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The Magazine: Coming of Age

By Annie Gausn | Sep. 2, 2006

Law Office Management

Sep. 2, 2006

The Magazine: Coming of Age

California Lawyer's lifetime spans a period of enormous change in legal practice and legal publishing. It was controversial at birth, survived a stormy youth, and at 25 enters adulthood with a strong identity. By Thomas Brom

By Thomas Brom
      Magazines, like all enterprises and thrown objects, have a trajectory. Our trajectory-to date-happens to span an extraordinary 25-year period in California law that coincides with an extraordinary period in legal journalism. California Lawyer emerged from the same late-'70s cultural soup that produced Legal Times, the National Law Journal, and American Lawyer. In California the environment proved inhospitable, and the young magazine almost died. But it didn't die, and then it adapted to new surroundings. Along the way the magazine discovered that its own history mimicked changes taking place in the legal profession. We were joined at the hip.
      Coming of Age
      In the beginning was the California State Bar Journal, produced at the bar for 55 years by lawyers who wrote, edited, and controlled it through an independent committee. But by 1980 annual costs had climbed to more than $200,000, paid from mandatory State Bar dues. A bar committee requested that its Division of Communications produce a prospectus for a new magazine that in a few years would be supported entirely by paid advertising. According to the prospectus, this magazine would be "the California legal community's Business Week or Fortune," delivering the state's legal news "most significant to a broad segment of California lawyers."
      The new magazine, modeled on the ABA Journal by thenState Bar director of communications George Bangs, would be staff-written and supervised by an editorial board appointed by the Board of Governors. The State Bar Journal's editor bitterly opposed the project, but in August 1980 the board voted unanimously to authorize it. The first issue of California Lawyer appeared in September 1981.
      But California Lawyer wasn't a private enterprise. This was association journalism-a blend of State Bar news, public relations, advice columns, a president's letter, and disciplinary listings that by fiat of the State Bar Act had to be published. Profiles of individual attorneys were discouraged as potential touting. The feature stories had to pass scrutiny in the bar's administrative suite. But all in all, the finished product was pretty much what Bangs had promised-the state's most significant legal news written in the style of Business Week or Fortune. From its first year of publication, however, a fair percentage of California Lawyer's 80,000 readers hated it.
      "Half or more of the pages are devoted to advertising," complained one Los Angeles lawyer. "Most of the pages not used for advertisements are filled with articles written by nonlawyer reporters in the style and on the intellectual level of a magazine section of a newspaper, addressed to a reading public of a rather low common denominator."
      Another lawyer wrote, "There is no doubt that in its former incarnation the magazine was dull, but dullness is not the worst evil in a professional magazine." This lawyer then got to the heart of the matter: "It is published with funds which are exacted by law from members of the Bar. It is not private speech but state speech." That charge, hurled at editors and fought over bitterly on the Board of Governors, haunted the magazine for the next seven years.
      Letters to the editor alone during the 1980s were worth the price of admission. A cover illustration showing a lawyer reading papers in a hot tub, open briefcase at his side, set off a huge row when the issue coincided with a meeting of the ABA in San Francisco. So did publication of a hot-tub ad showing an attractive young woman having a soak. A few years later an advertiser-who was also a San Francisco attorney-sued the magazine for refusing to publish an ad it deemed "demeaning to women." The ad featured a photo of a buxom blonde wearing a "Lawyer's Brain" T-shirt, which identified specific locations for "ego" and "fabrication of evidence," among other areas. The advertiser's attorney argued that California Lawyer was a government publication, and therefore it could not infringe upon his right to free expression under the First and Fourteenth amendments. He won a stipulated judgment in San Francisco Superior Court on grounds of commercial speech. You had to be there.
      But the magazine also had its better moments. The first editor, Diana Diamond, interviewed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, legal guru Bernie Witkin, Senators S. I. Hayakawa and Alan Cranston, and Ed Meese, then a counselor to President Ronald Reagan. There were major stories on the legal battles over Mono Lake, surrogate parenthood, and overcrowding at California prisons, and a series of legal history features written by USC journalism professor Ed Cray that are still requested today. In 1983 the magazine won the first of dozens of "Maggie" awards for editorial excellence from the Western Publications Association. Meanwhile, California Lawyer was also making powerful enemies within the State Bar.
