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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Love the Practice, Pillory the Contemporary Practitioner : THE BETRAYED PROFESSION / Lawyering at the End of the Twentieth Century by Sol M. Linowitz with Martin Mayer ; Scribner's $25, 273 pages

July 20, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The all too vast and ever-growing library of books about lawyers tends to fall into one of two genres. Some authors insist on demonizing the legal profession, and some authors--usually lawyers writing about themselves--tend to deify it.

Sol Linowitz's "The Betrayed Profession" falls in the crack. The legal profession was once noble and pure, argues Linowitz, who graduated from law school in 1938. And we can be noble and pure again, if only we manage to rediscover the high-mindedness, courtly manners and selfless dedication to justice that prevailed back in the good old days.

"In my generation, we thought of the law as a helping profession, not a continuation of war by other means," Linowitz writes in the cloying tone of lofty nostalgia that permeates his whole book. "Like the ministry, law is a calling ."

It's hard to forget that Linowitz is very much a patrician among lawyers. He is probably best known for his work as a roving presidential emissary, but he has also served as chairman of the board and general counsel of Xerox, and until recently he practiced with Coudert Brothers, one of the blue-chip law firms that he writes about.

Indeed, a good deal of his book, written with Martin Mayer (author of "The Lawyers"), is a kind of fragmentary memoir, and Linowitz recalls some of the incidents that shaped his career: the anti-Semitism that he encountered when he embarked on the practice of law, his work on behalf of the fledgling Xerox Corp., and his ascent into the rarefied heights of corporate law.

So when Linowitz writes in passing about "the lower depths" of the legal profession, we must begin to wonder whether he fully appreciates that the bar and its clientele are not confined to Wall Street. And he does not seem to be much impressed by the fact that the legal profession is more egalitarian and entrepreneurial--and thus a better reflection of the society that it serves--than ever before in our history.

Then, too, Linowitz simply ignores a huge segment of the legal profession whose practices (and whose incomes) do not register at all on his critical radar. Lawyers who practice personal injury law, criminal prosecution and criminal defense, civil rights law, environmental law--and the vast cadre of lawyers who sit in legislatures or work in government agencies do not seem to exist at all in Linowitz's legal universe.

Still, Linowitz is a sharp enough lawyer to anticipate the criticism, and he hastens to acquit himself of any charge of elitism. "We must not blame the moral decline of the leadership of the bar on the admission of 'lesser breeds,' " he writes in a curiously off-putting turn of phrase. "What has diminished the law in recent decades is not the wider variety of humanity among the practitioners but the loss of humanity in the practice itself."

The basic charge in Linowitz's indictment of the legal profession is that lawyers are distracted from their highest calling by the pursuit of money, thus abdicating their ethical duties and doing whatever the client demands in order to keep the collectibles coming in. The client's interests, he seems to suggest, must be subordinated to the higher interest of serving justice--a notion that may sound rather odd to the client whose interests are at stake and who is paying the fees.

"Even when a lawyer is an advocate," Linowitz insists, "it is by no means clear that he must be an advocate only for his client."

And so Linowitz calls on the contemporary legal profession--the bar, the bench, the law firms, the law schools and the bar associations--to clean up their acts and, thus, to resurrect the dead and dying values he holds so dear. He would like to see tort reform, court reform, curriculum reform, but the benchmark of progress in Linowitz's book is always the way things used to be.

"I believe we did better in the past," he concludes, "and we can do better today."

Linowitz, of course, cannot be faulted for calling on lawyers to be more principled, to pursue justice more ardently, to honor what he calls "the skills and canons of (their) profession." But Linowitz's rosy nostalgia tends to blunt the sharper points of his message, and "The Betrayed Profession" turns out to be too bland, too sentimental and too simplistic to make much of a difference.

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