Steven Brill : 1-Man Jolt for Legal Journalism

Times Legal Affairs Writer

The pudgy young man with the impish look and the big cigar bounded into the hotel reception room, surveyed the gathering crowd of 250, and homed in, as if directed by internal radar, on the most powerful attorney in the room, American Bar Assn. President-elect Robert Raven.

That same unerring radar has guided 36-year-old legal news baron Steven Brill into choice markets for his publications and has made him a growing power in the wealthy and influential world of lawyers and judges.

Jokingly understating that power, Raven introduced Brill as "Carole Brill's little brother" at the fund-raising lunch in San Francisco for her Legal Services for Children. But he also identified Steven Brill as president and editor-in-chief of American Lawyer magazine, as chairman and editor-in-chief of the American Lawyer Newspapers Group, and as the point man in the purchase and revamping of small legal newspapers from Miami to San Francisco.

Brill's next stop likely will be Los Angeles.

Business Savvy

Now publishing five weekday papers and five weeklies under the group, including the brand new Manhattan Lawyer going into full production this fall, Brill is credited with developing a business savvy to complement the journalistic innovation on which he built his reputation.

"There is no question that he has really reshaped legal journalism," said James B. Stewart Jr., a former lawyer with New York's Cravath, Swain & Moore who wrote for Brill's American Lawyer in its early years. "He had a vision that lawyers should be covered the way other important decision makers in our society are. That has now come to be accepted by other publications, and in the end that may be his most lasting contribution, rather than his financial success, which is impressive."

Infusing that vision into his newspapers, Brill is turning the traditionally stodgy, gray sheets containing old wire stories wrapped around court calendars into slicker, glibber, graphic publications filled with timely photographs and articles designed to capture the attention of lawyers and judges who barely have time to read their mail.

Local Coverage

While his magazine is aimed at major law firms, each local newspaper covers the business of law and the law itself for every attorney in its reach.

When he launched American Lawyer in 1979, Brill's upstart writing about the handsome sums lawyers are paid and partners' wrangles earned him sobriquets like the National Enquirer or People magazine of legal news. But with maturity, the magazine toned down its headlines, and the legal profession adjusted to media scrutiny.

Now his magazine is bought by major law firms coast to coast, and his papers are gaining circulation in every major market except Los Angeles and Chicago.

His subscribers range from a Monterey solo practitioner to the justices of the California Supreme Court who read the San Francisco Recorder, to the justices and clerks of the U.S. Supreme Court who share five paid subscriptions to Washington's Legal Times.

Critics have suggested that Brill may be investing in newspapers to save his beloved magazine, which has lost circulation since its peak year in 1982 when a postal statement showed an average paid circulation of 24,992 copies contrasted with 17,348 last year.

Livid at that appraisal, Brill insists that the magazine is thriving. It broke even in its fifth year and has steadily built profits since, he said.

His sole competitor nationally, James A. Finkelstein, president and publisher of the weekly National Law Journal with a 1986 average circulation of 42,496, fairly splutters at the suggestion that Brill is building an "empire." Finkelstein rejects as unsound both game plans suggested by Brill's intrigued observers--that Brill plans to link the small newspapers into one national publication, and that he plans to market an advertising package for all 10 papers. The total circulation from all of Brill's new toys--as low as 1,200 for Atlanta's Fulton County Daily Report and 3,200 for the Recorder when purchased--Finkelstein suggests, is well under 40,000, and that's not much of a package to offer big-bucks national advertisers.

Too Much for Too Little?

Finkelstein believes Brill paid too much for too little, claiming some of the papers Brill bought were losing money.

But other observers offer faint praise as they watch Brill's moves with curiosity.

"The law business is booming, so I think those papers are pretty good," said New York magazine consultant James Kobak. "I think buying them is probably a pretty good business decision."

"A lot of what he is doing is not stupid. A lot is shrewd," said Brill's well-entrenched California competitor, Charles T. Munger, chairman of the board of the Los Angeles-based Daily Journal Co. After Brill bought the San Francisco Recorder, Munger made a countermove. He purchased the tiny 94-year-old San Francisco Banner as a base for a Bay Area edition of his 21,000-circulation Los Angeles newspaper.

