Nine top attorneys talk about practicing law from the 1950s to today
Published in 2016 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 20, 2016
Updated on March 11, 2016
Before the existence of no-fault divorce, the LSAT and even a UCLA law school building, young attorneys in Los Angeles in the 1950s had to figure out how to make their careers work.
Not that there weren’t plenty of opportunities: The military provided great legal training, Silicon Valley was just a glimmer in the eye of techies and businessmen, and “Sorrell Trope” might show up at a restaurant looking startlingly like Cary Grant. Some of it was less positive: Women and minorities were all but barred from practice; Jewish attorneys often had to start their own firms since white-shoe firms still looked down on them.
“The firms were much smaller, and the position of women in law firms was almost nonexistent,” recalls Leo Pircher of Pircher, Nichols & Meeks, who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law in 1957. “We had to overcome these early prejudices, and it took some time to get there.”
Super Lawyers Magazine spoke with nine top LA attorneys about the state of law between 1950 and 2015: on the record, about J.D.s, and not very hush-hush.
Lawyer schmawyer. Most parents, often immigrants, wanted their sons to grow up to be doctors, not attorneys.
Arthur Greenberg / Greenberg Glusker; Business Litigation; UCLA School of Law 1952: My parents came from the old country [Russia], and their goal [for me] was to be a doctor. I did not want to become a doctor. I was a high school and college debater, and I liked what I was doing. As a kid, I became a magician. It was a way to overcome a speech impediment. As a magician, you use your hands.
Bert Fields / Greenberg Glusker; Entertainment; Harvard Law School 1952: My father was a surgeon. He wanted me to be a surgeon. I took an aptitude test and it was off the charts—both ways: If I were a surgeon, I’d kill millions of people; but I would do pretty well as a lawyer.
In Stanford Law’s class of 1952, Sandra Day O’Connor was one of five women out of 102 students—and that was a better ratio than at most law schools. “You were automatically excluding half the population from a lot of well-respected colleges,” Marshall Rutter recalls.
Sorrell Trope / Trope and Trope; Family Law; University of Southern California Law School 1949: Did I take the LSAT? No. I started law school in 1946. There was no such animal.
Greenberg: It was a brand new law school at UCLA, and they did not have a law building until two years into the opening class. So for the first two years, the law school was three Army barracks. There were about four or five women in a class of about 50.
Marshall Rutter / Law Office of Marshall A. Rutter; Family Law; University of Pennsylvania Law School 1959: In my class at Penn Law School, there were three women out of 150. And there was one professor, Leo Levin, who was a really wonderful, smart, funny guy; [but] he did things you couldn’t possibly dream of doing today. There was one class that he taught, and by coincidence the women were sitting one on the left, one on the right and one in the middle of the room. He would ask some question that would call for a yes or no answer, and he would call: “What’s the answer, Portia Number One?” “What’s the answer, Portia Number Two?” “What’s the answer, Portia Number Three?” At the end, he would call out: “Greek chorus!” You don’t discriminate quite that way, or quite that openly, anymore.
Avram Salkin / Hochman, Salkin, Rettig, Toscher & Perez P.C.; Tax Law; University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law 1959: We had one African-American [student] that did not finish and one Asian that did. But he couldn’t get a job even though he was very well-qualified. So he made the mistake of going into real estate and now he’s done the best of anyone in our class.
After law school, the military got you; and if the military didn’t, prejudice might.
Robert Stone / Agnew Brusavich; Personal Injury; University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law 1954: On January 5, 1955, I raised my right hand and was sworn in as a lawyer. On January 6, 1955, I was on a train to Fort Ord for basic training. I ended up in the trial judge’s advocate office as an enlisted man, giving legal advice. I had a part-time job teaching at the local college.
Fields: I was hired to teach at Stanford Law School right out of Harvard Law School, but the Korean War was going on, and my draft board didn’t think teaching at Stanford was a really good excuse for not serving. So I got a commission in Air Force JAG and spent the next two years trying court martials. It was a great experience. It taught me a lot about cross-examination and how to argue before a jury. The court-martial panel was a lot like a jury, and I was doing one or two a day for two years. At one point, the base commander was going to court-martial me for the crime that he described as “overzealous defense of the guilty airman.” It was serious! I could picture myself in Leavenworth. Until the Eighth Air Force said, “You can’t do that.”
