Sandy Samuels, chief executive of Bet Tzedek, at the headquarters of the pro bono legal service in L.A.’s Fairfax District.

Sandy Samuels, chief executive of Bet Tzedek, at the headquarters of the pro bono legal service in L.A.’s Fairfax District. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

Taking over community service group Bet Tzedek after 18 years as chief legal officer at Countrywide Financial Corp. might seem to have been a dramatic career change. But ask attorney Sandy Samuels about anything and his answers will circle back to the ideas of community, family and “Tikkun olam,” a Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world.” It’s not surprising, actually, being that Samuels grew up in a devoutly Jewish household in the Fairfax District before going off to Princeton and later getting his law degree at UCLA. Samuels spent several years as an associate at law firm Munger Tolles & Olson LLP before working in-house at a series of companies that include First Interstate Bancorp and Fox Entertainment Group. In 1990, he joined Countrywide and worked closely with co-founder Angelo Mozilo building the Calabasas company into the largest mortgage lender in the United States – until it all fell apart during the housing bust; Countrywide was acquired in 2008 by Bank of America. After two years at Bank of America, Samuels took over the chief executive position at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a leading provider of pro bono legal services. He had been heavily involved in community service for years, sitting on the boards of several local organizations, and is president of Valley Village synagogue Adat Ari El. Samuels sat down with the Business Journal to discuss Countrywide’s role in the mortgage crisis, his interest in the Middle East and what he’d like his legacy to be. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Question: Countrywide has become almost a bad word in some ways.

Answer: Yes.

Now here you are leading a top non-profit legal services organization. Some people might find that contradictory. Can you explain why it’s not?

I worked a lot at Countrywide with community groups over the years. We did a lot of work to try to extend home ownership to as many people who could afford it. Did we make a lot of mistakes? The industry certainly made a lot of mistakes. But I was working very hard over the years to demystify the lending process, to work with borrowers to ensure they understood what they were getting into with a loan.

Why did you leave the mortgage industry after decades there?

I’d been working in this area for quite some time, and the previous three years had been extremely tumultuous. I had made a two-year commitment to Bank of America. Then I just decided that it was time to do something else.

How bad was it?

With what happened in the economy, with what happened in the housing market, with what happened in the mortgage banking industry, Countrywide was very much in the thick of it. I was working very, very long hours.

An article about your move remarked that it must be hard to get a job with Countrywide at the top of your resume. Was it?

No. I wasn’t looking for another general counsel’s position. I was looking for something that was much more in the realm of community work.

How did you end up at Bet Tzedek?

I initially looked at teaching opportunities. I already teach at Loyola Law School. So I talked to a number of people and got a position to teach comparative religion at New Community Jewish High School. Then one day in July, in fact it was July 13, I got a call from Mitch Kamin, who was my predecessor here. He invited me out to lunch, told me he was planning to leave and asked if I would be interested in applying for the job.

Were you always interested in religion?

Originally, I went to both law school and graduate school in Near Eastern studies. I wanted to be an academic focusing on Islamic and Talmudic law.

Where does that interest come from?

I went to what’s called the Yeshiva for elementary school. A Yeshiva is a half-day Hebrew, half-day English school. I’ve gone to Hebrew school for my whole life. When I went to Princeton, I taught Hebrew school at the Princeton Jewish Center and I became the director of the synagogue.

What about it drew you in?

It’s important to me for people to know who they are and where they came from. In Judaism, I love the idea of the concept of “Tikkun olam.” It means “repairing the world.” There’s a famous story of a prospective Jewish convert who came to Hillel, who is one of the great rabbis of our past, and saying, “I want you to tell me what’s in the Torah – the five books of Moses – while standing on one foot.” And he did. He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. All the rest is commentary. Now go study.” I’ve always taken that to heart and that is really an essential principle of who I am and of who the Jewish people are.

What’s satisfying about this job?

All you have to do is see a Holocaust survivor come in whom we help get reparations they’re entitled to. We help a tenant who is being wrongfully evicted stay in their home. We help people getting guardianship approved. And their lives really improve. You can come home every night and think of how many people you helped. That’s a great psychic satisfaction to have.

You talked before about “repairing the world.” How did that fit into your work at Countrywide?

No. 1, I was always very involved in outside community activities. I’m the president of my synagogue, and I’ve been on many boards of non-profits, including American Jewish University, the Urban League and the Constitutional Rights Foundation. But at Countrywide, the management focus really was trying to increase home ownership. There have been lots of studies that show when you own your home, your kids do better in school, you take more pride in your neighborhood, all of these kinds of things. And I had some experiences while at Countrywide that really hit home in this regard.

Such as?

