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Conduct Unbecoming: The Rise and Ruin of Finley, Kumble.

Conduct Unbecoming: The Rise and Ruin of Finley, Kumble

I once had a wicked but satisfying dream. I had rented a boat on a winter evening and invited aboard a selection of the most repellent people I know. The guests were chosen to include the full range of offensive qualities--hypocrisy, self-obsession, arrogance, greed, spite, etc. I floated my dreamboat, this Ark of Vice, far out onto a deep sea. There I watched the monsters mingle. I believe I even scribbled notes for a Vanity Fair profile or two. At last, when the irritation became unbearable, I pulled the plug (my boat had a plug) and slipped ever so quietly over the side, into a waiting skiff. There were no survivors.

Until I read the work under review (*1) it hadn't occurred to me that my dream could come true. Conduct Unbecoming is the result of a similar experiment; it tells--or attempts to tell--the story of the sinking of a law firm, Finley, Kumble, custom-built by the author to accommodate only revolting human beings. It seems that somewhere back in the late seventies, Steven Kumble acquired the dubious conviction that corporate lawyers were underpaid. "Why," writes Kumble, "should a lawyer work very hard and not get paid for it? Most of the lawyers I know are better educated, brighter, and work harder than the people they represent in the business world. But they make less money. Why?" In building his firm, Kumble would correct this travesty of natural justice.

The idea was to build a truly national law firm. Over the course of the past decade, Kumble, by promising to make his partners rich, persuaded dozens of small law firms around the country to combine with Finley, Kumble. A lot of the money behind the promises was, like the money behind so many recent promises, borrowed. When Finley, Kumble declared bankruptcy in 1988, it owed $83 million ot its bankers. The 750 lawyers who reached for Kumble's shimmering gold-plated ring were not, it seems, uniformly admirable. Even one of its own partners termed Finley, Kumble a "scuzz pile." And most of this book is one long, tedious illustration of this point, as Kumble unburdens himself of his hitherto concealed distaste for the men he invited onto his dream boat, and who, in 1987, one year before the firm sank, staged a mutiny and tossed him overboard.

Finley crumble

Herein lies one of the two major dramatic flaws of the tale. The reader is meant to see tragedy in the collapse of Finley, Kumble. But after about 25 pages of Kumble's descriptions of his fellow partners, I was rooting for the ship to be torpedoed. Co-managing partner Marshall Manley kept a telescope in his office, pointed towards his home, through which he ensured the fidelity of his wife. Even though he paid himself $1.7 million a year, there was no end to his demand for money; "If not stopped [he] would push and push and push and take and take and take." Co-managing partner Andy Heine leaked damaging stories about the firm to the press; he was "thoroughly arrogant and stunningly impolitic." Partner Roy Gutman nicknamed his firm "Finley Swine"; but then he "always exhibited a lack of sensitivity toward other human beings."

And then there was Harvey Myerson. Harvey was Evil. Although Kumble melodramatically accuses many of his former partners of both "destroying the firm" and trying to "kill" him, it is Myerson he blames most of all. It was Harvey who led the coup de scuzz pile and ran Finley, Kumble into bankruptcy. The bile brought forth by the merest mention of Myerson inspires the liveliest prose in this otherwise poorly written book (by a Harvard educated lawyer...with help!). Myerson is the "Agent Orange of the legal profession." He is "built like a fireplug...short, stocky and perpetually bathed in sweat. He wears a curly black toupee that looks like one of those old football helmets that Knute Rockne used to wear, the leather ones. And he has it in different sizes, shades, and lengths. As the month would go on, he'd change the toupee and they say something about needing a haricut. Then he'd start the cycle all over again." When Myerson became famous representing the United States Football League in its 1986 antitrust action against the National Football League, "his runty swagger became even more pronounced." Another former colleague adds that Harvey is "like a cockroach. He'll never die."

Probably you're beginning to wonder what is the point of all this. So did I. There's not much in this book about the practice of law, and not even a very clear explanation of why the firm failed. What Kumble wants mainly is to settle old scores. In doing this there seems no depth to which he will not sink; he dredges up everything from adulterous liaisons to the suicide of a partner's wife. There's a reason: By pointing out the deficiencies of his former partners, he hopes to persuade us that the messy bankruptcy of his firm wasn't really his fault. He not only wants us to loathe his former partners; he wants us to like him. And here is the book's second major dramatic flaw: The villains are more likable than the hero. The reader, forced to choose, sides with the cockroaches. For while the cockroaches are merely greedy, spiteful, and treacherous, our would-be exterminator is greedy, spiteful, treacherous, and hypocritical. I mean, if his former partners were so awful, why did he hire them in the first place?

The little that is useful about this book is unintentional. It demonstrates that the behavior we've come to associate with the 1980s wasn't peculiar to the world of high finance, but spilled over in the most unlikely ways into the practice of law. Just as Wall Street firms expanded in vain, so did Finley, Kumble grow more out of the partners' lust for power than for any sound economic reason. (It still hasn't dawned on Kumble that borrowing huge sums of money to buy revenues--in the form of established lawyers--might be just a tad unsound.) Even stranger is the way in which lawyers, like investment bankers, began to think of themselves less as members of a sedate profession than as risk-loving entrepreneurs. It was a covenient pose that helped them justify to themselves and to their clients their unusually high pay--a dozen partners of Finley, Kumble earned over $1 million a year.

Finally, at least a few lawyers, like more than a few bankers, really believed they were playing to a crowd. The obligatory photos in the middle of the book are of the author with the various political celebrities--Hugh Carey, Joseph Tydings, Russell Long, Paul Laxalt--he persuaded to join his firm. When Kumble is deposed, his first concern is "what public posture I should take." When his firm collapses, Kumble tries to impress us by telling us that the story ran as the lead business piece in The New York Times. Pity the poor schlepps on page 2. Like so many of our fallen idols. Steven Kumble seems the sort of fellow who reserves his highest admiration for Donald Trump. I am reserving seats for both in my next dream.

(*1) Conduct Unbecoming: The Rise and Ruin of Finley, Kumble. Steven J. Kumble and Kevin J. Lahart. Carroll & Graf, $19.95.
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Author:Lewis, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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