics Colloquium, invited him to be a co-author of the Australian chapter in Hong Kong barrister Look Chan Ho’s seminal book, UNCITRAL Model Law on Cross-Border Insolvency: Cases and Commentary.

I was keen to understand both the quality of the overall text and the standing of other authors,” he tells GRR.  “Without question, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the US chapter which analysed the evolution and leading cases built around Chapter 15 of the US Bankruptcy Code was the most substantial and comprehensive. It included, as I recall vividly, a comprehensive schedule of the Chapter 15 cases reported during the relevant period. It was an impressive and scholarly contribution. And the author was Selinda Melnik.”

IWIRC’s administrative director Shari Bedker, who first met Melnik when she started working with IWIRC in 1996, says: “she was so very proud of IWIRC and considered the organisation and its members as her ‘child’, as she remarked to me on several occasions”.

“I am very sad at this news, but also would lift up her as an example as a life well led by creating an incredible legacy of ‘connecting women worldwide’.” 

Early life and the law

Melnik was born in Fort Worth, Texas into a Jewish family, to father Mitchell Mandel Melnik Goldberg and mother Sylvia Goldberg.

She graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia in 1972 with a BA in International Political Science and spent the next two years in New Jersey at Rutgers University where she completed a Master of City and Region Planning.

For the first eight years of her career she worked as a personal programme associate to philanthropist John D Rockefeller III from the prominent Rockefeller family, as well as a consultant to the Ford Foundation, a grant-making organisation originally set up by the founders of Ford Motor Company. She also acted as a consultant to the UN, and even to the White House. Later on, she became a senior policy analyst at the global sexual and reproductive health NGO Planned Parenthood, and worked for other non-profits with women's interests at their core.

That period of her life witnessed her traveling to remote villages in developing countries all over the world. In an interview with GRR shortly after accepting to be a member of our editorial board, Melnik said it was “hard to think of a place the practice of law has taken me that has been as interesting” – but she admitted that the plenary and breakout rooms of UNCITRAL in Vienna and New York City, during the time when UNCITRAL’s Working Group V was toiling to develop the Model Law, came close.

It was in the early 1980s that Melnik decided to attend New York Law School (NYLS) with the goal of practising international law. She left that institution with a JD summa cum laude in 1984 and was admitted to the New York Bar a year later. Admission to appear before the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia would follow in 1993.

Melnik said in her editorial board interview that it quickly became apparent in her first year of law school that disparate domestic commercial laws internationally posed a significant challenge, if not a threat, to the world economy. “Sound domestic insolvency law, and harmonised insolvency laws internationally, were critical predicates in what clearly would be an increasingly globalised and inter-dependent world,” she said.

She began working on the harmonisation of commercial law with international governmental and non-governmental organisations while at NYLS, and would focus her practice on this area for the next 30 years.

In that time, she would advise governments and intergovernmental organisations on international insolvency and corporate rescue law, as well as on the impacts of law reform and the development of a strong legal and judicial infrastructure, on the one hand; on the other, she would represent debtors from all over the world and every type of creditor committee in bankruptcy proceedings, out-of-court restructuring deals and pre-bankruptcy planning.

Private practice career

Melnik’s first experience of working in a law firm upon finishing her JD was as an associate at Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy in New York between 1984 to 1987. She then joined LeBoeuf Lamb Leiby MacRae for three years, before moving to Dechert legacy firm Dechert Price & Rhoads in 1991.

From 1993 to 1996 she worked at litigation firm Roger & Wells, eventually opening International Counsel, her own legal practice and consulting boutique in New York which focused on cross-border insolvency, distressed asset management and the harmonisation of international commercial and public law.

In the early 2000s Melnik joined Buchanan Ingersoll in its Wilmington office, before moving in 2004 to Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, where she chaired the firm’s international insolvency practice at the same time as being a member of its insurance and reinsurance department. In 2011 she became a partner at DLA Piper.

DLA Piper partner Craig Martin in Wilmington, Delaware, who Melnik mentored in the early days of his career, commented on LinkedIn that she has left “a lasting legacy and her kindness and wonderful friendship will not be forgotten”. At the time of writing, his post had generated 56 comments offering condolences and memories of Melnik from all over the world.

While at DLA Piper, Melnik counted the cross-border bankruptcy of multinational telecoms provider Nortel Networks, where she represented the Canadian creditors’ committee as US and cross-border insolvency counsel, as one of her career highlights.

