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Brian Burke: (Column 174) — Nerdy Steve Adams Has Affected California Divorces for 40 Years

Good in law library but not with clients ...

I decided to tell a version of the Steve Adams story in early February.

It started in the Imperial Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella and worked up to California’s Constitutional Convention of 1850, where the decision was made to mix the Spanish notion of what it meant to be married (community property without the possibility of divorce) and the Anglo-American idea of marriage-as-contract (with divorce as legal action for breach of that contract where the innocent spouse got more than half of the marital property as damages).

In the jump from 1850 to the account of how Adams subverted the principles that inspired the Family Law Act of 1970 (No-Fault/Equal Division), there will be a brief stop at a 1950’s elementary school somewhere in California.

I can picture little Stevie Adams in the third grade. He would have been a tall, skinny kid carrying a 2-inch binder he got from his father’s law office.

He carried the same type of high-quality binder since the first day of first grade. He wouldn’t let go of it, and he took pride in showing how it was organized to anyone with the patience to listen.

He had a divider made of 80-pound paper for each subject; all the dividers had tabs and each tab was labeled. The tab on the last divider said EXTRACURRICULAR, but there was never any material behind it.

What he did have behind the last divider was a clear, plastic pouch in which he kept his pens and pencils. Stevie had no sympathy for classmates who, for reasons he couldn’t understand, failed to have a “writing implement” when one was required.

Steve took several binders plus numerous tabs and dividers — all from Dad’s law office — when he went to Reed College in Portland, Ore.

Reed is a place where an odd duck can fit in, so it’s as much of a paradox as it is a school.

While away from home, Steve realized the supply room at the family law firm of Philip Adams was packed with the best binders, dividers, tabs and other specialty items that money could buy; he missed it.

After college he went to law school, not because he was attracted to the law, but because he loved the stationery of the law.

He left the small student body at Reed for Boalt Hall, the law school at UC Berkeley, then the largest university west of the Mississippi.

At that time, Californians still believed in the value of free post-secondary and professional education.

The annual tuition for Boalt is now about $48,703. It was $120 a semester for the class of 1969 and would have been somewhat less for Adams’ class of 1964. (The difference is one of too many shameful examples of generational theft.)

Before Professor John Yoo took a leave of absence to serve in the Bush administration’s Department of Justice (and linked the school to his notorious Torture Memorandum), Boalt Hall was usually rated as one of the country’s top five law schools.

It was well-regarded because it had a low ratio of applications to acceptances. Based on my own experience, I’m sure the large number of applications was due to the tuition rather than the quality curriculum or teaching.

While not from Harvard, Yale or Stanford, a law degree from Boalt could be good enough for a career in academic law if one had also been an editor of the California Law Review (an enthusiastic member of the top 10 percent); been selected for a Supreme Court Clerkship; passed the Bar Exam on the first try.

Adams didn’t achieve this trifecta so, for him, a position at a major law school was out of the question.

For some, law school can be excruciatingly boring. I suspect Steve was a competent but indifferent law student, which is suggested by the fact he went to work at his father’s firm.

Philip Adams was known for a book he wrote on adoptions, but Steve dedicated all his future publications to “Philip Adams, the quintessential family lawyer,” which translates to “divorce lawyer.”

What law student, with more than one employment offer from his father, wants to be a divorce lawyer?

Family law trolls

The Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, once did a profile of Philip Adams and asked him about Steve’s time at his firm. Philip said, “He was good in the law library and not so good with the clients.”

It’s necessary to know something about law libraries and something about the divorce client of the 1960s to appreciate the significance of this father’s description of his own son.

Before the digital age, legal research was done in a dedicated room, which was often windowless and furnished with floor-to-ceiling shelves sturdy enough to hold at least 1,000 heavy, hardback books.

A basic collection of law books is so heavy that care must be taken to ensure the floor on which the shelves rest won’t collapse under their weight.

A working library requires a set of annotated codes (~ 100 books) and a digest (~ 100 books). Both sets have slots in the back covers that contain the supplemental updates replaced once a year by the most junior lawyer who uses the library.

Also essential is a tedious indexing system called Shepard’s Citations (updated weekly) and various sets of multi-volume treatises on specific practice areas.

The guts of the library are sets of official reports of the published decisions of the state Supreme Court and the various courts of appeal. At the end of 1969, there were 707 volumes of California appellate reports.

Someone who was “good in the law library” was an introvert with the interests and instincts of a detective. They could thrive for hours or days in pursuit of an obscure rule that operated in favor of a client – or for language that could be used to argue against the application of a rule that worked against the client.

An attorney who thrived in the pre-digital law library was called a law troll; to be a law troll in the 1960s was like being a computer geek in the 1990s.

• • •

Steve Adams was a quintessential law troll. His own father said he wasn’t very good with clients.

The next column will explain what a pre-1970 divorce client was like — very angry — and it will describe the difficult, unrewarding work that had to be done with them.

— Brian Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he also is the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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