Steven Umin grew up in the Bronx during the 1940s and 1950s as the eldest son of a lower middle class family. He has only one younger sister. He did his undergraduate studies at Yale, where he was ranked first in his class. He planned on becoming a doctor before deciding to pursue law. After law school, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart. Over the years, he has been involved in a wide variety of cases in civil and criminal litigation. He is currently a senior member at Epstein, Becker & Green in Washington, D.C. And since 2000, he has been a mediator for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit. Besides making time for art, music, and friends, he also devotes himself to the fight against multiple sclerosis. He is a member of the board of the Multiple Sclerosis International Foundation in London, England, and the Sylvia Lawry Center in Munich, Germany.
I’m trying to find out about behaviors and attitudes in leading a more than just average life.
When you’re given a gift like the Rhodes Scholarship (two years in England to basically do what you want), you feel like you owe something. You have to pay back. One of the things you do is look at what the purpose of the gift is. Certainly, it was one of Cecil Rhodes’ purposes to produce leaders. It’s only modestly possible to make yourself a leader. A lot depends on chance, luck, and other things. I’ve always taken the position that I’m not just going to live for myself. I’m going to do other things. For example, I‘ve gotten heavily involved in the fight against multiple sclerosis, not because I’m a Rhodes Scholars, but being a Rhodes Scholar made you feel that’s the sort of thing you should be doing. I did it, because a girlfriend got the disease and in fact, died from it last year. My secretary had it. My wife’s mother-in-law has it. My dentist has it. It’s a scourge. So there’s that influence on you, which you feel at least unconsciously, maybe consciously.
Even to get to that point, there might have something in your childhood, maybe the way your parents raised you.
Oh, yes. My father died when I was very young.
How old were you?
I was 13. He was only 41 years old, although he had a big influence on my life even in the thirteen years that I knew him. The principle influence in terms of achievement was my mother. My mother was always, almost absurdly achievement-oriented. If I came home with all A’s on my report card from elementary school and I got a B+ in penmanship, she’d say, “What the hell is going on?” How come you couldn’t get an A in penmanship, in gym, or whatever the subject was? That gave me a perfectionist attitude, which is not a healthy attitude. But when I went to Yale and saw in my first week the sophomores who had finished in the top ten of their class paraded in front of us in a big hall, I set out to try to do something like that. It was just more achievement.
What did your father do for work?
He developed a company in his last years that was phenomenally successful, but it had a clause in his partnership agreement that precluded any member of the family from ever being part of the business. When he died, they had to buy my mother out. They paid her, I think, a $100,000 or whatever it was worth at the time. About 10 or 15 years later, the business sold for 15 million dollars.
What kind of business was it?
It was housewares and giftware. He was the guy who brought the Lazy Susan to the United States and put it in plastic, wood, and everyday materials. He did other things like that, imaginative things; for example, a piano that served as a cigarette box. He was quite clever in that regard. At age 41, he got kidney disease and it killed him. Today, he’d be alive.
How was your father’s philosophy different from your mother’s?
It really wasn’t. He was a dirt poor kid. He left school in seventh grade to sell newspapers, worked his way up and was about to enjoy life when life was taken way from him. He had certain perfectionistic aspects of his philosophy, too; for example, he used to say, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” He was big on being clean and he was always immaculate. His hair was always cut well and he always had his fingernails done. He just looked right. He worked extremely hard and he was a person who was beloved. I’ll never forget at his funeral all the people coming up to me and telling me what a wonderful man he was. I don’t think they were saying that, because it was the occasion of his funeral. They were saying that because he was a wonderful man. He was a very remarkable person. He taught me a lot of things. The most important things he taught me were all about sports. I still root for the New York Football Giants despite the fact that I’ve lived in Washington for 42 years. He took me to my first game when I was four years old.
Achievement was definitely a major theme in my young years. When I went to Yale, it continued that way. It was only later in life that I began to relax at all. I mean I’ve never relaxed in the sense that what I do, I want to do excellently, but I have always made sure that there is a part of my life devoted to art, music, and friends. I regard friendship as probably the most important thing in life altogether. As someone once said to me, as you get older, the line between friends and family tends to blur. I think that’s absolutely true. There are friends for whom I would give my life, just as I would for members of my family.
