LEGIONS of attorneys from New York to Los Angeles must have grumbled to themselves, over the last 15 years, ``If only Steven Brill had become a lawyer.''
But the Yale Law School graduate says he ``never thought about [practicing law] for a minute.'' In an interview in his midtown-Manhattan office, Mr. Brill recalls that, during his last year in law school in the mid-1970s, the career-guidance director told him that ``I was the only student in the last several years who had never shown up in the placement office. I didn't even know where it was.''
Instead, Brill became a journalist who revolutionized the way the press covers the legal profession - often to the chagrin of the lawyers and judges whose competence, ethics, and gaffes - as well as their triumphs - he has probed with the zeal of a born investigative reporter and editor.
Fifteen years ago, after covering legal affairs for New York magazine and Esquire and writing a book about the Teamsters Union, Brill - just 28 - launched The American Lawyer. The monthly journal kicked open the doors of a secretive world, the giant law firms that serve blue-chip corporations.
Before The American Lawyer appeared in 1979, legal journalism focused primarily on law, not on lawyers. Trade papers offered summaries of legislation and key judicial decisions, leavened by kid-glove profiles of prominent attorneys and judges. There was little critical analysis of lawyers' performance and still less coverage of the legal profession as a business.
The dawn of a new era broke with the cover story in The American Lawyer's first issue: Brill's report that the New York law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom was the ``top moneymaker'' in 1978, with average partner earnings exceeding $350,000. Such a disclosure was virtually unprecedented in legal journalism, as were other stories that first year like the report on five prominent New York law firms ``on the way down'' and an expose of defense lawyers' delaying tactics in litigation over the safety of the Ford Pinto.
ARTICLES that open the books of large law firms and behind-the-scenes critiques of the lawyering in headline-grabbing cases have remained staples in the magazine.
The journal's narrow circulation to about 16,000 subscribers - mainly big-firm lawyers, as well as prosecutors and judges - belies its influence within one of the richest and most powerful constituencies in the United States.
In the early years, The American Lawyer was angrily denounced by many lawyers as an impertinent scandal sheet, but the criticism has declined.
The American Lawyer's influence on legal journalism ripples far. For one thing, numerous Brill-trained sleuths have scattered to other publications. Brill's first two hires, James Stewart and Connie Bruck, have gone on to distinguished journalism careers with other magazines and both have written insider books about lawyers.
And enough American Lawyer alumni work at the Wall Street Journal to fill a conference room. Stephen Adler, a former editor of The American Lawyer (Brill is editor in chief) who now directs the business daily's legal coverage, doesn't demur from Brill's comment that ``the Wall Street Journal wouldn't be doing a lot of the stuff it's doing if we hadn't started doing it.''
Even legal journalists who don't directly emulate The American Lawyer acknowledge a debt to it. Gary Hengstler, editor and publisher of the American Bar Association Journal, says Brill's magazine has aided his efforts to give ``a harder editorial edge'' to a publication long regarded as an ABA lap dog. ``We can ask tougher questions today, because attorneys expect it,'' Mr. Hengstler says.
Many observers marvel at the ability of Brill and his often young writers to pry state secrets - especially money secrets - out of lawyers. The trick, Brill says, is persistence: ``If you call 100 people, 10 will talk to you. I don't care if it's 100 people at the CIA or at [New York law firm] Cravath, Swaine & Moore: 10 will talk.''
For a story ranking America's largest law firms by income, Mr. Adler recalls, ``we called every partner, associate, and former partner in some firms. It's sort of reporting terrorism.''
It gets results.
Ellen Pollock, a 10-year veteran of The American Lawyer who now is a legal-news editor at the Wall Street Journal, recalls: ``I was amazed when I started out. Here I was, 24 years old, questioning partners at major law firms and hearing their voices shake on the other end of the line.''
Ms. Pollock and other former associates confirm Brill's reputation as ``not the easiest man in America to work for,'' in her words, but they also stress his ``brilliance.'' ``He sees through holes in a story like no one I've ever met,'' Pollock says.
``As the commotion of the place dies down in my memory,'' Adler says, ``what remains is Steve's relentlessly perfectionist vision of the magazine.''
Though he is a tough watchdog of the legal profession, Brill is no lawyer-basher. Indeed, his high expectations for the profession are a mark of his respect for it. And he says law is one of the most important US commodities.
``The rule of law is on the march in the world,'' Brill says. ``It's a product that America should be exporting, because we're the best at it. I say that proudly.''