Alumni Stories - In Focus

Changing the Law, One Tort at a Time: Victor Schwartz '58
Changing the Law, One Tort at a Time: Victor Schwartz '58

Alumni Director Kristin Collins talks with Victor Schwartz. Law professor at age 26. Dean at age 32. Served under two Presidents of the United States. And did we mention his dead-on impersonations which routinely attract media attention? Though you'd never guess it from his humility and down-to-earth nature, Victor Schwartz is a man of impressive accomplishments. Today Schwartz is a partner and chairs the Public Policy Group at the Washington office of the Kansas City-based law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P. The National Law Journal has three times named Victor one of the 100 most influential attorneys in the United States and the Washingtonian magazine has twice named him one of the top 50 lobbyists in the Nation's capital. This past May, The Legal Times of Washington, on its 30th anniversary, included Schwartz in its list of 30 of the greatest "visionary" lawyers of the past 30 years. Schwartz quipped that he owed it all to his "opthamologist, Dr. Mervin Zimmerman, who kept his vision good." That same sense of humor made for a very enjoyable interview after he returned to campus to celebrate his 50th reunion with his classmates. As he remarked, "All these awards and recognitions are nothing if you're not having a good time in life."

How did you end up at The Franklin School?

In eighth grade, I went to a school named Birch Wathen, which was very strict. At the time they were doing the reverse of what Franklin was doing. They had all girls and were bringing in boys. I was one of four boys in a class of about 24 girls. All of them, as has been true with most of my life, were much taller than I was and they had no interest in the four boys. I didn't thrive there. Franklin had a more congenial atmosphere. There were boys, and the girls were two years younger, so at least I was taller than one of them. That made for a good incentive and it was the best move I could have made because I thrived at Franklin – my grades went way up and I was much happier.

I am sure that being back here jogged a bunch of memories, including being in the same physical space. What jumped out for you?

First, it was wonderful to be in the same building. I have had dreams of that, of climbing up those stairs and being late for class and there was the very staircase! I saw a loud speaker in one of the rooms and it reminded me of when I ran WFBS, the Franklin Broadcasting System. It was a PA system, before all the innovation we have today. But it was treated as if it was a broadcast and that's what I did everyday from my sophomore year until I graduated. It was a lot of fun, and we did things that were innovative. We actually had the presidential debate on WFBS. This was before the Nixon/Kennedy debates, and it was between Paul Harris, who was my friend then and still, and a wonderful fellow named Ricky Braunshweiger. I was the moderator, and I limited Paul to one minute because he was my close friend and I thought people might think I was biased. Ricky I let talk as long as he wanted. Sometimes if you get to talk as long as you want, it's not as good as being brief. I teased that thing up for a month, and even the janitor put down his broom and listened to that debate, and Paul eventually won.

Another memory involves a very good history teacher named Dr. Russell Elliot. When his back was to the class, we would slowly move our chairs up on him where it would be imperceptible until the last moment, and he would say, "Get back. Get back," flustered and upset. So being at Franklin did bring back memories of things that we did to deviate teachers from their objective – education – and go toward the objective that we had – entertainment.

What are some of the key lessons that you took away or that looking back you now appreciate?

One of the most important occurred in Dr. Elliot's class, called Problems of American Democracy (PAD). It was advanced for that time. They took issues and debated either side of that issue. For example, something as remote now as whether Hawaii should be added as a state or something relevant today dealing with free speech. I was totally absorbed in that class. I liked being able to understand both sides of an argument, to learn the other person's perspective and arguments as best you can. And that served to mold an important part of my professional life. Many lawyers I work with today understand their side of the case. They go to congress and lobby, which I do. But they don't make the effort to fully understand the other side and actually even try to argue it better than the other side would. And that lesson stemmed right from my Franklin class.

Is that what pulled you towards the law - taking an issue, breaking it down and arguing it for a case?

I think PAD and my history courses did interest me in law. They made me understand our country, our policies, how we grew, the troubles that we had and some of the troubles that we overcame. The classes at Franklin were so good that when I began college at the University of Chicago, they had tests based on what you knew, and I placed into the senior class because of the background I had in history at Franklin.

From Chicago, you went directly to Columbia Law School. And then?

I wanted to understand the practical aspects of the law, and there was no better way than to work in a courtroom. I worked for a very prominent federal judge named Charles Metzner in the southern district of New York. For two years, I was involved in learning about trials, how to draft opinions of law, and how to really learn and appreciate both sides of an argument. A judge, to be a good judge, has to understand all the nuances. He gave me terrific opportunities to learn and exposed me to how the law worked. He would include me in settlement discussions where I was not a participant, just an observer. So the two years of being a law clerk was a tremendous education.

