brilliant lawyer; a little man, perhaps five feet two or three. I
came to know him well as a lawyer, and we worked together a good
deal; I was very fond of him. He did not have a successful career
in the firm, although he was very gifted. Next to him was a man
named Renato Capocelli, who spoke with such a marked Italian accent
that it was very difficult to understand him, until you really got
clued in. He was an absolutely eighteenth century gentleman. He
did primarily land work on Standard's oil and gas leases. There
was a fellow named Dave Mannoccir, a big, tall, handsome guy. He
didn't stay around very long. And a fellow named Garry Owen. That
was about it, as I remember.
Summer Work in PM&S Library; Gerry Levin, Vincent Butler
O'Brien: Twice after that summer I can't remember whether it was during
law school or whether it was during college - but I worked in the
library. Gerry Levin was the librarian. He went on to have a very
fine career as a lawyer and federal judge. It was quite out of
bounds, I think, before then for anybody that had ever worked as
part of the help, if you like, to be hired as a lawyer. I think
that Gerry Levin was probably the first exception to that, and I
was perhaps the second. I don't know that there was any rule about
that, but it normally just didn't happen.
Gerry Levin was a great favorite of mine, and he became
president of the San Francisco Bar Association. He was a man of
great good instincts who did a tremendous amount of good in various
civic organizations in San Francisco. I was just enormously
pleased and did whatever I could to help in his appointment as a
federal district judge in San Francisco, where again he made a fine
reputation, fine career.
Anyhow, I worked as an office boy in '28. Then I worked in
the library at least one summer. I can't remember whether I did
Hicke: Do you happen to recall how much you were paid?
O'Brien: It would be about $60 a month, I guess, because I made $100 a month
when I began to practice as a lawyer in 1935.
In 1930, Vincent Butler, also a Rhodes scholar, was then the
youngest partner. The partners were all family members except
Felix Smith, Gene Prince, and Vincent Butler. I think he had gone
to Galileo High School, University of San Francisco, and was a
Hicke: I'm just going to flip through here and see when he became a
O'Brien: I'd be interested if you have your list there.
Hicke: Yes, I do. Let me just put this on hold. 1
O'Brien: It must have been during law school when I met him, the summer
that I was here. And I showed you that book I had, written
shortly after his death.
O'Brien: And a letter written to Eddie O'Day by Alfred Sutro shortly after
Vincent's death. Let me just take a look- -I can see that book
from here, I think. [goes to bookcase]
Hicke: You have the letter there that was written about Vincent Butler
O'Brien: Well, Alfred says, "This is a letter which Mr. Butler dictated
and intended to sign on his return, but he was killed." He
dictated it on the fifth, and Alfred sent it to Eddie O'Day on
the seventh. So that must have been about the time that Vincent
was killed. 2
When they built the new building, the new wing, I was given
the job of redesigning the entire firm's space. We moved the
library down to the fourth floor, and I created typing pools,
which were highly unpopular, and which after ten years or so were
finally abandoned - ! think some time after I had left the firm.
Hicke: Okay. Well, maybe we can get to that next time.
* * *
O'Brien: Yes. I had a wonderful secretary in mind, who had been on the
night force, Jean Lejeal - she was kind of a famous character in
her own right. Her father came out of the coal mines in Montana.
She had a very tough time .
1 Butler joined the firm in 1930, probably as a partner, since he
had been practicing law since 1914.
2 Butler was killed on October 7, 1935.
Education at University of California and Part-Time Vork
[Interview 2: January 20, 1987 ]#/
Hicke: I wonder if we could just start this morning with something about
the life and times of 1928, when you entered the University of
O'Brien: Well, I've explained something about my personal background, the
struggle my mother and I had to keep upright, and when I entered
the University of California in 1928 I was sixteen years old;
already I had had a lot of miscellaneous, part-time jobs, and it
was evident that I was going to have to work to stay in the
university. I'd had a pretty fair high school record, but I felt
some anxiety about the prospect of college. First, I was a little
young, and the difference of two or three years at that age was
considerable. I decided to become an economics major and enrolled
in the beginning courses in economics.
