As a young lawyer, Floyd Abrams didn't seek to specialize in media law, much less become the nation's preeminent First Amendment lawyer. The practice area didn't even exist when he joined Cahill Gordon & Reindel as an associate in 1963. But Abrams learned on the job, as media giants like NBC and The New York Times Company turned to his firm to defend their coverage of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. In 1971, shortly after making partner at Cahill, Abrams received a call from former Yale Law professor Alexander Bickel, asking him to help The New York Times fight an injunction against publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The resulting litigation lasted only 15 days—"but it changed my life," Abrams says.
The case also changed First Amendment law. Before the 1960s, federal courts rarely heard media law cases. But following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in favor of the Times in the Pentagon Papers case, there was an explosion of First Amendment litigation—and Abrams was at the forefront. Although he has spent his career litigating cases in several practice areas, including insurance, copyright, trademark, and antitrust law, Abrams is best known for his free-speech court cases. Past clients include ABC, CBS, CNN, Time, The Nation, Reader's Digest, and NPR. In 2003 he represented Senator Mitch McConnell in a challenge to federal election financing; in 2004 and 2005, Abrams defended Times reporters Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper in their efforts to protect their confidential sources after the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame was leaked.
Because of Abrams, far more lawyers are interested in media law, says Cahill partner and First Amendment lawyer Susan Buckley. She estimates that the media law bar, which was nonexistent when Abrams began arguing First Amendment cases in the sixties, has hundreds of members, many of whom Abrams mentored, often as associates at Cahill.
"The reason I went to Cahill Gordon was to work with Floyd," says McGraw-Hill Financial Inc. general counsel Kenneth Vittor, who was a Cahill associate from 1974 to 1980. "The first week I nervously went to his office and said I'd like to work with him and went out with a pile of papers. I've been working with him ever since."
In fact, Abrams, now 77, is currently defending McGraw-Hill's Standard & Poor's unit against a federal fraud suit over its securities ratings. Once again, clients want him on their side.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
What book has influenced you the most?
No one book, but John Tunis's sports books in elementary school, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and George Orwell's 1984 in high school, J.D. Salinger's writings in college, and scores of biographies and unquantifiable amounts of superb legal writing thereafter.
What is your greatest personal accomplishment?
The pleasure of working on great cases at a great law firm for 50 years while having a great and loving family, now including four delicious grandchildren.
What is your biggest professional accomplishment?
Persuading the public, legal and otherwise, that the First Amendment is not just a pretty-sounding aspiration, but binding law, and not just law, but the acceptance [by] us all that our nation must remain the most speech-protective one in the history of the world.
What would you have done differently or what is your biggest regret?
I can't think of anything.
Portrait photography by Michael J.N. Bowles.