Longform

BRUSH WITH THE LAWPHOENIX'S REGAL LEGALS ARE WELL-BRIEFED IN THE ARTS

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In a trend piece headlined "Firms Turning to Art for Image, Investment," the National Law Journal marveled in 1984 that "three-piece-suited attorneys can be seen scouring the bohemian sections of their cities, haunting galleries and lofts, bargaining with dealers and artists in search of treasures." Phoenix was ahead of its time. Bud Jacobson, Jack Brown and Orme Lewis had already honed their skills and secured impressive collections by the time that article appeared. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, all three of the law firms relocated to more palatial spaces in the city's central corridor, and Jacobson and Brown responded by expanding their collections.

Another local firm, O'Connor Cavanagh, lacked a staff connoisseur in 1985 when it relocated to Central and Camelback. So the firm purchased good taste--hired consultants acquired a 300-piece contemporary collection from scratch.

The firm Streich Lang, now in the process of planning its own move, has asked the same consultants, Joan Prior and John Armstrong, to put together a collection of contemporary work. The collecting is in its earliest stages, Prior says.

It is curious that a firm being sued by the Resolution Trust Corporation for $400 million would spend precious dollars on an apparent frivolity. But it's not so curious, really. An art collection can be a signal of good taste and fine breeding, bait to lure status-conscious clients, creations to smooth and soften an often sharp-cornered profession.

In addition, many companies use art collections to improve their public image. The increasingly embattled tobacco company Philip Morris, Inc., which underwrites large exhibitions and maintains its own large collection, is among the best-known examples.

Of the five law firms mentioned here, only Snell & Wilmer has orchestrated a public show of its work. The photography collection was shown at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson and at Phoenix Art Museum; the Arizona Commission on the Arts toured the collection to rural communities.

Jacobson says the tour's purpose was twofold. "I think that corporations that show it [an art collection] and send it around hope that people would like them better because of it, and I would be fibbing if I didn't say that when it went up, in addition to wanting a unique collection shown, I didn't hope people would like us," he says.

Marilyn Zeitlin, director of the Arizona State University Art Museum, bristles at the suggestion that art is used by law firms as a marketing tool.

"That sounds demonic," she says. "And I don't think it is. I don't. I don't think it's demonic at all, any more than having clean carpet is reprehensible. And I think certainly, yes, they [law firms] want to convey something about class and something about elegance, but I think usually they also really like the stuff."
That is certainly true in the case of Orme Lewis, who so loved his collection of Alexander Calder prints that he turned the water off in one of the bathrooms in his Paradise Valley home so he could stack wall-less prints in the bathtub, just to keep them near.

The acquisitions of Lewis, Bud Jacobson and Jack Brown reflect a rich history of collecting. Lewis had a passion for photographing storm clouds. Two examples of his work hang on the 14th floor at a rival firm, Snell & Wilmer, thanks to one of his dearest friends, Bud Jacobson. Jacobson even broke from his contemporary theme to hang "the ultimate clich"--a set of prints by Sir Leslie Matthew "Spy" Ward, a British caricaturist--in the firm's new library.

The prints belonged, after all, to firm founder Frank Snell himself. "So we thought, 'To hell with fashion.' Up they go and up they stay," Jacobson says grandly.

At Brown & Bain, the computer art collected by Jack Brown, who specializes in intellectual property law, is more memorable than the contemporary Western Americana that--while gorgeous--can also be found on the walls of his wife's gallery in Scottsdale.

The O'Connor Cavanagh consultants wisely considered posterity. They commissioned a series of wood engravings of the firm's six senior partners, offering a stunning history lesson in contemporary style.

Perhaps one day, the art and memorabilia collected by Phoenix's legal royalty will be accessible to the public, la Florence. On a regular basis, though, most of the office space is locked, opened with the slide of a plastic security card. Clients who plunk down the going hourly rate of $85 to $300 can tour the art, too.

"That's the case with private collections of any kind," ASU's Zeitlin says, noting that only about 4 percent of ASU's collection is on public display at any given time. There's no law about sharing privately acquired works of art, Zeitlin adds. "They are, after all, luxury goods."
@rule:
@body:When Orme Lewis died in 1990 at the age of 87, a daily newspaper eulogized him as a man of political involvement, community service and legal precedent. He served as an undersecretary of the interior under President Dwight Eisenhower, and his firm, Lewis and Roca, successfully argued the landmark Miranda case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.