Can You Be a Millionaire and a Marxist?

John Poswall wonders if ’60s idealism died with seven-figure salaries 

Published in 2007 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2007

Some three decades removed from the University of California at Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law, Sacramento attorney John M. Poswall found himself questioning whether he and his classmates traded their radical ideals for large offices and seven-figure salaries.

“Every generation thinks they’re different—special,” he says. “It was important for us to challenge a lot of things we saw happening around us. We have an image of who we were and, occasionally, what bothers us is that we aren’t living up to that image. We’re questioning the fact that we’re now multimillionaires and it doesn’t feel right.”

So the 64-year-old personal injury attorney did what any industrious baby boomer would do: He wrote a novel. The Lawyers: Class of ’69 is self-published therapy—a 400-page tome that follows the lives of five fictional Boalt Hall graduates who struggle to balance careers with personal integrity and idealism.

The chapters rotate through each of the five main characters’ post-graduate lives, extolling triumphs and tragedies, all the while leading up to The Question, actually a series of questions, which are ultimately posed by one classmate in his speech at the 30th reunion: “Are we who we were, and were we ever? Did we make a goddamn bit of difference? Did we change the law? Society? Anything? Or were we changed?”

Poswall posed similar questions in a speech he gave at the real 25th reunion of the Boalt Hall class of 1969. Thus, the novel. The first run of 5,000 copies is near to sold out, and his second novel, in which a top attorney takes on the Catholic church in the case of two abused altar boys, was shopped around last spring to New York publishers and will likely be published in early 2008.

“Had I known what I was doing, I would have never done it,” Poswall says of his leap into fiction writing. “Not knowing what I was doing, I was immensely successful. I had all kinds of doors opened that no one should reasonably expect should happen if you tried to plan it,” including, he says, encouragement and advice from best-selling authors John Lescroart, Sheldon Siegel and John Martel.

Writing his first book was cathartic because of the subject. On the first page, Poswall quotes William Kunstler, the flamboyant and radical attorney who served as his role model: “What was it all for anyway, if I could not make a real difference?”

Poswall has managed to live up to his ideals, even while being successful enough to live on a 50-acre estate in the foothills outside Sacramento. He has defended conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War; successfully argued for the academic freedom of a lesbian professor at California State University, Sacramento; and has won multimillion-dollar awards against some of the biggest companies in America. “When David takes on Goliath,” The Sacramento Bee once stated, “he usually calls attorney John M. Poswall.” 

Poswall led the fight to close down Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in the late 1980s. The plant grounds are now a public park with a seven-mile nature trail that abuts Howard Ranch, which once belonged to the owner of the famous racehorse Seabiscuit.

Poswall says he’s confident that his generation did effect important change, civil rights and women’s liberation chief among them. “But the guilt is that idealism got put aside for wealth, or simply because we became busy doing other things.”

It appears that enough angst remains for a third novel.

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