|Oregon State Bar Bulletin DECEMBER 2008|
Stephen Brischetto brings history to Life
By Cliff Collins
|Stephen L. Brischetto|
People can make history, but if nobody writes it down, those accomplished individuals in time will be forgotten.
Thanks to Stephen L. Brischetto, significant judges and lawyers in Oregon, and what they did, will be remembered. For the past decade, Brischetto, a Portland attorney, has been the driving force behind the U.S. District Court Historical Society’s oral history project.
Because of his volunteer work with that project, around 150 oral histories of lawyers and judges across Oregon are archived at the Oregon Historical Society. In addition, as chairman of the oral history program for over 10 years, he has coordinated the compilation of oral histories of all the U.S. District Court judges from Oregon, as well as oral histories of judges from Oregon on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. magistrates and bankruptcy judges of Oregon.
Brischetto was born and raised in St. Louis. From the age of 7 or 8, he worked in a neighborhood tavern owned by his father. Brischetto’s dad, as well as his grandparents on both sides, were born in
Italy, and young Steve grew up in an Italian community in St. Louis known as "The Hill."
There was a strong union influence, with union halls nearby and a "rough-and-tumble crowd" of regulars at the tavern, he recalls. His dad was born in Italy "just before his family came over," and remained an "Old Country-type guy" who worked hard: seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day.
Steve attended a private boys’ prep school run by the Jesuits, a good school filled with "smart kids," he says. He wanted to go to college on the East Coast, but his mother nixed that idea; so he ended up staying in the Midwest, at Notre Dame. There, he earned both his bachelor’s degree, in English, and his law degree.
Brischetto knew no attorneys while growing up, but had no trouble settling on that profession. "I had a strong interest in social and civil justice, and had no interest in medicine or business," he recounts. "I always was very good with words and writing, loved the process of writing, and was good with analytical things. Law school was a natural fit."
After passing the bar, he obtained a fellowship in poverty law, and for his first year did legal services work in South Bend, Ind. But he had married while both he and his wife were at Notre Dame, and the couple decided to move to the West Coast, settling on Portland.
Brischetto’s first job in Portland was as the first staff attorney for the Oregon Advocacy Center, where he eventually became executive director and spent a total of five years. "I got to focus on the rights of people in institutions, and children in special education in schools," he says. "I did much early development of the law in Oregon in those areas."
He next went into private practice with Richard C. Baldwin, now a Multnomah County Court judge. Brischetto spent seven years with Baldwin & Brischetto, where his practice emphasized special-education law and employment law in federal and state courts.
For the past 18 years, Brischetto has been in sole practice, representing plaintiffs in employment law, and also taking some civil rights cases. His employment cases center principally on discrimination, wrongful termination and harassment. "In the early years, sex discrimination and harassment were a significant part of what I did," he says. "Now, age discrimination is more common."
He has never looked back after going solo. "I’ve enjoyed it. I feel like it provides a service that helps people turn their lives around sometimes when they’re in a difficult situation."
Brischetto says that being in sole practice allows him to make his own decisions about what cases to take. "In a firm setting, I felt that the economics of the firm would affect the cases that I could or could not accept. I really never wanted to be in a position where someone would say that I shouldn’t accept a case I was interested in litigating or I shouldn’t pursue a novel theory of the law because the case would not likely generate enough of an economic benefit to the firm."
Brischetto has influenced or mentored many lawyers, including George P. Fisher, a sole practitioner who also specializes in complex employment law. "I’ve drawn on his experience and input many times," Fisher says.
"Steve has got just a really great intellectual instrument," he says. As Fisher describes it, Brischetto goes into something of a zone mentally when contemplating strategy.
"You ask him a legal question, he kind of half-closes his eyes," then focuses on citing the rule and the application to a case. "He does it in about five or six minutes; he’ll talk like that. Then the tape runs out. He comes back, and that’s the answer. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he’s right."
The majority of Brischetto’s cases are in the U.S. District Court, often tried before Judge Owen M. Panner. When Panner asked him to serve on the executive committee of the court’s historical society, Brischetto agreed (noting, "Most people say ‘yes’ to Judge Panner.")
It became a labor of love, however. An oral history subcommittee reviews and chooses individuals who have been important in the history of the court, and individuals who have had an impact on Oregon law, including "trailblazers" such as female and minority lawyers and judges.
Donna Sinclair, a public historian who worked on the oral history project with Brischetto, says, "We were able to transcribe twice what was paid for (by the court) by volunteer effort." She says Brischetto went out asking law firms around the state to donate time and labor to transcribe oral histories. He also recruited lawyers to volunteer to do interviews of the judges, lawyers, long-time court clerks and other court personnel who were selected to be profiled.
"He did a really good job," Sinclair says. "Steve generated interest and checked in with people regularly, and because of his organizational skills, kept everything on track." The fact that he is a sole practitioner yet was willing to devote the time he did is "a testimony to his dedication to community service," she adds.
In addition to the oral history project, Brischetto has been involved in many other bar activities.
"From my first year as a member, I began to apply for bar positions and CLEs in my area," says Brischetto, who has chaired and twice served on the Uniform Civil Jury Instructions Committee; chaired and served on the Federal Practice & Procedure Committee; been appointed to the OSB Disciplinary Board; chaired and served on the executive committee of the Civil Rights Section; and served on the State Lawyers’ Assistance Committee.
He believes lawyers need to break out of their own specialty areas and see their peers in other than adversarial circumstances.
"All those bar actions have been really beneficial in the development of my career," Brischetto says. "For someone in a sole or small setting, it’s really essential that you get out and interact with people."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.