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White Shoe

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White Shoe

How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century


15 min read
9 take-aways
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What's inside?

In the Gilded Age, Wall Street lawyers were more powerful than ever – and their influence remains unmatched.

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Between 1890 and 1920, Wall Street lawyers held an outsize influence over American politics, business and society. Paul Cravath, for example, developed a style of law practice that still persists today, and William Nelson Cromwell helped build the Panama Canal – possibly sparking a revolution in the process. Retired Wall Street lawyer John Oller illuminates the lives of lawyers dismissed as robber baron cronies but deserving tribute nonetheless.


From 1890 to 1920, a group of Wall Street corporate lawyers revolutionized big business.

After the Civil War, the United States became more industrialized and urbanized. Corporations ballooned in size and complexity – and so did the “white shoe” law firms representing them. Named for their signature white buck shoes, the Ivy League-educated lawyers did their negotiating, facilitating and drafting documents in the conference room instead of arguing cases in court. Often dismissed as robber baron cronies, a number of these lawyers pushed for more effective regulations for big business.

One prominent lawyer was Paul Cravath. He developed the “Cravath system,” a set of management principles law firms still use today. Cravath hired associates from top law schools, paid them the city’s highest salaries, and worked them nights and weekends. With his “up or out” policy, young lawyers had five to eight years to distinguish themselves before becoming a partner or leaving.

Cravath represented inventor and businessman George Westinghouse. Thomas Edison sued Westinghouse repeatedly for patent ...

About the Author

Retired Wall Street lawyer John Oller also wrote American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague and The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution.

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