Berkeley had a famous professor of economics who taught the
beginning courses. His name was Ira B. Cross.
Hicke: He wrote at least one famous book that I know of.
O'Brien: Banking in California. And he was an extremely entertaining and
gifted lecturer. Several years later, I felt that perhaps I had
selected the wrong major, because as I grew two or three years
older, my interests were more seriously engaged by English courses,
poetry, and the like. I enrolled in naval R.O.T.C. [Reserve
Officers Training Corps] but quickly discovered that the classes
would be held at a time of day which would interfere with my
working in the afternoons and evenings. So I had to go to the head
of naval R.O.T.C. and plead to have my "enlistment" torn up.
Hicke: Oh, dear.
O'Brien: That gentleman was Chester Nimitz. I often have thought of that
episode, because you wouldn't think it possible that the leading
admiral of World War II, responsible for the conduct of naval
operations throughout the world, could have been washed up on the
beach as the head of naval R.O.T.C. at Berkeley in 1928. I guess
it says something about his naval discipline; despite that
assignment, he continued to study and read and take courses and
hang in there until the day that events brought him to the pinnacle
of naval operations.
Anyhow, at or about that time I succeeded in getting a job
working at the 16th Street Depot in Oakland as a freight handler.
So I had to leave the campus around three o'clock every day to get
to my job at the 16th Street Depot.
Hicke: That was a fair distance.
O'Brien: Yes. The job went on at least four hours every day, and I earned
50 cents an hour, so I made about $50 or $60 a month, which was
quite a lot; it managed to pay my way. I started out as what they
call a sticker boy. In those days, on the big, long, drafty
platform, covered with boxes, two teams of billers, callers, and
stickers billed all the freight on the platform. It was thereafter
segregated and put on carts and sent off on the right trains.
My particular pals there were Buck Sawyer and Art Hanson. Art
Hanson ultimately became a policeman in Oakland, and Buck Sawyer
was a college student with me and became president of a San
Francisco insurance company. As I grew more experienced, we took
turns in writing up waybills, calling the freight, and sticking the
waybills on the packages and moving them across the platform
scales. And, over time, we became the fastest guns in the West.
We would clean the whole warehouse of all of the outgoing freight
in two hours instead of four hours. And, with the indulgence of
our Irish foreman, a ruddy-faced mick with the broadest Irish
accent imaginable, we were permitted to tiptoe out of the warehouse
and go our ways, and he would punch out our time cards.
Hicke: Oh, well, good for him.
O'Brien: I tried, as an undergraduate, to keep an A average in my major,
which I pretty largely did. At the end of the first semester, I
won a so-called Kraft prize, which I think was related to getting
one of the highest set of grades as a freshman. I don't think it
was a single prize; I think there were a number of such prizes.
That honorarium amounted to $50.
Hicke: Oh, that was nice.
O'Brien: Yes. Anyway, I was not able to keep the job, which was a perfect
one for a schoolboy, although it involved a lot of hard work and
cut into my study and social life. Because the Depression got
worse and worse, finally expressmen with years of seniority were
compelled to bump me off my job to keep working at all. I was
bounced off that job and in pretty desperate shape, doing odd jobs
at the university, hazing the books around in the library, working
in the registrar's office, washing windows, and a whole variety of
such chores. A classmate of mine, with whom I had gone to grammar
school and high school, by the name of Kerwin Rooney, found us a
job selling newspapers at the auto ferry in Oakland. We wore an
S. P. butcher boys cap, and we had the -
Hicke: "S. P." for Southern Pacific?
O'Brien: - yes - sole concession for selling newspapers to people in
automobiles who were waiting to get on the auto ferry.
Hicke: You went up and down the line?
O'Brien: So we walked up and down the line. I made more money at that than
I did as a freight handler.
I had a lot of other jobs of no great importance. I have no
great pride in my undergraduate record. I should 've been Phi Beta
Kappa, but as a sixteen-year-old, a seventeen-year-old, and
eighteen-year-old, I suddenly began to grow up to be six feet, one
inch tall and became preoccupied with other interests in life. So
I graduated with no great distinction and immediately went on to
O'Brien: I had been saying that I'd be a lawyer since I was seven, eight, or
nine, and it never occurred to me to reexamine that decision.
