Louis Brandeis: His Life Has Lessons For Lawyers Today

WHILE it might inconvenience the students and staff at Harvard Law School to have 800,000 visitors traipse through Langdell Hall, every lawyer in America should see an exhibit in the school's library on the life of Louis D. Brandeis. The exhibit commemorates the 55th anniversary of Justice Brandeis's retirement from the US Supreme Court in 1939.

At a time when there is great gnashing of teeth among attorneys over a decline in professionalism, civility, and ethics within the bar, Brandeis's career is a shining model of what a lawyer should be. The exhibit's subtitle says it aptly: ``A Life Well Spent.''

Of course, few lawyers are blessed with Brandeis's brilliance. The intellect that enabled him to graduate near the top of his class at Harvard Law in 1877 was a gift.

But it wasn't primarily intelligence that made Brandeis great, and it wasn't intelligence that made him good. It was a noble spirit. Even mere mortals within the bar can aspire to Brandeis's faithfulness and fairness in dealing with clients and others, his love for the law, expressed in learning and craftsmanship; and his commitment to public service and good works.

Though Brandeis is best known for his years on the Supreme Court, he would be enshrined in America's legal pantheon even if he had never donned the black robe. When President Woodrow Wilson nominated Brandeis to the high court in 1916, he was already one of the nation's most famous lawyers.

Demand for his talents over more than three decades as a Boston lawyer earned Brandeis a fortune. But his fame was based primarily on his reputation as the ``people's attorney.'' Beginning in the 1890s, Brandeis devoted an increasing amount of his time to championing the public good against concentrations of power.

He fought off the attempt of the Boston Elevated Railway to acquire a monopoly over Boston's public-transportation system, and he battled against other anticompetitive railroad and utility mergers. He defended state laws regulating workers' hours and wages; in support of Oregon's statute protecting women workers, in 1908 Brandeis filed a pioneering brief with the US Supreme Court that was based more on economic and sociological research than on legal precedent (the court upheld the law in Muller v. Oregon).

Brandeis wasn't just a liberal gadfly; he was a problem solver. As a mediator of labor disputes in the shoe and garment industries, he forged settlements that were widely copied. And in what he called his greatest achievement, he created savings-bank life insurance that was affordable to working people.

Much of his work in behalf of public causes was ``pro bono'' - unpaid. Indeed, realizing that his free work was depriving his law partners of income, Brandeis paid his firm for the value of his uncompensated lawyering.

Inevitably, the ``people's attorney'' gained powerful enemies. Brandeis's nomination to the Supreme Court was opposed by the president of Harvard University and six former presidents of the American Bar Association, including ex-US President William Howard Taft. (Opposition to Brandeis - the first Jewish lawyer ever nominated to the high bench - might also have been based on anti-Semitism.) But after a five-month fight, the Senate confirmed Wilson's nominee. In 23 years on the Supreme Court, Brandeis wrote a number of landmark opinions, including some famous dissents in which he was joined by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and was known as a defender of free speech and of government experimentation to solve economic and social problems.

But it is Brandeis's example as a lawyer more than as a judge that should be held aloft by the legal profession. If it could be said of more lawyers - whatever their political and social views - that theirs was ``a life well spent,'' attorneys' public-image problems would evaporate.

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