Trope: When I got out of law school, almost all the established law firms wouldn’t consider giving a young Jewish lawyer an interview. So that’s why a lot of people of my religious belief were induced to go out and open offices by themselves. There was perhaps one established law firm of any substance in the city that considered hiring a Jew. So I opened an office by myself on North La Cienega Boulevard and I practiced on my own for two or three years.
Rutter: O’Melveny & Myers did not interview at Penn, but another prominent Los Angeles firm did. The person who came said to me, “Marshall, I’d really like you to come and work in my law firm, and this year we have to hire a Jew, and you’re not Jewish, but I’d like to help you get a job at O’Melveny & Myers.” Just can’t even imagine anyone saying that—even, probably, thinking that—nowadays.
Greenberg: I may have been the first summer clerk in Southern California. I knocked on many doors and was offered a job by a large firm with about 30 lawyers at $125 a month. I was put in the library to do legal research. I also had the job to bring the senior partner his lunch every day.
Paul F. Marx / Rutan & Tucker; Tax Law; Harvard Law School 1956: I was going to stay in Boston, because I love Boston, but they were offering $50 more a month in downtown Los Angeles. Starting salary: $300 [a month] in Boston and starting salary at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where I wound up, was $350.
Leo Pircher / Pircher, Nichols & Meeks; Real Estate; University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law 1957: There were a very few large firms. In Los Angeles, the largest firm at the time had 40 lawyers. And they had no branch offices. Latham & Watkins was a tax boutique with 12 lawyers.
Then began the steady search for a practice area.
Salkin: We were tax lawyers. We handled any area that came along, whether it was federal or state, criminal or civil. Now there are people who specialize in corporations, partnerships, employee benefits, estate, gift and so on. We did all of it.
Stone: My first job out of the Army was working for a personal injury defense firm, where they were retained by various insurance companies to defend cases. Then I got over to what I call “the side of right and justice”: representing injured people.
Greenberg: I went to work for a two-person, general practice law firm. … I had no training and no experience and nobody gave me any help, other than an occasional book on trial practice. [So] to get trial experience, I went to PI lawyers to take cases that they had to try and did not want to try. That’s how I learned to try a lawsuit.
Pircher: I became involved in mergers and acquisitions. One of my major clients at the time was Fairchild Camera and Instrument, which had decided that there was a future in the technology industry. I was involved in a number of their acquisitions that became Silicon Valley. One of our first acquisitions was a group that formed Intel.
Fields: I didn’t really set out to be an entertainment lawyer. Coming out of JAG, having tried all those court martials, I kind of thought I was a hotshot trial lawyer. So I just offered to try any case that came along—criminal cases, divorce cases. Gradually, I met people who were young writers and young actors, and tried cases for them, and then they’d say, “Why don’t you look at my contract?” I started learning something about entertainment contracts, and one thing led to another. Those young writers and actors became famed writers and actors. And my practice grew.
In ’50s and ’60s LA, there were still “fault” divorces and plenty of movie stars begging for representation. Opportunities for a well-trained lawyer seemed endless. Big cases were just around the corner.
Stone: My first big case was a volunteer ski patrolman, and he died because the fellow who was operating the chairlift didn’t turn it off when he should’ve, and the guy got crushed to death. I represented his wife and kids.
Marx: My biggest tax case was my very first one, in 1963. The name of the case was Alderson v. Commissioner. The IRS was vigorously opposed. They considered a three-party exchange to be a loophole, something that the code didn’t contemplate and which shouldn’t be allowed. [But] it was tried in tax court, and I won, and it was affirmed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Greenberg: I tried an antitrust case where a famous motion picture was licensed for television. What the [television] producer did was to add to that list four or five more films, and then he did the allocation in favor of those films, in order to deny my client, the producer of the famous picture, his share of the license fee. That’s called “block booking”—a violation of antitrust laws. I tried that case and won it with treble damages.
Trope: Cary Grant was a client, and he and I became socially friendly. That lasted for about 16 years, until he died. There were occasions when he [would want to dine] outside of the city and he wanted to be incognito. And he’d make the reservation under the name “Sorrell Trope.” So when he showed up, it was “Sorrell Trope” but it was really Cary Grant.
