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The Dawn of the Mega Law Firm in NY

White Shoe:  How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century

By John Oller

Dutton Books, New York, 448 pages, $30

Throughout much of the 19th century, the practice of law in New York was virtually the exclusive province of men who organized themselves into small firms or as solo practitioners. By the end of the century, however, the need for a new type of law firm emerged as epic legal battles involving industrial titans, railroad barons, financial magnates, mining companies, trade unions, reformers and government regulators transformed America. This new book explores the origins of this transformation and the New York lawyers whose vision and industry led the country into a new age of regulated capitalism and international leadership.  As a snapshot in history, the book is useful in understanding the development of the profession as America emerged from the Gilded Age and took a prominent role on the world stage.

The writer, John Oller, is a former partner of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, who has authored the history of the firm and several other nonfiction books.  In this new work, he recounts the professional careers of leading members of the 1880-1950 New York bar and how they forever changed the legal profession.

As a historian, the author displays a masterful grasp of the public figures, politicians, business innovations, capital formation strategies, social conditions and legislative reforms that do the story justice. Impressively researched, the book contains 91 pages of detailed notes and a bibliography that includes the papers of several dozen leading lawyers and public officials from this epochal period.

According to the author, foremost amongst these legal luminaries was Paul Drennan Cravath, an 1886 Columbia Law School graduate who joined the firm of Blatchford, Seward & Griswold in 1899. Cravath’s roster of clients was impressive, including George Westinghouse, Thomas Fortune Ryan, Bethlehem Steel, the B&O Railroad, Chemical Bank, E.R. Squibb & Sons and Kuhn Loeb & Co. By 1901, his name was added to the firm’s moniker. By 1906, he was managing partner. The firm eventually became Cravath Swaine & Moore, which Cravath ran until his 1940 death.

As described by the author, Cravath was a large and domineering man who revolutionized the business principles and professionalism of the modern law firm.  With rare exception, Cravath hired only the top graduates from the elite law schools.  Associates were trained by and rotated periodically between top partners.  Associates were paid a salary and kept on so long as they were promotable.  Partners were generally only promoted from within and expected to work together.  All business was considered to be firm business. In the years to come, the “Cravath System” became so successful that it was widely emulated by other major law firms.

The book richly details many of the major cases of Cravath’s career, including Ryan’s 1905 takeover of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, Westinghouse’s two lengthy legal battles against Thomas Edison (the Light Bulb War and the War of the Electrical Currents), Kuhn Loeb’s innovative financing of the construction of railroad tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers, the ICC’s investigation of railroad baron E.H. Harriman and the defense of major antitrust cases involving the Union Pacific Railroad, New Haven Railroad,and International Harvester.

During World War I and its aftermath, Cravath was an outspoken leader of the Atlanticist movement that promoted Anglophile internationalism.  No isolationist, he advocated American intervention in the war against Germany and served as one of the founding officers of the Council on Foreign Relations.  Like other leading New York lawyers, Cravath was also active in charitable and social causes, including serving as “a dogged advocate of better tenement housing” and as president of the Metropolitan Opera.

Another major figure featured in the book is William Nelson Cromwell.  A Brooklyn native, Cromwell was originally employed as an accountant by attorney Algernon Sydney Sullivan, who financed his Columbia Law School education.  In 1879, he was elevated to partner at Sullivan & Cromwell.  By 1906, he had become perhaps the wealthiest lawyer in America, testifying before Congress that his net worth exceeded $100 million.

One of the best parts of the book chronicles Cromwell’s exhaustive lobbying to convince Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt to build a canal across Panama, rather than Nicaragua.  Originally retained in 1898 by the French Canal Syndicate, Cromwell’s relentless maneuverings for “my canal” eventually resulted in the Panamanian Revolution, ratification of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, the construction of the canal and the securing of U.S. rights in the canal zone.  According to the author, Cromwell’s Panama Canal efforts made him “the most talked about lawyer in America.”

Another strong section of the book focuses on the New Haven Railroad scandal, a “seminal event in the history of the Progressive Era.”  Despite Cromwell’s spirited defense of the railroad directors in the ICC’s investigation of the transportation behemoth, Boston lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis was “vindicated” in his “warnings against interlocking directorates, banker control of industrial corporations, financial recklessness, and corporate bigness itself.”

In addition to Cravath and Cromwell, the book also focuses on several leading New York lawyers of the 1880-1950 era who made their mark both as commercial lawyers and as senior public officials.  These include Elihu Root (U.S. Senator, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State); Henry Stimson (U.S. Attorney, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State); Samuel Untermyer (counsel to the U.S. House’s Pujo Committee that investigated the Money Trust); George Wickersham (U.S. Attorney General); Charles Evans Hughes (New York Governor; U.S. Secretary of State, and Associate Justice and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court); and John Foster Dulles (U.S. Senator and Secretary of State).

As recognized by the author, these leading members of the New York bar were all white males who perpetuated the reality that the practice of commercial law constituted a men’s club.  But they grew and transformed a profession in New York which, a generation after they had passed from the scene, began attracting a critical mass of law students from the rest of the American talent pool.   Today, the rest of the talent pool is making inroads that none of the lawyers featured in this book would have ever foreseen.  As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once observed, one must look back to understand properly what is happening today or what will happen tomorrow.  This book promotes such understanding.

Jeffrey M. Winn is a management liability attorney with the Chubb Group, a global insurer, and the secretary to and a member of the executive committee of the New York City Bar Association.