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Steven Brill : 1-Man Jolt for Legal Journalism

June 20, 1987|MYRNA OLIVER | Times Legal Affairs Writer

The pudgy young man with the impish look and the big cigar bounded into the hotel reception room, surveyed the gathering crowd of 250, and homed in, as if directed by internal radar, on the most powerful attorney in the room, American Bar Assn. President-elect Robert Raven.

That same unerring radar has guided 36-year-old legal news baron Steven Brill into choice markets for his publications and has made him a growing power in the wealthy and influential world of lawyers and judges.

Jokingly understating that power, Raven introduced Brill as "Carole Brill's little brother" at the fund-raising lunch in San Francisco for her Legal Services for Children. But he also identified Steven Brill as president and editor-in-chief of American Lawyer magazine, as chairman and editor-in-chief of the American Lawyer Newspapers Group, and as the point man in the purchase and revamping of small legal newspapers from Miami to San Francisco.

Brill's next stop likely will be Los Angeles.

Business Savvy

Now publishing five weekday papers and five weeklies under the group, including the brand new Manhattan Lawyer going into full production this fall, Brill is credited with developing a business savvy to complement the journalistic innovation on which he built his reputation.

"There is no question that he has really reshaped legal journalism," said James B. Stewart Jr., a former lawyer with New York's Cravath, Swain & Moore who wrote for Brill's American Lawyer in its early years. "He had a vision that lawyers should be covered the way other important decision makers in our society are. That has now come to be accepted by other publications, and in the end that may be his most lasting contribution, rather than his financial success, which is impressive."

Infusing that vision into his newspapers, Brill is turning the traditionally stodgy, gray sheets containing old wire stories wrapped around court calendars into slicker, glibber, graphic publications filled with timely photographs and articles designed to capture the attention of lawyers and judges who barely have time to read their mail.

Local Coverage

While his magazine is aimed at major law firms, each local newspaper covers the business of law and the law itself for every attorney in its reach.

When he launched American Lawyer in 1979, Brill's upstart writing about the handsome sums lawyers are paid and partners' wrangles earned him sobriquets like the National Enquirer or People magazine of legal news. But with maturity, the magazine toned down its headlines, and the legal profession adjusted to media scrutiny.

Now his magazine is bought by major law firms coast to coast, and his papers are gaining circulation in every major market except Los Angeles and Chicago.

His subscribers range from a Monterey solo practitioner to the justices of the California Supreme Court who read the San Francisco Recorder, to the justices and clerks of the U.S. Supreme Court who share five paid subscriptions to Washington's Legal Times.

Critics have suggested that Brill may be investing in newspapers to save his beloved magazine, which has lost circulation since its peak year in 1982 when a postal statement showed an average paid circulation of 24,992 copies contrasted with 17,348 last year.

Livid at that appraisal, Brill insists that the magazine is thriving. It broke even in its fifth year and has steadily built profits since, he said.

His sole competitor nationally, James A. Finkelstein, president and publisher of the weekly National Law Journal with a 1986 average circulation of 42,496, fairly splutters at the suggestion that Brill is building an "empire." Finkelstein rejects as unsound both game plans suggested by Brill's intrigued observers--that Brill plans to link the small newspapers into one national publication, and that he plans to market an advertising package for all 10 papers. The total circulation from all of Brill's new toys--as low as 1,200 for Atlanta's Fulton County Daily Report and 3,200 for the Recorder when purchased--Finkelstein suggests, is well under 40,000, and that's not much of a package to offer big-bucks national advertisers.

Too Much for Too Little?

Finkelstein believes Brill paid too much for too little, claiming some of the papers Brill bought were losing money.

But other observers offer faint praise as they watch Brill's moves with curiosity.

"The law business is booming, so I think those papers are pretty good," said New York magazine consultant James Kobak. "I think buying them is probably a pretty good business decision."

"A lot of what he is doing is not stupid. A lot is shrewd," said Brill's well-entrenched California competitor, Charles T. Munger, chairman of the board of the Los Angeles-based Daily Journal Co. After Brill bought the San Francisco Recorder, Munger made a countermove. He purchased the tiny 94-year-old San Francisco Banner as a base for a Bay Area edition of his 21,000-circulation Los Angeles newspaper.

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