Monday, May 14, 2012

Dewey & LeBoeuf: why I'm mourning the death of a law firm, part 1.

"You're part of the legend." That's what another lawyer I had just met, who had formerly been a partner in the firm LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae LLP, arriving there long after I'd left, said. I didn't ask what the legend was. From the perspective of a 21st century megafirm, the firm with which I started my career in 1970, then called LeBoeuf, Lamb, Leiby & MacRae, must have seemed a legend, though perhaps more like Fiddler's Green than Camelot.

My first contact with LeBoeuf was an interview in Cambridge during the fall of 1969. After I introduced myself to the partner and associate conducting the interview, the partner's first question was if I knew a woman in my class who had done a summer clerkship at the firm that year.

"Know her? I've only been hopelessly infatuated with her for the past two years. Why else would I have signed up to interview with a little known firm in a city I haven't seriously considered as a destination?", I thought.

"Yes," I said. As I gave my flat affirmation, my eyes and the partner's made meaningful contact. Knowing we shared an affection, we became simpatico. The rest of the interview was pro forma. By such ephemera is the course of a life shaped. A few days later, I got a letter inviting me to further interviews in New York.

(The woman in question later spurned LeBoeuf's offer of a permanent position, choosing instead the charms of San Francisco.)

The New York interview went well, by my estimation, until lunch. The two partners who accompanied me to the Broad Street Club were: Peter, tall, of patrician manner, and bearing the name of one of New York's grand old Dutch families; and Joe, short, balding, bespectacled, and Jewish. For most of the lunch I felt like a spectator at an intellectual ping pong match, as Joe and Peter engaged in what to them seemed most enjoyable repartee. Then I made what I later learned was a classic mistake: "If they take you to lunch, don't order dessert." I ordered a creme de menthe parfait. When it arrived, Joe said, "That's instant alcohol!", and Peter said, "Oh, no. We'll have to carry him back." On our return to One Chase Manhattan Plaza (see photo, courtesy of en.wikipedia.org) where the firm had its offices, I managed to get into the same revolving door compartment as Joe, and trod on his heels. When we arrived at the firm's reception area and I thanked them for the lunch, I got Joe's surname wrong. "Oh, well," I thought, "so much for that."

When I got the letter offering me a job as an associate, at the then stratospheric starting salary of $15,000, I celebrated by buying Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers, a bottle of vodka, and a bottle of Kahlua, then went home, fixed a Black Russian, turned up the volume, and grooved to Grace Slick singing
We are all outlaws in the eyes of America,
In order to survive we steal, cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide, and deal,
We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, VIOLENT,
And young.... 
When I started work at LeBoeuf in June of 1970, I was given a desk in an office next door to Joe's that I shared with two other associates, Judy (the firm was ahead of its time in having two women lawyers; the other, Sheila, had started as a secretary, went to law school at night, was made an associate, then became the firm's first female partner after twelve years, as contrasted with the usual six or seven) and Peter (not to be confused with Peter the partner). Working on my first assignment, I came to a citation I didn't understand. I asked Judy if she could explain it, and she said, "Why don't you ask Joe?"  With trepidation, I knocked on his office door.  He looked up, blinked, and said, "Oh, so we did make an offer." 

I later discovered, because of my occasional urge to push the sartorial envelope, that Joe was a self-appointed dress code enforcer (he personified the saying, "Think Yiddish, dress British"). One day I showed up in a perfectly acceptable Brooks Brothers tan poplin summer suit, but under it wore a fire engine red dress shirt and a dark blue tie with a diagonal chain link figure that matched the red of the shirt. As I passed Joe's office, I heard, "Hey, Claude, ya gonna shoot 'em up?" I looked at him quizzically, and he said, "You look like you're dressed for the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre."

The desk I was given in the three-associate office had belonged to a lawyer who left the firm shortly before I arrived. In what has now proved to be a bit of historical irony, that lawyer was John Martin Dewey, the younger of Thomas E. Dewey's two sons. Dewey père was the former Governor of New York and Republican candidate for President in 1948, famously and erroneously declared the victor over Harry Truman by the Chicago Tribune. He later became the lead partner in a large, prestigious firm then called Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood.