Some of the faith placed in Brill's business moves is based on respect for his financial backers, Associated Newspaper Group of London, which owns England's Daily Mail and Evening Standard.

"My partners are very sophisticated, very tough businessmen who have been in the newspaper business for a couple hundred years, and they would not be making the investment they are if they didn't think we were doing something that made sense," Brill said.

"They are not over-bidders," he said, noting that his group has never paid more than 9 1/2 times earnings for any of the papers it has bought. That ratio is considered extremely low for such purchases.

Brill spikes any thought of a national legal newspaper, although he says he does intend to build up a news service so his papers can share stories and columns of nationwide interest.

He is interested in packaging advertising for the 10 papers--particularly classifieds where, say, a handwriting expert could tout his services to lawyers across the country. But that is not his primary goal.

"Our business plan is our editorial plan," Brill said. "We want to make these things high-quality, accurate papers that people respect and rely on. . . . That will make us, ultimately in each city where we are, the alternate upscale paper."

Readers are definitely there to attract.

Peter Scheer, Brill's publisher of the Legal Times, said circulation has risen from about 3,000 at the time of purchase about a year ago to 6,200, and he has only begun to reach Washington's 25,000 lawyers. San Francisco Recorder publisher David C. Stegall and editor Avram Goldstein, who have upped circulation from 3,200 to 3,500 without a drive, hope to produce a "must read" product for the city's 13,000 lawyers, although they deny any intention to go for California's statewide market of more than 100,000 lawyers.

A Big Market

"The legal market is very big," said national competitor Finkelstein, who says he is not concerned about Brill cutting into his national weekly magazine or daily New York newspaper circulation or advertising revenue.

"Attorneys in private law firms earn $50 billion a year. Lawyers are the richest professionals in the United States today. Income has grown 12% a year since 1972 and may be slowing to 10%," Finkelstein said. "We have grown in this growing market and Brill has not."

Brill said that American Lawyer's circulation has dropped from what he said was a top figure of 22,000 paid subscriptions in 1982 to a low of about 18,000. But he attributes that to experiments in pricing as low as $17.50 in 1982 to a maximum $295 for about one-third of subscribers today. Subscription revenue is now four times what it was in 1982 and advertising revenue is 10 times greater, Brill said. That climbing revenue, he said, proves his operation also is growing.

Brill is banking on the prospect that the readers he is wooing will embrace all worthwhile comers. For legal publications, competition does not have to mean a fight to the death. "If you have four good publications," said Brill, "four good publications are going to sell."

California Competition

Most of Brill's papers monopolize their markets. That is not the case in California, where his entry into San Francisco has aroused Munger's sleeping giant, the Daily Journal Co., which publishes the largest legal newspaper in the country in circulation, news pages and advertising.

Brill called Munger in Los Angeles last year, inquiring whether the Daily Journal could be bought.

"Not at any price," Munger replied.

That has led to speculation that Brill bought the Recorder to set up a statewide competition for the eyes of California's 105,000 lawyers, aiming to scuttle the Daily Journal.

"He will either take over the Daily Journal or just destroy it and create something in its place," said Stewart, who left American Lawyer to become a Wall Street Journal reporter in 1983 but remains Brill's close friend. "He will not stop until he has a presence in Los Angeles."

But Brill and Munger predict they will both be around for some time, and that the Northern California competition will strengthen both papers.

That doesn't mean Brill will ignore Los Angeles or its 40,000 lawyers.

"If what we are doing in New York with the Manhattan Lawyer can work, Charlie (Munger) may have competition in the south. I think he knows that," Brill said, indicating he may start a slick weekly Los Angeles tabloid to match the glib new New York paper.

"That (the Daily Journal) is a really good paper. . . . I don't think we could beat them at their own game and therefore we would be very stupid to try," Brill said. "But I think we could carve out a pretty good business in L.A. with a paper like the Manhattan Lawyer, above and beyond the question of whether it would hurt the Daily Journal."