Were there other influences in your life growing up besides your parents that were a big part?
Certainly, teachers made a huge impact on my life. I had an eighth grade teacher and a tenth grade teacher who did. I had two teachers in college, both of whom I am still in touch with.
What was special about those college teachers?
They inspired me to recognize the significance of culture in my life. One was a literature teacher. The other was a philosophy teacher. Both of those subjects still occupy me from time to time. My eighth grade teacher was a mammoth stickler for detail. Of course, once you learn that, you never forget it. You practice it all the time and that helps you do well. He would assign us reading and then ask us a question about a fragment of a footnote. You had to do it all. That was another perfectionistic influence.
When I grew up in the Bronx, I lived on the Grand Concourse, which was a beautiful avenue. It’s the Bronx equivalent of the Champs-Élysées, I guess you’d say. [Laughs.] Around the corner from my apartment house was a dead end street, where I would play with my friends. But my friends were all four or five years older than I was, so the way in which I got standing with them was to be smart. They would make me the coach of their baseball team, even though I couldn’t necessarily play on their team. Then, every once in a while when they had nothing to do, they would abuse me. They would take my pants down in the street–that kind of thing. I think that undoubtedly had a big impact on my life. I’d love to know what influence it had. I can’t really say. I would give my right arm to know where those guys are today. I can’t find any one of them.
Another thing that had a big influence on my life was when I was in the fourth grade in the Bronx, they gave an exam throughout the borough and the kids who did well on the exam went to a special school for fifth and sixth grades. Those classes were all filled with very, very smart kids. One of them today owns The New Republic. Many of them have gone on to do interesting things with their lives.
I should also say that I’ll never forget (though I don’t know how it influenced me) was the day I had found out that I had done well on the exam and I was going to go to that special school. I was walking home for lunch and the little brother of a girl who was in my class, who was a wild man, ran up, hit me, then darted in front me between two cars, and a car came along and demolished him. On the same day that I had my greatest success so to speak, I also had the signs of tragedy.
When I got the Rhodes Scholarship, I headed home from Philadelphia, where the interviews were held, and at the 30th Street Station I started to cry. I said to myself why are you crying and the answer was perfectly obvious to me–because I’m getting something that is wildly in excess of anything either of my parents ever got in life. My father didn’t get through seventh grade.
And your mother?
My mother went to college. She actually was a women’s basketball player at NYU in the ‘30s. I don’t know how she managed that, because her family never had any money.
I was feeling guilty that this wonderful thing had come my way when none of it had come into the lives of the people that I loved. But you know, you have to take what comes your way. The Rhodes Scholarship was for me a wonderful experience. Number one, I pretty much got medicine out of my blood. I went to law school, although when I came back I went to medical and law school at the same time for eight weeks. Then, I dropped out of medical school.
How did you get medicine out of your blood at Oxford?
I guess I really didn’t, because I went back to Yale and I was a second year medical student and a first year law student at the same time. When I was in the library at the Yale Law School, I noticed I was much more interested in what was in the Yale Law Journal and the Harvard Law Review than what was in the New England Journal of Medicine.
What appealed to you? Why law?
The intellectual side of it. Its social utility. Obviously, medicine has huge social utility as well. Law also utilized some of my best skills while medicine was always a struggle for me, not because of the subject matter, but because I never felt (and still don’t feel) gifted with my hands. I was going to be a psychiatrist, but I met a spectacular psychiatrist in England. I asked him to spend a few minutes with me and he spent the whole day with me. I asked him why he became a psychiatrist. He said he was very gifted as an anatomist. He could dissect nerves that nobody else would see, and the one subject that was neglected in medical school was psychiatry so he went into that and became a leading psychiatrist, a published poet, and a travel writer. He wrote the Penguin book on psychiatry and lectured at Harvard. He was an amazing man. There was a part of me that felt if you want to be a psychiatrist, you ought to want to be a doctor first and I didn’t really want to be a doctor.
