Physics Alumnus Charles Siegal Makes Mark in Legal Field
When Charles Siegal (S1967, 1972) drives to work each morning, he’s reminded every quarter of a mile that choosing to practice law was a good idea.
It’s not that the Pittsburgh-born Los Angeles resident and Stanford Law grad holds anything against physics — in fact, he’s still a member of the American Physical Society — but his work as a lawyer has left a direct impact on the daily lives of people that further research on nuclear physics may not have.
Take, for example, what he sees each morning on the L.A. freeway. A few years ago, his firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP took on a pro bono case representing clients with disabilities in a suit against the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the California Department of Transportation and the California Highway Patrol seeking to make freeway call boxes accessible. The boxes, located every quarter of a mile, allow people involved in accidents or having car trouble to call the Highway Patrol. But the boxes weren’t accessible to everyone, and one of the clients Siegal represented literally had to crawl over a curb to get to the call box, only to find that she couldn’t reach it. The case ended in a settlement, mandating that all the call boxes in Los Angeles County had to be updated to be accessible, which included installing ramps and equipping phones with telephone typewriters for those with hearing or speech difficulties.
“You drive down the freeways in L.A. County now, and there’s a sign on every call box that says ‘This is accessible,’ ” Siegal said. “It’s very rare that you see something on your way to work and think ‘I did that and it’s helpful.’ ”
Throughout his career, he has made strides for people with disabilities, including a term as president of the Disability Rights Legal Center. But disability law hasn’t been Siegal’s only pro bono focus. He’s also committed to international human rights law, and is president of the American Branch of the International Law Association. In addition to his pro bono work, Siegal’s successful career of more than three decades has focused on commercial litigation, ranging from electric industry regulation to insurance coverage disputes and, more recently, patents.
Siegal’s interests are varied, but they have their roots in his physics studies at Carnegie Mellon.
“Physics and math are very good training if you want to be analytical, and the law is analytical,” he said. “I think that training sets the mind in the right direction.”
He also says that his professors at Carnegie Mellon shaped him. “All the faculty in the Physics Department influenced me. I still have huge admiration for them — the way they understood physics, the way they saw the world, their politics. Their moral base was grounded in the hunt for the truth. If you follow that, you cannot go too far astray.”
Even today, Siegal recalls specific conversations with Physics Department faculty members that have shaped the way he still works. Once, he discussed leaving the Ph.D. program and moving on to law school with Emeritus Professor Leonard Kisslinger. Kisslinger’s advice — to complete the degree because of the satisfaction derived from finishing what you start — is something Siegal has passed along many times. Siegal also recalls debating the search for truth in science with the late Simeon Friedberg, who pointed out that scientists get to the truth by publishing research results and exposing them to scrutiny. Siegal hopes that, though judicial review, the law can follow that same model.
The political upheaval and social unrest of the early 1970s also helped shape Siegal’s career. He chose law, in part, to have an impact on the world. Since his time as a student at Stanford, Siegal has found himself involved in politically charged matters. His first “real” job was in the U.S. State Department, drafting Agreements for Cooperation covering U.S. sales of nuclear materials to other countries. Later, he wrote amicus briefs for Supreme Court cases dealing with the Alien Tort Statute, which gives victims of human rights violations abroad the right to sue their abusers in federal court.
Siegal is currently working on the second edition of a casebook, “Disability Civil Rights Law,” which he co-authored. One of his sections — on international disability rights law — weaves together his experience in both areas. He’s revamping the section in light of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which entered into force this past May and has been signed by 127 countries — and not by the United States, he notes ruefully. The convention aims to ensure that nations promote the rights of people with disabilities and make the world accessible to them. Not only is Siegal rethinking the casebook, he’s also looking for ways to promote the convention.
He says that 31 years ago, he made two great decisions. He married Sandra Tate (they have a daughter Anne, who just passed her CPA exam, he says proudly) and he joined Munger Tolles — recently named the number one law firm on the American Lawyer “A list.” Three decades later, between his work representing industry and individuals — from regulatory matters and litigation to disability rights — Siegal has little time to be bored. But that’s the way he likes it.
“I always like tackling something new,” says Siegal. “Every case is a new challenge, a new set of facts. All that makes for a varied life. …It keeps your mind young, which is useful when you’re married to Sandra and your daughter is Anne.”