Steve Brill didn’t invent The Connecticut Law Tribune, but he took it to great heights. The Yale Law-educated founder of The American Lawyer magazine bought the Trib in the late 1980s, as part of his vision to cover law the way Forbes and The Wall Street Journal covered corporate America. Unfortunately, as in the world of business, money turned out to be the easiest metric for measuring accomplishment.
The Trib was Brill’s first (and smallest) newspaper purchase. He added a score of weekly legal papers in Texas, California and along the East Coast.
His ambition, drive and iconoclasm seemed inexhaustible, and many of his ideas flourished. One of the first things he did with the Connecticut paper was appoint an outside editorial board of some two dozen well-known lawyers, writers and scholars. The paper benefited.
Brill went on to create Court TV, and the internet’s Counsel Connect to round out his multimedia stable, which was later broken up by subsequent investor-owners.
Today Brill continues to shine as an investigative writer and social critic. Earlier this year Time magazine’s cover featured his think piece: “How My Generation Broke America.”
He uses his own Horatio Alger biography as Exhibit A, telling about growing up in the working-class Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, and reading a JFK biography as a young teen. What is a “prep school” he wondered.
“I ended up at Deerfield Academy, in Western Massachusetts, where the headmaster, Frank Boyden, told my worried parents, who ran a perpetually struggling liquor store, that his financial-aid policy was that they should send him a check every year for whatever they could afford.”
Brill explained that he was benefiting from a new focus on ability, talent and drive. A few institutions’ admissions policies—formal and informal—were warming to students who weren’t from the traditional WASPish in-crowd.
As a college candidate in 1967, Brill interviewed with the Yale admissions dean, R. Inslee Clark Jr., who was impressed.
Was Yale Brill’s first choice? “When I said yes, Clark’s reply was instant: ‘Then I can promise you that you are in. I will tell Mr. Boyden that you don’t have to apply anywhere else. Just kind of keep it to yourself.”
Brill became one of “Inky” Clark’s recruits who “were part of a meritocracy infusion that flourished at Yale” and other top schools, law firms and investment banks in the mid-1960s and 1970s.
This new aristocracy of knowledge-workers was smarter and more ambitious than the old-boy “network of heirs born on third base—and much more able to enrich and protect the clients who could afford them.” This was the sharp leading edge of the generation that “broke” America.
Brill’s brilliant baby boomers came up with bold new ways for the protected class to grow even richer even faster, with powerful inventions in law, finance and public policy.
Along the way, cherished American virtues and values were morphed and massaged to the point where the rich few advanced at the expense of everyone else. It took time.
The 1976 consumer protection landmark case known as Virginia Board of Pharmacy was a pro-consumer victory for Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen Litigation Group, lifting a state prohibition on drug price advertising.
But an unintended consequence was that it became a new stepping stone for corporate free speech, paving the way to the 2010 travesty, Citizens United, which gives corporations nearly unlimited power to spend on influencing elections.
On Wall Street, the brainy bunch invented credit default swaps and figured out how, as Brill puts it, “to insulate those taking the risk from those who would bear the consequences.”
So, after the 2007 Great Recession crashed the economy, not one bank CEO faced serious threats of punishment. Prosecutors ultimately concluded that investment corporations were too complex for any one individual to be held personally responsible.
So, thanks to the smart protectors of the privileged, corporations got the free speech rights of people, and the C-suite bigwigs escaped personal responsibility, disappearing into the corporate maze.
In 2015, at Yale Law School, commencement speaker Daniel Markovitz, an expert at the intersection of law and economics, gave a dire warning. The graduates were entering a new aristocracy—one that had snuffed out the American Dream for almost everyone else. “American meritocracy has thus become precisely what it was invented to combat,” Markovitz concluded, “a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations.”
Brill manages a lukewarm apology for his part in all this.
Probably the best-known Brill invention in The American Lawyer magazine is its Am Law 100, which ranks the top American law firms by gross income. It also reports (or estimates) profits per partner and other monetary metrics.
A similar feature was replicated in each of the regional newspapers. The Connecticut Law Tribune had its “Trib 10” and later “Trib 25” for a third of a century. These closely read annual features sent a subliminal message: success in the legal profession, ultimately, is measured in money.
Brill calls these annual surveys a double-edged sword. They provided “information about these businesses [that] made them more accountable to their partners, their employees and their clients, but also transformed the practice of law—the emphasis was now fully on serving those clients who could pay the most.”
Measuring professional success by cash flow is deeply suspect. Let’s hope we never see medical doctors or college professors ranked by take-home pay!
Institutions that serve and focus on the learned professions, such as The Connecticut Law Tribune, have a responsibility to carefully consider what values and virtues are praised, and what achievements are worthy of adulation. It matters where one sets the bar.
It’s probably a good thing for the Connecticut legal profession that the Law Tribune stopped publishing the Trib 25 some five years ago. There are better things to focus on.
But what would be a more fitting “Oscar” to offer for professional recognition?
Perhaps the winners could best be ascertained on a case-by-case, biography-by-biography basis. We could reward lawyers not for earning the most money, but for the kind of public service that allowed a lower-middle-class boy from Far Rockaway to go to the best educational institutions and rise to the heights he did. The law is, after all, a learned profession, with an inherent role in helping society function better. The progression of the lawyering profession is better told with letters than with numbers.
Perhaps the goal would then shift from a focus on profits to the deeper challenge of conducting a legal career that is not just enviable, but actually admirable.