One example of how competition can benefit the legal community involves publication of appellate court opinions well ahead of official court volumes, a key reason why the Daily Journal has always had a significant circulation throughout California.

Brill ordered opinions published in the Recorder, choosing a handy notebook-size format with holes punched in the side so lawyers could easily put them in binders to carry to court for immediate reference.

The Daily Journal followed suit, scaling down its tabloid-size opinions to the smaller format, but eschewing the holes.

"I have not heard of a major demand for holes," said Gerald L. Salzman, Daily Journal publisher and editor-in-chief.

The Daily Journal used to publish opinions three or four weeks after they were issued. Brill wanted his printed within four days. The Daily Journal cut that to two.

'Cobwebs' Knocked Out

"Steve Brill sure is knocking the cobwebs out of the place," said one Daily Journal employee.

Brill's approach to the San Francisco Recorder, once he purchased it in late December, followed his pattern with the other papers:

--He hired as publisher a well-connected lawyer with a business background--Stegall, 39, of San Francisco's megafirm Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro--who could run the business and serve as credible liaison to the legal community.

--He didn't fire anybody, moving in as editor the 32-year-old Goldstein, who had run a medical paper Brill bought and then scuttled along with three legal papers in Florida. Brill expects employees to leave of their own accord if they don't like the way he does business.

--He began redesigning the paper, adding pictures, surveying readers about trimming the giant 35-inch broad-sheet size, and hiring The Times' Jim Hollander as associate editor for make-up.

--He wrote an open letter to subscribers outlining planned improvements and organized focus groups to see what readers wanted in his new paper.

--He instilled in key employees his goal of making the paper "must reading" for lawyers who have no time to read.

--He also collected a competent staff, paying competitive salaries, offering book deals or a coveted wine column and generally, as one recruit noted, "playing Santa Claus to get the people he wants."

To get that staff, Brill went first to the place that employed the best, the Daily Journal itself. He lured four members of its staff of 12, including two stars, irreverent lawyer Milt Policzer who wrote the Daily Journal column "From the Courts," and editor Kenneth Jost, known equally for his quality journalism and oft-vented temper.

But Munger says that neither Policzer nor any other individual could become a Pied Piper to lure away his loyal subscribers.

He's Not Switching

Robert G. Lane, managing partner of Los Angeles-based Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, says he read Policzer's column in the Daily Journal but that he doesn't plan to switch to the Recorder because the writer has.

George A. Sears, managing partner of San Francisco's Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, said "certainly we are not changing our subscriptions" because of any coming legal news war. The firm subscribes to both the Daily Journal and the Recorder, and he skims both of them daily.

Brill's greatest critics, mostly former staff members, praise his intellectual ability and usually his journalistic excellence. But they also mention his legendary outbursts of temper.

The cherubic-looking head of American Lawyer Newspapers Group grew up in Queens, the son of a Manhattan liquor merchant, and promoted himself into Deerfield Academy on a scholarship after reading that John F. Kennedy had gone to such a prep school. He went on to Yale and graduated from Yale Law School although he chose not to take a bar exam and had no intention of practicing law. It was just that his parents expected some professional training (one older sister practices psychology, the other one law) and New Haven had the only mechanic who could deal with his Volvo.

During his Yale years, the precocious Brill served as assistant to New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, and assumed that his career would be in government.

The Writing Bug

But somewhere along the line, he started writing--opinion articles for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, columns for Clay Felker in New York magazine and then Esquire and, in 1977, a best-selling book, "The Teamsters."

"Once I started writing, I knew journalism was it," Brill said. "I just loved it."

That love and the high standards he sets for himself and his staff may contribute to what some ex-staffers call the "cult of suffering" in the American Lawyer. Reporters working in the "bullpen" feel Brill's watchful presence from his glassed corner office in the complex on Manhattan's 3rd Avenue.

