Class struggle

Sacramento attorney and author John Poswall deliberates on a generation’s ideals

John Poswall today (above) and in the Nixon era (below).

John Poswall today (above) and in the Nixon era (below).

Photo By Larry Dalton

Can you be a millionaire and a Marxist?

It’s an old joke among the political lefties of the 1960s, but it’s one with serious underpinnings, as former radicals, many now entrenched in the very class structure they once railed against, consider the meaning of their lives, wondering, as many do, “Did I change anything?” and “What compromises have I made … and am I comfortable with those compromises?”

In his first novel, The Lawyers: Class of ’69, local dragon-slayer/personal-injury attorney John M. Poswall attempts to answer that question.

Starting with the 30th reunion of graduates of the Boalt Hall School of Law’s class of 1969 at the University of California, Berkeley, the book centers around the lives of five former classmates who struggle to balance legal careers with personal integrity and idealism. The reader is left to decide who succeeds and what, in fact, “success” is.

About as far away from a John Grisham legal thriller as one could get and infinitely more intriguing, the central question—raised in the book at the fictional 30th reunion and in real life at Poswall’s 25th reunion (Boalt Hall class of 1969)—is: “Did we make a goddamn bit of difference? Did we change the law? Society? Anything? Or were we changed?”

Poswall, in fact, came to the question by way of the speech he wrote for his 25th reunion—and to writing the book by way of the response his speech garnered.

Like the characters in his book, Poswall said he and other lawyers who came from that era have an image of who they were and who they are—and sometimes it conflicts with reality. Or, as Poswall’s character, J.J., puts it in his own reunion speech: “My kids ask me of those days, and I wonder, as we reach 56, 30 years later: ‘Are we who we were; and were we ever? … I have to confess some nagging doubt, which I wish to confront tonight.”

A brief glance at Poswall’s own résumé would suggest that he, at least, has managed to practice his profession, make a handsome living and keep his ideals and integrity.

His civil-litigation firm of Poswall, White, Kouyoumdjian & Cutler led the fight to close down Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. He has won multimillion dollar verdicts against health-maintenance organizations (HMOs), gaining access to previously denied treatment for eight women with breast cancer. He’s defended the academic freedom of a lesbian professor at California State University, Sacramento, to deliver a graphic lecture about female masturbation—a case that drew the attention of ABC’s 20/20 in 1995. His free-speech “SLAPP-back” case of Leonardini v. Shell Oil—which went to the U.S. Supreme Court, garnering a $7.5 million verdict in general and punitive damages against Shell—was featured in Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith’s book No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America.

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But Poswall said things are never that cut and dry.

“The question really is: Could you have done more?” he said, turning slightly to look over his shoulder.

He pointed to a plaque given to him by the eight women on whose behalf he sued an HMO who had denied them the most advanced chemotherapy treatment available at the time to treat their breast cancer.

“Seven of them are dead now,” he said, somewhat matter-of-factly. “So, you know, did we really make a difference? [Doctors] are now saying that that type of chemotherapy really doesn’t do that much more to extend lives than what they had then.”

But did those women receive the best treatment available to them at the time because of Poswall’s efforts? And were their lives made more comfortable because of the money he secured for them?

“Yes,” he said, simply. “I think that would be fair to say.”

Both personally and professionally, Poswall said, the struggle between ideal and real worlds continues to be an issue for many lawyers who come from that period.

“They anguish over, you know, can I be a millionaire and a Marxist?” he said, laughing at the acknowledged absurdity of the question. “But it’s really true, you know? They not only get beat up for it [from those on the outside]; they beat themselves up for it. There’s a real feeling that (a) you must have compromised along the way and (b) you ought to be doing more.

“The other part of it, and it may be personal to me, but I think it’s part of the image, is not feeling comfortable on the inside. Always feeling like an outsider. By attacking society’s [wrongs], you identify with those on the outside of society’s mainstream—minorities, women, whatever—and that identity puts you on the outside so much so that if you’re sitting at the Sutter Club, you feel, ‘I’m not supposed to be here.’”

Isn’t Poswall himself a millionaire?

“Oh sure,” he said, suppressing a slight grin, “but like I tell my kids, a million doesn’t go as far as it used to.”

Turning thoughtful again, he continued, “Certainly, I have the resources to travel in those circles … and, yes, I’ve been on 20/20, but it’s been to defend the civil liberties of a lesbian professor. So, no, I haven’t sold out … but it’s always a question of whether you have done enough.”