Son of the Magyar Hercules
Allen Ruby's early training in the ring (and we're not talking Wagner here) prepared him for the fight
Published in 2008 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on June 15, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Sure, Allen Ruby’s father was a hulking professional wrestler from Transylvania nicknamed “The Magyar Hercules.” And yes, his mother founded, composed and edited a wrestling magazine from the kitchen table. And it’s true that Ruby became a professional wrestler to put himself through law school after stints as a carnival barker, ring announcer and wrestling talk show host. But toss out the “midget wrestlers” who were frequent dinner guests and the snowstorms he drove through seated next to wrestling legends like Antonio Rocca, and what do you have? Just your standard lawyer who twice successfully defended the NFL against the Oakland Raiders, helped clear the mayor of San José of bribery charges and is currently representing Barry Bonds.
Given those megawatt clients, it’s a little surprising to walk into the downtown San José Law Offices of Allen Ruby and discover that, assorted associates and secretaries aside, the number of full-time attorneys in the firm numbers exactly one, Glen Schofield having recently semiretired.
That one, of course, is Ruby, 63, who at 6 feet 3 inches and a little above his 230-pound “fighting weight,” has an imposing presence, somewhat offset by his informality, deep mellifluous voice and easy laugh.
Ruby is a large man housed in a small firm, but it hasn’t affected his ability to attract big clients. He told one potential large institutional client that the firm numbered four attorneys. After an hour, the man said to him, “You seem like a great guy, but this is very demanding litigation and the other side has very accomplished lawyers. Do you think you have the necessary resources to try this case since you only have 40 lawyers?” Ruby laughs, “I told him, ‘It’s even worse than you think.'” Nonetheless, he was hired, and won the case.
Ruby says that he never cared to have a large firm because he’s never been an enthusiastic administrator.
Then there’s the matter of the company Web site, which consists of only one page listing contact information, with no links, list of clients, bios, or anything, really. When asked why it’s so sparse, Ruby says, “We have a Web site?” He swears he’s never seen it, and it’s obvious he’s not kidding: the site even misspelled his name “Alan.” (That has since been corrected.)
Ruby hails from Detroit. His father, Bert, immigrated to Toronto, Ontario, from Transylvania during the height of the Great Depression. Bert’s wrestling career began by breaking up a fight. While out one day with a bunch of “tough guys,” two of them got into a brawl, and Bert intervened. Among the onlookers was a fight promoter, who asked him if he wanted to be a boxer. Bert declined, but it opened the door to wrestling. “It was the depths of the Depression. No one knew what they were going to do for money, week to week. My father trained, and he had an aptitude for it.” In the early ’30s, he moved to the U.S. to pursue his new vocation.
“Back then it was a very good-paying job, and there were no barriers to entry,” Ruby notes. The “Magyar Hercules” nickname derived from Bert coming from a Hungarian town in Transylvania, and the Magyars being a people who in the distant past had conquered Hungary.
Meanwhile, Bert’s wife, Irene, who was born in Detroit but lived in a Hungarian enclave so insulated that she didn’t speak English until she started school, created Wrestling News, a regional publication that she wrote, edited and pasted up on the family’s kitchen table.
Soon Bert branched out, becoming a booking agent for the wildly popular “midget wrestlers” who often hung around the house. “They were really dwarfs, with great upper-body strength,” Ruby says.
Back in those days the wrestlers would all pile into one car to get to their gigs. Among the “giants” Ruby met were Rocca, Killer Kowalski (whom Bert also trained) and Gorgeous George.
Ruby describes them as very congenial. “This was an era when even superstars in sports took jobs during the off-season. I think athletes felt closer to everyone else than they do now,” he says.
Ruby rode with his father and brother Rob to various county fairs, where “instead of the tractor pull, that night’s attraction was wrestling.” To hustle people into the tent, he became a de facto carnival barker—grabbing the microphone and urging strollers on the midway to “step right up.” Later Ruby became a ring announcer for the matches. By the time he started college at Michigan State University, the family was producing TV wrestling shows named Motor City Wrestling and Championship Wrestling, which featured Ruby providing play-by-play and interviewing wrestlers about upcoming matches.
“It was a family business,” Ruby says. “Only the business happened to be wrestling.”
Several years ago Ruby and a few dozen relatives visited his father’s Transylvania village and were greeted by the mayor and town dignitaries. They showed them a copy of a local newspaper from the ’30s spotlighting Bert’s wrestling career, which noted that “The Magyar Hercules” was undefeated. “They took journalistic license,” Ruby grins.
Inevitably, he began wrestling, primarily on weekends during the school year, and more frequently during summer breaks. While he traveled the circuit and fought many opponents, his “archnemesis” was Gary Hart, a man he estimates he wrestled close to 100 times. To keep it interesting, the duo engaged in all sorts of variations, including the Texas Death Match (in which they were bound together by a 10- to 15-foot leather strap), tag teams, Battle Royales (eight to 12 wrestlers in a “last man standing” contest) and the like. His professional career lasted “two years and a summer.” Although he’s since been to numerous sporting events, including the Super Bowl, Ruby maintains that—partly as a result of occasionally dodging flying bottles and chairs from the stands—”Wrestling fans are the most intense, the most into-the-moment I’ve ever seen.”
