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"The People's Attorney": Career in Boston



The partnership between Brandeis and Warren proved very successful; the Boston firm soon attracted both a solid reputation and a significant client base. After the departure of Sam Warren from the firm, Brandeis remained the senior partner of Brandeis, Dunbar & Nutter until he left for Washington in 1916.

While in the early years of his career in Boston, Brandeis developed both the interest and talent for public advocacy that would color the remainder of his life. The “people’s attorney” began to devote more and more of his professional time to supporting the cause of the socially and economically disadvantaged, articulating a set of beliefs that would guide him in later life: the preservation of the individual’s right to fair treatment in work and law, and the right to be “left alone” by both the forces of government and big business.

Brandeis at age 30 (1886)

Brandeis camping (reclining, center), 1890.

Brandeis at age 38 (1894)

Brandeis in his Boston office, undated

The first decade of the twentieth century found a well-established Brandeis continuing in his efforts to promote the common good, a practice he undertook at his own expense, billing himself to compensate his firm for time spent. With Edward Filene, Brandeis also formed the Public Franchise League in 1900, a body instrumental in reaching a compromise in the fight over the consolidation of Boston area utility companies. Yet another chapter in Brandeis’ professional growth involved his formulation and advocacy for a new form of life insurance, more suited to the means of the average worker. Arguing that the insurance company system was grossly inefficient, Brandeis proposed that savings banks might offer similar services, without unnecessarily gouging the working person. He would later recall this successful campaign as his greatest achievement.

During this stage of his career, he also radically altered the fashion in which lawyers practice their trade. The style of the “Brandeis Brief” first appeared in 1908 in the case Muller v. Oregon, related to the regulation of the number of hours per day that women could be made to work. This approach included not only outlining the legal details involved in the case, but also projecting the long-term social and economic repercussions that might result from the decision.

Brandeis, Alice H. Grady, and Mass. State Actuary Irvin Hirst in the Brandeis law offices, 161 Devonshire St., Boston. (January, 1916).

Brandeis at age 59 (1915)

Other People’s Money and how the Bankers Use it, by Brandeis, first published 1914

Brandeis stepped onto the national stage with his involvement in the New Haven Railroad merger controversy. J.P. Morgan sought to consolidate his control over New England rail lines through a merger of his New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad company with the Boston & Maine Railroad. To Brandeis, this smelled of a monopoly that could ultimately threaten the consumer. From 1905 to 1914 he waged a legal fight to oppose Morgan’s efforts in the region. This political cartoon captures Brandeis in court seeking to determine that the New Haven line issued faulty financial statements.

“Mr. Brandeis in court” Brandeis challenging a New England railroad monopoly

Brandeis, undated photograph

In the years before World War One, Brandeis continued to involve himself in the legal life of American transportation and labor, putting a finer point on his public stand against “the curse of bigness” in favor of social and economic justice. For example, incensed at the tendency of large rail companies to increase shipping rates without adequate explanation, Brandeis urged for a new business policy. Taking a cue from the work of Frederick Taylor and others in the field of industrial efficiency, he coined the term “scientific management” to describe a new approach which mandated that managers precisely determine the resources and time necessary to complete any given business function. The goal in this was the prevention of unnecessary cost trickling down to the consumer.

“The goal in view is the elimination of waste, because in the end waste can benefit nobody,…The result is a softening of the struggle for existence and increasing the happiness of the worker. Efficiency preaches a gospel of hope.”



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