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Bob Steed, the best-known of Atlanta’s scant fistful of funny lawyers, isn’t writing much humor these days. Even the protracted wrangling over whether it’ll be Bush or Gore who wins the right to prop his wingtips on the Oval Office desk hasn’t prompted Steed to pick up a pen long enough to call a chad a chad. Since the late 1970s, Steed, a public finance partner at King & Spalding, has prodded any number of sacred and profane cows, including colleagues, clients, televangelism, deer hunting, Alabama and feminists, in numerous columns in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times’ regional newspapers. His columns and other literary witticisms have been compiled into six books. But his last column for the Journal-Constitution was months ago, a pre-election riff on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the New York Senate. His last book, “A Ship Without An Udder,” was published in 1995. He says he has no plans, at the moment, for more columns or their progeny, books. And after more than four decades of humor writing — beginning in his salad days with his high school newspaper and progressing to his alma mater, Mercer University’s weekly rag, and the Younger Lawyers Section newsletter — he says he has no regrets. The reason for this raconteur’s respite? “My wife says I’ve gotten old and mellow,” he says. But his mellowing hasn’t muted the muse entirely. He’s still got an agent. He’s still active in speaking to bar and other professional groups. He’s still traveling to New Zealand, South Dakota, Bermuda and other locales to share his wit — although he says he tries to limit out-of-town junkets “since I’m still selling my life in six-minute increments.” And that’s part of what makes Steed special. Over the years, he’s been one of the only lawyers in town who’ll admit to using at least a few of his six-minute segments for public mockery of partners, colleagues and even clients. Back in the mid-1980s, when Coca-Cola Co. responded to America’s snit over New Coke by re-releasing the original formula of fizz and flavor as Coca-Cola Classic, Steed aimed his punditry at one of his firm’s major clients. As Steed tells it, he was lunching at Coke headquarters and learned that the powers-that-be planned to announce the resurrection of old Coke that afternoon. So he stuck around to watch the fun. The result was a column in the Journal-Constitution. In it, Steed compared then-Chairman Roberto Goizueta’s accent to that of “Jose Jiminez after four years at Yale.” He called the Coke powerbrokers’ script “something straight out of a 1930s Frank Capra movie — Big Corporation makes big decision, little people all over America voice their displeasure, Big Corporation sees light (fade to swelling strains of ‘America the Beautiful’ while camera pans up and away from Jimmy Stewart, the weary but now victorious spokesman for the Little Man.)” And he oh-so-delicately translated what one Coke spokesman referred to as the public’s “withdrawal of enthusiasm” for New Coke as “Coke-itus Interruptus.” Steed acknowledges calling Goizueta before the column ran and reading it to him to head off any unpleasant shocks or, shall we say, clientus-interruptus. His humor’s geographic swath also has cut a bit close to clients. A native of Bowden, which is near the Alabama border, he’s not too polite to pillory this neighboring state. He’s said that “People in Alabama think ‘Hee Haw’ is a documentary,” that the state bird is Conway Twitty, and that signs of progress in Alabama include “significant declines in the sale of polyester garments, fewer truck-tire-lined driveways and a shrinking number of tree trunks painted white.” So what’s the problem? “Well,” he says, “we have clients in Alabama.” And he admits to injecting his work as a public finance lawyer with a little sly literary levity. “I used to put things in force majeure clauses, which nobody ever reads,” he says. Standard language in force majeure clauses, designed to protect the parties from unavoidable acts beyond their control, generally mentions acts of God, insurrections and civil disorder. Steed says he’s slipped in language on boll weevil infestations, icebergs and psoriasis. To the best of his knowledge, he says, no one’s ever noticed. King & Spalding, according to Steed, has been indulgent and supportive of his humor. Senior partner Griffin B. Bell has even written endorsements on the backs of Steed’s books. “Judge Bell’s mantra is every time I write a column, we lose a client,” he says. Though Steed insists that his wit has never cost the firm business, he hasn’t been too timid to lampoon Bell, a former U.S. attorney general and 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge who is among Atlanta’s legal holiest of holies. For Bell’s 75th birthday celebration, Steed commissioned MAD magazine artist Jack Davis to caricature the venerable judge as Superman. In Davis’ cartoon, a buff Bell in tights and cape stands atop the 191 Peachtree building, his toes curled over the twin towers. It’s all in good fun, says Steed, who launched what he has referred to as a career as “half lawyer, half wit” back in the 1960s by doing “character assassinations” in the form of biographies of other lawyers for the Younger Lawyers Section newsletter. Then, as now, his humor also accomplishes something he considers important: poking fun at people who take themselves too seriously. And it is especially necessary among lawyers, he says, because “with the generally perceived decline in civility, there has been a decline in humor.” So although he’s not transcribing his funny bone on paper as often as he once did, Steed says he still plans to regale bar groups and the like with his verbal wit. And, he insists, there are plenty of other comic lawyers out there, even at his own firm. How many? “A lot,” says Steed, “but it’s unwitting, I’m afraid.”

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