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BigLaw Partner Balances Career And Cancer Fight

Friends say Kirkland & Ellis LLP restructuring partner Joshua Sussberg applied the same focus and determination that he does on billion-dollar bankruptcies to a different challenge he faced last year: battling leukemia.

Sussberg, 36, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in April 2016 and was immediately admitted to the hospital for the first of a series of intensive chemotherapy treatments that would last for eight months. Those close to Sussberg say he tackled the treatment with the ferocity of a top lawyer, relying on his inner strength as well as an outpouring of support from family, friends, colleagues and the legal community.

Josh Sussberg celebrates his birthday with his family in January 2016. (Courtesy of Josh Sussberg)
And just a month after he went into remission following his final intensive chemotherapy treatment in December, Sussberg was back at work, undertaking a $450 million Chapter 11 restructuring for high-end women’s apparel retailer BCBG Max Azria.

“Josh has more drive, focus and discipline than anyone I know,” said Nicole L. Greenblatt, a partner of Sussberg’s at Kirkland & Ellis who has known him for 14 years. “He applied that same focus and determination to his treatment, never losing sight of the goal and his priorities: to beat this and get back to the family, friends and career he loves.”

Sussberg, who lives in New York with his wife and three sons, ages 10, 7 and 4, says he began to feel unwell back in January 2016 and couldn’t shake what his doctors thought was a sinus infection. By April, he was having trouble running, a pastime he enjoys, so he went back to the doctor.

An X-ray revealed a “huge mass” in his chest, according to Sussberg. He was brought directly to the hospital and was diagnosed within 24 hours. He spent the next three weeks in the hospital getting intensive chemotherapy and would need to spend the next eight months in and out of the hospital for a series of treatments.

During those eight months, Sussberg says, he was generally plugged into what was happening at Kirkland & Ellis, but he couldn’t go into work and couldn’t go to court because the leukemia made his white blood cell count low, which meant he couldn’t be out in public.

Now that’s he’s finished with the intense chemotherapy, Sussberg says he goes in to the doctor once a month for an intravenous treatment and takes daily chemotherapy pills.

“I got back to work in January and haven’t looked back,” he said.

Sussberg was always positive throughout his treatment and when he returned to work he returned “like a ball of energy,” according to friend and longtime colleague Christopher Marcus.

“No easing back into it. Head first into the deep end and he's never looked back,” Marcus said.

Sussberg said Kirkland & Ellis was hired by BCBG in January, and he has been working on the company’s restructuring nonstop. He is also representing Gymboree in its restructuring negotiations, recently filed a Chapter 15 for Mood Media Corp. and completed a prepackaged Chapter 11 case for Goodman Networks Inc. He is also working on certain creditor mandates and other potential debtors who could file soon.

Sussberg says his colleagues’ support played a part in his quick return to the law firm.

“From moment one, and continuing to now, the firm and my partners have been incredibly supportive and absolutely behind me 100 percent,” he said. “It’s made everything a little bit easier. It was tough to deal with the emotional roller coaster of it all, but having everyone behind me from the beginning was incredible and humbling.”

Friends reported they saw the same outpouring of support from Sussberg’s fellow lawyers.

“Being who he is, Josh managed his matters and doled out coverage within hours of his diagnosis, and everyone jumped in to help no matter what else was on their plate,” Greenblatt said.

It wasn’t just Kirkland lawyers who offered their support. Friends say the entire restructuring community, not only in New York but all over the country, including many bankruptcy judges, became part of Sussberg’s support network with hundreds of emails and visits.

In addition to launching back into his work life, Sussberg has thrown himself into volunteering his time to help others affected by leukemia and lymphoma.

He said he’s working with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training, where he is serving as an “honored hero” for a team participating in the upcoming Seattle Marathon, as well as a 100-mile bicycle ride in Lake Tahoe. Individuals train for several months to complete in an endurance event while raising funds for leukemia, lymphoma and blood cancer research.

He is also working to get a nonprofit organization off the ground aimed at helping others going through similar treatment protocols with needed resources and financial support.

“I was incredibly fortunate to have the support of family, friends and my community, and the firm and my partners were there throughout. I’m sure there are other people in the world who are in a similar circumstance that don’t have the same type of support that I was fortunate enough to have,” Sussberg said. “If there’s anything I’m able to do to support one person, two people, or even more to get through similar circumstances, I’d love to be able to be that resource or that support for someone else who does not otherwise have it.”