Cravath Lawyer Turned Writer Reflects on Career Telling Stories

Around the time Alan Hruska turned 68, having already spent four decades as a trial lawyer at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, he decided to retire, or put more accurately — to change careers.

On a whim, he had attended Yale Law School in the late 1950s, a decision that set him on a career path in law that entailed mentoring a young David Boies and representing Time, Inc. and CBS — all of which only nurtured his ambition to tell a good story.

So in 2001, after Cravath changed his designation from partner to senior counsel, Hruska called himself retired from the law and set his hand writing a novel and scripts for Broadway and the Big Screen.

The transition was easy, he said: “If you make an oral argument, you’ve got to tell a story. If you don’t tell a story, you bore people. So the whole idea is to tell a convincing story.”

Since that time, he’s written plays that ran in London and Manhattan, directed Waiting for Godot in New York, wrote films that received major distribution deals and produced various movies. His latest play, Laugh it Up, Stare it Down, a young couple’s adventurous journey through life, opens in Manhattan later this summer.

In an interview with Big Law Business, Hruska, former President of the Federal Bar Council and the Institute of Judicial Administration and the former chairman of the Second Circuit Judicial Conference Planning and Program Committee, discussed how his years at a white shoe Wall Street firm have helped propel his current career as a writer. Always a hard worker, he continues to write and direct well into his 80s. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Big Law Business: You’re a writer now. But you were a trial lawyer?

Hruska: For 44 years. I went to law school as almost an impulse shot. I really thought I was heading toward a writing career. I was in New Haven and I was going to a writing course – Robert Penn Warren, he taught a creative writing course. But he insisted he couldn’t teach anyone to write. I was standing on the street corner, thinking, ‘This may not be the best career choice,’ and there before me was the law school. So I went in, talked to the dean, and the next thing I know I was in law school. I was Note and Comment Editor of the Yale Law Review. Then, I was at Cravath.

Big Law Business: And you were a trial lawyer there?

Hruska: I ended up in litigation and ended up in the biggest trials of that era. It was the Tetracycline price fixing case. We were in trial in a record time, so much so that the Cravath partners — we were representing Squibb — had to peel off [to handle other matters] and they left me in the courtroom. We were in there two years. There was one two-month associate at the table who hadn’t taken the bar exam. That was me. Nobody bothered to ask me if I had taken the bar and I was trying the case. That would have been 1958.

Courtesy: Hruska speaking at federal bar council, year unknown.
Courtesy: Hruska speaking at federal bar council, year unknown.

Big Law Business: That was obviously a pretty different era in terms of what your experience would be today.

Hruska: As an associate at Cravath, I tried 14 cases, which is something you can’t do anymore. I had one case, Warren Buffet was one of my witnesses. I met Warren Buffett before he was the sage of Omaha. He was a cherubic young man. I represented Time, Inc., then eventually I had to turn that over to some of my other partners. I had CBS, and turned that over to [David] Boies, who had worked for me as an associate on the Tetracycline case. I was an associate, but I wasn’t even the senior associate. I had three years at the time. When Boies came in as an associate, his first assignment was to put together the appellate brief. He was obviously quite good. David and I worked together on quite a number of things.

Big Law Business: I’m interested in how lawyering helped you transition to writing. As a lawyer, you obviously worked with talented people.

Hruska: A fantastic array of people. There’s a great deal of overlap between producing a play or a movie and producing a trial. You’re preparing witnesses like you prepare actors, in many respects. If you make an oral argument, you’ve got to tell a story. If you don’t tell a story, you bore people. So the whole idea is to tell a convincing story. If you don’t do that, you bore people and you put them to sleep.

Big Law Business: If you hadn’t had the trial work, would you have stayed in law?

Hruska: Well probably. I would have stayed with it but maybe in a different way. For instance, my son started off with Sullivan & Cromwell, then he went to the DA’s office because he wanted to try cases. From there, he went to the Justice Department.

