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Goodman Practices Law with Same Ear He Brings to Jazz
By Paul Jablow
Stephen M. Goodman  
Stephen Goodman W'62, L'65 practices the art of improvisation in law and in music.
Since his days at the Law School more than 40 years ago, Stephen M. Goodman W'62, L'65 has been known as "the jazz lawyer."

But if you're looking for the place where the lawyer stops and the musician starts, he suggests that you stop: They're one and the same.

"I've always felt the same way sitting at a piano improvising as I did having a legal problem that was challenging," said Goodman, 70, a senior partner at Morgan, Lewis and Bockius specializing in startups in the technology and life sciences areas.

"If I walk into a meeting with an entrepreneur to listen to their business model, it's the same as listening to a tune (on which) I'll be improvising."

The law has always been Goodman's living, starting with the editorship at the University of Pennsylvania Law Review and clerkships in Washington with Appeals Court Judge David L. Bazelon and U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. But the music goes back earlier, back to a piano teacher whom he almost drove crazy as a seven-year-old in Philadelphia. And it has never stopped as he played in clubs following 100-hour weeks at his desk.

Goodman's parents started him with piano lessons but his teacher quickly termed him, in Goodman's words, "a disaster....

He'll never learn to read music. But he has a great ear. Find him a bandleader who can teach him technique."

The bandleader, Harold Rubin, sent him to the library "and I must have learned 300 tunes." By his teen years, he was playing bar mitzvahs, youth dances and sweet sixteens, developing a heavily chorded, percussive style reminiscent of one of his musical heroes, Erroll Garner, who also never learned to read music.

"I have no eye-hand coordination whatever," Goodman says. "I have complete ear-hand coordination. If I can hear it I can play it."

After threatening his worried parents about becoming a professional musician, Goodman decided instead to "hedge my bets" and entered Wharton as an accounting major. There, one of his professors steered him toward law school. "The things he told me about having good analytical skills were all the things I associated with being a good jazz musician: improvisation, synthesis, creativity, synchronicity, knowing when to lead and when to follow, when to be a soloist as opposed to an accompanist.

"I saw I wasn't a musician or a lawyer. I was a person who had a certain skill set that had a crossover between my music and my potential profession."

His clerkships done, Goodman started a boutique law firm with colleagues from the Law Review in 1969 and moved to Wolf, Block in 1983.

He was also appearing after hours at venues including the Borgia Cafe, the Frog, the Commissary piano bar, the Hershey Hotel and the Cassatt Lounge at the Rittenhouse Hotel.

"I got a reputation as a musician and a lawyer as being one of the best closers in town," joked Goodman, who has a reputation for closing deals and it appears for playing restaurants and bars that became extinct. Other than the Cassatt Lounge all of the aforementioned bars and restaurants have closed.

In 1994, needing a firm with an international presence and strengths in life science, technology and patents, he moved to Morgan Lewis, where Goodman notes that he has had the privilege of being an ensemble player in what he deems "the world's greatest orchestra."

About two years later came his several months of jazz fame.

He was discovered by a producer named Doug King, who asked Goodman and the other members of his trio, bassist Bruce Kaminsky and drummer Bruce Klauber, to make a CD for his new DBK label based on the musical "Jekyll and Hyde."

"We had one rehearsal of a half hour and then we did it all in one take," Goodman recalls. "Doug King was thrilled."

Two other CDs based on musicals followed – "Phantom of the Opera" and "Chicago." All got some national air play. "I used to walk into Tower Records and just in back of the Benny Goodman section was the Steve Goodman section," he says. "It was a trip."

But the label soon folded and Goodman settled into a regular Tuesday night gig at the 23d Street Cafe, only blocks from his 17th floor corner office at Morgan, Lewis.

And a high point of those Tuesday nights "is when my clients come to hear me play. "In my mind, I'm still to this day the jazz musician who practices law."

Paul Jablow is a former reporter and editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer who now freelances from Bryn Mawr. He once wrote a letter to Downbeat magazine that so impressed Charles Mingus that Mingus invited him to Birdland Jazz Club in New York and bought him a beer.