The Nortel case settled in October 2016 after years of contentious litigation over how to distribute US$7.3 billion in liquidation proceeds, finally receiving approval from courts in the UK, Delaware and Ontario in the next few months to bring what was by then an eight-year-old bankruptcy to a resolution.

Allan Nackan, a partner at advisory group Faber in Toronto and fellow GRR editorial board member, got to know Melnik well while he was acting as financial adviser to the Canadian creditors committee. “There is no better way to get to know someone than when you are in the trenches together, particularly on a case as intense as that one,” he says. “We became great friends and had been in touch ever since.”

“Selinda’s incredible warmth and upbeat attitude are what made her so special and someone you wanted to have on your team,” he adds. “Technical legal and financial skills are a must-have in our profession but it is first and foremost a ‘people business’ and that is where Selinda really stood out.”

Nackan says he communicated with Melnik just weeks before her death, and that she reported being very excited to be able to attend her 50th High School Reunion after a two-year hiatus from travel.

“She loved the experience of reconnecting with her graduating class, and said it was just like Senior Prom,” he notes. “I will miss her very much as will the insolvency community to which she made such a great contribution.”

Professional organisations and IWIRC

Outside of Melnik’s private practice work she had prominent roles in many professional organisations for the advancement of cross-border insolvency law. She was a member of the World Bank’s Insolvency Task Force, as well as of INSOL International, and was a past chair of the International Bar Association’s (IBA) Section on Insolvency, Restructuring & Creditors’ Rights.

In fact, her 30-year links with the IBA neither began nor ended with the insolvency section – she was a member of the IBA Council and vice chair of the IBA’s Committee on Legal Practice and World Organisations. She was also the IBA’s official representative to a host of institutions including the Columbia University Institute for Policy Directives’ Bankruptcy Task Force, UNCITRAL, the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the IMF, the World Bank’s Global Insolvency Initiative and to a joint IBA-World Bank project with Harvard University on domestic insolvency law.

From 2000 to 2011, Melnik was also recommended as preferred bankruptcy counsel to member airports and authorities of the Airports Council International.

But perhaps her greatest achievement on the professional organisations side came in December 1993 with the establishment of IWIRC. Working with accountant Laureen Ryan and commercial banker Martha Fetner, Melnik set up the non-profit with one goal: to connect and promote women in insolvency and restructuring worldwide and ensure their success.

Fetner was a vice president at JP Morgan Chase in New York at the time and is now a director of learning solutions at Moody’s Analytics in Sydney, Australia. “Back in the dark ages of the 1990’s finding another woman in restructuring was as rare as finding a pink diamond,” she tells GRR. “But funny enough there were three of us, one from each of the key professions, that by chance realised we knew each other.” 

Restructuring was just becoming an international business back then, Fetner says, and was “even more male dominated than other areas on Wall Street”. But the three founders knew there were other women in the field and decided it was time to provide a way for them to network.

“Surprisingly our firms supported us, but it still took hours and hours of our personal time to get IWIRC off the ground,” she adds. “It also took real vision of what IWIRC could become.”

Fetner says Melnik worked tirelessly to locate women in the business around the world and connect them so they could support each other professionally and personally. “Later she worked to ensure bankruptcy laws impacting women and families, many of whom were victims of financial and physical abuse, were not further abused by the legal system. Selinda was talking about these things long ago when we had a drink in a bar in NYC. She had a vision of how to do things better, and then she went out and made it happen.”

As word of the new confederation got out, more and more women became interested. Judith Elkin, a retired Haynes and Boone partner who now acts as a commercial mediator and who chaired IWIRC between 2010 and 2012, says she first heard of the idea for IWIRC from Rona Mears, a former corporate partner at her firm and friend of Melnik’s through the IBA, who thought Elkin would be well-placed to get involved in the group.

“I could easily relate to Selinda, Laureen and Martha, because I too was often the only woman in a very big room,” Elkin says. “Selinda believed that women needed a safe space to develop marketing and networking skills, and where they could be nurtured and supported by each other. Because the practice of insolvency globally involved other types of professionals than just lawyers, they felt that an international, multi-disciplinary organisation not only made the most sense, but filled a need that was grossly under-served by existing organisations.”

Notwithstanding “the mind-boggling and ambitious nature” of the idea, “Selinda’s conviction, enthusiasm and passion were contagious” and made it work, Elkin says.

IWIRC started out with 200 members and held its first meeting in June 1994. Its first network, the Central Ohio network, was chartered a year later.