After graduating from Stanford Law School in 1969 (where he met his wife, Cindy, then an undergraduate), Ruby briefly returned to Michigan before coming back to the Bay Area to open a law firm with four other Stanford classmates. They opened two offices—one in Palo Alto and another in San José. Befitting someone who “didn’t even know what a lawyer did, really,” Ruby took whatever cases came through the door, which were mainly divorce, criminal, personal injury and lots of court-appointed appeals. Even today he considers himself a generalist, with a “courtroom practice.”
Business didn’t boom immediately. “I spent many, many years trying to recapture the standard of living I enjoyed as a wrestler,” he says.
Those wrestling days did more than pay for his tuition. Barking up crowds on the midway taught him to project and command attention. And from his time on the mat, “I learned that when you get knocked down, you get up and keep going.”
Eventually the big clients came. Ruby twice successfully defended the National Football League from lawsuits filed by the Oakland Raiders. One case involved a host of issues, among them licensing, merchandising and trademarks, that was dismissed on summary judgment. Another, filed in Los Angeles after the Raiders had come and gone from the city, revolved around whether that team retained proprietary rights to an NFL franchise there. That case resulted in a jury verdict favorable to the NFL.
His other notable cases include being on a team of attorneys who represented Microsoft in a copyright infringement case brought by Sun Microsystems (Microsoft settled); successfully defending Bank of America against allegations brought by KCM that the bank illegally appropriated the latter’s trade secret technology and stole its source code; and a case involving a lone whistleblower against the U.S. government and giant defense manufacturer FMC Corp. that lasted 15 years.
Henry Boisvert, an FMC test analyst, determined that the U.S. Army’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle, designed to be an all-terrain vehicle that would transport troops through water, leaked. In 1986, when FMC disregarded his findings, Boisvert filed suit under the False Claims Act (the federal whistleblower statute) on behalf of the United States, whom he discovered, wanted nothing to do with the suit.
“The government had the option to join the case, but instead, they tried to defeat and frustrate our case,” says Ruby, who was involved in the final five years of the odyssey. “We had an expert witness at a military academy who claimed that the military had defective products, but we needed the permission of the military to testify, permission that was denied.
“There are very few cases of this kind that succeed where the U.S. doesn’t join in,” he says.
When the case went to trial, some time after the first Gulf War, the defense brought in a recently retired major general who testified how splendidly the vehicles performed during Operation Desert Storm. “We said that that wasn’t the issue,” he says. “They were designed to work in western Europe, not in the desert—and they couldn’t function in that European environment.”
After some 15 years, 100 motions, 1,000 boxes of supporting material and a several-months-long trial, a jury deliberated 25 days and returned a verdict resulting in a $300 million judgment in Boisvert’s favor. Following various appeals, the final settlement figure was reportedly $80 million. Asked why Boisvert persevered for so long in the face of such overwhelming opposition, Ruby says simply, “I believe he was an idealist.”
Ruby is very unassuming about his career. Asked how he came to the attention of the NFL or Microsoft or Barry Bonds, he shrugs. “They called me.” He’s equally circumspect about his foes in the courtroom, invariably describing the other side as “formidable opponents,” and the case as “hard fought.” The one notable exception might be the case of San José Mayor Ron Gonzales.
In 2006, while still in office, Gonzales was indicted on bribery charges. The charges stemmed from promises Gonzales supposedly made during a dispute over which union, the Longshoremen’s or Teamsters, would represent certain workers at the city’s new recycling facility. Refusing to resign, Gonzales finished out his term. After he left office, the case was thrown out the first time the charges were examined in court.
“For someone in public life, bribery is the ugliest charge there is,” Ruby says. “But even the other side conceded that he never got a penny. In the history of American law, every time there’s a bribery charge, in the same indictment there’s tax fraud, because you obviously don’t report that income. In this case, there was no indictment for tax fraud—they didn’t even subpoena his bank records. It was an outrage.”
For the past few months, Ruby has been representing Barry Bonds, indicted on four perjury counts and one count of obstruction of justice stemming from testimony he gave to a Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) grand jury.
Perhaps because of his days on “the circuit,” Ruby says he wouldn’t characterize the melee around Bonds as “a circus atmosphere.” In fact, he calls most of the press “dignified and attentive in all the ways the press ought to be.” At one press briefing, Ruby actually told reporters, “It was wonderful that there were so many media eyes on this case.”
“They thought I was kidding,” he says, “but I wasn’t. Public scrutiny of the court system is a good thing. They asked a lot of really good, hard questions.” Ruby, however, remains closed-mouthed about his client. “I said there were a lot of good questions. I didn’t say I gave them any good answers.”
It’s a little unusual that after growing up in a business noted for outrageous theatrics, and currently in a profession in which it’s hardly unknown, Ruby dismisses the importance of showmanship in the courtroom. “Cases are decided by the facts,” he says. “Throughout our history, lawyers have tried to figure out how to play a jury. If you’re a juror, you might like me, you might not like me, but at the end of the day, what’re you going to do—you’re going to decide on the facts. Lawyers are important for being clear and logical and communicating the facts in a persuasive way, but it’s not about us.”
An attorney who downplays his own importance and praises the media?
Ruby never did learn how a lawyer is supposed to act.