Feisty Law Magazine Prods the Big Firms the American Lawyer Challenges Legal Professionals on Competence and Ethics; Celebrates the `Rule of Law' in America

Article excerpt

LEGIONS of attorneys from New York to Los Angeles must have grumbled to themselves, over the last 15 years, "If only Steven Brill had become a lawyer."

But the Yale Law School graduate says he "never thought about {practicing law} for a minute." In an interview in his midtown-Manhattan office, Mr. Brill recalls that, during his last year in law school in the mid-1970s, the career-guidance director told him that "I was the only student in the last several years who had never shown up in the placement office. I didn't even know where it was."

Instead, Brill became a journalist who revolutionized the way the press covers the legal profession - often to the chagrin of the lawyers and judges whose competence, ethics, and gaffes - as well as their triumphs - he has probed with the zeal of a born investigative reporter and editor.

Fifteen years ago, after covering legal affairs for New York magazine and Esquire and writing a book about the Teamsters Union, Brill - just 28 - launched The American Lawyer. The monthly journal kicked open the doors of a secretive world, the giant law firms that serve blue-chip corporations.

Before The American Lawyer appeared in 1979, legal journalism focused primarily on law, not on lawyers. Trade papers offered summaries of legislation and key judicial decisions, leavened by kid-glove profiles of prominent attorneys and judges. There was little critical analysis of lawyers' performance and still less coverage of the legal profession as a business.

The dawn of a new era broke with the cover story in The American Lawyer's first issue: Brill's report that the New York law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom was the "top moneymaker" in 1978, with average partner earnings exceeding $350,000. Such a disclosure was virtually unprecedented in legal journalism, as were other stories that first year like the report on five prominent New York law firms "on the way down" and an expose of defense lawyers' delaying tactics in litigation over the safety of the Ford Pinto.

ARTICLES that open the books of large law firms and behind-the-scenes critiques of the lawyering in headline-grabbing cases have remained staples in the magazine.

The journal's narrow circulation to about 16,000 subscribers - mainly big-firm lawyers, as well as prosecutors and judges - belies its influence within one of the richest and most powerful constituencies in the United States.

In the early years, The American Lawyer was angrily denounced by many lawyers as an impertinent scandal sheet, but the criticism has declined.

The American Lawyer's influence on legal journalism ripples far. For one thing, numerous Brill-trained sleuths have scattered to other publications. …

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