So what were your strengths?
Intellectual strengths, writing and analytical ability, and an ability to be enthusiastic about what I’m doing. I was never enthusiastic about medicine. I now regard it as part of my liberal education, because I dissected a human body. There aren’t too many lawyers walking around who’ve done that.
You got to do that those first eight weeks?
No, I did that at Oxford. At Oxford, I did the equivalent of a first year at a medical school in those two years. I regard that as part of my liberal arts education, because I don’t use it, but who will ever forget doing that. I also spent a lot of time at Oxford reading literature like 19th century English novels that I hadn’t read in college.
Did you enjoy your time at Oxford?
Very much. I was in an excellent college and I had wonderful friends, some who shared my interests and some of them made me realize I wasn’t quite as good as I thought.
What did that mean to you?
It was an incentive to be as good as I could be. Two of those guys are friends of mine now. One of them is on the Supreme Court of the United States. He wasn’t a Rhodes Scholar. He was a Marshall Scholar. A very smart and a good person.
When you went to Oxford, was that the first time you ever traveled abroad?
When I was a junior at Yale, I had a friend who was born, raised, and went to college in Greece before he came to Yale. College meaning the equivalent of a prep school. He said to me there is a contest in a magazine called Ivy Magazine. You have to write an essay and if you win the contest, you get eight free weeks in Europe. He said I want you to enter in the contest, because if you enter, you’re going to win it and when you come to Europe, you can come to my birthday party in Athens. And it happened exactly as he predicted. I spent eight weeks in Europe as a result of the contest and then two weeks in Athens with him. So I had been abroad once before.
But Oxford was an adjustment. It was an unusual place and the English are an unusual people. They have different habits and attitudes. In the first week that I was at Oxford, three students committed suicide. I learned that they had a psychiatric clinic outside of Oxford and I went to see the president of my college. I said to him, “You know at Yale they have a psychiatric institute and if kids are really feeling terrible, they can go there and get some therapy and help.” He was a very odd duck, an aristocrat. He was playing with his ring and he looked at me and said, “My boy, this is not Yale.” That’s the sympathy I got. There was lot of that in the English. That, in part, is responsible for how successful they’ve been, because there are a lot of stiff upper lip attitudes. What comes your way, you have to live with. That wasn’t particularly the American way of looking at things. I was glad to have gone to college in the United States, because I got an education. I got my own education at Oxford on my own. Oxford wasn’t a tremendously intellectual place when I was there. It was more of a social place; in fact, I remember early in my career as a lawyer, I interviewed a guy who was trying to get a job at our firm. I saw that he had Oxford University on his resume, so I turned to him and said, “Dan, if you could make one change at Oxford University, what would it be?” He looked at the ceiling and the walls for almost a minute and he turned to me and said, “I think I would convert it into an academic institution.” I knew we had the right guy.
There was a lot of frivolity and a lot of old-school ties there. In fact, I went to Oxford a year after I left and the president of the junior common room who was the highest student officer asked me whether I had an alarm clock in my room. He hadn’t even noticed that I was gone all year.
Obviously, you’ve experienced failure. What’s your perspective on it? How do you usually handle it?
It’s very important. I’ll tell you something that happened to me at Yale that I’ll never forget. At the end of senior year, we had a senior class dinner and the speaker was a professor of Dante named Tom Bergin. He said a lot of you guys have had nothing but success in your lives. Some of you have been varsity athletes. Some of you have been Phi Beta Kappas. Some of you are in senior societies. And I was sitting next to the only guy in class who had done all three. He said, my question to you is, “Has Yale taught you how to fail? Because if it hasn’t, there is a part of your education that you are seriously lacking.” He used a phrase from G.K. Chesterton which is twist on another phrase. He said, “It is important to remember if you’re not used to failure, you may be adverse to risk. But it’s important to remember that anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” That’s a brilliant comment, because most of us were super-achievers. Learning how to fail is critical, because it happens to everybody.
