A story in Monday's editions of The Washington Post mistakenly refused to a General Motors Corp, suit against Ralph Nader. In fact, it was Nader who sued General Motors for invasion of privacy and harrassment.
Four members of President-elect Jimmy Carter's Cabinet are partners in large corporate law firms; so is a prospective under secretary; so is the nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director; so almost certainly, will be many of the other appointees in the new adminstration.
Which is not surprising; the corporate lawyers had become ubiquitous, a veritable jack-of-all-trades who appears in all kinds of roles, and often in public life.
The lawyers already named to the Carter team represent a rich variety of the special interests that Carter the candidate promised would not exert undue influence on his presidency Examples:
Cyrus R. Vance, the nominee for secretary of State, has been a board member of lawyer for Pan American World Airways.
Joseph A. Califano, Jr., the designated Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, has represented El Paso Natural Gas Co. and Pfizer, the giant drug firm.
Patricia Roberts Harris, the next Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has been a partner in a firm with numerous big corporate clients and has served on the boards of several corporations, including IBM.
The Atlanta law firm of the Attorney General-designate, Judge Griffin B. Bell, represents General Motors and Coca-Cola Co.
Theodore C. Sorensen, director-designate of central intelligence, has been a partner of a famous New York law firm where the represented the American Medical Association and General Motors (in its suit against Ralph Nader.)
Warren Christopher, Vance's choice to be under secretary of state, comes from a huge Los Angeles firm whose list of corporate clients includes GM, IBM, Northrop Corp. and General Telephone.
The legal profession insists that conncetions like these connote nothing about the lawyers themselves. Just as a criminal lawyer can represent a murderer without commiting murder himself, the lawyers say, so a corporate lawyer should not be tainted with the sins - real or imagined - of his clients.
Bayless Manning, a former dean and professor of law who is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a recent interview that a good corporate lawyer simply does the best he can for his clients. "You work your head off for your client," he said, "and tomorrow you may be on the other side." To advocate a cuase, said Manning, need not mean belief in it.
Others repeat the same message in different ways. Edward Bennett Williams, Califano's partner, who has made a reputation largely by defending unpopular or unsavory clients, has coined a phrase for the tarring of lawyers with the reputations of their customers: "guilt by client," Williams calls it.
Other lawyers note that if Califano is paid handsomely by Pfizer or Coca Cola (another firm he has representated), he has also represented accused secrets-leaker Daniel Schorr of CBS New (CBS paid the fee) and nonpaying clients. Or if Sorensen was criticized of his role on GM's behalf in the Nader affair should he not be equally praised for representing Alaska Indians or the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., the war-resisting former chaplain of Yale?
In fact the legal profession does not speak with a single voice on this question. Califano, for example, is quoted in a recent book about Washington lawyers as saying, "I think we are going to have to start making moral judgments on our clients."
Many corporate attorneys would reject that view. A more common attitude seems to be that any corporation - like any individual - who does not ask the lawyers to behave unethically or illegally and can pay the going fees will make a suitable client.
Califano could not be reached for comment on whether he ever has passed moral judgment on a client.)
A partner in a large Washington firm said his colleagues have turned down prospective clients from the tobacco industry on moral grounds, yet the same firm has represented other industrial interests fighting consumer-oriented government regulation. The most common reason cited for a big that their interests would conflict with those of existing clients.
Does a career of representing corporate clients color the approach to issues of public policy? Do corporate lawyers develop corporate reflexes?
"Most of these lawyers (named to the Carter administration) are 'limousine liberals'," observed a partner in a big New York firm. "For a long time they have managed to live with the ambivalence of having liberal social views, high personal incomes and big corporations as clients. For a lot of these people, it's a matter of letting the left side of their brain" (the liberal) side take over when they enter or reenter government service.
But this same lawyer - who considers himself a political liberal, and who represents big corporations - said that people like himself are subjected to "the general conditioning to look at things from business point of view" after representing corporate clients for many years.
A Washington lawyer - a Democrat who spent many years in government before entering corporate practice relatively late in life - said he thought the ability to see the business world's side of some issues is acturally broadening. "You know, the government often isn't right," he said.
The same man called it "an excellent thing" to have lawyers like Vance and Califano in government, because their experience has taught them "to get away from easy categorization" of "good" and "bad" interests or individuals.
A lawyer on the Carter transition team noted that some attorneys may be corrupted by their clients, but others become outstanding public servants because of the education their clients have given them. Just because a lawyer has represented drug companies, he said, doesn't disqualify him from working at the Food and Drug Administration; indeed he may be a much better regulator, because he knows the industry's weaknesses and tricks.
Good thing or bad, a lot of lawyers will be helping run the country in the next four years. The fact that Carter has already turned to so many indicates the corporate lawyer's prominence in American life.
The growth of the legal profession is a relatively new phenomenon. In 1918 one of the biggest Wall Street firm, Sherman & Sterling, had two partners; today it has about 80. The enlargement and concentration of industry and finance in New York is a partial explanation, but most of the growth has been caused by the expansion of government and government regulation.
The government has given birth to an enormous and apparently ever-expanding legal industry in Washington. There probably isn't s substantial law firm in this city where one of more partners haven't worked somewhere in the government. Indeed, many lawyers - including many who hope to find jobs in the Carter administration - regard a stint in the federal service as important experience in their legal careers.
The six lawyers mentioned in this article as named for high posts in the Carter administration all served previously in government jobs, and all are probably yound enough to expect to return to law practice after four or more years in government this time.
These lawyers may be the crown princes of our regulated corporate state. They are sought after not only by corporate clients but by the boards of private foundations and universities as well as Presidents-elect. A professor at the Harvard Law School observed.
"The line that separates the IBM board of directors from the Yale Corporation (university trustees) from the Rockefeller Foundation from the State Department is a very fine one, isn't it?"