On the wall of Irving Greines’ office is a large turn-of-the-century poster of the inside of the Sutro Baths in San Francisco, an enclosed bath house built in the 1880s. From far away, it’s a visually striking rendering. But if you look closely, there’s something funny going on. One clock on the wall has 13 numbers. A man sits on a nonexistent railing. It turns out to be a kind of surrealist forerunner of the “What’s wrong with this picture?” games in children’s magazines. Like that poster, there’s a lot more than meets the eye with Greines. He’s known as a founding partner of Greines Martin Stein & Richland LLP, one of the two major appellate law firms in Los Angeles. But he’s made a second career as a fine arts photographer with solo shows around the country. And, ever the fan of visual illusions, he’s also a magician and member of Hollywood’s storied Magic Castle club. He has supplemented his legal career with these childhood interests, a whimsical kind of polymath. He sat down with the Business Journal to discuss his best magic trick, the first time he was paid for a photograph and pioneering the appellate law business in Los Angeles.
Question: How did you get interested in photography?
Answer: My father bought me a little box camera, I think it was an Ansco, when I was about 8 years old. I remember one day there was a car accident on the corner of my block and I photographed the accident. This was big news for me, so I called the Los Angeles Times and told them there was an accident on my corner and that I had film. So they sent someone by who picked up the film. They never published it as far as I know, but they sent me a check for $2.50.
That’s a lot of money for an 8-year-old.
Those were in the days when if you found a penny on the street, you’d really stop and pick it up. From then on I was on the hunt for anything that appeared newsworthy, but I never did find anything else.
How did your interest in photography develop beyond just looking for car accidents?
I did it extensively and I can’t explain why I was drawn to doing it. I just did it and I loved it. And it wasn’t until later that I even started to think in terms of having a second career as a professional fine arts photographer. Probably around 1980, ’85, I decided to buy a very expensive camera, a Hasselblad, and I started to take that camera around with a tripod to San Francisco’s Chinatown. I walked every single street and alley in Chinatown more than once and I started to take images. From 1990 to 2000 I went to New York as frequently as I could, walking the streets mostly downtown and taking pictures.
How did people react when they saw you on the street?
Some of them would call me crazy. Other people would get it. In one area in New York I had (a bystander) who stood for about 20 minutes over my shoulder and clucked like a chicken.
So this was all self-taught?
Never went to school for it. Somewhere along the way I decided they were pretty good and submitted them to a professional magazine. They wrote back and said they’d like to publish them. And before I knew it, I was signed up in galleries and had national shows in New York; Washington, D.C.; Dallas; Los Angeles.
When you went to Chinatown and New York, what were you trying to capture?
I didn’t know at the time but I think what I was trying to do was to capture beauty in complete ugliness. I would walk in really beaten-down neighborhoods and what I was trying to do was to bring order to the chaos that was around me.
Why do you think that appealed to you?
I don’t think I knew it at the time, but it was a matter of taking unbounded grit and seeing if you could confine it within a defined space so that it became its own standard of attraction or beauty. And it ties in with practicing appellate law, because appellate law is really about trying to package a set of facts and legal principles into a brief that conveys the most attractive side of your case. They’re really flip sides of the same coin.
Could you expand on that a little more?
It’s taking a chaotic environment – which could be a trial that went on for eight weeks with all kinds of objections and legal issues – and packaging that trial in as contained a space as you can to present a convincing image, one that you hope will convince a court of appeal or a supreme court to accept your position. And in the photography world, it was walking the streets and hoping to find something in this unbounded chaos, something that you could package in a confined space and have someone look at it and say that’s a beautiful image.
But you’re not really working with something “unbounded” as you say. In appellate law, you have to take the previous case that’s handed to you and turn it into something.
There really is a parallel. My rule when I walk the streets is that I will not touch a single thing even though I know touching it would make the image even better. It has to be a found scene for me that’s handed to me, just like a trial court record is handed to me.
What do you see as the difference between an appellate lawyer and other kinds of lawyers?
For the most part being a really good appellate lawyer and being a really good trial lawyer are almost mutually exclusive. Appellate lawyers generally would not like to go to court and deal with the uncertainties that trial lawyers have to face. Appellate lawyers like to know that there is a confined space – the trial court record – and confined legal principles.
Is there a certain personality type that lends itself to being an appellate lawyer?
Eggheads. Trial lawyers are more personable, outgoing people. Appellate lawyers often are more introverted.
Would you describe yourself as introverted?
I’m shy. I don’t always feel comfortable in large groups of people. If I go to a cocktail party where I don’t know a lot of people, I will feel hesitant.
Can you be shy and start your own law firm?
It’s only when I walk into an environment where I don’t know people well. I’m not shy here at all.
Why’d you become a lawyer?
My father was a truck driver. He didn’t want me to be a truck driver so he gave me three choices of what I could be, a lawyer, a doctor and an accountant. He felt that I should be my own boss and not have my life subject to other people’s demands.
That sounds typical of an immigrant family.
My grandparents were from Eastern Europe, and my parents were born in Chicago and Texas, the first generation here.
What was your childhood like? Did you have a big family?
It was just my father and grandmother. My mother died when I was young.
How did losing your mother affect your childhood?
It was very hard in grammar school when people were doing Mother’s Day cards and I did a grandmother’s day card. Not having a real mother’s presence in your life obviously impacts you. The person who basically raised me in addition to my father was my grandmother, who was basically an immigrant from the old world.
How did you get started in your career?
