Carl Shapiro, a distinguished if colorfully unorthodox progressive lawyer once described as “Marin’s liberal lion in winter,” died Jan. 29 at his home in Fairfax. He had celebrated his 100th birthday last summer.
A former ironworker-turned-carpenter-turned-lawyer, Mr. Shapiro championed social justice causes and human rights cases throughout his long career. He practiced law for 65 years, finishing his last case in 2016.
With his aquiline nose and mane of long white hair, he cut a strikingly eccentric figure in the courtroom in his Pendleton shirts, bow ties and thrift shop jackets. In a 1983 Independent Journal profile, reporter Erik Ingram wrote that “his favored apparel can only be described as perma-wrinkle.” He was particularly partial to plaid.
“I loved his different plaids,” said Mari-Ann Rivers, a lawyer in the Marin County Counsel’s Office. “He had a plaid bow tie, a plaid shirt, a plaid jacket, plaid pants — none of them matching.”
She said he had filed so many civil rights cases against the county that lawyers in the county counsel’s office would joke about having a button on their computers that they would push for automatic Carl Shapiro settlement agreements.
As a criminal lawyer, he was known for representing low-income clients or no-income clients, including more than 20 death-row inmates.
“He was available to everyone and anyone, even people who didn’t have money,” Rivers said. “He was always accessible to people who had no other recourse. He took whatever came and did his best to help folks.”
He often took cases pro bono. Other times, instead of money, he was paid in kind, things like a second-hand stereo, a shoe-repair job, even a brood of chickens. He always drove old, junky cars, and for a time could be seen driving to work in a beat-up pickup a client traded him for legal services.
“I know how to bill clients, I just don’t know how to collect,” he said in the 1983 Independent Journal profile, adding in a later story: “If I collected all the fees owed me I’d be rich. But money is only money. I don’t want to be wealthy. I just need enough to live on.”
Considered the unofficial dean of Marin’s criminal defense attorneys, he was known for his razor sharp mind as much as his common-man approach to the law and was often sought out by younger attorneys for advice and ideas.
Fellow attorney Edmund McGill described him as “the archetype opposite of what the public perceives a lawyer to be. If he sees an opportunity to be generous, he’ll take it.”
He was especially generous to San Anselmo lawyer Ford Greene. Mr. Shapiro gave him an apprenticeship in his office when Greene was in law school and later, after Greene had passed the bar, handed him a case against the Unification Church’s Moonie cult that Greene argued successfully in front of the California Supreme Court.
“He not only gave me a job, he gave me a case against the Moonies that made my career for a long time,” Greene said. “He was such a great trial lawyer. He could really gauge people.”
And he knew all the courtroom tricks. Greene recalled that if an opposing attorney was presenting particularly damaging evidence against his client, “Carl would whip out his dirty comb and start combing his long hair. The jury would get fixated on him and it would distract them from the harmful information that was coming in.”
A native of Cleveland, Mr. Shapiro was the son of a lawyer who expected him to follow in his footsteps. He would, but politically, father and son were polar opposites.
“My father was a Herbert Hoover Republican,” Mr. Shapiro said once. “By the time I got to college I was a violent radical.”
As an undergraduate at Harvard, he was tutored by the socialist Max Lerner and found his first cause raising money for the Spanish Republican Army’s battle against the fascist general Francisco Franco.
Rather than enroll in Harvard Law School, he disappointed his father by moving to the West Coast to study law and public administration at the University of California at Berkeley. At the same time, he worked briefly in the personnel office of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, but was fired, he said, “for my radical beliefs.”
In 1942, he married his wife, Helen, who would later become his law partner. The young couple bought a house in Fairfax and started raising a family. Mr. Shapiro went to work as an ironworker and boilermaker at a Richmond shipyard and built fishing boats in Sausalito before being drafted into the Army during World War II.
Although he ran a free anti-draft clinic during the Vietnam War, he was proud of his own wartime service.
“The times and situations differed,” he explained. “A Jew in Germany could object to the draft, but how could a Jew in this country (during the Second World War)?”
After his discharge, he worked during the day as a carpenter, serving on the boards of the carpenters local and the central labor council. At night, he studied law at the University of San Francisco, graduating in 1949. He passed the bar exam the following year and opened his first law office in Fairfax, his hometown. By then, he and Helen had three children — Joseph, Sylvia and Toby.
He said he decided to have his office in Fairfax “because I felt that if I was going to starve, I might as well be close to home.”
In 1961, he closed the Fairfax practice and joined the San Francisco law firm of leftist lawyer Vincent Hallinan, a one-time Independent Progressive Party candidate for president. “I was making a lot of money, but it wasn’t my trip,” he said. “I wasn’t working with clients.”
In 1967, he hung his shingle in San Anselmo, opening an office that has been described variously as “funky” and “comfortably cluttered.” He worked there with his wife, who died in 2005, and his daughter, Sylvia, a former Marin court commissioner.
In 1988, he survived a bout with colon cancer that was treated with surgery and a year of chemotherapy. In an IJ interview when he was 95, he attributed his longevity to “good luck.”
In that same interview, he was asked what kept him working for so long.
“Are you familiar with the Winchester Mystery House?” he replied, noting that the heiress who lived there believed that as long as carpenters kept working on her mansion, she wouldn’t die. “So they’d build a stairway that wouldn’t go anywhere and installed doors that went nowhere. I feel the same way about my cases. As long as I have them…”
Mr. Shapiro is survived by his daughter, Sylvia; his son, Joseph, of Hopland, and several grandchildren. His son, Toby, died in 2016. A celebration of Mr. Shapiro’s life will be at 1pm, Feb. 19 at the American Legion Log Cabin, 120 Veterans Place, San Anselmo.
(Marin Independent Journal)