How did your attitude change?
I don’t think my attitude really changed until somewhere in the middle of law school.
I began to realize that life is more important than getting A’s on your report card. There are other things in life. I wanted to make sure I never lost like the leisure time to read, think, talk to other people, and cultivate friendships. I spend a great deal of my time in life cultivating friendships.
And you’ve always been like that?
Yes. I would say it is the single most important thing in life–family and friends. I mean, after all, what else is there? In the end, you die. A very dear friend of mine who was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford–a fabulous person named Roger Tompkins. He was a year before me at Oxford. I didn’t meet him until I was in law school. He got Alzheimer’s Disease when he was 52. He was dead at 62. A spectacular person, a guy who, if he were single minded about politics, could have run for president, but he really wanted to write novels like his cousin.
Continuing on that theme, what would you say to someone anyone young or old about going beyond leading a mediocre life, how to lead a rich, fulfilling life?
You have to find out (and it isn’t easy) what makes you happy and what fulfills you. That takes some time, especially if you’ve been achieving in everything, you don’t know the difference between the things you’re good at and the things that really fulfill you.
How did you find those things?
I found them largely at Oxford. I started to realize what I cared about in life was art, music, and literature. Culture. For my entire career as a lawyer, I have always made sure I have time for culture. I also realized the importance of friendship. I knew that at Yale as well as at Oxford.
Even while growing up, you seemed to have noticed it.
I did. Of course, it was hard for me to be very close friends with the people who were taking my pants down in the street, but I played with them everyday. They would only be abusive now and then. Some of the students I went to school with became very good friends. Certainly, that was true in high school. It wasn’t so true in the Bronx, although I know one or two of them today.
How would describe yourself while growing up?
A phenomenally insecure, little Jewish kid who came on the earth just as the Holocaust was happening and grew up in a family who was undoubtedly heavily influenced by the Holocaust. It gave you very strong feelings of insecurity. You had to figure out what to do with your life. It was part of why I was driven to achievement and why it took me so long to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I thought of being a doctor largely because my parents thought it was a safe way to earn a living. They knew lawyers in the Depression who ended up selling insurance. They had been through the Depression and the Holocaust. Those influences were huge. You may not realize it at the time, but they make a deep impact on you. But I would say I had a happy childhood. I went to a summer camp that was absolutely out of this world. It stopped functioning in 1963 and it has reunions every year in New York City and the average person that goes there is now 60 to 80 years old. It was probably the single most important thing I did until I went to college.
Why was that?
We did unbelievable things. I’ll give you the best example of that, which you could never do today in a summer camp. Five days a week from roughly 4 to 5:30, we had something called study period. Counselors all over the camp were teaching football, baseball, basketball, arts and crafts, nature–a whole variety of things. In each age group, there were standards that you could try to satisfy if you chose to do it. Nobody forced you. If you satisfied the standards for every one of those activities, you could do something called a ritual. The camp was on a private lake which had islands in it. The ritual was you chopped some wood during the day, rowed it out to an island, and put the beginnings of a fire in place. After the camp went to bed, you rode out to the island, slept overnight, and rode back the next morning. When you’re 10 years old and in the middle of the night you hear coyotes, dogs, shotguns and things in an area where there are farms, it’s quite an experience. That plus many other things about the camp were hugely formative. That’s why people go back to the reunions of this camp still. Many of those people will until the day they die, because it meant a huge amount to us.
Cite one more formative example from the camp.
We did something very unusual every Sunday night. The counselors would get together and come up with a list of who had been good campers that week and they would announce the list to the camp. If you got on the list, you made what was called the Legion of Honor. Then, everybody went back to the bunks and went into bed. The, you would go around the room and each person would talk about every other person and what his good points were and what his bad points were. The business of sitting there and criticizing your peers on things like whether he throws peas at the table was fairly traumatic stuff. Learning how to live with people was a huge thing. It was an all-male camp. We had socials with women’s camps. That certainly was formative, too.
Was the camp in upstate New York?
