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It’s impossible to look at Washington, D.C.’s legal history without coming upon the name of Thurman Arnold, the New Deal-era antitrust czar and founder of one of the city’s most prominent law firms, Arnold & Porter. In the first biography of Arnold, Spencer Weber Waller, a Loyola University Chicago law professor, sets out to tell the story of this “decathlon champion of American law.” Waller’s account is meticulous. (He is, after all, a lawyer by training.) Yet the book’s narrative is sometimes as dull as the title suggests — Thurman Arnold: A Biography. Waller, a novice historian, can be forgiven for his prose, but it is clear he lacks the wit that Arnold was known for. Still, it is hard not to be at least a bit captured — as Waller clearly is — by the magnitude of Arnold’s influence on the modern legal landscape. His vast career put him front and center at some of the most significant changes in the legal profession in decades: the rise and downfall of the legal realism movement, the New Deal, McCarthyism, and the ascent of the modern law firm. But if Arnold embodied some of the more mainstream developments of the legal world, his career took a more circuitous path. Graduating from Harvard Law School in 1914, Arnold took his first foray into legal practice at a tiny Chicago firm. He didn’t last long in the Windy City and soon returned to his native Laramie, Wyo., where he became mayor. This small, former frontier town left a lasting impression on Arnold’s perception of the law. As Wyoming faced economic depression in the 1920s, many of Laramie’s small businesses were being bought up by larger companies. For lawyers, it meant the legal work went to bigger firms in bigger cities, a process Arnold later called “plain murder.” (Of course, Waller never seems to square some of Arnold’s expressed beliefs with his later actions, such as representing major corporations like Coca-Cola in private practice.) Arnold’s life might have been lost to history, but he was offered a position as dean of the West Virginia University College of Law. Arnold blossomed in academia, so much so that he was wooed away in only a few years to a professorship at Yale Law School. In 1938, Arnold’s career took another turn: President Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped Arnold to head the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. There, Arnold laid the groundwork for modern prosecutions, racking up a tally of cases in his five years that was nearly as long as that of the previous 50 years. Arnold’s brash enforcement also proved to be his undoing, at least temporarily. As America headed into World War II, Arnold’s attempts to prosecute companies profiting off the war were blocked time and again in the name of national security. To save face, Roosevelt offered him a consolation prize in the form of a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. More of an action man than a thinker, Arnold left the bench after two years to found his own law firm. What grabs Waller is how Arnold was “able to laugh at the establishment and still be part of it,” as one of Arnold’s former colleagues put it. For someone whose name was synonymous with the power elite, Arnold was, at times, as equally critical — even irreverent — about the limitations and contradictions of that system. Perhaps the most obvious example of this approach was Arnold’s representation of dozens of people accused of being Communists during the post-war “Red Scare.” The fledgling law firm Arnold, Fortas & Porter became the go-to shop for the accused, winning some cases and settling others. Arnold clearly felt the accusations were a deep injustice. In 1948, he wrote a satire for Harper’s Magazine called “How Not to Get Investigated: Ten Commandments for Government Employees.” The first item: avoid most social gatherings. Although Arnold’s firm lost millions in billable time, the loyalty cases set the standard for law firms’ growing commitment to work not just for big business but for the underdog as well. Arnold, however, had his limitations when it came to embracing liberalism. Toward the end of his life, for instance, he voiced staunch disapproval of Vietnam War protests. “In a democratic society dissent is not sacred. Only the right to dissent is sacred,” Arnold told a crowd in a 1967 speech at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Arnold’s transformation from a board member of The Nation magazine to war hawk is one Waller is never fully able to explain. “Whatever contradictions one finds in a commitment to liberal values, pro bono work, and the representation of both the underdog and the business elite, these are the contradictions embodied in Arnold himself, his firm, and his profession.” One must wonder, then, how true Waller’s initial observation is that Arnold was “far different from the modern button-down legal world.”
Emma Schwartz can be reached at [email protected].

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