With gravel-voiced elopuence, Paul Nussbaum insists that the only kind of lawyer worth being is a "lawyer lawyer," the kind who will never tell a client what he wants to hear if it is not the law.
Nussbaum will be the first to admit, however, that 22 years as "lawyer lawyer" for the Prince George's County Board of Education have left him facing a rock or a hard place more than once.
And the rock and the hard place have often switched sides.
In 1969, for example, he defended the board against action by white parents seeking to prevent the voluntary integration of several Prince George's high schools. Three years later, at the direction of a stubborn anti-busing majority on the school board, he fought the federal Office of Civil Rights, local black plaintiffs and federal Judge Frank A. Kaufman to the Supreme Court. The high court backed Kaufman, and the school buses rolled in January, 1973.
Then Nussbaum faced the hard place, and almost literally ran the school system for more than a year to make the desegregation plan work. The frequent calls from administrators fretting over the possible consequences of every decision, the monthly reports to the stern Kaufman and the calls from angry parents who blamed him for the ruling were all part of his job, the lawyer said during an interview in his Mount Rainier office.
"Once the order came down I believe it was my function as attorney to make sure there was no fooling around," said Nussbaum. "There were two ways to do it, either to have mothers stand in front of the school buses, school buses blown up, buildings burned down and boycotts -- or to do it the way the school system did it. If I played a role in that, it was worth it."
More recently Nussbaum played a major role in bringing swift and effective court action to stop teachers who were bent on using a "sickout" to force a better contract, and to thwart the efforts of parents who looked to the courts to prevent the closing of 13 neighborhood schools.
And though he does not relish the prospect, Nussbaum may be called to court again this year to answer NAACP charges that the school system is still not desegregated.
Nussbaum has been controversial because he uses his respected expertise in education law to maintain a certain independence from his clients, who are charged with setting educational policy in an increasingly complex legal environment. Occasional open and sometimes bitter conflicts with board members in the past have prompted some observers to wonder how he has been retained, at a cost of about $150,000 a year in $50-per-hour fees, for so long.
Despite the periodic differences, board members agree that when the going is tough, Nussbaum is the man they want carrying the ball.
"I have never heard any discussion about his retention except for . . . one time," said board member Bonnie Johns, recalling a 1979 incident in which Nussbaum was charged with helping board member Norman (Chuck) Saunders negotiate a secret deal to alter the busing plan.
Nussbaum's tactics, which opponents concede are both brilliant and dogged, are born, in part, of an immigrant's driving desire to succeed in a new land. He pronounces his opinions before the board like Perry Mason summing up for the defense. It is in his blood.
"I'm a fourth-generation lawyer," he said, sucking a cigarette to the filter before lighting another.
He was born 52 years ago in Munich, Germany, just before Hitler's rise to power. His Jewish Family fled to the United States in 1939, but Nussbaum does not discuss his first 11 years in Germany under the growing Nazi terror. He explains his silence with legalese -- "irrelevant and immaterial."
"Traumatic experiences of one's youth do not go away. They are available to recall, they are there. I'm just content to leave them there," said Nussbaum. But he did say that the Sundays of his German childhood were filled with "trips to the museum, and the radio always played classical music."
He is a national patron of New York's Metropolitan Opera and often flew to the city for an evening performance until a change in shuttle schedules a few years ago made it impossible.
He and his wife Goldie were married in 1949 while he was working as a researcher in a Hyattsville-based land title search firm. She convinced him he would not be happy until he completed his education, so the high school dropout went to night classes at American University for seven years without missing a term, earning bachelor's and law degrees.
At the same time that Nussbaum became active in politics as president of the Prince George's Young Democrats he was noticed by the then political power broker Landsdale G. Sasscer. One day in 1959 the former Fifth District congressman said, "'Paul, I've got just the job for you. How would you like to be school board lawyer? They only meet once a month and all they do is buy property,'" Nussbaum recalled.
But by the late 1960s dramatic increases in government regulations at all levels, most in the name of providing equal rights to all students, and dramatically widened the scope of Nussbaum's job and the effect of his opinions on school policy, leading board member Angelo Castelli to remark:
"He is the most powerful member of the board of education -- no question. He is the most knowledgeable education lawyer in the area. By virtue of his being in a position for 22 years his opinions have taken on the imprimatur of legality. It is like the gospel according to Paul."
But Nussbaum says his power is more apparent than real.
"It's not a matter of power. When there is a legal reason (to block an action by the board), the guy who has to bring in the law is the guy who wears the black hat," he said.
But there is no argument that the $159,000 the school board spent last year for legal fees, nearly all of it for billings from the firm of Reichelt, Nussbaum and Brown, is more than two and a half times the salary of school Superintendent Edwart Feeney. Feeney, at $61,000 a year, is the second-best-paid public servant in the county.
The fees cover the time spent on school business by four of the firm's lawyers, court reporters and secretaries, and pays for other services. They do not include some legal costs connected with construction and disposition of school property, according to Castelli, who argues that an in-house lawyer would be cheaper.
"His rates are reasonable. The problem is that the volume is so great," said Catelli, a respected Justice Department trial attorney. "But there is no question that the guy is good."
Protecting public education, including its rights to close schools in a time of declining enrollment, is one of Nussbaum's paramount concerns.
"Public schools are the fountain-head of America," Nussbaum said. "I dread to see the day when the U.S.A. does not have a system of public education on the order that we still have.When you develop a system of multitiered schools for each purse," he said, referring to Republican proposals for tuition tax credits, "then I think you have destroyed the common denominator of America."
While the practice of education law has brought Nussbaum the trappings of success -- a vacation home at Rehobeth, a Mercedes and plenty of room to take his oldest son Andrew into his firm -- Nussbaum said that being the full-time school board lawyer almost destroyed his practice in 1973. During the years of court-ordered desegregation he devoted all his time to the schools and lost several private clients.
Nevertheless, he said that the intends to hang on to his school board clients "until five members of the board tell me goodbye."
And while some will still worry about who the school board lawyer answers to, for Nussbaum the answer is his own conscience.
"When I go to bed at night," said Nussbaum, "I turn off the light and go to sleep. When I wake up in the morning I look in the mirror, I shave and I don't cut myself."