No, it was in Connecticut. Between Colchester and Norwich, Connecticut. A little town that hardly existed called Gilman. The camp made such an impact on its environment that about ten years ago the state of Connecticut renamed the area Camp Moween State Park.
You talked about your philosophy in life. What about your perspective on work?
Work is important, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing in life. It’s the way you make a living to survive and I believe in doing things excellently. When I do the work that I do, I try to do it at the best level I can. I’ve always been that way and the firm I worked in was as well. That helped.
What are things you love about being a lawyer?
I love the intellectual challenge. In my case, I love the immense variety that I’ve done. The very first case I had involved a death penalty prisoner who was befriended by William F. Buckley, Jr. And Bill Buckley has become one of my closest friends as a result of that. I then helped represent a top killer in the Chicago mob. Did you see the movie, Casino? The Joe Pesci character if you took him back about 15 years from the time of the movie was assigned to me by our client as my runner. His real name was Tony Spilotro. He died exactly the way they said he did. He got too big for his britches. The mob killed him and buried him in a cornfield. I would tell Tony to go get us a pizza, get us a witness, do this, and do that. I always tell people I’m the only person ever to give Tony Spilotro orders and lived to talk about it. And when I left Chicago, he was crying. He came to me and said, “Guys like me, we never meet guys like you. You really care about what you were doing.” The reason he said that, I’m confident, was that his boss–our client–was a mobster. In fact, when he died about six months later Mike Royko in the Chicago Tribune wrote that Phil, which was the client’s nickname, had gone to the great meat hook in the sky. Tony knew that we gave our all, even though we knew that the guy we were representing was an animal. To call him a human being would be stretching the term. In the case he was being framed by another prisoner who thought that he could get out of jail quicker if he could extend “Phil” Alderisio’s sentence by cooking up a scheme and claiming that Alderisio authored it. He made the mistake of telling another prisoner about it. We found that prisoner, brought him to trial, and that was the end of the case.
It was quite a dramatic thing.
I’ve also read that you helped found modern professional tennis. What does that mean?
In 1972, I was working on a case with Edward Bennett Williams involving the National Hockey League and its rivalry with the World Hockey Association. We just finished the case and I was walking along the street in Washington and ran into a friend from Yale named Donald Dell, who was a major tennis player, now a sports agent. He asked what I was doing and I said we just settled the National Hockey League’s anti-trust case. So he said to come up to his office. Jimmy Connors had just filed a complaint suing everybody in tennis and I got to represent tennis against Jimmy Connors. One of the things we did then was to found the Tennis Players’ Association now known as ATP. Fortunately, there were a few tennis players who cared about something other than themselves. One of them was Arthur Ashe. He was the natural president for the association. I helped to develop the government of tennis and rules, all kinds of things that were collateral to what I was doing, but since I was there, they would use me. So between Arthur Ashe, Donald Dell and Jack Kramer, the former world class tennis player, we founded professional tennis as it’s known today. They did, but they did it with my help.
I interrupted you earlier. You were talking about the three things that you loved about being a lawyer.
I love the variety of the work.
And you said the intellectualism. What’s the third thing?
I love writing and I love being with younger people. It’s very invigorating to be with younger lawyers whose attitudes are different. Right now, I spend a good deal of time training them how to write, because I had two great writing mentors in the two judges that I clerked for–Roger Traynor and Potter Stewart. Roger Traynor had very strict rules of writing and those are basically the ones I teach. Potter Stewart had a magazine flair and that’s not something you can teach. You either have or don’t have. He was a huge influence on my life. He was a person who understood that there was more to life than any kind of accomplishment. He once said to me if historians didn’t regard him as one of the great Supreme Court justices there ever was, it was of no concern to him. He wanted to make sure he had time to play poker with his friends, to watch television, to read books, and to travel. Life was bigger than what any historian could say about you. Potter was a guy who understood what life was about. A magnificent human being.
Can you talk a little bit about alternative dispute resolution versus regular attorney work?