I had a clerkship with two first-rate justices, Otto Kaus and Shirley Hufstedler, who later became secretary of education. The Warren court was promulgating blockbuster criminal rights decisions and we had the job of interpreting them. There was something very exciting about it. Then when I went to work at a trial firm, it was depositions, preparing interrogatories, doing discovery, the drudgework that a new lawyer would face. I always looked back at that period on the court as one of complete excitement.
I did as much appellate or law and motion work as I could there. In those days there was no specialty called appellate practice. I formed my own practice for a while and then I went into a small practice with someone who later became partners with me, Ellis Horvitz in the Valley. It became Horvitz and Greines eventually, and then we split off. It’s been this firm since 1983.
You’re the two largest appellate firms in town. Why did you split up?
We just saw practicing differently. We just had different views of what the practice should be about and how to approach the practice and running a partnership.
What do you mean?
Just who should argue cases, for example. We’ve always felt if an associate worked up a case and knew the record the best, the associate should argue the case and not necessarily a senior partner. We were constantly disagreeing about approaches.
Like what else?
It would be about business. Who should come into the firm, who should be hired, what the décor should look like. He liked orange and I didn’t.
Would you say the competition between the two firms is pretty heated?
Well, we all get along. We all we like and respect each other. But, of course, we’d like to get cases and they’d like to get cases.
What would you consider your legal career highlight?
I love the period when I was representing Kim Basinger. She got hit for a huge judgment many years ago and as a result she went into bankruptcy and she retained me to appeal the case for her. I successfully appealed that case. It was an exciting case, it was a difficult issue and it was someone who was seriously in financial trouble as a result of the judgment and very much needed my guidance.
In addition to your careers as a photographer and lawyer, I’ve read that you’re a magician.
I always liked magic as a kid. When I was working at my first law firm downtown, Kadison Pfaelzer, one of the partners was a member of the Magic Castle. He took me to the Magic Castle one night and I saw one of the all-time famous greats at close-up magic, Tony Slydini. Slydini was doing absolute miracles without props. Putting coins on the table, and the coin would disappear. I became absolutely driven to become a magician member of the Magic Castle. In order to become one you have to put together a routine that will pass muster with five of their magician members.
Did you get in?
So I worked on this routine but didn’t have the nerve to go there. One day, a client of mine had his cigar salesman come by. He was a member. So I did my routine for him, and he said, “You’re coming this Friday to audition.” I went there, did my act for five magicians, and was admitted. Which I have to tell you was a day that gave me more pleasure than the day I passed the bar exam or was sworn in as a lawyer.
What was your routine?
It had some card tricks in it. It had penetrations of corks through the table. Once I became a member I started trading small legal services for magic lessons from some of the greats. There was one very famous magician named Francis Carlyle, and on a Saturday afternoon I’d be up in Francis’ little apartment trying to learn the cups and balls, with him smacking my hand with his wand saying, “You’re never going to get this trick.”
What was your best trick?
One was the Chinese linking rings, which I did learn, and which is a gorgeous, gorgeous trick. That and penetrations through the table.
What did you like about those tricks?
It goes back to the law again. They are very subtle, very well-thought-out maneuvers that are designed to distract. It’s like a perfectly assembled case. Every part of it is so perfectly done and it’s so tied to human experience as to where the eye will go naturally in a certain circumstance, or what the brain will think, that I consider it as brilliant as any legal solution. And you know something really interesting? The easiest people to fool with even simple tricks are lawyers.
They are taught to think logically and in a box. A leads to B leads to C leads to D. And A does not lead to B in magic; A leads to X. So the better the lawyer the easier it is to completely dupe that lawyer with a magic trick.
What was it like once you got in?
I remember I went there one afternoon I’d had too much at work. And I knew “the boys” – the boys were the magicians, that’s what they referred to themselves as – the boys would be there starting at 4 in the afternoon and they’d start drinking pretty good.
No. Those guys didn’t drink beer. (Laughs)
What happened then?
There was someone doing card tricks, a magician named Tony Giorgio. Tony was also an actor, who in “The Godfather” stabbed Luca Brasi in the hand at a bar with an ice pick. He’s doing these amazing wonderful tricks, and then he says, “What time is it? I gotta run.” I look at my wrist and my watch is not there. He had completely pick-pocketed me while he was doing the magic tricks. He took my watch, my wallet, my handkerchief and undid my tie.
Do you go as often now?
Much less after I got married. The old-timers started to disappear from the scene. It became much more Hollywood types and it didn’t interest me as much.
It sounds like you’re able to balance work with your other interests.
My family is probably the most important thing that has happened in my life, more than law, more than photography, more than magic.
How do you make time for them?
My wife and I have worked out a deal where I’ll go on a photography trip alone and then we’ll go together. Or I will go first for a week and then she’ll come and join me. And the rule is that after I’m done photographing we will then do the trip without photography. I’ve done that in Paris.
It seems like you’re able to get away from work.
I like the fact that my appellate practice has never required that I travel for long extended periods of time, and has generally allowed me to be home when my kids were growing up. We like that our firm’s lawyers have lives outside of the firm. We’re willing to trade maximum dollars for that luxury.
TITLE: Founding partner
COMPANY: Greines Martin Stein & Richland LLP
BORN: Los Angeles; 1941.
EDUCATION: B.S., business administration, J.D., both from UCLA.
CAREER TURNING POINT: Clerking for the California Court of Appeal.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Court of Appeal Judge Otto Kaus.
PERSONAL: Lives in Westwood with his wife, Carol. Has two adult daughters, Emily and Julie.
ACTIVITIES: Photography, magic.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.