"You literally did have fear of your job on a daily basis. I found it difficult to write stories. I would sit down at a (computer) terminal and would hear myself getting yelled at," said Kim Masters, 32, now a Hollywood reporter for the San Fernando Valley Daily News who worked for Brill's American Lawyer magazine for five months.

Brill does not mince words when he edits a story, although one friend suggested that Brill doesn't like his own writing to be edited or cut in any way and that, as he spreads himself thinner and thinner, his reporting suffers.

Brill says that any reader can judge the quality of his reporting, but conceded about editing: "I'm very bad at that. You will not find an editor in the country who will tell you I'm easy to edit."

Sample Brillisms

Brillisms seared into the margins of reporters' stories he has edited include: "Is English your second language?" "Are you illiterate?" "This story is an intellectual abortion," and "You've got to be kidding!"

The most recent one is "YDGPBTW," which translates, "You Don't Get Paid By The Word," scrawled across overly long stories.

On the other hand, former staffers said Brill often tried to make up for his angry outbursts with unheard-of generosity, like paying for everyone's weekend out of town, or dinners out, or health club memberships.

Kim Eisler, a former Daily Journal reporter, continues to work for Brill despite the occasional outbursts and acerbic notations.

"Brill . . . has a tremendous sense of what makes a story, and somehow to me that makes it all right," says Eisler, 36.

Brill, who hates publicity about his occasional flare-ups and believes that most horror tales come from disgruntled former staff members, said: "It bothers me. There is a substantial element of truth in it. I probably have gotten a lot better about it lately. What's to say? I think I do it on the merits."

It's a matter of teaching staff members, he said, so that they won't make the same mistake again.

'He's Mellowed'

"He definitely has mellowed," said Jill Abramson, considered one of Brill's "inner circle" and now editor of Legal Times. "I just got something from him where he circled a headline with a repetitive verb and wrote, 'This is terribly bad writing and editing, really awful.' He used to say, 'Are you from this planet?' "

Part of Brill's mellowing is attributed to his family and the good life he has provided them--his wife Cynthia, an attorney and American Lawyer general counsel, and daughters Emily, 4, and Sophia, 2, who share a 5th Avenue co-op apartment and a house with a pool in suburban Westchester County.

Brill is so devoted to his family that he refuses to be away from home on weekends or for more than one full night during the week.

Carving out time for his daughters does not mean the peripatetic Brill is slowing down. Although he anticipates few if any more newspaper purchases, he travels the country as a "hands-on" editor trying personally to upgrade his papers. He carries a cellular phone with him at all times and keeps his watch set 12 minutes ahead to assure promptness.

Considered a powerful man because of his papers, the expensive seminars he stages, and the occasional no-fee speeches he makes to major law firms, Brill downplays power as a motivating force.

'Less of the Power'

"I have less of the power I enjoy today than I did two years ago (before the newspaper purchases) because I can't write as much of my own stuff," he said. "I have a little power coming up with story ideas, but I would have more power in any one of the hundreds of jobs I could get as a columnist."

Robert S. Warren, senior partner of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Los Angeles, agrees that megafirms enjoy reading the information Brill provides about other law firms, but minimized his power over them.

"I don't believe any law firm anywhere sits and waits for direction from either Steve or anyone else," Warren said.

Intimates think that what makes Stevie run lies closer to his quest for risk and quality.

"He gets a real kick out of buying these papers, turning them around, making them quality papers," said Abramson. "He . . . has to have constantly new hurdles."

Brill attributes his motives to "some mix of power, satisfaction of doing good work, and money."

He has looked back only once--a little more than two years ago when he was thinking of selling his magazine.

"I wanted to go back to writing books," he says. "I loved writing a book."

But then he leaped for the next hurdle, guided by that inner radar that directs him to the most powerful person in the room or the biggest challenge on the fast track he has created for himself.

"I wanted to build a chain of papers not wholly based on advertising, but based on the notion that your editorial plan can be your business plan . . . to create a whole different kind of journalistic institution that wouldn't have to worry about having a terrific food page."

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