Obviously, given the times, it was evident even to a youngster that
unless I succeeded in getting an education, being qualified in a
profession, I might be stuck as a freight handler for life. And so
it was apparent that the only way to fame and fortune was to get to
law school, get a degree, get admitted, and hopefully get out of
that economic rut. I knew I wasn't going to be satisfied with that
lot in life, and law school was the answer. It was inexpensive in
k those days, and there were no particular qualifications except a
college degree. And so in the fall of 1932 I began the great
Hicke: There were no grade qualifications?
O'Brien: I don't recall that there were any.
Hicke: No tests to take?
O'Brien: I think we submitted our college transcripts, but I'm not even sure
of that. We may have only submitted our college diplomas. There
were about - it's a guess now - approximately a hundred in my
class when we started. Most of the people in the class were in the
same predicament that I was; we were all pretty impoverished and
penniless, and by then - of course, we had had the crash in 1929,
and the Depression got worse and worse and deeper and deeper, and
we hadn't really begun to emerge in 1932.
Hicke: Did most of those hundred make it all the way through?
O'Brien: Most of them did. You know the classic story: "Look at the fellow
on your left, look at the fellow on your right, one of you is going
to be gone." And there was certainly some attrition. The
attrition, I think, was in part a problem of grades, but it was
probably at least equally the result of an inability to put
together enough money to stay in school, to support yourself. So a
lot of people dropped out, I think, because life was just too
strenuous, and they couldn't make it.
O'Brien: I remember a dear friend of mine who arrived at law school; he had
hitchhiked all the way from Southern California. He had just the
clothes that he had on his back, a big hole in the elbow of his
sweater, and he had the $25 that it took to register. Then he
walked down Telegraph Avenue and got a job, as he described it, as
a pearl diver, i.e., washing dishes in a restaurant.
Oh, people had every kind of job. There was one fellow who
was a conductor on the streetcar. He used to arrive in class with
his conductor's hat on. It had very little resemblance to the
school now, or to what you might call the Ivy League schools.
The leading scholar in the class, Richard Barrett, became a
very dear friend of mine. He was number one in our class in law
school. He was a minister's son, and he and I became very close
friends. After I was married and working at PM&S, he became the
law clerk to Judge Denman in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal. He
fell in love with a Mills girl, who was a friend of my wife, Mary
Hicke: From Mills College?
O'Brien: Yes. We put on the wedding reception for Richard Barrett and his
The faculty at the University of California Law School was
quite extraordinary in 1932. There were a number of nationally
recognized scholars on the faculty. Orrin Kip McMurray was the
Dean, George Costigan, Dudley McGovney, Max Radin, who was aced out
of being appointed to the Supreme Court of California, Charles
Ferrier, who taught Property, "Pat" McBaine - Turner McBaine's
father - who taught Procedure, Evidence, and Common-Law Pleading,
a course which I assume has vanished from the present curriculum.
The extraordinary thing to me was that having said for all
those years that I was going to be a lawyer, I was very
disenchanted with the whole exercise.
Hicke: Oh, really?
O'Brien: I don't know what I expected, or should have expected, but it
seemed like a highly confused operation. The Socratic Method,
while it might have stretched your mind, led to no particular
conclusions, which I found unpleasant.
Hicke: They just questioned you, and you sort of discussed things and -
O'Brien: It was sort of a give and take, and so on. You never really came
to a conclusion where you recognized the one and single principle
or rule which was to govern; it was kind of left in the middle of
the air. Maybe it was my need to have something that you could
really take a grip on, rather than just the process of looking at
some proposition from forty different sides and then going on to
the next case.
In any event, I was a little scared at first. I worked pretty
hard. Then, as I say, I got a little disaffected with the whole
thing, but at the end of the first year, I wound up as number five
in the class, so I thought to myself I must be doing something
O'Brien: So I thought, well now if I really begin to work at it and study
instead of complaining about it, I ought to be able to really ring
the gong. So I worked like a galley slave the second year, and
fell to about number twelve.
Hicke: Oh, no.
