These days, Tower Snow is not so easy to find. You have to head to Napa and veer onto remote roads, where the air is thick with the smell of hay. Keep going, amid the chirping of crickets, past the wineries and grapevines and a run-down deli, up to the dry hills. Then go through two gates (security codes required) to a place that affords picture-perfect views of the valley below. It's peaceful up here, with hummingbirds and rabbits and deer and bobcats, on 70 acres of land dominated by a Mediterranean-style house?pool, spa, and wine cellar included. This is 50 miles and a world away from the life Snow once had. The charismatic former chair of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison once spent his days on the 38th floor of the Spear Street Tower, which commanded another spectacular view?that one of the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and the Bay Bridge. During his four-year term as chair, he took the firm to its heights?profits-per-partner soared to more than $1 million?and some say to its depths: Snow was blamed for the firm's debt and demise. (Brobeck closed its offices in 2003, about a year after he was expelled.)
Now 59, Snow's views on the world have changed dramatically. He has survived what he calls a "perfect storm": the loss of his job, the breakdown of his marriage, and the meltdown of his finances. But having come through that storm, he says he's a lot wiser than he was before. And he says he can't imagine ever returning to the law.
In his first on-the-record interview in five years, Snow talks about the life he once led and the life he is leading now.
Since you left active practice three years ago, what do you do with your time? I've recently picked up some consulting work, a minor amount, for companies. But I tell you, my first priority is my daughter. Then spending time with others, whether it be family members, my sister, friends. I have incredibly good friends. But 99 percent of the people who were in my life ten years ago are not in my life today.
Did you make mistakes at Brobeck? And if so, do you think about those mistakes now?
I spend virtually no time thinking about Brobeck or my legal career. I made many, many mistakes, but I did the best I could do. If I could go back and do some things differently, would I? Absolutely.
Over the last several years, I went through some really challenging periods. In one particular period, I was expelled from Brobeck at the same time my wife filed for divorce, ironically because I was spending too much time at the office. I lost 50 percent of my daughter's life because of the divorce and custody battle. And I saw 80 percent of my net worth vaporize.
With the benefit of hindsight, it turned out to be by far the most educational period of my life. I wouldn't have said this five years ago, but every one of those events was a blessing in disguise. And I will live a vastly more spiritual, more fulfilled life in the future.
Humility is an extremely important part of the human character. In recent years, I've been humbled beyond anything I could imagine. And I'm thankful for that; with humility comes perspective. With humility comes an enhanced ability to listen and learn.
It sounds like a stripping away of identities. So what are you left with?
Of course, many people go through extraordinarily challenging things. Even at my lowest point, I was left with my core values and sense of self. I focused on getting through each day. There were days I'd get up in the morning and wonder whether I'd still be here in the evening, not because I was going to jump in front of a truck, but the stresses on me were so great, I wondered if I was going to keel over.
Someone once said, "In perfect darkness there is also the greatest light." When you are standing there, wondering whether you are going to fall into the abyss and disappear?that is the moment of the greatest clarity you will ever have in your life. The only other time you have that is when you are dying.
Looking back, how did the law meet your expectations? How didn't it?
If I had to do it all over again, I would not become a lawyer, irrespective of how rewarding my career was or how rewarding I found the legal environment to be; law wasn't my passion. If I had to do it all over again, I'd go to film school, not with expectations of succeeding, but with the idea of giving it my best. I would also consider being a veterinarian because I happen to love animals.
Over the course of your career, did you ever think about leaving the law?
Several times. I wish I had. The reason I didn't, which is the worst reason, or at least a poor reason, was that I was very successful. And every time I thought about leaving it, something good was happening in my professional life, so I'd tell myself, I'll just see this through. Success is an intoxicant; it's addictive. So is power and money. You go, OK, I'll try this. With success, if you're not careful, your life path can become narrower and narrower to the point that, at the end, you may have been extraordinarily successful but never lived. There's a great saying by an 18th-century cardinal: "Be not afraid of death, but be afraid you will die before you have lived." There's great truth in that.
If a young college graduate came to you and said, "I'm not sure I want to practice law," what advice would you give that person?
A lot of people do come to me and ask that. I try to tell them what the practice of law is like. And if it's a woman, I tell her it's different for a woman versus a man. Law is still a male-dominated profession, statistically or any way you look at it. It's a jealous mistress. To really excel at law, the reality is you have to work hard. She should have her eyes open about the demands of the profession versus the desire not only to have a family but to spend time with family.
If you look at the big-firm environment and the raw numbers, huge numbers of lawyers leave it. Some depart from the law altogether. Many opt out of big-firm practice, and many who stay may be very successful and make a lot of money, but a remarkably small number would say they are really happy.
A thinking person should ask: What do I want out of life? If you don't ask yourself that question and jump into the legal field, one finds that inertia takes over. One can lose 30 years, which are not replaceable.
If you could, how would you make the legal profession more humane?
That's what I was trying to do at Brobeck?build a 21st-century law firm, one of the great legal institutions ever, that not only superbly served its clients but also provided a superb environment for its people?all its people?from messenger to chairman. One of the things I was most proud of at Brobeck was Fortune magazine twice picking the firm as one of the 100 best companies to work for in America.
When I first became chairman and met with all the staff, I told them my vision for the firm. They were very cynical because of the firm's historical perspective toward its staff. I simply said, "Judge me not by words but by my deeds. I hope at some point I will earn your applause." I think I did. Even today I go into the city and see staff and associates, and they say, 'I'll never forget?those were the magic years.'
When you think about your future, what do you see?
Until four years ago, I had an objective I wanted to accomplish every year. I had five-year plans. I wanted to make partner, wanted to be head of the litigation department, to be on the executive committee, to be chairman of the firm. Pick your objective. My professional career was almost like a laser beam?incredibly focused, incredibly high energy with great velocity.
Now, I have no objectives. It's almost like the laser beam stopped at the edge of an open field.
I now believe you don't control or orchestrate life. A far better way to live life is to ask, What does life bring you??and then pursue the openings and opportunities for which you have a passion, from which you can learn. If you ask me what will I be doing five years from now, I don't have a clue, except I'll be raising my daughter, and I'll still have a lot of good friends in my life. But other than that, I couldn't tell you. I'd love to remarry and have more children, but I don't have the slightest idea if I will. Where I am now, the things that really matter, you can't affirmatively seek. And the things you can affirmatively seek, I have no interest in.
Nina Schuyler is a Bay Area writer. Her novel, The Painting, came out in 2004.