The Lawyer's Lawyer
Peter Baird is a legend in the Phoenix legal community—just don’t tell him that
Published in 2007 Southwest Super Lawyers magazine
on June 15, 2007
Updated on February 17, 2016
As a senior partner at Lewis and Roca, one of the Southwest’s leading business law firms, Peter D. Baird certainly has an enviable gig. His corner office on the 20th floor of Two Renaissance Square tower affords a breathtaking view of the city where he’s lived and worked, for the same firm, for 40 years. He can casually wave at a photo of himself with Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a former Lewis and Roca partner, and say, “There’s me with my friend, Janet.” But you won’t find much other evidence of Baird’s influence in this office, despite his work on landmark cases such as Miranda v. Arizona and the litigation following the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Instead, Baird’s desk looks out on a big poster of Doug Henning and other stars from the world of magic—a consuming hobby for Baird, who has performed as a mentalist at cancer charity events over the years; some music memorabilia—the Stanford Law graduate also jams as a clarinetist in the Phoenix College Community Concert Band; and many framed photos of his three grown children and grandchildren.
And while the 65-year-old lawyer, whose principal cases today involve defending other lawyers, admits he has had a “good run” in the law, he’s quick to point out that there’s more to life than career.
“If you let this job consume you, you become a monosyllabic, narrow, blind workaholic,” Baird says, sitting down to a brown-bag lunch fetched from the downstairs deli (soup, sandwich, and chips, “hold the cookie”).
“Most people assume that the greatest lawyers are the ones that work 24 hours a day and sleep in their offices,” Baird says. “But when I was that way, I was vastly inferior as a lawyer than when I was also thinking about music and magic and literature.”
Yup, literature. Baird’s latest, and most cathartic, project has been the completion of his first novel, Beyond Peleliu, a story loosely based on his own experience of dealing with a violent father who served in the battlefields of World War II. Critics have hailed the tome as a gripping look at the dark side of the “Greatest Generation,” as well as a cautionary message about the personal costs of chasing power and success, as the litigator son in the story does to compensate for having an absentee father.
“Peter’s really the Renaissance man of the Phoenix legal community,” says José Cárdenas, a 30-year partner in the firm and longtime friend. “For Peter, it’s never been just the law. He’s about the whole person. And that’s why, in many respects, he’s the heart and soul of Lewis and Roca.”
Baird puts it another way: “If you make me out to be some super-duper lawyer who never screws up, I’ll kill ya,” he says between hurried bites of potato chips. “Or, I’ll sue ya—how’s that?”
Baird has little interest in promoting the well-polished image of the ace lawyer, one he feels has already been played out in decades of TV lawyer dramas he refuses to watch. “I haven’t watched any of ’em since Ironside,” he grumbles. He’d rather deflate the puffed-up image projected by some in the media—mostly by amplifying his own faults and foibles.
Beyond Peleliu’s central character is a lawyer “afflicted by his father’s needs for perfection,” he says. “To always win, and to use every weapon at his disposal to achieve that—including browbeating and taking advantage of moral ambiguities. He becomes an enormously successful lawyer, but also a crappy father and a crappy husband.”
And while he insists roughly 80 percent of the story is fiction, the twice-married Baird is quick to admit that he has long suffered from clinical depression and that he inherited some of the “demons of war” from his late father—who, like the father in the novel, was a WWII army surgeon who returned home “with a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder, which caused the violence, alcoholism and womanizing.”
Baird has stents in his heart to combat recurring artery blockage, a hand that shakes a little as he slurps his soup and a rare ability to admit when he has messed up. His essay in the winter 2005 issue of Litigation, of which Baird is a senior editor, bore the brave title “My Stupid Mistakes.”
“One thing I learned from creating characters for the book is that nobody’s ever 100 percent virtuous or villainous,” he says. “We’re all flawed. We’re all a mixture of what makes us human. And that goes for lawyers, too.”
“He shares things about himself that some of us would be reluctant to share,” Cárdenas says. “But that’s just Peter. I think most people who are in the business of providing guidance to others—which is a lot of what lawyers do, after all—are reluctant to indicate their weaknesses. Peter’s bigger than that.”
Paul Eckstein, a partner at Perkins Coie in Phoenix who has called on Baird to represent his law firm as co-counsel or act as a mediator in a number of cases, says Baird’s openness comes from a confidence in his abilities.
“He wants his work to stand on its own, and it does,” Eckstein says. “That’s why other lawyers use him. His judgment is superb, and his writing ability definitely sets him apart in court. He knows how to convey information persuasively. Most lawyers think they can do that, but Peter really shows how it’s done.”
While his bio reveals involvement in some high-profile cases, Baird insists they were all team efforts. “I was the lowest member of the team on the Miranda case, and I came in right after the decision,” he says of his first milestone. “The thing about my ‘triumphs’ is, not a single one of them was single-handedly done by me.”
It’s the personal stamp he leaves on his cases—no matter how big or how small—that has made him so respected among fellow lawyers.
“The best way to describe him,” says client Mary Gerdts, the president of POST Integrations, an independent credit card processor for the hospitality industry, “is his fingerprints are on everything. He’s very hands-on, and he’s all about quality.”
Client Bill Maledon, co-founder of Osborn Maledon and one of Arizona’s leading trial attorneys, first met Baird as an opponent in court. Maledon thinks Baird’s humble, self-deprecating style may be his secret weapon.
“Peter has the kind of personality where he gets along with people very easily,” he says. “But when he stands up in court, he’s highly professional and well-prepared. He figures out what the important issues are. And when he analyzes what can’t be resolved out of court, you know you’re in for a fight.”
When Baird does pat himself on the back, it’s for his pro bono work. He represented his first wife, Sara, when in 1970 she refused to sign the Arizona State Bar’s loyalty oath, a remnant of the McCarthy era still in use at that time. In the ’80s, he took on the federal government after it sent spies and recording devices into services at a Scottsdale Protestant church involved in the Sanctuary Movement, a controversial group that sheltered Central American refugees from INS authorities.
“Some of the cases I took on infuriated my partners,” Baird says. “My wife’s case was not happily received, because it involved communism. Nor was the Sanctuary Movement case. I also represented the Hare Krishnas in city court, and I represented all sorts of anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War. And I’m proud of that.”
These days, Baird tends to pass on the more controversial cases, primarily to placate his wife and his cardiologist, who’ve talked him into lightening his load. “Although if people were getting thrown in jail because of opposition to Iraq,” he says, “I’d be there to help them out.”
It’s more likely now that his partners would back him up. Handling pro bono matters has become Lewis and Roca’s point of pride—something José Cárdenas ties directly to Baird.
“Peter’s one of those lawyers who still thinks of law as a noble profession,” says Cárdenas. “So you do a lot of things because it’s the right thing to do, and you don’t necessarily crow about them.”
Today, most of Baird’s billable hours are spent representing younger lawyers whose guts and idealism mirror his own. In the process, he inspires many of them.
“Quite frankly, he restored my faith in attorneys,” says Gerdts. “He doesn’t come cheap, but he’s a very honest gentleman. And that is rare.”