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Their Best Argument Was With Each Other

April 25, 1996|SCOTT HARRIS

Must have been a slow news day. Whatever the reason, the media apparently showed up en masse that day back in September 1972, when a couple of young lawyers hyped the opening of a "revolutionary" law office on Van Nuys Boulevard. This fledging, for-profit "legal clinic" promised cut-rate legal services for the middle class.

Leonard D. Jacoby and Stephen Z. Meyers were stunned that so many camera crews and reporters came to their news conference. Then, from the back, they heard a voice.

"I need a lawyer here!"

With the media watching, Jacoby & Meyers' first client had walked in off the street.

"I took him into the private office and it turned out his car had been repossessed," Len Jacoby recalled. There was a brief consultation. "Luckily, he was pleased. He came out with a smile on his face. . . .

"And then it just kept going like a roller coaster for years."

The metaphor applies to Jacoby & Meyers, with or without the ampersand. The men became close friends at UCLA Law School years before starting their famous firm. And, as irony would have it, they ultimately became bitter adversaries in a lawsuit of their own.

During the last few days, Len Jacoby has had reason to reflect on the good times and the bad. Last Friday night, Stephen Meyers, 53, was killed when the car he was driving collided with a delivery truck on a country road in Connecticut. His 27-year-old stepdaughter, Brooke Harmon Berryman, suffered a broken leg and other injuries.

In an obituary, the New York Times described Meyers as a "visionary legal practitioner who helped revolutionize the practice of law."

Some people may prefer the days when lawyers didn't hawk their services on TV. Before Jacoby & Meyers and like-minded lawyers came along, the profession preferred a more refined image. Jacoby & Meyers presented itself as a mass-market retailer, a legal K mart that handled wills, bankruptcy and divorces for a fixed fee. The rich, the partners pointed out, could afford lawyers and the poor could qualify for legal aid. Jacoby & Meyers accepted credit cards.

They chose Van Nuys because it was the center of the San Fernando Valley's vast middle class, their target market. Plus, it was familiar turf--Jacoby grew up in North Hollywood.

Comedians loved to satirize Jacoby & Meyers TV ads, but establishment lawyers were not amused. The state bar's disciplinary committee tried to suspend their license, saying their solicitations violated the bar's ethical code. The attacks just served to generate more publicity.

Jacoby & Meyers fought the establishment and won. "What was revolutionary is now the establishment," Jacoby said. "We started out as revolutionaries and became the establishment."

Not surprisingly, Jacoby disputed suggestions that Jacoby & Meyers and its imitators helped create a more litigious society in dire need of tort reform. It may be that these lawyers filled a void in a society that is litigious by nature.

Thanks partly to their firm, Jacoby said, "the public is much better informed about legal services, much more sophisticated. There's much more competition among lawyers. It used to be the only way lawyers could compete was going to the country club and getting the businessmen." With competition, "quality goes up and the price comes down. . . .

"I think what some of the advertising lawyers have done has hurt a little, but I don't think that detracts from all the good that's been done. . . . In general, I think people have the right to be obnoxious."

Both Wesley J. Leibeler, professor emeritus at UCLA law, and Robert Weissman, president of the San Fernando Valley Bar Assn., say they largely agree with that assessment. In the past, Leibeler said, the state bar operated much like "a cartel." These two former students helped break it up.

The two men's lives had striking parallels. Both were married during law school and fathered daughters, who played together at the office. Both men got divorced and married again, to women who had daughters from previous marriages. The families shared the same circle of friends.

But as Jacoby & Meyers began franchising across the nation, enduring successes and failures, disputes strained their friendship. In 1984, Meyers moved to New York while Jacoby remained in California. But between 1990 and 1994, according to the Wall Street Journal, the firm closed or spun off 132 of 150 field offices.

The friendship had been crumbling for years. By April 1995, the Journal reported, Meyers and a third partner in New York stopped paying rent on Jacoby's office and cut his pay. Jacoby sued Meyers last October, alleging fraud, breach of the partnership agreement and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

There would be, as it turned out, no divorce. Through mediation, the partners arrived at a new understanding and division of responsibilities.

Jacoby was saying this over the phone from New York. The accident occurred Friday evening; Jacoby was informed that night.

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