Past Joe's office was Jim's, and a few doors down from Jim was Jack. Both were listed on the letterhead as partners. Jim had closely cropped white hair, a round, florid face, and glinty Irish eyes. Jack had sharp features, slightly protuberant eyes, and slate grey hair brushed back and pomaded into place. Both would arrive every morning ten-ish, and close their office doors.  Both took long lunches from which they would return with more color in their faces than before. They would close their office doors again, and soon the odor of cigar smoke would waft from under them.  No associates were ever called to their offices for assignments. From bits and pieces of lore I could glean from older associates, Jack and Jim had been very productive partners for many years. They had done financing work for public utilities, the traditional centerpiece of the firm's practice. Someone told me that Jack billed forty hours a week to a large upstate electric and gas utility, which was glad to pay the bill, knowing he would occasionally look over a bond indenture with his keen eye and institutional memory.

One of my first big assignments was to assist Taylor, a senior litigation partner, with a matter for a client in Jamestown, a small city located near the far western end of New York State. Our first trip out to visit the client was in October, and it was a clear, crisp fall day as we boarded an Allegheny Airlines (a predecessor of USAir, often called "Agony Air") twin turboprop Convair at Newark Airport. Our flight was a puddle jumper that went from Newark to Bradford, Pennsylvania, then to Jamestown, then on to its final destination, Pittsburgh. As we flew westward, we were soon over a thick cloud bank. On our descent into Bradford, I casually mentioned to Taylor that this was where Allegheny had put two planes into the trees the previous winter. We made it into and out of Bradford without incident. Descending into Jamestown, which was still under heavy clouds, we had just broken through so that I could see brilliant autumn foliage below when the pilot gunned the engines and we began climbing. He got on the intercom and said we'd missed our approach, that he would circle and try again, but that if we missed a second time we would have to skip Jamestown and go on to Pittsburgh. We made it on the second try. (Photo:AirlinersGallery.com)



I can't resist mentioning here that Jamestown later became the birthplace of one of my favorite rock groups, 10,000 Maniacs, which, in turn, became famous for launching the solo career of Natalie Merchant. The clip above, courtesy of NatalieMerchantVideo, is of their song "Maddox Table", named for one of Jamestown's biggest employers (the city was a furniture manufacturing center) and a customer of our client. The music is accompanied by video scenes of Jamestown life in 1948; "Maddox Table" is a paean to the band's parents' generation.

After a day conferring with the client's managers, we were taken to dinner at Jamestown's club for local V.I.P.s. Taylor and I had tickets to return to Newark on an Allegheny flight that took the same route as the one we took out in reverse, leaving at 7:30. As it got to be 6:30 and we were finishing dessert, I glanced nervously at my watch. Taylor asked if Cognac was available. It was. Cigars? To be sure. Our cab got us to the airport just as the plane was taking off. "Darn!", Taylor said. "We'll just have to rent a car, drive to Buffalo, and see if we can get a flight from there. If there's nothing tonight, my sainted parents will put us up." At the Buffalo airport, we were able to get on an American Airlines 707 nonstop to Newark--no flirting with the treetops in Bradford.

Taylor later became the messenger delivering some very welcome news. I was cavalier in my preparation for the New York bar exam; as a consequence, I failed on my first attempt. The day after the results came out, three partners (not including Taylor) came to my desk at different times, each to confide that they, too, had flunked the exam on the first go-round, and not to worry. After that, I had to leave the firm temporarily to fulfill my Army Reserve active duty commitment, and found that Fort Polk, Louisiana was an ideal study environment. I took leave to go back and take the exam, and a month or so later got a phone call from my parents, who had received a telegram: "You passed bar exam. Congratulations, Taylor."

To be continued.

Update: Part 2 is here, and part 3 is here.

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