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White Shoe

How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century
Written by: John Oller
Narrated by: Stephen Graybill
Length: 12 hrs and 58 mins
Categories: History, Americas

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Publisher's Summary

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. 

“Entertaining.” (The Wall Street Journal

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 20th 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.

©2019 John Oller (P)2019 Penguin Audio

What the critics say

“A valuable addition to the literature on America’s transformation during the Gilded Age.” (Publishers Weekly)

"A lucid account of the rise of the modern law firm and the concomitant rise of the modern corporation...insightful and revealing." (Kirkus)

"This fast-paced history of the period from the white shoe perspective will be both entertaining and enlightening for most readers." (Library Journal)

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  • Philo
  • San Diego, CA, United States
  • 2019-03-21

Adds sharp, telling detail to big biz-law tales

I had heard many of the big, basic stories from authors such as Ron Chernow (in the J.P. Morgan bio and Death of the Banker). These are usually business-titan-centric. So, knowing the basic contours of the history helps to really draw out the value of this piece. This story stays close to the known figures but fills out the map of all sorts of vital personalities who came from the side of strategy and getting things done, creating as they went. Sometimes this involved creating new legal structures, as William Nelson Cromwell's innovations (throwing together bankruptcy structures through constellations of deals across state lines before the law provided them, and inaugurating the holding company to get around political attacks on the infamous trusts, and more!). Here we see genius strategists, with financiers' funds behind them, stretching their thinking and tools across jurisdictions in fascinating ways.

A crucial moment in U.S. history and the dawning American century is lit here from a different, very revealing angle. J.P. Morgan is widely known as a proto-Fed, privately coordinating rescues of the banking system and the Treasury at crucial moments. Similarly, here, in the Panama Canal affair, Cromwell acts as a sort of private (but publicly connected) proto-CIA (that's me editorializing, not the author), at turns visible and invisible, shepherding a national project through the framing-up, lobbying Congress, and then apparently coordinating the revolution that carved a separate Panana out of Colombia. Finally with a few deft (and sometimes tricky) moves he saw that the desired treaties were signed and sealed, giving the U.S. effective sovereignty over the Canal Zone, and leaving many Panamanian revolutionary patriots in the lurch. In this we see a master artist at work in the Macchiavellian lawyer sense, using selective invisibility to move people and various levers all over the map. Nobody could see the whole picture and strategy except perhaps Cromwell himself. This is a master-class in these arts. Watch too as Cromwell switches clients (as well as alliances) across that story -- it is quite a tightrope walk. My CIA thought makes sense as later Sullivan and Cromwell managing partner John Foster Dulles' brother Allen, also a partner, became director of the CIA. These are big pillars of the lofty heights of power in the American Century that was to follow.

Then at moments we are back to nuts and bolts of the design of law firms. This book has an interesting reach, especially to a lawyer. But the real excellence of the book shows in its seamless movement from personalities to big ideas to events. Here is a more lucid explanation of he rise,out of the Gilded Age, of the Progressive era, in all its components such as antitrust debates and law, than I have seen anywhere. The legal side provides an amazing prism through which to comprehend topics as pertinent now as ever then. The author sometimes draws parallels between the business titans of then and the tech firms now, and the sometimes puzzling actions of the government. One can trace thinkers such as Louis Brandeis (corporate lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice) right down to the Elizabeth Warren of today. I am amazed how much these issues were fleshed out at the dawn of the 20th century.

This is a unique and favorite addition to my business-finance-law bookshelf. I was a bit hesitant at first because a few books of this type have been rather stale and starchy. But once this one gets going, it is consistently pleasing and illuminating. My knowledge of American history is appreciably improved.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Brian
  • 2019-04-30

Great book

I guess I may be a bit biased since I am a lawyer. This book was is very interesting! I only knew about Paul Cravath from the great fiction novel, The Last Days of Night. I did know a bit about the robber barons, but not their lawyers. This book, however, is more about the Guilded Age than simply about the lawyers. Give it a try!!

0 of 1 people found this review helpful