Siegal's Law: Physics Alum Charles Siegal Helps Disabled-Dept of Physics - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, December 1, 2008

Siegal's Law: Physics Alum Charles Siegal Helps Disabled

When Charles Siegal (S '67, '72) drives the L.A. freeway to work each morning, he's reminded every quarter of a mile that choosing to practice law was a good idea.

A few years ago, his firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP took on a pro bono case representing clients with disabilities in a suit 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. 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 accessibility case ended in a settlement, mandating that all the call boxes in Los Angeles County be updated with ramps and telephone typewriters for those with hearing or speech difficulties.

While the Pittsburgh-born Los Angeles resident earned degrees in physics at Carnegie Mellon, he's now one of the country's leading disability rights lawyers. Seigal says there's more of a connection than some might imagine.

"Physics and math are very good training if you want to be analytical, and the law is analytical," said Seigal, who remains a member of the American Physical Society. "I think that training sets the mind in the right direction."

Now he's using that passion and training in his work as a lawyer, where he has a  direct impact on the daily lives of people.

"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.

"All the faculty in the Physics Department influenced me," he explained. "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."

Story Submitted by Susie Cribbs (HS '00, '06)