Only one future is behind him

CATCHING UP WITH... STEPHEN H. SACHS

He ran against William Donald Schaefer and spent years with a celebrated D.C. law firm. Now Steve Sachs devotes himself to justice for the poor and the subtleties of French.

March 19, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

Steve Sachs works these days out of a book-lined office-den in his Cross Keys townhouse overlooking a bit of a Rouse Co. version of a meadow.

"I have a cockpit here to do whatever I need to do," he says. "I'm in touch with the office, through e-mails and faxes and the phone."

And he has a pair of binoculars to watch the birds capering about on his patch of urban greensward, as well as the red fox that occasionally passes through.

He's based in Baltimore again after 13 years in the top echelon of the legal profession, partner in the powerful Washington law firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.

He is retired -- meaning he doesn't share in profits anymore -- but he can take cases if the firm and he agree. And he has a few clients he will continue to represent until their cases are resolved.

Sachs joined Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering in 1987 after losing his bid for Maryland's Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He ran up against an irresistible force -- William Donald Schaefer -- at the height of his powers. Schaefer got nearly twice as many votes as Sachs did.

Sachs resigned as state's attorney general and marched off to Washington, hardly missing a beat.

"You know, I ran to win," he says, emphasizing win. "But once Schaefer was in it, there was never any doubt. So for me, anyway, the campaign was a great joy, without any expectation that the enormously popular mayor of Baltimore wouldn't be promoted."

Former foes now friends

Still, he and Schaefer fought a tough, hard-edged, adversarial campaign. Sachs wielded his swift, rapier wit with Cyrano de Bergerac panache. Schaefer does not go unarmed in political repartee, either, but he's more likely to swing a broadax.

"In some ways," he says, "the campaigning was a little bit like talking to a jury. You're an advocate. The jury was formed by the people. And the other side" -- he laughs -- "was a lot more formidable!"

And how are things now between the former foes?

"He's my new best friend, actually," Sachs says, then concedes that's a bit of an overstatement.

"I endorsed him, and was pleased to do it, in his race for comptroller, in a speech supporting him. The speech was very, very genuine and I meant it. I talked about him as a good mayor and fine governor and [said that he] gave his life to the public and that was something that was very admirable. ...

"I like the fact that we have some kind of relationship. The man deserves respect for all those years. I wish him well. To me it was important to be able to demonstrate that I respect him and I have a fondness for him," he says.

Schaefer has become equally friendly.

"He said such nice things about me that I wanted to hide under the table, I was so embarrassed," Schaefer says. "We had a tough election. It's a very friendly relationship now. And I speak highly of him."

Burgers and Socrates

Writer Gilbert Sandler, veteran chronicler of Baltimore mores, describes Sachs this way: "He's literate, he's erudite and engaging. He's got a rich sense of humor and a richly furnished mind, too. When he orders a hamburger, he's apt to quote Socrates."

Sachs is a youthful-looking 66, with a full head of hair that occasionally has been called Kennedy-esque.

"All mine and never touched up," he quips.

He laughs when you ask him if he has any new political plans.

"My political future is behind me," he says, genially. But he disclaims any regret, "because these past 13 years have been so rewarding in every way," he says. "I always felt the years at Wilmer were splendid for me. Sure, it was like any place of law practice. But there was always a law school faculty aspect and the interest in law for its own sake and in the ideas of the law and the representation of the client."

Wilmer is routinely ranked in the top five or 10 law firms in Washington, if not the nation. Sachs has been named among the best lawyers in Washington in a couple of categories by Washingtonian magazine and among the world's leading litigation lawyers by a British business journal.

He found his work rewarding and exciting; perhaps even a couple of terms as governor would have been less interesting.

"Well, it would have been different," he says. "Had I been governor, it would have been the first time in my life that I would not have been a lawyer. [But] I've always had public jobs. So who knows? I enjoyed public life. I enjoyed position, applause. I loved every minute of the campaign. But the past 13 years have been just so exciting to me."

He defended Elizabeth Morgan, whom he calls "a very great woman," in a celebrated and bitter custody case of the 1980s. Morgan defied a judge's order to allow her daughter's father visitation rights. She claimed he was sexually abusing the little girl. She hid the child and refused to say where. The judge jailed her for civil contempt.

"The issue in her case when I got there was the length of her incarceration," he says. "She was in jail 27 months."

When she got out she took off for New Zealand with the child and stayed until 1996.

Jury is an audience

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