For forcing Swiss banks to repay their debts to Holocaust survivors, NYU law professor Burt Neuborne was hailed as a hero. Then he submitted his bill: $4,760,000.

Burt Neuborne estimates that he has spent 8,178 hours working on behalf of Holocaust survivors.

(Photo: Elinor Carucci)

At the end of my career, to have to listen to people say, ‘You lied to us, you cheated, you did this to us!’â€?—Burt Neuborne is practically pounding his right hand on the table now, momentarily channeling the anger of his accusers—“it hurts,â€? he tells me, “especially since they are survivors.â€?

In the dark art of lawyering, Neuborne has always been considered a white knight. He is one of the nation’s leading public-interest lawyers, a defender of lost causes: Air Force pilots who refused to bomb Cambodia in the Vietnam War, the Socialist Labor Party when it wanted to get on the ballot, legal-aid lawyers suing the government. Yet when Neuborne takes up the cause of the little guy, the little guy often wins. Of the twelve cases he’s argued before the Supreme Court, he’s won eight. Now he is sitting in his office at the NYU School of Law, where he teaches, second-guessing his decision to represent the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The crusading attorney helped to win $1.25 billion for his clients, but some of them now regard him as just another big shot looking out for himself.

The battle is over legal fees. Neuborne is seeking $4.76 million for almost eight years of work representing Holocaust survivors in the distribution of the Swiss-bank settlement for plundering Jewish assets in World War II. Some of the survivors are furious. They thought he had been working for free. They had heard him say so several times, or so it seemed. They were already angry at Neuborne for backing the judge and opposing them—“betrayingâ€? them, in their view—in a crucial decision that diverted more than $100 million of that payout to needy survivors in Russia. Now here he is, staking a claim to settlement funds they regard as “holy.â€?