      The bar's CEO killed several features that had been approved by the editorial board, and then he fired Diamond. But money-or the lack of it-proved the magazine's undoing. Despite Bangs's optimistic projections, the magazine still ran a yearly deficit that had to be made up by the bar's general fund. By 1985 that figure was approximately $500,000, or about $6 a year from every bar member. Like it or hate it, every lawyer with a bar card got a subscription and subsidized the magazine. You couldn't not get California Lawyer-and that rubbed some lawyers raw.
      The context for cutting off bar funds for the magazine was the run-up to the 1986 retention election of Chief Justice Rose Bird and three associate justices. Because State Bar officials had aggressively defended judicial independence during the early years of the Bird Court, the bar itself came under attack. The most devastating blow was a lawsuit brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation that essentially sought to limit the State Bar's activities to admissions and discipline (Keller v. State Bar). Though it took the PLF eight years to win its case, the bar's own fiscal and political problems in Sacramento prompted it to make a series of placating gestures along the way. One of those gestures, announced in July 1987 in response to a legislative directive to balance its budget, was killing California Lawyer.
      Old enemies came out of the woodwork to celebrate. "Who could take issue," asked longtime critic Ed Lascher in his regular column in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, "with a decision to do away with something that constituted the bleeding loser which the Lawyer was (in quite a few senses)."
      And then a funny thing happened: A much-maligned publication left for dead by the State Bar became a hot property. Nearly two dozen publishers expressed an interest in purchasing the magazine, including the Ameri-can Lawyer Newspapers Group, the National Law Journal, the Los Angeles Lawyer, and the Daily Journal Corp. In October 1987 the bar reached an agreement with Charles T. Munger, chairman of the Daily Journal Corp., to publish California Lawyer for the next two years "in cooperation with the State Bar of California." The Daily Journal agreed to provide the State Bar with twelve pages in each issue for its official information and discipline listings. California Lawyer became a hybrid publication-part public, part private-no longer part of the state's legal system but still associated with it.
      For the editorial staff, even semiprivate status proved exhilarating. At the State Bar, general counsel reviewed all magazine copy. Our new owner, by contrast, had a publishing philosophy akin to the outlook of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis: "Just win, baby." The rules were clear: Serve the profession, and stay in the black. It was heaven.
      What followed was a burst of editorial energy, highlighted by cover profiles of Witkin, Judge Alex Kozinski, Joseph Alioto, Melvin Belli, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. We reported on the final days of executed killer Robert Alton Harris, took readers inside Pelican Bay State Prison, and investigated the still unsolved murder of San Francisco attorney Dexter Jacobson. We looked at-and, famously, profiled-gay lawyers in a cover story titled "Coming Out Strong."
      That last article earned California Lawyer the greatest volume of hate mail in its history, and a commentary in the New York Times on the readers' reaction. By 1992 the State Bar, still associated with California Lawyer through its inserts, had seen enough. An internal proposal for a new State Bar publication noted, "The bar receives frequent complaints from members who object to articles which appear in the magazine over which the bar has no control. Moreover, California Lawyer often includes articles which have an anti-bar slant; this criticism may gain a certain unintended credibility by virtue of the fact that the State Bar has chosen California Lawyer as its vehicle for communicating with its members." So the State Bar severed its ties to the Daily Journal.
      Not that anyone noticed. In his veto message of the 1997 State Bar dues bill, Gov. Pete Wilson said, "The bar has drifted ... and become lost, its ultimate mission obscured. It is now part magazine publisher, part real estate investor, part travel agent, and part social critic." At that time California Lawyer hadn't been associated with the State Bar for 5 years. Today, after 14 years of private publication, we still get letters from irate readers who demand that we stop wasting their dues money.
      Freed of political constraints California Lawyer went on to investigate Indian gaming, widespread conflicts of interest in the entertainment bar, the dark side of ADR, and the political clout of the state's prison guard union. We assessed the cultural significance of the O. J. Simpson case. We profiled Erin Brockovich-and were accused of sexism for our cover photo. We printed an open letter to Ken Starr from Monica Lewinsky's lawyer that acknowledged for the first time that the president and Lewinsky may have had consensual sex. And, since 1996, we have chosen outstanding attorneys from a broad range of practice areas to receive California Lawyer Attorney of the Year (CLAY) Awards.