O'Brien: I knew too much. I'd read all of the law review articles that were
cited in the footnotes, et cetera, et cetera. I was overloaded
like a computer. So the third year I got a little better balance
into it, and I think wound up about ten or eleven, somewhere along
But it was a remarkable faculty, and I got a fine legal
education. I, again, did various chores. I prepared the syllabi
for Professor [Barbara] Armstrong's undergraduate courses. She
taught a number of courses, undergraduate courses in family law,
and I collected the cases in each state in the western states that
illustrated the points that she was trying to teach. I did a
little legal research to put those together. And then I acted as
the reader in the courses and corrected some of the papers and did
things of that sort. I was very fond of her. I admired her and
she was a bright, able, intelligent, dynamic woman, with strong
convictions on most subjects, and snapping brown eyes, stood erect,
and was quite a figure.
But I also had great affection for George Costigan and
"Captain" [Alexander M.] Kidd and others. It was interesting to
me, because I don't really think Kidd was much of a teacher, but he
was a character, and a beloved character. He was a man with an
explosive temper and sort of frightened his classes because he was
so explosive. He would ask a question, and then put his hand out,
look around the room and fasten on some unfortunate student,
propound his question, and if he didn't like the answer - if he
thought it was stupid or irrelevant - he sometimes would take his
green eyeshade, which he wore, and pull it right down over his
face, around his neck, bundle up all his papers, and stamp out of
the room. These fireworks were always a great time.
It's an interesting thing: a year ago I arranged for the
fiftieth reunion of my law school class. We held it at Yosemite
[National Park] for two days, and we had a considerable turnout.
People came from as far away as Washington and Tennessee, with
wives and companions, and in many cases with children and
grandchildren. The university got us a block of rooms at the
Ahwanee [Hotel]. We didn't have any pomp and circumstance. We had
one big reunion dinner, and we had lunches. In the daytime people
could go their own way.
I asked everybody in the class to send me a biographical
statement of the sort that I had them produce ten years before at
the fortieth reunion of my class, and to supply pictures. One of
the questions I asked them was, "What professors did you like the
best?" And almost everyone listed Kidd, despite his fierce aspect,
along with others.
That is interesting.
But he showed up on nearly everyone's list. I don't know the
present faculty. No doubt they have very great distinction. I'm
certain that that's true of the dean and many others. But the
faculty was much smaller; the courses were more traditional. This
was not the day of environmental law or securities law and so on;
it was kind of novel that they gave a course in taxation, taught by
Roger Traynor, who became chief justice of the State Supreme Court
of California and led a very distinguished court in his time.
Yes, that is unusual. I don't think there was too much
specialization in those days.
O'Brien: No. There was a brilliant professor, whom I vastly enjoyed, who
taught part- time. He also practiced in San Francisco with some
firm, and I can't think of his full name- -his last name was
Haynes. He taught Equity, which was a course that particularly
fascinated me. I thought he taught it brilliantly; that was a
course I just relished.
One summer in there, and maybe even two summers, I can't
really remember, I also worked in the PM&S library. I was the
summer librarian, I guess, and I hazed books around there, put
them back, found things for people. And I was doing some sort of
a job in the law school for the professor who taught legal
bibliography. I fancied that I knew a lot about how to look up
legal problems and how to use all the tools of the trade , and
particularly after a couple of summers and using all the indices
and working with all this material, I thought I was pretty hot
shot at looking up the law and getting into the cases from
various directions in which it could be done. This was long, of
course, before computers or anything of that sort.
I had some very dear and exceptional friends in that class .
I can't mention them all. I've mentioned Dick Barrett. I'll
mention just one other: Lawrence Parma, who came from Santa
Barbara. He was a very good student in law school- -must have
been number three or four in our class . He had very poor
eyesight, wore -
O'Brien: - heavy glasses, and he used to hold his book right up to his
nose to see. He ate up the law; he was good. We had lots of
entertaining experiences in law school, because he and I and a
couple of other people would take turns briefing the cases that
we were supposed to be reading and reporting on, so that if we
were suddenly braced in class we would have a brief of the case,
whether we'd read it or not. Most people took that
responsibility seriously, because in turn you would be reading
somebody else's brief, and you didn't want a bum piece of paper
and one that hadn't been the result of thought and care.
