If you’re not familiar with the term “white shoe,” never fear. Author and retired Wall Street lawyer John Oller explains this and much more in the captivating White Shoe: How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century. (For the record, “white shoe” refers to the white buck shoes worn by the Ivy League college men who shaped the leading firms on Wall Street.)
If Oller once wrote dry, impenetrable legal briefs, there’s no hint of it here. His narrative sparkles with details that set this study of the legal profession’s influence on big business into a fascinating historical context. Oller begins at the turn of the 20th century, when most lawyers were willing to adopt the newly introduced paper clip—but not much else. (The profession was also slow to use telephones and typewriters.)
Enter Paul Cravath, one of several colorful figures brought to life in Oller’s book. Cravath launched an entirely new model of management for a law firm, and represented George Westinghouse in a legal battle with Thomas Edison in what has become known as the “light bulb war.” Other figures who reshaped the profession were Frank Stetson, who represented J.P. Morgan; William Nelson Cromwell, the man who “taught the robber barons how to rob”; and John Foster Dulles, who, Cravath argues, had a large hand in shaping the entire 20th century.
In an epilogue, Oller quotes attorney Paul Cravath in 1929, before the stock market crash, who opines that big business is “perhaps the most serious menace of our age in its social consequences upon American life.” Now, nearly a century later, as America continues to grapple with the role of corporations in politics and policy-making, it’s worth looking back at the men and forces that have made big business what it is today.