One of the many striking aspects of Last Days of Night is author Graham Moore’s use of real life events and people.
There was a real electric light legal war between Edison and Westinghouse. It has been described as the War of the Currents as Edison championed DC and Westinghouse stood behind AC.
Last Days of Night also brought to mind another patent law thriller I read a few years ago. In A Patent Lie by Paul Goldstein there is a major court action over and AIDS vaccine. As with the light bulb the question of who was first is at the heart of the case.
For the second year in a row a book on the shortlist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction uses real life legal events. Last year it was C. Joseph Greaves in his book, Tom & Lucky and George and Cokey Flo. In that book there was an excellent recounting of the criminal trial of Lucky Luciano in the 1930’s.
I was further reminded of another recent work of fiction to explore a real life legal conflict. Robert Harris in An Officer and a Spy provided a powerful recounting of the Dreyfus Affair in late 19th Century France.
Moore has done extensive research into the lives of the participants and the real life court cases.
While probably most readers will focus on Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikolai Tesla, the larger than life inventors, I was most taken with Paul Cravath. He was the founder of one of New York’s most prominent firms, Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
In the book Cravath is an ambitious young lawyer from Tennessee. He seeks to apply to law firms the principles of American factories he has observed in the operations of Edison and Westinghouse. In particular, he admires how Edison directs teams of engineers to tackle and solve problems. Cravath builds the concept of the modern legal factory where teams of lawyers are assigned to files. While I am prejudiced against the giant law firms of the 21st Century I recognize the team of lawyers approach is the best approach to complex court cases.
In 1922 in an address Cravath discussed what he wanted in a lawyer:
“Brilliant intellectual powers are not essential,” he told an audience of Harvard Law School students. “Too much imagination, too much wit, too great cleverness, too facile fluency, if not leavened by a sound sense of proportion, are quite as likely to impede success as to promote it. The best clients are apt to be afraid of those qualities.”
A century later his firm, now Cravath, Swaine & Moore won another legal war with the aid of the Cravath system. In 1982 IBM prevailed against the U.S. Government and other corporations against anti-trust charges. The war had lasted 13 years.
A New York Times article from 1982 described the extent of the war and Cravath’s commitment to the conflict:
The I.B.M. cases – in which the United States Government and private parties, including the Telex Corporation, the Greyhound Computer Corporation and California Computer Products Inc., charged the computer giant with violating Section 2 of the Sherman Act – produced more than 66 million pages of documents. The Government action alone took up 726 trial days and 104,000 pages of transcript; the defense called 856 witnesses and cited 12,280 exhibits.
The mood is generally upbeat these days at Cravath’s I.B.M. outpost in White Plains, where dozens of lawyers have labored in totally anonymity on the case for as long as 10 years. There, the staff is busily engaged in the lawyerly equivalent of striking the big top – deciding which materials to “archive” or to “access,” stuffing records into boxes marked “Confidential Waste,” “Document Retention” and “Otherwise Disposable.”
That case was also the first time I read of a lawyer billing more than 24 hours in a day. One associate purportedly billed 27 hours for one marathon day that involved working for 3 hours more than 24 hours because he flew to California from New York during the day and gained 3 more hours.
What is most amazing about Cravath’s defence of Westinghouse was his age. At 26 he was defending Westinghouse from what I believe was the largest claim in American history as of the end of the 19th Century. I am not aware of any other billion dollar cases. Certainly in a 21st Century big law firm he would have been toiling away on document review rather than leading the defenders.
****Moore, Graham - (2011) - The Sherlockian and Email Exchange with Graham Moore, Author of The Sherlockian on Self-Garroting; (2017) - Last Days of Night;