      The passage of time permits a little perspective on the twin trajectories of California Lawyer and the bar that launched it. Just as the magazine sought its independence from the bar, many lawyers in the state resented the bar's presumption that it spoke and acted in their interests. Since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Keller, those fetters-real or imagined-were gone for good.
      But something was lost in the bargain: the notion that the organized bar was more than a trade association. I recall covering perennial debates at the State Bar's annual meeting on "professionalism"-a lawyer's duty to be a servant of the public as well as of the courts. Those debates were intense, and they were taken seriously. In 1994 the bar devoted much of the year to a discussion-often in the pages of California Lawyer-of whether private lawyers should be compelled to represent prisoners who are defendants in civil cases. The State Bar president thought not, but this was a live issue until the state Supreme Court handed it off to the Legislature (Yarbrough v. Superior Court, 39 Cal. 3d 197 (1985).) Can you imagine anyone in the bar even raising it today?
      In 2006 law is a business, all right, and so is legal journalism. Large firms have chief executives, general counsel, hundreds of partners, and branch offices that span the planet. New associates begin at mid six-figure salaries, and prized IP litigators or M&A deal makers bounce between employers like free agents. Last year more than one-third of the firms in the AmLaw 100 announced profits per equity partner of more than $1 million.
      In the new millennium California Lawyer focuses much more on change and consolidation in the legal market, and we are also affected internally by similar trends in the media business. Twenty-five years after the bar launched the magazine, we are still joined at the hip.
      So, what do you call the first 25 years of California Lawyer? A good start.
      Time Capsule Sidebar
      Time Capsule ? 1981
      California lawyers embrace advertising their practices, four years after the U.S. Supreme Court held it is not ?inherently misleading.?
      Angelo Buono (a.k.a. the Hillside Strangler) goes on trial after L.A. Superior Court Judge Ron George rejects L.A. County DA John Van de Kamp?s recommendation to dismiss the case. Buono is convicted two years later and sentenced to life in prison.
      Time Capsule ? 1982
      63% California lawyers surveyed who often feel overworked.
      California voters pass Proposition 8, the ?Victims? Bill of Rights,? which guarantees restitution for crime victims and makes other statutory reforms.
      The Verdict, starring Paul Newman, is released.
      ?We must find a practical way of dealing with the illegal aliens now residing in the United States.? ?Attorney General William French Smith of the Reagan administration
      Time Capsule ? 1983
      50+ Number of California cities and counties regulating the use of video games.
      Utilizing the public trust doctrine in National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, the state Supreme Court forces the California State Water Resources Control Board to look into methods of water conservation for Los Angeles to help preserve Mono Lake.
      Litigation begins on the Stringfellow acid pits, one of the state?s first Superfund sites, three years after Congress enacted the Superfund law.
      U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel vacates Fred Korematsu?s criminal conviction for refusing to obey Executive Order 9066, which forced Japanese Americans to live in internment camps during World War II.
      ?I?m told by the prison people that to keep up [with the expanding number of prisoners] we have to build a 500-person prison every month.? ?California Attorney General John Van de Kamp
      Time Capsule ? 1984
      California voters approve a state lottery.
      Time Capsule ? 1985
      100+ Number of attorneys being monitored by the State Bar Court?s probation department after conviction for narcotics-related crimes.
      ?Students are thinking more of law as a personal professional choice than as an instrument of achieving social policies.? ?Harvard law professor Arthur Miller
      Time Capsule ? 1986
      After voting to overturn nearly every death sentence that came before her, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird?along with two of her associates, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin?is voted off the bench.
      State voters approve Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, which mandates the use of warnings for all products that contain harmful chemicals.
      In Meritor Sav. Bank v. Vinson, the U.S. Supreme Court rules for the first time that sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination and violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
      L.A. Law premieres.
      ?You could give the death penalty for drug dealing, and you?d still have 30 people standing in line to take over the next corner.? ?Dean A. Beaupre, chief assistant public defender in Alameda County

Annie Gausn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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