One partner was "thoroughly arrogant and stunningly impolitic." Another took to calling the firm, "Finley, Swine." That, of course, was after he stayed for six years, before finally moving on.

Then there was the partner who hid a liveried chauffeur on the payroll as a messenger, and the one who charged off furs, jewelry and a mistress's apartment to the firm's expense account.

This was the jolly crew that Steven J. Kumble assembled in the law firm that bore his name and, it seems, the name of just about everybody else who demanded it: Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey.

In 1987, the firm disintegrated in a burst of venom, a flurry of headlines and a scramble for the door, leaving $83 million in debts. Now, as a bankruptcy trustee picks over its carcass, the venom still flows, much of it in Kumble's new book, "Conduct Unbecoming: The Rise and Ruin of Finley, Kumble."

Founded in 1968 with eight lawyers, the firm grew in less than two decades to be the fourth largest in the nation. In some ways the firm changed the way law was practiced in America, by going national with a vengeance, by trampling taboos against stealing partners and clients, and by playing blatantly to the press. But in the end, it became a symbol of everything a law firm should not be -- grasping and greedy, with no ethic save pursuit of the almighty fee.

It is easy to see how it exploded, given this version by Kumble, the Harvard-educated lawyer who by his own account seemed more interested in collecting for legal services than providing them. "Conduct Unbecoming," of course, is history according to Kumble and should be read with that in mind. The author is, after all, the man who brought us this cast of characters.

Quick to dole out blame, he is less eager to take responsibility. He managed the firm for 18 years, but it was destroyed, he writes, in a matter of months when others dethroned him. His biggest mistakes, he believes, were picking the wrong partners and tossing loyalty out the window.

Forever on a recruiting binge, Kumble stalked big names and lo and behold, he bagged big egos. The mix of partners included hotshot litigators, such as New York's Harvey Myerson, and political insiders, including former U.S. senators Joseph Tydings, Russell Long and Paul Laxalt. The latter two, he writes, jumped on board just months before the train derailed, with promises of $800,000-a-year incomes.

Though Kumble goes easier on the politicians, few of the top partners are spared his ire. What bound all these disparate souls together, he contends, was greed and a lust for power. Time and again, with Kumble in the lead, the firm shunted aside capable partners in the "quest for the bigger, the better, the more." When crisis struck, the qualities he prized were not the ones that could keep the firm afloat.

"In Finley, Kumble, money may not have been everything," Kumble writes. "But it was close."

Less than a year before the firm died, he said, he and co-managing partners Myerson and Robert B. Washington Jr., who also ran the D.C. office, met in Kumble's duplex on New York's Fifth Avenue to plan how to divvy up the coming year's pie among the firm's lawyers. The firm paid lavishly, but Myerson, he writes, argued for higher targets for himself and Washington. Myerson was to get $1.3 million; Washington, $865,000 and Marshall Manley, who had run the West Coast office, $1.75 million. Kumble said he selflessly refused a raise and counseled against the other increases.

"Fantasyland," said Washington last week, adding that the only thing true about the account is that they met at Kumble's house. Far from trying to soak the firm, Washington said he later took the lead in attempting to cut partners' incomes when the financial situation became critical.

Washington hasn't read the book. Nor does he plan to.

There is much about the ruin of his firm that Kumble chooses to ignore and much that is hard to fathom. There is no discussion of the dozens of junior partners, associates and staff who were abandoned as many senior partners, including Kumble, raced for the exits. And there is his constant lament about partners: "I thought I could manage all these egomaniacs. It was a serious misjudgment. ... "

So what did he expect when he pulled together this herd of rainmakers with money on their minds? Clarence Darrow, perhaps?

Reactions to the book are, not surprisingly, mixed. D.C. lawyer Edward Allera, a junior partner who had nothing to do with the firm's management, wishes Kumble well, and wonders whether Mel Gibson could play Allera if there's a movie. Frederick Graefe, another junior partner, thinks Kumble "is capitalizing on his crimes," and hopes the bankruptcy trustee goes after the profits.

Washington says there are some partners who would love to sue. But most likely nobody will. No one, he says, wants to heighten the publicity and turn Kumble's latest venture into a bestseller.

You Could Look It Up, but ...

Remember the federal appeals ruling during D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's trial that said federal judges may not bar an individual from a courtroom "merely because {that individual} advocates a particular political, legal or religious" view?

Well, it's lucky you do. The ruling, which came after the presiding judge barred Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Bishop George Augustus Stallings from Barry's trial, is about to be swept into legal oblivion.

The U.S. Court of Appeals here has refused to publish the ruling. It means that this important decision can never be cited by other lawyers here, and many lawyers will never even know about it, unless they trot over to the courthouse and look up the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the original order barring the two controversial men, now is challenging the appeals panel's decision not to publish. "It smacks of a system of secret justice," said the ACLU's Arthur B. Spitzer.

Spitzer argues that the appeals ruling -- by a panel composed of Clarence Thomas, Douglas Ginsburg and Laurence Silberman -- could be crucial to individuals barred from future trials. He also argues that the court is flouting its own rules, which weigh in favor of publication.

Spitzer is seeking a rehearing on the issue and calling for one before the full court.

It will be interesting to see what the court does, now that the court itself is the controversy.


In the profession, trial lawyers have always been known as macho.

Now comes Georgia State University psychologist James M. Dabbs Jr., who is studying the testosterone level of trial lawyers to determine whether that aggressive bent is a matter of culture or biology. Scientists already have linked confrontational and other antisocial behavior with high levels of testosterone.

These days about 50 Atlanta lawyers are chewing gum and spitting, all in the name of science. From their saliva, Dabbs can check the level of the principal male sex hormone.

The professor started in his hometown, but hopes someday to branch out to Washington. Some local trial lawyers say they'd pass on this particular study. But what if Dabbs tested, say, Brendan Sullivan. Would we find out he really is a potted plant?

Lawrence Barcella, for one, is a willing volunteer, though he says he doesn't need a test. "I'm bald and I'm Italian," Barcella asserts. "We already know my testosterone is high."