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Stephen Meyers, Co-Founder of Law Firm Jacoby & Meyers, Dies in Traffic Accident

April 21, 1996|JEFF BRAZIL and HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A traffic accident has claimed the life of Stephen Z. Meyers, co-founder of the legendary Jacoby & Meyers law firm, which brought everyday Americans Kmart-esque legal fees and the first television commercials touting the benefits of cut-rate barristers.

Authorities and family friends said Meyers, 53, died Friday after a head-on collision in New Fairfield, Conn., near where he and his wife, Millie Harmon, had a weekend home. A stepdaughter, Brooke Harmon, 27, suffered a broken leg in the crash. The accident is under investigation.

A friend since 1974, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor on Saturday praised Meyers' ground-breaking experiment in providing low-cost legal services for those too rich to qualify for legal aid but too poor to hire a lawyer. "Steve's idea that you should extend justice to the middle class in order, literally, to increase access to the system was innovative, creative and, frankly, made a huge difference," Kantor said.

Although they recently split up, Meyers and Leonard D. Jacoby joined forces to create their law firm after they met at UCLA's Law School in the 1960s. Beginning in the 1970s in Los Angeles, they, along with a third partner, Gail Koff, emerged as veritable pioneers in American law by proffering their cheaper-than-most services to the middle class over the airwaves. Inveterate idealists, they possessed markedly different personalities: Jacoby, a tie-shunning, kick-back Californian, and Meyers, a driven gum-smacker in a wrinkled suit.

"Steve was unfashionable in every way that that word describes a good quality," said David Corvo, vice president of NBC News and another longtime friend. "His politics, his personal relationships, his values and his ability to see a problem in a different way were completely his own."

At a meeting of federal judges in Dana Point in 1989, Meyers was the lone public dissenter to a proposal to raise the judges' $89,500 annual salary. "As a Democrat talking to a group of mostly Republican judges appointed by conservative presidents, it's hard to be sympathetic to the plight of someone making $90,000 a year," Meyers told the jurists.

Longtime friend Aileen Adams, director of the Office for Victims of Crime in the U.S. Justice Department, called Meyers "a devoted family man" and "visionary."

Dogged by a flagging economy and competition, Jacoby & Meyers closed many of its 150 field offices between 1990 and 1994. In October, Jacoby sued Meyers, his 23-year business partner, for $2 million, claiming Meyers was trying to squeeze him out of the business. In what was essentially the conclusion of an ugly corporate divorce, they settled their differences in December, each deciding to take charge of separate legal services.

One of the earliest advertisements from Meyers' separate firm featured Meyers saying, "If you've been involved in an accident . . . we would be pleased to come out and meet with you."

Kantor, who introduced Meyers and Harmon to each other before they wed in 1978, praised Meyers' lack of pretense. "Most of us need outside validation in order to satisfy our own over-inflated egos," Kantor said. "Steve Meyers never needed that. "He was a person of incredible principle. I was always in awe of that."

A memorial service will be held Monday at the Central Park Boathouse in New York City. Meyers is survived by his wife, who has been serving as a protocol officer for Madeleine Albright, the U.S. representative to the United Nations; a daughter, Jessica, from his first marriage; and three stepdaughters from Harmon's first marriage whom they raised together, Brooke, Elyse and Victoria.

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