At age 95, Sidley's Newt Minow has no time for retirement

Sidley Austin senior counsel Newt Minow. Sidley Austin/Handout

(Reuters) - After more than seven decades practicing law, Sidley Austin senior counsel Newt Minow, who will turn 96 next month, still sounds as enthusiastic about the work as a starry-eyed first-year associate.

Being a lawyer “is a way of life where you keep learning with every case, every client, every law and every fact. It is an opportunity to learn every day,” he told me.

No wonder the Chicago-based Minow has never retired, still tapped by firm lawyers and clients for select “judgment or policy questions,” he said.

A lion of the bar, Minow was chair of the Federal Communications Commission during the Kennedy administration. At a 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, he memorably called television “a vast wasteland.” (The shipwrecked SS Minnow of “Gilligan’s Island” later was named after him in sarcastic homage.)

Law for Minow has a been a springboard for contributions that have extended far beyond the courtroom. He’s argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, but he also played a key role in expanding public television, paved the way for the 1962 launch of the first communications satellite (which he presciently said would be more important than the moon landing), served as chairman of PBS and the Rand Corp and co-chaired presidential debates.

Much has been written about Minow’s accomplishments and accolades, which also include the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, when President Barack Obama noted he was “the only one of today's honorees who was present on my first date with Michelle.”

(Obama was working at Sidley in 1989 as a summer associate when he and Michelle, who was his associate mentor at the firm, bumped into Minow and his wife Josephine in the popcorn line when seeing the Spike Lee movie “Do the Right Thing.” To laughter, Obama said, “So he's been vital to my personal interests.”)

In a lengthy interview earlier this month, Minow and I spoke about his life as a lawyer and how during his 71 years of practice at the highest level, he has seen the profession change – and not always for the better in his opinion.

“I hate to see law today described as an industry, ‘the legal industry,’” he said. “To me, it’s still a profession.”

After serving in World War II as a U.S. Army sergeant in the China-Burma India Theater, he zoomed through Northwestern University in a program that allowed students to get their undergraduate and law degrees in a total of four years, earning his J.D. in 1950.

He worked just a few months as an associate at the firm now known as Mayer Brown (where he made $275 a month) before he was offered a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Fred Vinson.

Minow said Vinson as chief justice was allocated three clerks – the other justices only got two – in part to handle motions from indigent prisoners.

Often just a single, handwritten copy of the in forma pauperis motion would be filed. Minow recalled staying up nights to type memos on carbon paper about the pleadings that were then distributed to all nine justices.

“I might be the only person in the building reading the papers, which made what I had to say exceedingly important,” he said.

The overwhelming change in technology (including the invention of photocopying!) is one thing that stands out to him in his years of practicing law.

“A long-distance phone call was a big deal. Travel was limited,” he recalled.

After his stint as a clerk, he went to work for Adlai Stevenson as a legal advisor while the Illinois governor campaigned for president in 1952 and again in 1956.

In between the elections, Minow joined Stevenson at his four-lawyer firm that in 1957 became the Chicago office of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

Minow sounds nostalgic in describing his legal work in those days.

“I grew up as a general practice lawyer. They don’t exist anymore,” he said. “I’ve tried cases, done deals, handled estates. But today, everyone is a specialist.”

After John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Minow, then 35, was tapped as FCC chairman.

I asked him about his “vast wasteland” comment, and Minow said that the “main thing I felt was that the choice for viewers was limited.” There were just three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) and “very little if any public television.”

Minow was able to get legislation passed that required all new televisions to include a UHF tuner, vastly expanding the number of channels available. He also successfully pushed for the Communications Satellite Act of 1962.

"This will launch ideas into space," he said at the time, and "ideas last longer" than people.

After Minow left the FCC in 1963, he told me he “wanted to take a job that had nothing to do with the FCC. I didn’t want anyone saying I used my government experience to improve my job prospects.”

Imagine that.

Minow became general counsel of Encyclopedia Britannica, but by 1965, he realized he missed law firm practice and joined Leibman, Williams, Bennett, Baird & Minow.

In 1972, the 50-lawyer firm merged with 100-lawyer Sidley. “It was highly unusual for two firms to merge then,” he said.

Minow said the combination wasn’t his idea but credits his partners for the “vision to see law practice was going from local to national and international,” he said. “Their instincts were exactly right.”

He bemoans the present-day emphasis on profits per partner and the tendency of lawyers to hop from firm to firm.

“People didn’t switch law firms back then. They started in one place and usually ended up there,” he said.

At Sidley, Minow, a longtime member of the management committee, wasn’t actually responsible for hiring Obama as a summer associate -- but he was close.

His daughter Martha Minow, a professor (and former dean) at Harvard Law School took the unprecedented step of recommending Obama to her father, he said.

“She called and said, ‘I’ve got a student who is quite extraordinary and wants to spend the summer in Chicago.”

Minow followed up with hiring partner John Levi, who Minow recalled “laughed and told me he’d hired him already.”

As for the encounter at the movie theater, Michelle Obama in her autobiography wrote that Minow, whom she described as “one of the firm’s most high-ranking partners,” and his wife “greeted us warmly, even approvingly, and made no comment on the fact that we were together.”

Minow stepped back from the partnership to become senior counsel in 1991, when he was 65 – but not because of a mandatory retirement policy, he said.

“I had too many outside interests,” he said, serving on the board of multiple corporations and as a trustee for numerous organizations.

But he never gave up the practice of law.

“What I like most are the hard judgment calls,” he said. “When it’s a close question, that’s when it’s great to be a lawyer.”

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com