It sounds like a much higher level version of what you were doing earlier at Franklin of taking something and wrestling with it from both sides to really understand it.

In some ways it was. And that's when I got what was a pretty goofy idea – that I wanted to teach and be a law professor. I was only 25 years old at the time, but I was interviewed by a few deans who were crazy enough to offer me a job. The one I liked the best was from the University of Cincinnati. I was hired to teach Torts, which deals with liability issues, and Evidence, which addresses how you prove facts in court. I learned from my students, and the students seemed to get a kick out of what I was doing.

In the first class, I walked into this big auditorium and there were 175 law students, many who were older than I was, or at least looked older. I just sat in the class. When the class bell rang, I got up said, "Who is teaching this class?" Somebody said, "I don't know." And then somebody else said, "Some guy named Schwartz." I said, "Who is he? What did he ever do?" And then I said, "I am Schwartz. From you I come and to you I will return." I ran up on the stage, started teaching and never looked back. I tried to make every class entertaining and interesting. And the students treated me like I actually knew what I was talking about. I had confidence built at Franklin because the teachers, despite the fact that I was often a conduct problem, treated me with respect and some even thought that I might make something of myself. The students at Cincinnati were like the teachers at Franklin – they gave me confidence and helped me in my career. I'm in touch with many of them today.

There was a story about you coming back to Franklin in preparation for your professorial duties...

When I was offered the job of professor at the University of Cincinnati Law School it dawned on me that I had very little, if any, experience in public speaking. Suddenly, I was going to be in front of 100-200 students every day, and that was daunting, so I contacted Moe Spahn, then Headmaster of Franklin and asked him if it might be possible for me to talk to the students about law as a career and what law school was all about. Headmaster Spahn was extraordinarily gracious and allowed me to come to the school and, for the first time, I was thrust in front of 100 or so students. So, when I walked into an auditorium at the University of Cincinnati, I had already been tested. Sometimes a small event can train you for an event that is much, much larger. I will never forget the graciousness that Headmaster Spahn showed me because he very easily could have said "We're too busy," but he was very kind and I never forgot that.

After you left the University of Cincinnati, you had the chance to serve two Presidents, correct?

Yes, that is correct. I came to Washington under President Ford. The reason for that was that suddenly the liability costs of product liability, which is insurance used by business to protect against product liability lawsuits, became astronomically high, and to small businesses it was often unavailable. President Ford set up something called the Federal Interagency Task Force on Insurance and Accident Compensation. I had known the then-Secretary of Commerce, Elliot Richardson, whom I met when I was Dean of Cincinnati Law School. I asked whether I could help and got appointed to the job, running a task force with 12 major agencies. It's hard to get one agency to agree on anything, so this was a test. After President Ford lost, through luck, miracle, or chance, they kept me on, and at some point President Carter gave me more responsibility. They gave me the responsibility for coordinating all insurance and liability policy, looking at all bills and policies in Congress that would change our liability laws that would affect insurance. This allowed my little office, which only had about five people, to help coordinate policy. Back to Franklin, my job was to make a recommendation to the office of the President, but my job was also to present both sides of the issue as objectively as I could. I learned every single day that I was at the White House. To this day, I am not a strong Democrat or Republican because I met too many people in each administration who were very good and some who aren't good, but I can't come away from that experience, which was over four years, in saying one party or the other had all the answers. And as for my job now, I've established friendships, relationships and acquaintances which allow me to work with someone, no matter who is in power here. I will know some folks in the Obama administration, and that would have been true if Senator McCain had won. I can tell you under oath that it isn't all about schmoozing and it isn't all about money in D.C. There is some premium on the truth and getting information that is accurate. And because of the embarrassment that has been faced by politicians in both parties, accurate information has become more of a premium than when I first came down here.

So when you came, your full time role was as Chairman of this task force?

Yes, that's right. I took a leave of absence from the University of Cincinnati and thought when Ford lost that would be it. When an administration ends, usually you pack up and go home, but again, it was a minor miracle of my life. Not only was I kept on by the Carter administration, but also I was given more responsibility. So when I left in 1981, my knowledge of how the Executive branch of the federal government works went from a zero to reasonably good. There are very few men and women over the years who have been Presidential appointees. There are not that many positions to be filled. There are about 2,300 appointees; whereas, there is over 22,000 Hill staff. I was not in a big position. It was relatively minor. I was at the bottom of the totem pole, but I could look up. I could learn. And, I did.

It sounds like you were acting in a bi-partisan fashion.