Sheryl Seigel, founder of SES Cansult in Toronto and past chair of IWIRC from 2001 to 2002, met Melnik during that first year, when IWIRC held its inaugural autumn event on the back of a meeting of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges (NCBJ) in Ontario. She says Melnik had opened the door for IWIRC to host its meetings in conjunction with other organisations – not only the NCBJ, but also the IBA and INSOL, and secured its input on the UNCITRAL Model Law. 

“What I remember the most was the instant camaraderie,” she says of the Ontario meeting, which around 60 women attended. “The room was electric; there was an effortless connection and a spontaneous exchange of ideas and information among those attending, unlike anything I had ever experienced before.” Seigel says Melnik inspired her to volunteer to create IWIRC’s first Canadian network, and later to serve on the confederation’s first official board of directors.

Today, IWIRC has 1,400 members and around 55 networks across 13 countries. 

Michelle Picket, a partner at PwC in Toronto and current vice-chair of IWIRC, says the confederation and its members were “blessed” to have had Melnik’s support and foresight: “What started out as a kernel of a grand idea has surpassed all of our expectations and enriched our knowledge of insolvency and restructuring, our global networks and connections, and our personal relationships.”

“Over the past 25 years, a germ of an idea has turned into a global powerhouse,” Elkin says. “IWIRC has NGO status at the United Nations, joins with other major insolvency organisations in commenting on prospective insolvency legislation, and has over 40 networks across the world.”

Elkin remembers one of the early IWIRC Leadership Summits a decade ago: “I sat with Selinda over a few glasses of wine and we reminisced about how IWIRC had surpassed our wildest expectations and how proud we were of the new young generation of women leaders who cut their teeth at IWIRC events. Selinda – IWIRC will miss you but your legacy will live on.”

Each year since 2004, IWIRC has handed out a Melnik Award to one of its members in recognition of their exceptional contribution to the organisation. Moritt Hock & Hamroff partner Leslie Berkoff, another former IWIRC chair who won the award in 2009, says it has always made her feel proud.

“When I joined IWIRC in 1996 as a young lawyer, Selinda Melnik was already a legend in the field. However, Selinda took me under her wing and encouraged me to not only join the organisation, but to take a leadership role,” she says, adding that Melnik’s “selfless dedication of her time and energy to so many junior lawyers” spoke volumes about the kind of woman she was.

“It is for this and so many other reasons that IWIRC eventually created and dedicated the Melnik Award in her name,” Berkoff notes. “Going forward, when I wear the pin that commemorates that award I will continue to reflect on the wonderful woman for whom it was named as a testament to her memory.”

GRR

In addition to her many extracurricular roles at IWIRC, the IBA and elsewhere, Selinda Melnik holds a special place in the hearts of the GRR team, and in our history as a magazine.

She was instrumental in helping to set up GRR as a daily news service and magazine – not just in helping us establish our editorial direction to focus on cross-border insolvency and restructuring, but also in offering personal encouragement and support to me, as editor, in the early days when the magazine was in its infancy.

From the very beginning, upon accepting to be a member of our editorial board in late 2015, she set about sending over news and feature ideas and introducing me to new contacts – Uttamchandani and Bedker among them.

When GRR held its six-monthly editorial board meetings in London, Melnik always took time out of her day to dial in from the US. When she became too unwell to make the call, her ideas and positive encouragement were sorely missed. After taking a short break from board duties in 2017, in recent months she had returned full of ideas and positive energy, and took part in our most recent board meeting on 4 October.

My own last communication with Melnik was on 12 November, when she forwarded some news from Sumant Batra, the managing partner of Kesar Dass B & Associates in Delhi and a past president of INSOL International, of plans to set up a global Insolvency Academics Forum with the support of the Society of Insolvency Practitioners of India (SIPI), the Indian government, the World Bank and INSOL. I told Melnik the team would follow up – to which she responded only with a heart.

Batra says he will miss her “as a friend and philosopher”.

“Not many people may know she was a deeply philosophical person,” he tells GRR. “We often chatted about our interests outside of profession. My last interaction with her was few months ago when she reached out to inquire the meaning of a popular Urdu couplet I posted on social media.”

“Her response on learning the meaning was, ‘So agree….I have had enough of accepting dealing with destructive people and institutions. As [American political activist] Angela Davis recently said: I will no longer accept the things I cannot change.’ She would send very encouraging words whenever I took positions on difficult issues.”

A memorial service for Melnik took place on 21 November at Congregation Beth Shalom in Delaware.