We would type these briefs, and then each fellow got his
copies, so he'd have it in his notebook if he was suddenly
attacked. Parma had a puckish sense of humor, and he would write
the brief and the holding of the court, reciting the facts in a
perfectly lucid style. But then gradually it would begin to lead
you into some cul-de-sac. Before you knew it you were well
launched into this recitation, with a horrifying conclusion. Oh,
we had lots of fun.
There is a famous lawyer in Los Angeles named Raoul Magana.
Magana I met sometime between high school and college. I met him
at a party in Berkeley, and he had just won the California
Shakespearean contest for high school students. He is dark, big,
lovely features, and full of mischief. He was a real character in
Hicke: Was he Othello in Shakespeare?
O'Brien: Yes. When he was supposed to be in class, he would be down
wrestling in the gym or something. But he was so gifted that he
got through law school and went on to become an enormously
successful personal injury lawyer. In Southern California, he has
taken a terrible toll on the railroads and everybody else in sight.
And he and I've remained good friends over all those years. But we
had great fun in law school. He and two or three other fellows,
Parma, and Everett Matthews, who also worked with PM&S, and a
friend of mine who was a great success as a personal injury lawyer
in Oakland, whom I've known from high school days, Charlie McLeod,
used to bum around a lot together in law school.
I'll give you a typical example of Magana. The first course
we had was legal bibliography, which was given by the librarian in
the school whose name was Rose Parma. She was a distant relative
of my friend Lawrence Parma. So the M's - McLeod, Matthews,
Parma, and O'Brien - all sat pretty close together, with Magana
well sandwiched in. And I knew that Raoul had one of those acts
where he'd play the poor Chicano, you know, speaking broken
Miss Parma decided that the best way to come to know each
student in the class was to have each to stand up in turn - and we
were seated alphabetically - and read a paragraph or two out of
this book on legal bibliography. That would help fix in her mind
the face and the name. As the days wore on in this class, two or
three of us kept working on Raoul that when his turn came, he
should read his paragraph in Chicano. He was the guy who had won
the Shakespeare contest in the state of California. Sure enough,
when his turn came, he stood up and read in a broken Mexican-
English dialect. Everybody in class absolutely roared, you know.
He was the most articulate man around town.
Hicke: Oh, that's wonderful.
O'Brien: She thought that we were laughing at this poor Mexican. She was
horrified and indignant. You could imagine how she felt when she
discovered this charade. She nearly went into orbit.
Well, enough of that.
II PM&S: THE EARLY YEARS- -1930s
Joining the Firm
O'Brien: So I was reading these courses at the time I graduated, and in the
meantime I had applied for a job at PM&S. I was interviewed by
Jack Sutro, who had just become a partner that year.
Hicke: This was 1935?
O'Brien: Yes, 1935. And also by Felix Smith. Felix Smith was - I'll come
to him in due course, but he had an office in the northwest corner
of the 19th floor, 1906. You go in the entrance and turn right and
go to the door at the end of the hall; that is 1906. Those offices
came to be known in my days as the "Gold Coast." He interviewed me
As I've mentioned, it was something of rule, I'm sure, that
people who had worked in the firm as hired hands would not be
employed as lawyers. There was kind of a sense of that, at least.
Anyway, Mr. Smith said to me - a very brief interview - "I hear
you've graduated." He knew me, because I'd worked here in the
summer, both as an office boy and later in the library. He said,
"How are your grades?" And I said, "Well, I think I was number
twelve," or something like that. And he said, "That sounds fine.
Why don't you come to work?" So I started the next day.
I was still reading courses. Had to do all the blue books,
you know, had mounds of blue books to read, but I managed to do
those at night. Jobs were few and far between. I think in my
class - it may not be exactly right, but this is near the fact -
of approximately seventy graduating from Boalt Hall in 1935, only
ten or eleven of us found paying jobs.
Hicke: Oh, wait a minute. Ten or eleven found jobs?
O'Brien: That paid any money. Most people had to take desk space in some