I did get an offer from [former Manhattan DA Robert] Morgenthau, which I didn’t take. If the trial work were not available when I was an associate at Cravath, unless there was something that satisfying I would have taken that offer from Morgenthau.

Big Law Business: Are there parallels between your current writing and legal writing?

Hruska: As long as one understands what one’s doing. You’re writing a different kind of literature when you’re writing a brief. You’re telling a story. No matter what the case is, you’re dealing with a very deep intellectual issue. You can look at any issue no matter how mundane or dull, and see deep roots into the human psyche. And you should do that. And you do that writing fiction. But the style is different: You never want to make it appear to a judge that you’re writing above their head. But you want to produce an emotional response.

Big Law Business: Did you find it easy to transition to your current career?

Hruska: Now, I was writing fiction while I was writing briefs. I started writing in probably the late 70s. I just got up in the morning and started writing. I probably got up at 5:30 and started writing at 6:30 and left for the office at 8:30.

To be a good writer, you have to be almost obsessive about it. You have to establish a time of day that is your writing time. And you can’t let phone calls, or in today’s world, text messages or e-mails get in the way of that. And you write every day, seven days a week. There are no holidays from writing.

Hruska, a Cravath lawyer who started a second career as a playwright at age 68.
Hruska, a Cravath lawyer who started a second career as a playwright at age 68.

Big Law Business: Is it necessary that writing is pleasurable?

Hruska: Writing briefs for me was a pleasure. It was a very high pleasure. I enjoyed it immensely. I had a day secretary and a night secretary. I probably got six or seven hours a sleep, but I also regularly take a postprandial dip – a nap.

Big Law Business: Who’s the best legal writer out there?

Hruska: Bob Bork was a terrific brief writer. Let me just say he was a great brief writer. He produced a different kind of emotional response. It was more intellectual than emotional but he had a lovely whimsical touch. It was a function of being clever and light and intellectual at the same time. It was just entertaining to read. One doesn’t have to admire the positions a writer takes to admire their writing style. I don’t know that Bob Bork and I ever agreed on anything.

Big Law Business: Given the current legal environment, would you still advise young law school graduates to join a firm?

Hruska: Obviously, it depends what you want. I think the potential for doing work that has considerable intellectual content is still with the firms. I mean, you get back almost to the definition of happiness. A lot of that has to do with utilizing all your capacities. If you don’t utilize all your capacity, you’re not going to be happy. A lot of the intellectual work is still with the firms because they’re still called upon to do the really important cases. If you can demonstrate your ability to analyze these very difficult problems, you’ll get the work and there’s plenty of work to be done. I would still recommend that but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t want to take a side trip into government service to try and do some trial work, but I still would have my eye on the firms. That’s not a popular answer.

Big Law Business: What are major themes in your theatrical work?

Hruska:  Pretty much everything I do is devoted to the challenges of living in a random and seemingly pointless universe. That seem pretentious … [but] I don’t regard it as cynical because I think the concept sets out the challenge for everybody everyday in everything they do in their lives. Life is a very dangerous proposition in many respects. And one should see the comedy of it, the humor of it. I only do comedies, even the thrillers I wrote.

Big Law Business: Law firms talk about culture a lot. Have you ever written about that?

Hruska: The book that’s been published, Pardon the Ravens, has a lot to say about law firm culture. It really compares the two very basic types of law firm culture. The type of firm that’s really run by one person, or maybe two or three, which is the people bringing in the business and the law firm that’s more a democracy and it’s a true partnership and there may be a chairman or president but his job is to preside at meetings make suggestions about the direction the firm should take … I think the latter type of firm rarely exists any more if at all, unless it’s really small, because size is antagonistic to that type of organization. But there are firms that approach that.

Big Law Business: What can lawyers expect if they see your current play?

Hruska: I would hope they’d be entertained. I still laugh at it when I’m in rehearsals. They should expect very fine acting. Lawyers have pretty fine minds generally and they’ll be attuned to the dialogue and the issues.