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Jacob Stein...and the Laconic Washingtonian

By Adam Cohen

TIME magazine

(TIME, June 15) -- In a town where lawyers are pressed from cookie cutters, stuffed into gray suits and sent off to work in colorless law factories, Jacob Stein is a rarity--he's a character. He takes midday literary breaks in his antiques-strewn office to leaf through 18th-century British classics. He wears dapper chalk-striped suits and two-toned shoes to court. And he has been known to send the detachable collars and cuffs from his hand-tailored shirts to London for laundering.

But beneath Stein's quirky urban-gentleman exterior beats the heart of a Washington insider's Washington insider. A former president of the D.C. bar, Stein is the man politicians turn to when their dignity is on the line, the issue is delicate or the stakes are high. He represented Oregon Senator Robert Packwood when he was charged with sexual misconduct. Reagan press secretary James Brady hired Stein when he filed several lawsuits after being paralyzed by bullets meant for his boss. And when a special prosecutor was needed in 1984 to investigate Reagan-aide Ed Meese, it was Stein who was summoned.

A 50-year veteran of the Washington legal scene, Stein, 73, looks back fondly on an earlier time, when the D.C. bar was filled with eccentrics. The leading criminal lawyer in the 1940s, Stein once recalled, got his cases because he was best friends with the chief of police. And when he made a closing argument, he screamed at the jury so loudly that he could be heard in Judiciary Square. "The bar used to have a roguish element about it, which in a sense was wholesome," Stein told the Washingtonian. "Lawyers didn't take themselves seriously."

Like these early influences, Stein has found ways of standing out from the stodgy ranks of D.C. lawyers--and not just with books and clothing. He spends Saturdays in his office doing free legal work for low-income Washingtonians. "He knows every waiter and car salesman in town," says law partner Basil Mezines. In a city that takes power oh so seriously, Stein is wryly self-deprecating. Asked how it felt to be named special prosecutor for Meese, Stein said that at a time in his life when his other faculties were in decline, he was glad to be getting subpoena power. And despite a lifetime in America's ground zero for political partisanship, Stein has carefully avoided taking sides. He is not a member of a party, and he has never voted. "He says he's not interested in voting," says Mezines. "Maybe the right person hasn't come along."

What does interest Stein is the nuts and bolts of legal practice, and few do it better. If the Lewinsky family had trouble discerning William Ginsburg's legal strategy, they should find Stein a welcome change. He is a skilled litigator who has written books on trial tactics and taught advocacy at Harvard. And he delights judges by keeping his arguments brutally simple. He's famous for answering big firms' kitchen-sink briefs with brilliantly terse responses. He once proposed a $250 fine on lawyers for citing cases from before 1950, and $1,000 for citing law-review articles. When he was president of the D.C. bar, Stein began meetings by handing out notes that said, "Be brief."

Stein's experience in the Meese investigation should prove invaluable. He understands the nitty-gritty of how special prosecutors investigate and strike deals, and he knows the law they must follow cold. But more than that, he is a walking, talking precedent for prosecutorial forbearance. It took Stein just six months and $312,000 to wrap up his investigation and decide not to bring any indictments against Meese. So when he finally sits down with Starr, Stein won't be just Lewinsky's defender. He'll be Exhibit A in the argument that it may be time for Starr's nearly four-year odyssey to come to an end.

-- With reporting by John Dickerson and Viveca Novak/Washington
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: June 15, 1998

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Jacob Stein...and the Laconic Washingtonian
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The Notebook: The Wise Words of Ginsburg...Not Anymore

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