Friday, November 21, 2014

And Give Up Showbiz? How Fred Levin Beat Big Tobacco, Avoided Two Murder Prosecutions, Became a Chief of Ghana, Earned Boxing Manager of the Year, and Transformed American Law, by Josh Young

BenBella Books, ISBN 9781940363189, September 2014

You may notice that the title is a bit over the top. So is the subject.

Fred Levin grew up a Jewish kid in Pensacola, Florida at a time when Jews were still routinely and openly discriminated against. He worked hard to be one of the most popular kids in high school anyway, did just well enough that he got into the University of Florida--and discovered that he like college life well enough that he didn't want to leave it after just four years. He spent his last year of college getting his GPA up to the crucial 2.0 that would enable him to enroll in UF's law school.

And there, after some initial fooling around, he discovered he actually loved the law. Thus began what was in some respects an unexpected and often startling legal career.

There's no question that Levin is and always has been an enthusiastic self-promoter. He's very full of himself. Yet he also has some sense of identity with "the little guy," and his career in personal injury law has had over the years a significant element of supporting the average person against big corporations that didn't have any need, absent the personal injury lawyer, any need to care about any injuries done by the products they sold. Make no mistake; this was very, very profitable for Levin. He also got substantial compensation for his clients, and some of those cases, along with what the rest of the personal injury bar was doing, had real impact on how corporations operated.

Among his more significant exploits is one referred to in the title. He got interested in the tobacco litigation, still largely futile, and got Florida's Medicaid law changed in a small but significant way to make it possible for the state of Florida to recover damages from the tobacco companies. That was the crucial event that made the huge tobacco settlement possible.

Levin is a colorful character, and not even remotely a saint. Stories of him lying and cheating are cheerfully told in his own words. He was a terrible family man, neglectful in every sense except providing well financially. He really did have a couple of brushes with murder prosecutions, and did become a Chief of Ghana--as a result, oddly, of his time as a boxing manager. He was part of a wave of change in how personal injury law was practiced, at the start of his career, and again late in his career, with the shift from individual clients to mass tort actions.

Young clearly likes his subject, a great deal more than I suspect I would, but this isn't an uncritical book. It's all here, warts and all. This is a fun book, but it has some of the quality of watching a train wreck: you just can't look away.

Recommended with reservations.

Book trailer:

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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