Fields: [In the 1970s] the Beatles came to me because they wanted to stop a show that was performing all around the world called Beatlemania. It was one of the early applications of the right of publicity, and we were able to stop the show and get a very sizable award of damages. The point man was George Harrison. I spent a lot of time with George. I met the others just briefly; I’m not sure that I met Ringo. John was killed in the middle of the case.
Stan Jacobs / Jacobs & Jacobs; Personal Injury; University of Southern California Law School 1959: In 1984, I was trying a quadriplegic case involving a rollover of an SUV outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. In the back of the SUV was a 31-year-old schoolteacher. It was a knock-down drag-out fight. I wanted to make the point to a jury that even a courtroom isn’t equipped [to accommodate a person with disabilities]. Every day’s a handicap. I noticed when she came by [in her wheelchair] that the counsel tables were too close to the witness box and she had maybe two to three inches of clearance. I didn’t tell anybody, but I went behind the counsel table and gave it a little shove, about half a foot toward the jury box. I opened the gate, she came through and … bam! She hit the counsel table. The defense lawyer—he knew I set that up. I looked over where the judge couldn’t see—and the jury couldn’t see because my back was to them—and gave him the finger.
Fields: I had a client, [music mogul] David Geffen, who referred Michael Jackson to me, and that was the start of a very exciting adventure. The first project was negotiating a new record deal for him. Working on his  worldwide tour, I went with him to Holland, Russia, Romania. I liked Michael very much and I believed that he was totally innocent of what he was charged with. [In 1994, Jackson settled with a family over child-molestation accusations for a reported $20 million.] It was intense pressure, but over a number of years of trying cases, one gets used to intense pressure. I really didn’t want to see him settle, at least on those terms. But that’s all behind us now. His representatives did what they thought was the right thing.
The changes to the law were many and deep. It became as much business as profession. The onscreen representative switched from Atticus Finch to My Cousin Vinny. And then there were the lawyer jokes.
Marx: The jokes started in the ’80s. For a while, the conventional wisdom among lawyers was that you didn’t dignify them—certainly by not telling one, but not even listening to one without obvious distaste. We soon got over that.
Trope: The law is far more complex now. The monetary issues are basically the same but there are a lot more zeroes after the numbers.
Marx: The most obvious is rampant advertising. A less objectionable change is that clients don’t expect you to wear a suit.
Rutter: The obvious [change in divorce law] has been going from fault to no-fault. Before that, it was almost always women who were filing, saying, “He made me nervous and upset” and “I deserve more than half of the community property.” It was not a fair and honest system. It takes two to get married; it takes two to get divorced. There is seldom one who’s virtuous and one who is the villain.
Jacobs: You got the advertising. You got these guys that are inundating the airwaves. And what really opened it up was the Internet.
Trope: [Sometimes] I go to the courthouse and it seems like there are 500 reporters and camera people outside throwing questions at me when I walk by them. On occasion, this forces me to go through the basement entrance on the first floor.
Fields: The guys who were founders of the [movie] industry tended to be highly intelligent people, but they were rough, tough guys: Harry Cohn at Columbia, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Sam Goldwyn. I don’t think the Warner brothers were pushovers, by any means. Today, you have well-educated people, more rounded, just as tough, but in a much more refined way. It’s a lot easier to deal with people.
Rutter: We’ve all heard these stories about too many lawyers, and law-school admissions dropping off. But being a lawyer is an intellectual pursuit, and one where you have a lot of independence. It’s a little bit like politicians. People dislike politicians but they like their own city councilman.
Pircher: Lawyers have never been popular as individuals. People like to read about them because they think the business is exciting. But the problem with the law is there are frequently winners or losers. The clients that win think, “I should have won all along, so I don’t know why I had to spend all this money to prove it!” and the ones that lose say, “The lawyer’s incompetent!” It makes everybody unhappy.
Jacobs: It’s the only thing I’ve ever done extremely well. I had to push myself like crazy when I was a kid just to be a grunt in high school playing football. And I never heard the applause. As a trial lawyer, I’ve always heard the applause.