In 1973, Paul Hoffman published "Lions in the Street," a study of the major establishment New York City law firms. He has now come out with a sequel. Like its predecessor, "Lions of the Eighties" is in part a stroll down Wall Street leading the reader into the mysterious world of the Wall Street firm, where a day's work can encompass secret negotiations to free the Iranian hostages, protecting your client from a mean-spirited takeover attempt by a go-go conglomerate, or even fighting to save your firm from an attack by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which thinks that perhaps you just might have failed to disclose some crucial facts when you helped foster a dubious stock offering on a gullible public.
Or, the day's work could involve secretly meeting with a judge in the early morning and formally presenting a petition declaring that your client is unable to pay its debts--is, in fact, bankrupt. When that client is the City of New York, the story indeed gets interesting. And it is a story that Hoffman uncovered himself while doing research for his book. While government officials were confidently announcing that state officials, union leaders and the city's bankers had a program to cure the city of its financial problems, a secret team from the respected firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges had prepared, and the mayor had signed, what amounted to a petition of bankruptcy. As the judge signed the papers, a fleet of messengers stood by, ready to serve copies of the court order on the city's banks to protect what was left in the city's depleted coffers. Officially, legally, New York had gone under. (At the last minute, new cash was raised from the United Federation of Teachers and the bankruptcy papers were quietly buried.) It is a good story, and Hoffman deserves credit for unearthing it and telling it well.
There are other good things in this book: Hoffman's anecdotes about the plight of lowly associates who are passed over for partnership; the raids in which increasingly ungentlemanly Wall Street firms lure partners (and business) from each other. And a fine chapter discussing the dark side of Wall Street practice--the respected lawyers who are suddenly found to be liars, cheats, thieves.
In one significant area, however, the book does not fulfill its promise. For all their similarities, Wall Street firms, like families, have distinct and interesting personalities. In his walk down Wall Street, Hoffman rarely brings this out. His discussions of individual firms are short and sometimes misleading.
The venerable firm of Lord, Day & Lord "is losing . . . clients," he writes; it "seems to be stagnating in this jet age of corporate legal practice." This about a law firm which has grown 21 percent since 1977, which has greatly expanded its antitrust division, opened new offices in London and Washington and garnered substantial international business.
And Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, where I worked as an associate, was not "becalmed" until the arrival of superlawyer Harold "Ace" Tyler. It had experienced years of steady growth, and its recent expansion is a complicated, fascinating story, involving many personalities. Moreover, the book has other more trivial but irritating errors. To give but one example, my name isn't Paul Osbourn, although I did write "The Paper Chase" and "The Associates."
If one really wants to find out about Wall Street firms, the place to turn is the newly published "The American Lawyer Guide to Law Firms," which gives clear, accurate, readable summaries of all the important Wall Street firms.
Moreover, although Hoffman mentions many of the significant changes in the major firms during the past decade--the coming of the computer, the institutionalization of the large firm, the opening up of this private world to the scrutiny of the media--he fails to bring these events into a coherent focus. In fact, what has happened on Wall Street in the '70s has been economic. Wall Street firms, which previously regarded themselves as unique, "clubby" partnerships, have been forced by the pressures of the marketplace to become businesses not unlike those they serve. This has been an involved, emotional experience for many firms and its story should have been told in "Lions of the Eighties."