Requiem For A Law Firm

By Steven J. Kumble and Kevin J. Lahart. 312 pages. Carroll & Graf $19.95.

He was the Saddam Hussein of Wall Street lawyers--fomenting instability and insurrection among the nation's best hired guns. His behemoth law firm (with a name to match: Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey) came to epitomize the transformation of corporate law from a genteel profession to a ruthless business no different than any other in the get-rich 1980s. It raided other firms for clients and legal talent and eliminated any pretense that civility had a place in the marketplace.

And Steven J. Kumble was plenty successful. In less than 20 years, he turned a Manhattan law firm of eight attorneys into 700 with offices in 16 cities, revenues of more than $200 million and big-shot clients like Citibank, Mobil and Donald Trump. The letterhead was equally impressive, including former senators, governors and the lawyer immortalized in Mel Brooks's "Star Wars" spoof, "Spaceballs" (Alan Schwartz, as in "May the Schwartz be with you"). Several partners made seven-figure incomes. Then, almost overnight in late 1987, the firm imploded. Partners bolted and clients fled, leaving a debt of more than $100 million that still hasn't been resolved in bankruptcy court. Finley, Kumble's demise was used by journalists, academicians and even other firms as a parable of law-practice-gone-awry, but Kumble himself--never known for lacking an opinion--offered little comment of his own.

Until now. "Conduct Unbecoming," written with Keven J. Lahart, is Kumble's attempt to set the record straight--and settle scores. One has the sense that Kumble views the collapse of his dream as a tale worthy of the Greek tragedies. It isn't, at least as told here (just as it wasn't in Kim Eisler's "Shark Tank," another Finley, Kumble chronicle published last March). But the book is a readable and at times self-revealing account of what happens when very ambitious and very aggressive people--"scorpions" is Kumble's metaphor--try to work together in a partnership, where visions of individual stardom are supposed to be subordinated. "I foolishly thought we could mold those prima donnas into a chorus," Kumble laments.

Ironically, this sober postmortem is best when it's funniest. Kumble spares no vitriol in describing some of his former colleagues. Harvey Myerson, who reportedly remains under investigation by the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn for alleged improprieties at the firm, gets the worst of it. Myerson is "short, stocky and perpetually bathed in sweat," Kumble writes. "Watching him eat was an experience in itself. He would devour food, stuffing his mouth hand-over-hand. And talk all the while, so that food would be falling from the sides of his mouth and occasionally shooting out at his table companions." And then there are accounts of the battles among partners over expense reports for furs and jewelry and the rent on a mistress's apartment. (IRS tip: these are not usually viewed as deductible items, but you should consult your own lawyer.) While these are not insights we associate with the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes, they do give a picture of the bitterness of life as a scorpion.

But what Kumble, now chairman of a leveraged-buyout firm, really wants is to offer up advice to those who would follow him. Choose "a good, loyal, hard-working, decent man" over an "abrasive, disloyal man who arrived last week, but who was a major rainmaker." Avoid "too many strong egos" and "too many 'maximum leader' types." Sounds right--and fairly obvious. Kumble couldn't figure that out 20 or 10 years ago? It's probably a good thing that he's not looking for sympathy with this book. He doesn't deserve any: Steven Kumble reaped what he sowed.