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HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE LAW BOOK

As executive employment lawyers, we spend our professional lives negotiating our clients’ agreements, deferred compensation arrangements and termination packages. Outside of work, I often read about legal matters unrelated to our practice, both for my own interest and in order to cultivate the kind of “lateral thinking” that good lawyers like Louis Nizer have always valued so highly.

What better gift for any thoughtful reader on your holiday shopping list (or yourself) than a book or two on a juicy legal topic? And, since many people are weary of the relentless drumbeat of our current politics, books can provide a welcome distance as well as an opportunity for more reflective and nuanced thought.

So here is my list of some recommended law-related books for 2018:

Justin Driver credits his path out of poverty to ambitious parents who arranged for him to travel by bus across Washington, D.C. to a better elementary school. That initial journey ultimately led him through Harvard and Oxford to a chaired professorship at the University of Chicago Law School. Along the way, he also picked up an education degree (like my own son-in-law Justin, who is using his degrees in law and education to build a law practice representing families of special needs learners).

Professor Driver amply repays his debt to education in The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court and the American Mind (Pantheon Books), a comprehensive history of the high Court’s decisions concerning how the U.S. legal system impacts schools, administrators and teachers in their daily work. Early court decisions suggested that the Constitution had a limited role to play in the sphere of public education. That has changed, but the story is not a straightforward one, and Driver proceeds case by case in this readable survey, which will benefit specialists as well as general readers.

There are “Codes of Honor” in other areas than academia, as Charles Brandt, himself an experienced trial lawyer and former prosecutor, reminds us in “I Heard You Paint Houses”: Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa (Steerforth Press).

I still can’t account for the disappearance of Judge Crater, and I only think I know the identity of Jack the Ripper, but this book convinced me that its author has conclusively solved the mystery of what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, legendary former boss of the Teamsters union. Even more remarkably, the author is the person who patiently elicited a deathbed confession from Hoffa’s killer (no, Hoffa is not buried in the Meadowlands). Is the most chilling part of this book the way Frank Sheeran learned to be a professional hitman (over 400 days in actual combat with Patton’s army in WWII), or the lack of any hesitation with which he took out Hoffa, who was one of his two mentors and best friends? Unfortunately for Hoffa, the “Boss of Bosses,” Russell Bufolino, was a better friend of Sheeran, and Bufolino wanted Hoffa dead. I learned about this book from another fine trial lawyer, my old friend Jon Warner, and it literally kept me up at night. It soon will be a Netflix film by Martin Scorsese but don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of reading the book.

In law school I usually found ways to procrastinate before tackling my corporate tax homework. One of the easiest involved a special room in the law school library, where I could get lost in one of the many crimson-bound volumes entitled Notable British and American Trials. As a result, from those halcyon days I was already somewhat familiar with the subject matter of the recent Blood and Ivy: The 1849 Murder Which Scandalized Harvard by Paul Collins (Norton).

Emerson, Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and other “Boston Brahmins” found it unthinkable when one member of the august Harvard Medical School faculty was arrested for killing another faculty member and attempting to dispose of his body in the Medical School’s laboratory furnace due to a fight over an unpaid debt. But what startled the academic elite became even more startling as Professor John Webster was tried, convicted and sent to the gallows for the murder of Professor George Parkman. Collins does a good job of re-telling the facts of this famous American crime, but nothing beats the unvarnished trial transcript in State v. Webster if you can find it.

I don’t want you to think I spend all my time reading about bad guys.

Blockchain and the Law: The Rule of Code by Primavera DeFilippi and Aaron Wright (Harvard University Press) did not weaken my conviction that Bitcoin is today’s version of the 18th century “Tulip Mania,” but it did persuade me that the elaborate technology behind Bitcoin and other so-called crypto currencies — a sort of “blackbox” arrangement called Blockchain, in which computers talk to one another and transactions can be cloaked in virtually impenetrable anonymity — is and will be a force to be reckoned with.

This is a serious scholarly book, and not an easy read. I’m thankful I don’t have to take an exam on its rigorous analysis of law shaped by technology, but I’m also glad I struggled with it.  The law changes slowly and in increments. Can it deal with a technology revolution which implicates a variety of disparate legal concerns, from state sovereignty to privacy and a new type of property? It will have to.

Back to history. Now in her late eighties, Dame Antonia Fraser shows no sign of slowing down, and she has given us another fascinating serving of British parliamentary history in her latest book, The King and the Catholics: England, Ireland and the Fight for Religious Freedom, 1780-1829 (Doubleday).

Meticulously researched and elegantly written (the phrase “popular historian” is often a way of unfairly condescending to those authors who actually write well), this is a powerful story: how the intolerance and bigotry which had unfairly imposed severe political disabilities on Catholic subjects of the British crown for several centuries were eventually legislated out of existence. It required a number of heroes, from Ireland’s champion Daniel O’Connell, to lesser known parliamentary figures such as Henry Grattan and William Conyngham Plunket, for the forces of reason to overcome the reactionary tendencies of fear. Even so, as Dame Antonia shows, the legislative road was long and tortuous. Parallels with some of our own fears and anxieties will not be lost on a contemporary reader.

Current events are, I suppose, inescapable in today’s publishing programs.  A short but timely volume from the Modern Library called Impeachment: An American History grabbed my attention. It will take you only a few hours to read.

SMU history professor Jeffrey A. Engel introduces the book by describing how the issue of impeachment came to the fore in the 1787 debates over the proposed U.S. Constitution (spoiler alert: once the founders realized that George Washington, the “Indispensable Man,” was not going to live forever, they figured out that they needed a mechanism for removing any crooked or self-serving chief magistrate who lacked Washington’s character). Engel’s introduction is followed by pithy but informative chapters on the actual impeachment proceedings of Andrew Johnson (historian Jon Meacham shows that Johnson’s “crimes” involved politics rather than corruption); Richard Nixon (Timothy Naftali makes it clear that Nixon’s actions were precisely what the founders were concerned about, and that Nixon correctly perceived that, had he not resigned, he would have been — and deserved to be — the first U.S. president to be actually removed from office) and Bill Clinton (Peter Baker leaves no doubt that Clinton committed crimes, but that they were not the ones — dereliction of duty and official corruption — which the founders cared about). Professor Engel then returns with a short summation which leaves the fates of our current and future presidents to the judgment of Congress and posterity. This engrossing book of little more than 200 pages will provide you with a sophisticated background against which to view next year’s happenings (or lack of them).

Finally, I also recommend, for pure relaxation, a book having nothing to do with law: the movie actor Michael Caine’s Blowing the Bloody Doors Off and Other Life Lessons Hachette Books). Part rags-to-riches story, part show biz autobiography and part self-help treatise, this book is about fifty pages too long, but still a real charmer.

We are extraordinarily grateful for the more than 80 executives in finance, media, industry and academia whom we represented in 2018. I wish them, and all my readers, a holiday season filled with family, love and peace, and a healthy, pleasurable and rewarding new year. And to all, a good night!

George Birnbaum

About the Author

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George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.