Weekend Reading: White Shoe: How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century

From the blurb for John Oller, White Shoe: How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century (Dutton, March 19, 2019):

The fascinating true story of how a group of visionary attorneys helped make American business synonymous with Big Business, and Wall Street the center of the financial world

The legal profession once operated on a smaller scale—folksy lawyers arguing for fairness and justice before a judge and jury. But by the year 1900, a new type of lawyer was born, one who understood business as well as the law. Working hand in glove with their clients, over the next two decades these New York City “white shoe” lawyers devised and implemented legal strategies that would drive the business world throughout the twentieth century. These lawyers were architects of the monopolistic new corporations so despised by many, and acted as guardians who helped the kings of industry fend off government overreaching. Yet they also quietly steered their robber baron clients away from a “public be damned” attitude toward more enlightened corporate behavior during a period of progressive, turbulent change in America.

Author John Oller, himself a former Wall Street lawyer, gives us a richly-written glimpse of turn-of-the-century New York, from the grandeur of private mansions and elegant hotels and the city’s early skyscrapers and transportation systems, to the depths of its deplorable tenement housing conditions. Some of the biggest names of the era are featured, including business titans J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, lawyer-statesmen Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes, and presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson.

Among the colorful, high-powered lawyers vividly portrayed, White Shoe focuses on three: Paul Cravath, who guided his client George Westinghouse in his war against Thomas Edison and launched a new model of law firm management—the “Cravath system”; Frank Stetson, the “attorney general” for financier J. P. Morgan who fiercely defended against government lawsuits to break up Morgan’s business empires; and William Nelson Cromwell, the lawyer “who taught the robber barons how to rob,” and was best known for his instrumental role in creating the Panama Canal.

In White Shoe, the story of this small but influential band of Wall Street lawyers who created Big Business is fully told for the first time.

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