The radically changing face of the legal world has seen megafirms develop, legal egos run rampant and money become an obsession. But some firms, says writer James B Stewart, just remain true to their ideals, such as his old stomping ground at Cravath Swaine & Moore.
When I crossed the threshold of Cravath, Swaine & Moore 36 years ago next month, fresh from the bar exam and Harvard Law School, I entered a new world and began what turned into a life-changing experience.
Cravath’s offices were at One Chase Manhattan Plaza, headquarters for the Rockefellers’ Chase Manhattan Bank and a magnet for prominent law firms. I was just a short elevator ride away from lunch with my friends at Davis Polk & Wardwell; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; and Willkie Farr & Gallagher. All of Cravath’s lawyers and support personnel fit into two floors — 57 and 58 — and everyone knew one another, except for a cadre dispatched to Armonk, N.Y., for an I.B.M. case and small offices in London and Paris. As a newcomer, I shared an office with a more senior associate, who got the coveted window seat.
Cravath did its best to keep the outside world at bay and minimize distractions. Among these was what other lawyers were being paid. I was told when I arrived that my salary would be $16,500 and it was Cravath policy to always pay the highest rate. While my friends at other firms were speculating avidly about whether, say, Sullivan & Cromwell would raise starting salaries and others would follow, at Cravath we knew that if they did, our firm would top them. We were all paid the same based on seniority, and bonuses were unheard-of, so there were no jealousies or resentments.
I never knew what partners made. I could only discern from the firm’s directory — the Park and Fifth Avenue addresses of their apartments and Long Island and Connecticut country homes, some with names like “Brook Farm” — that they didn’t have to worry much about it.
Considering that a cottage industry has since grown up around the notion of law as a business, there was surprisingly little talk of money, at least not with associates. One of my tasks was to organize the billing records for the senior partner I worked for. But all the client got was a simple statement, rendered in elegant script, “for professional services rendered,” followed by a large number. I once asked the partner if clients ever demanded a more detailed breakdown or questioned the sum. He paused as if that were a novel idea. “That’s not the kind of client we’d want to have,” he replied.
Even then Cravath lawyers worked long hours. In my book “The Partners,” I told the story of a young partner who billed 26 hours in a single day by flying to the West Coast, gaining three hours thanks to the time-zone change while working on the plane. But the firm also said it encouraged civic and philanthropic activities.
I played in a quintet that gave chamber music performances at retirement and nursing homes. One evening I was on the subway examining my music when a partner materialized at my side. He saw the score, seemed interested, and asked where I was going. Soon after, the partner I was working for called me to his office and shared an experience from his life. He’d grown up in New York and gone into the military. Boot camp had been a challenging but rewarding experience. The only time he’d been unhappy was after a weekend visit to the lights and diversions of Manhattan. By staying at camp, he had avoided those distractions, and came to enjoy the tough discipline of the Army.
I pondered that message. He never mentioned the quintet, but soon after that I dropped out.
After several years I felt it was time to consider my future. I had wonderful assignments and congenial and stimulating colleagues. Still, I could see the winnowing process firsthand. Of the 20 or so associates hired each year, one or two might be chosen to be a partner. Some years there were none. I waited each year with keen interest to see who was tapped for the equivalent of lifetime tenure. What did they have in common?