My field of law, which is Liability or Tort law, really doesn't have a Democratic or Republican side, although on some bills, they'll line up one side or the other. After I got out of the Department of Commerce, I have been more of a bridge builder, a person trying to develop consensus. To get any bill through Congress today – I don't care if it's about motherhood or the flag – you have to develop consensus. You have to be able to listen to people on both sides. You need to be able to meet concerns and listen to everyone carefully. I have been fortunate in having some bills that have gone through congress. I have been given the responsibility to help with bills and also to block some things that seem, at least to me, to not be good for the people. The greatest blessing is to have health and to have your friends, but one of the professional blessings is that I have had clients that are willing to pay our firm to have me do things that I want to do anyway. Most lawyers do things that the clients bring to their attention, and they do a darn good job. They try their best to represent their clients' interests. Most of my practice, after I left the government, has been to put forth ideas, usually in something called law reviews, which are written by the law schools, and then put together coalitions that say, "Hey, Victor. Go do it." A few years ago, I thought that our jury system was suffering a breakdown. The juries were not at all representative of the community. People who had important positions like a minister or a doctor or a lawyer were excused. A lot of people that were hard working couldn't afford to be on juries because the pay was so meager. Working with others, we developed something called the Jury Patriotism Act, which makes sure that everybody serves, that there are not exemptions because of your job. And if you are poor and your employer doesn't pay you, there is a long term trial fund that will pay up to $300/day to serve. It is operating now in 15 states. Imagine a job where you get paid to do something like that. It feels pretty good.

On that note, is there any accomplishment or accolade that makes you especially proud?

I will mention two things. One, The Legal Times named the 90 greatest lawyers in the city in the past 30 years. They had three categories. One was Pioneers, and I was kind of glad that I was not in that category because those lawyers had already passed away. That wouldn't have been good because I couldn't have enjoyed that accolade. The other was Champions, like Ralph Nader, people who have had issues that are clearly in the public interest. And the third, the one in which they placed me, was called Visionaries, and these were lawyers with ideas. For example, the two Supreme Court members that they put on were someone who once taught with me at UVA, Justice Nino Scalia, and another former law professor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. They have different views, obviously, but they are idea people. Now, I am not anywhere near the level of importance of those two justices, but the people in the group were people that came forward with ideas and once in a while, they materialize to fact.

Something else I will remember my whole life occurred at a hearing a few months ago. I am known down here to be able to imitate almost anybody. I was testifying in front of the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the brightest Senators and a friend named Arlen Spector, and it was a very controversial hearing. It was about 10 minutes to 11:00 am and Senator Spector said he was going to end the hearing promptly at 11. He had already questioned me. All of a sudden he looked at me and I thought, "Something's coming." [Schwarz does his best Spector impersonation] "Mr. Schwartz, I have heard that you do a pretty good imitation of me and I would like to know whether that's true." So here was the Chairman of a committee at a hearing, asking me as a witness whether I imitated him. And I thought, "Oh my god, I am under oath. If I say no, then I am lying, and if I do him and I really do it too much, he could be angry." I have no idea where this came from, but this is what I did, and it was in role call: [Again, Schwartz imitates Spector] "Mr. Chairman, it would be disrespectful of me to speculate on an answer to that question. I think it's something that you as Chairman of this committee should decide." And the place broke out in bedlam. If you know Spector, from what I am told, that's pretty dead-on. I doubt if any other lobbyist or lawyer in this town was asked by the committee, while he was testifying, whether he did any imitation. To me, that's really more important than The Legal Times and all that other stuff, because it's funny.

Getting back to Franklin, I always hung out not with the smartest kids but with the kids that were having a good time, and I never lost that. All these awards and recognitions are nothing if you're not having a good time in life, if you're not having fun. And that little incident was an embodiment of probably what I'm all about. It's really true.

Who's next on that list of impersonations?

Well, I had down Senator McCain and then he lost. Obama, I've got the rhythm, but I don't have the voice. I'll get it; it just takes a while. His rhythm is different in how he speaks than most people. He pauses. Within a few months I'll have it down.

[Schwartz also does a very colorful Bill Clinton...]

Thanks so much for sharing your ideas today. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Returning to Franklin after 50 years was an event in my life. It was long ago, but through the staff who worked on Reunion Weekend, through Chancellor Spahn, who happened to be the son of my Headmaster, and to everyone I met there – it made me feel very welcome, and I have never for a moment regretted the choice I made in moving to Franklin. There is no way I could have foreseen in 1958 what was going to happen the rest of my life, and I have been very fortunate. Franklin provided me with an important building block. And I've mentioned some of those things today that still are there. The School has grown, but it's not just size. Its depth, its educational foundation - that's much improved. To walk through those doors and see that improvement and to read the magazine that you write and see what's done makes me very proud.