"I don't want to sound like the poor little rich boy," says multimillionaire Philip M. Stern.
"But being wealthy is being different. There are ways of being different that people sympathize with. But this is not that. This tends to make people envious and angry. One tends to grow up wondering whether one is liked for one's self or for one's wealth."
Like many who grew up rich -- the Rockefellers, Mellons, Guggenheims, Carnegies -- Stern, 54, has chosen a life of intensive philanthropy. He's not nearly as rich as they are, but he's just as dedicated to helping people and fighting for social and cultural causes.
"My good fortune of being comfortably fixed," he says, "coupled with my family tradition makes me think I should use my good fortune in a socially useful way."
In whirlwind fashion, he directs the Philip M. Stern Foundation, which funds individuals and organizations trying to effect social change. Stern also established the Fund for Investigative Journalism, a Washington-based organization that underwrites journalism projects and out of which came the series of articles by Seymour Hersh for Dispatch News Service exposing the mass murders of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. And he sits on the board of the Stern Fund, a foundation set up by his father.
"I like to find out-of-the-way people who don't have access to the foundation world," he explains, "and who're trying to make social change.I also like to try inventing new ways of solving problems."
He sits slouched in his chair. The ordinary-looking navy sportscoat and gray slacks he's wearing don't look like the clothes of a rich man.
These days Stern's project is his new look, "Lawyers on Trial," advertised as a book for people who are fed up with lawyers and for lawyers who are troubled about their profession. It's a scathing account of how many lawyers ignore the poor to attend the needs of the rich. The book is Stern's sixth (he's also written about tax loopholes, poverty, the American taxpayer and the Robert Oppenheimer case).
Probating a will costs 100 times as much in the U.S. as in England, and Americans pay nearly three times as much to probate lawyers as they pay in funeral expenses.
Nearly one-fourth of automobile insurance premiums go to pay lawyers (instead of benefits to the injured).
The American Bar Association has admitted that "the middle 70 percent of the population is not being served adequately by the [legal] profession."
Homebuyers pay $1 billion a year in lawyers' fees and the bar has fought reforms to make selling a home as simple as selling an automobile.
Stern says the book grew out of his experience as a freshman at Georgetown University Law School in 1975-76, at age 49. He entered school with high hopes of using the law to help people. Many of his best friends -- and heroes -- were lawyers. But midway into his freshman year he had a conversation with a friend who'd graduated from Harvard Law School almost 25 years before.
Stern told his friends he was studying landlord-tenant law in a course on real property. That had not been taught at Harvard, his friend said. Instead, he had studied the medieval antecedents of modern property law.
Because landlord-tenant law affects millions of renters, Stern started wondering whose property law Harvard taught.
"The question prompted me to reexamine my own courses and to ask, 'Whose law are we learning? What kinds of clients are we being prepared to serve?'"
Despite studying some tenant law, Stern said as much time was devoted to the rule against perpetuities, a device that allows the wealthy to avoid inheritance taxes by bypassing their children and grandchildren and legally leaving their property to their great-grandchildren.
Also, when it came time to map out courses for the second and third years, Stern said the offerings were mostly business-oriented. Students were told that 90 percent of them would probably sign up for courses on business and professional law.
So he left law school to write the book and now sports a large button on his lapel that reads: "I Am Not a Lawyer." He says he could do more good writing a book than staying in school.
Even though he's wealthy, Stern has had a negative experience or two with lawyers. In 1976, he bought a house in Connecticut and engaged a lawyer to handle the routine transaction. The charge: $750. The fee, Stern was told, was not based on the work but on the percentage of the house purchase price -- and no other lawyer in the state would do it for less.
"I'm obviously able to buy quality legal services," he says. "I've dealt with people who're honorable and competent."
Stern comes from a long family tradition of philanthropy and social action. His grandfather, Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Co. for 24 years, established the Rosenwald Foundation, which was designed to improve race relations. Before going out of existence in 1948, it gave away $22 million in 16 years, mostly to projects involving the education of black Americans in the South.
Stern's father, Edgar B. Stern, set up the Stern Fund and helped establish his sons, Philip and Edgar, in their own foundations (the latter, a resident of Aspen, Colo., is the financial thrust behind the Aspen Music Festival and funds various community organizations).
Now Stern hopes to involve his five children in philanthropy. Three sit on the board of the Stern Fund. "I haven't put as much time and energy in involving them as I'd like," he says. "They have a sense of mission mixed with the desire for anonymity."
Maybe they could use a healthy dose of some of Stern's grandfather's great passion and enthusiasm.
Sterns leans back and smiles in reflection. "His voice used to affect me," he recalls."He'd come into the house and I'd get excited.
"Rosenwald used to say, 'It takes as much work to give away a dollar well as it does to make a dollar."