The work I’ve done most of my life is litigation. When a client would come to me and say he wanted to bring a lawsuit, I would say there is only one thing more painful than bringing a lawsuit and that’s back surgery. If you really think you want to bring one, we have to talk about what’s going to happen. Nine times out of ten you talk them out of it, unless there are cases that absolutely had to be brought. There are some that you can’t resist bringing, but it became clear to me if there were a way of resolving disputes other than through the formal litigation process that would be a very helpful thing. About nine years ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals ran some training programs for mediators and I enlisted in those programs. And I have been mediating cases for the Court of Appeals on a pro bono basis entirely for about eight years now. It’s a very fulfilling feeling, because you are able to actually get something done, which lawyers are frequently not able to do. Cases go on and on. There’s a lot of paper wasted and so forth. I found you can resolve a higher proportion of cases by mediation than I would have thought possible. Alternative dispute resolution I regard as a very important thing and would love to spend the rest of my life doing, if I don’t teach high school which I’m thinking about.
What would you teach?
I’d probably teach history, not because I know so much about it, but it’s a subject you can learn while you teach it. I need to give back what was given to me, which were three or four absolutely spectacular teachers who changed my life.
So the one in eighth grade, the one in tenth grade and the two in college?
Those are just the ones that stand out. I could probably go back and mention others as well. They meant a huge amount in my life. They changed the way I lived my life.
And what do you think has been the best day in your life so far?
There isn’t any question about that–the day I got married. The best thing I’ve ever done in my life was to marry my wife. We have been married almost 15 years. I got married very late in life. We’ve never had an argument and people ask me what’s the key to a successful marriage. I say, “Look, it’s very simple. You marry someone better than you are. I did it. You can do it.” She’s an amazing woman and that is without a question the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.
And you’re a father?
I’m not a father. I have raised my niece and nephew when my sister’s husband in France went insane. And I have now helped to raise Candy’s child by her first marriage. I don’t have any natural children myself, but I’ve raised two families.
What did you try to instill in them?
To be a decent human being, behave well, and help people when you can. And perfectionism is destructive. When my daughter was applying to college, I told her when I applied to college there were 15 colleges in America that were the cream of the crop. Now, there are 60 or 70. The whole frenzy about applying to college is crazy and it’s the parents’ fault. Whatever happens, it’ll come out well. My daughter didn’t get into the college she wanted, which was the University of Virginia. Although she did well her freshman year in Colorado, where she went to school, and she easily could have transferred to Virginia, she had by that time fallen in love with Colorado. I did my best to make sure that kids don’t measure their self-worth by whether they succeed in everything. That’s craziness. That’s the way I was raised and it was a very destructive way. It’s responsible for a lot of my success, but it’s also responsible for pain.
With that pain, did you ever try to rebel? How did it manifest itself?
The only rebellion of any note was in my sophomore year of high school when I fell in love with a woman who was Italian-Catholic. That was absolutely anathema to my mother. In fact, many years later, I told my mother I broke off with off this woman, who I still see today, by the way. My wife and I have lunch with her once a year. Some years later, when I was at Oxford, my mother came to Europe. We were in the streets of Avignon in France and my mother said to me, “You know some of my friends have said to me you actually didn’t break up with Diane at the end of high school and carried the relationship on in secret for two and a half years at Yale. Is that true?” I said, “As a matter of fact, that is true.” We had a knock-down-drag-out fight in the streets of Avignon that should be memorialized by a plaque or a monument. As it turns out, I was going that night by train to Denmark, where I had another non-Jewish girlfriend. So I would call that the most significant rebellion. It made a huge impact on me, because I saw a lot about religion I hadn’t seen before. While I’m happy to be a Jew and very interested in it, I have no religious feeling. My Italian girlfriend and I used to go to Unitarian services at Yale. I must say they were vastly better than any other services I’d ever gone to, because they didn’t talk about God and truth, they just talked about living.
Is there anything else that you’d like to bring up that I haven’t touched upon?
There are all the phenomenal people you meet at Oxford. We had some absolutely dazzling people in my group and we had some relatively ordinary people. Those people make an impact on you and I try to keep up with them.