I had one experience where we were the lender on an L.A. city bond program. There was a big celebration for the first loan on a house in South Los Angeles. Mayor Riordan was there, I was there representing Countrywide, and somebody was there representing Freddie Mac, and the TV and radio was there and everything. Well, the mayor left and so did all the media. And I was on the front lawn talking to the real estate broker, and the next-door neighbor came over. The family that bought the house was a Hispanic family. An African-American woman comes over and introduces herself. She says, “I see you have two kids. Well, the school is six blocks away. We have a group of parents who pick up the kids every morning and walk them to school, and another group of parents who pick up the kids and walk them back and make sure they get home OK.” And then she handed her a piece of paper and said, “If you can’t help your child in math, here’s Mr. Jones’ number, call him. If you can’t help your child in history, call Mrs. Smith.”

What were you thinking at this point?

I mean I was listening to this and I’m thinking to myself, “We helped these people get into a support system, not just a new home.” And I never forgot that. That that’s what we should be doing. Whenever I would speak to new employees I would always recount that story because I wanted them every day when they woke up and came to work to remember that family, and whatever they did at the company that they should know that they’re helping that to happen.

Some would say now that the company was too zealous in expanding home ownership.

I think the industry was too zealous. There was a lot of money out there. A lot of investors were looking for that return.

Can you talk about Angelo Mozilo or your relationship with him?

I don’t want to go into Angelo. I don’t think that’s appropriate for this interview.

OK. Did you know him well?

Sure. I mean I worked for him for 18 years.

Is there a reason you don’t want to talk about him?

He’s been in the news and you know I just don’t think it’s relevant to what we’re doing here.

Speaking of the news, Eric Sieracki, the former CFO of Countrywide who settled with the SEC on securities fraud charges, blamed you and the company’s attorneys for not giving him proper legal advice.

He was using advice from counsel as a defense.

I imagine you don’t agree with that.

That matter is settled and I’m very happy that it is settled. I’m not going to comment on the legal issues involved in that lawsuit.

Do you feel that you gave the proper legal advice in that situation?

I always try to give the proper legal advice in every situation.

What’s the best advice you ever got?

The best advice I ever got was to hire people who are smarter than you are.

Who gave you that advice?

Angelo Mozilo.

When the economy began to turn and people were losing their homes, did you feel any kind of sense of responsibility?

You second-guess yourself every day.

How did you come to terms with that? You’re a person who thinks a lot about morality.

I don’t see that we did anything immoral. That’s my view of the world. We were working hard to do the things that Countrywide was doing, which was making loans. You can see a lot of it turned out badly. We made a lot of mistakes but I think the intentions were always good, to try to help people. What I don’t want to do, and I’ll say this on the tape, I’m not trying to be an apologist for what happened. What has happened and what families are going through is terrible. I see that. On the other hand, the people who were working every day to try to make Countrywide a good company and a successful company, what we were doing was with the best intentions.

What you’re saying kind of reminds me of my own profession. As a journalist you’re always trying to do the right thing but sometimes you make mistakes.

You asked me about Angelo. I would say that that would be a good way to describe him. I had a wonderful relationship with the man for a long time and it’s unfortunate that this is where we are. That’s the media and that’s the politics of it.

So you’re saying professional mistakes were made rather than moral ones?

Yes. Hindsight is always 20-20. I think we would have done a lot of things differently. But this is kind of where we are.

What do you do outside of philanthropy/work?

I like to play golf. Unfortunately, I have a bad back and that limits my ability to get out there. Being out on the golf course with my two boys, to me that’s nirvana. Obviously, spending time with my wife and my daughter. And we like to go to plays, go to the movies a lot, and I like to read.

How do you balance your work and philanthropy with your family?

It’s always hard. When you are committed to your profession, to your community and to your family, and I actually should have said those in reverse order, it is hard to find that balance. I tell people when they ask me that you have to be willing to make adjustments, particularly in the practice of law.

Any lessons you’ve learned about maintaining that balance?

Set yourself up with an office at home. I’ll come home, I’ll spend time with the family, and then when the kids are in bed, if I have more work to do, I’ll go to my office and do work.

What do you read?

I like historical fiction. I like reading political books. I also like reading biographies and history.

Do you have a favorite historical figure?

For world history, it would probably be David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel.

What makes him interesting?

I’ve been to Israel a number of times on federation missions. The last two times I’ve been there we’ve been to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. I tell you, I tear up every time when you think about the odds against the establishment of the state of Israel. It’s people like him people who took a very thin strip of desert land and made it bloom.

What would you like your own legacy to be?

I’d like my legacy to be that I was helpful in repairing the world.

Do you feel you’ve accomplished that?

I’m not so arrogant to say I’ve accomplished everything I need to accomplish in my life. There’s a Jewish saying: “It’s not incumbent upon you to finish the job but neither are you free not to begin it.” So I hope that people will say about me that he began the job. That he was dedicated and passionate about it.

Sandor ‘Sandy’ Samuels

TITLE: President and chief executive

COMPANY: Bet Tzedek Legal Services

BORN: Los Angeles; 1952

EDUCATION: A.B., Near Eastern studies, Princeton University; J.D., UCLA

CAREER TURNING POINT: Switching from litigation to corporate work as a law firm associate.

PERSONAL: Lives in Encino with his wife of 36 years, Claudia. Has three adult children.

ACTIVITIES: Golf, reading.

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