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The Lawyer's Lawyer

Peter Baird is a legend in the Phoenix legal community – just don’t tell him that

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: Southwest Super Lawyers, June 2007


As a senior partner at Lewis and Roca, one of the Southwest’s leading business law firms, Peter D. Baird certainly has an enviable gig. His corner office on the 20th floor of the Two Renaissance Square tower affords a breathtaking view of the city where he’s lived and worked, for the same firm, for 40 years. He can casually wave at a photo of himself with Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a former Lewis and Roca partner, and shrug, “There’s me with my friend Janet.”

But you won't find much other evidence of Baird's influence in this office, despite his work on landmark cases such as Miranda v. Arizona and the litigation following the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Instead, Baird's desk looks out on a big poster of Doug Henning and other stars from the world of magic – a consuming hobby for Baird, who has performed as a mentalist at many charity events over the years; some music memorabilia (the Stanford Law graduate also jams as a clarinetist in the Phoenix College Concert Band); and many framed photos of his three grown children and grandchildren.

And while the 65-year-old lawyer, whose his principal cases today involve defending other lawyers, admits he’s had a “good run” in the legal game, he’s quick to point out that there’s more to life than career – and less to lionize behind the successful superstar lawyer.

“If you let this job consume you, you become a monosyllabic, narrow, blind workaholic,” Baird says, sitting down to a healthy brown-bag lunch fetched from the downstairs deli by his dedicated secretary (soup, sandwich and chips, “hold the cookie,” per instructions from his equally-doting wife).

“Most people assume that the greatest lawyers are the ones that work 24 hours a day and sleep in their offices,” Baird says. “But when I was that way, I was vastly inferior as a lawyer than when I was also thinking about music and magic and literature.”

Baird’s latest, and most cathartic, side project has been the completion of his first novel, “Beyond Peleliu,” a well-received story loosely based on his own experience of dealing with a violent father returned from the battlefields of World War II. Critics have hailed the tome as a gripping look at the dark side of the “Greatest Generation,” as well as a cautionary message about the personal costs of chasing “super lawyer” success, as the litigator son in the story does to compensate for having his own absentee father.

“Peter’s really the Renaissance man of the Phoenix legal community,” says José Cárdenas, a partner with 30 years in the firm and a long-time friend. “For Peter, it’s never been just The Law. He’s about the whole person. And that’s why, in many respects, he’s the heart and soul of Lewis and Roca.”

Baird himself puts it another way:

“If you make me out to be some super-duper lawyer who never screws up, I’ll kill ya,” he quips between hurried bites of potato chips. “Or, I’ll sue ya – how’s that?”

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Clearly, Baird has little interest in promoting the well-polished image of the superstar lawyer, one he feels has already been played out in decades of TV lawyer shows he refuses to watch. “I haven’t watched any of ’em since Ironside,” he grumbles.

Rather, Baird seems doggedly determined to deflate the puffed-up picture projected by many at his career station – mostly by amplifying his own faults and foibles.

His book’s central character is a lawyer “afflicted by his father’s needs for perfection,” he says. “To always win, and to use every weapon at his disposal to achieve that – including browbeating and taking advantage of moral ambiguities. He becomes an enormously successful lawyer, but also a crappy father, and a crappy husband.”

And while he insists roughly 80% of the story is fiction, the twice-married Baird is quick to admit he’s long suffered from clinical depression, and that he inherited some of the “demons of war” from his late father – who, like the father in the novel, was a WWII army surgeon Baird says returned home “violent, alcoholic and a womanizer.”

Worse, Baird worries he’s passed down some of those inherited demons to his own kids – one of whom, an adopted African-American daughter (newsworthy at the time of the adoption), is now estranged from the family.

“The last I heard from her, she was somewhere in Texas, and leading a terrible life,” Baird says, with an undisguised deep sadness. “Drugs and violence and stripping – all that kind of stuff.”

He’s got stents in his heart to combat recurring artery blockage, a hand that shakes a little while slurping his soup, and has made enough blunders in his career to fill another book – or at least a magazine article. His essay in the winter 2005 Litigation, where Baird is also a senior editor, bore the brave title, “My Stupid Mistakes.”

“One thing I learned from creating characters for the book is that nobody’s ever 100% virtuous or villainous,” Baird says. “We’re all flawed. We’re all a mixture of what makes us human. And that goes for lawyers, too.”

“He shares things about himself that some of us would be reluctant to share,” Cárdenas says. “But that’s just Peter. I think most people who are in the business of providing guidance to others – which is a lot of what lawyers do, after all – are reluctant to indicate their weaknesses. Peter’s bigger than that.”

Paul Eckstein, a fellow lawyer who’s called on Baird to represent him as co-counsel or mediator in a number of cases, says Baird’s openness about his human frailties comes from a confidence in his own impressive legal record.

“He wants his work to stand on its own,” Eckstein says, “and it does. That’s why other lawyers use him. His judgement is superb, and his writing ability definitely sets him apart in court. He knows how to convey information persuasively. Most lawyers think they can do that, but Peter really shows how it’s done.”

While his bio trumpets involvement in some high-profile cases, Baird is quick to quantify his contributions to what he insists were all team efforts. “I was the lowest member of the team on the Miranda case, and I came in right after the decision,” he says of his first milestone. “The thing about my ‘triumphs’ is, not a single one of them was single-handedly done by me.”

Rather, it’s the personal stamp he leaves on every case he tackles – no matter how big or how small – that has made him such a respected name among fellow lawyers.

“The best way to describe him,” says lawyer Mary Gerdts, who’s enlisted Baird’s help in some copywrite law cases, “is his fingerprints are on everything. He’s very hands-on, and he’s all about quality.”

Eckstein agrees. “People who reach that status tend to be pretty busy, but he always manages to become personally engaged in whatever he’s working on. He brings energy and passion to whatever he does.”

Bill Maledon, who first met Baird as an opponent in court and has come to use him as his own lawyer, thinks Baird’s humble, self-deprecating style may actually be part of his secret weapon.

“Peter has the kind of personality where he gets along with people very easily,” he says. “But when he stands up in court, he’s highly professional and well-prepared. He figures out what the important issues are and aren’t. And when he analyzes what can’t be resolved out of court, you know you’re in for a fight.”

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When Baird does pat himself on the back, it’s for his pro-bono work, cases he took on that didn’t always receive the unanimous support of his peers.

He represented his first wife, Sara, who graduated from Stanford number one in the bar, when she refused in 1970 to take the loyalty oath, a remnant of the McCarthy era still in use by the Arizona State Bar at that time. In the 80’s, he took on the federal government for having sent spies and recording devices into services at a Protestant church in Scottsdale involved in the Sanctuary Movement, a controversial group sheltering Central American refugees from INS authorities.

“Some of the cases I took on infuriated my partners,” Baird says. “My wife’s case was not happily received, because it involved communism. Nor was the Sanctuary Movement case. I also represented the Hari Krishna’s in city court, and I represented all sorts of anti-war protesters during the Vietnam war. And I’m proud of that.”

These days, Baird tends to pass on the more controversial cases, primarily to placate his wife and his cardiologist, who’ve talked him into lightening his load. “Although if people were getting thrown in jail because of opposition to Iraq,” he says, “I’m sure I’d be there to help them out.”

It’s likely now that most of the partners would also be on board. Handling pro bono matters has become Lewis and Roca’s point of pride – something José Cárdenas ties directly to Baird’s influence.

“Peter’s one of those lawyers who still thinks of law as a noble profession,” says Cárdenas, who notes Baird was on the voting committee that in 1998 elected him the first Hispanic managing partner of a major law firm in the West. “So you do a lot of things because it’s the right thing to do, and you don’t necessarily crow about them.”

Today, most of Baird’s billable hours are spent representing younger lawyers whose guts and idealism mirror his own, and in the process inspiring many of them.

“He took over a very difficult case for me a couple of years ago, and quite frankly, he restored my faith in attorneys,” says fellow lawyer Mary Gerdts, whose own practice specializes in electronic transactions matters. “He doesn’t come cheap,” she adds. “But he’s a very honest gentleman. And that is rare.”

Baird also finds contentment knowing that some of his more noble fights – particularly those on the civil rights forefront – have contributed to a better world in his own backyard.

“For one thing,” Baird says, turning to look out his window on the sprawling city below, “Phoenix turned out to be a really good place to raise a multi-racial family. Which wasn’t exactly the case when we were raising our daughter. Things have come a long way.”

Baird’s only been talking through lunch, but already he’s revealed enough about the man behind the legend to let it be known that victory is bittersweet.

Still, it’s a victory that matters. “I’m proud of the city for that,” he says.

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Photos by Art Holeman

Baird performs as a mentalist at cancer charity events across the country.

Baird looks at the dark side of the Greatest Generation in his debut novel.