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April 18, 2001:

Julian McPhillips '68 and his family on a recent trip

A recent book, The People's Lawyer, chronicles McPhillips's life and times

Julian L. McPhillips '68, a lawyer for all people

By Louis Jacobson '92

Last year, Martin Luther King III awarded Julian L. McPhillips Jr. '68 the Man of Distinction Award on behalf of the Alabama chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. That made McPhillips, a Montgomery-based trial attorney, the award's first-ever white recipient.

Backed by his 10-lawyer firm, McPhillips twice challenged and overturned city laws used to harass low-income residents and civil-rights demonstrators. He has won race-, sex-, and age-discrimination cases against dozens of employers, including Alabama's highway department. He's pursued elected officials for questionable actions, once halting the then-governor's taxpayer-funded flights to for-profit preaching engagements. McPhillips helped keep nuclear plants and hazardous waste dumps from locating nearby. And each of the five death-penalty cases he's taken on have resulted in acquittals.

Asked about his career as a "crusader," McPhillips momentarily backs off. "That word conjures up different images," he says. "Some people assume that it means ëtilting at windmills.' But I've had a lot of good results. Only one percent of my cases make the news. The others help make the firm money."

McPhillips, 54, was born in idyllic Cullman, Alabama. His namesake father was a vegetable canner who later became an Episcopal priest. After graduating from the Sewanee Military Academy in Tennessee, McPhillips arrived in Princeton in 1963, just as black-white strife was tearing his state apart. McPhillips earned a history degree, wrestled and -- inspired by the university's "In the Nation's Service" motto -- joined other students in a service project in Harlem. After graduating from Columbia Law School, he worked briefly as a Wall Street lawyer. "Life's greatest meaning and purpose comes from helping other people," he says. "I didn't feel like I was doing that on Wall Street."

In 1975, McPhillips returned to Alabama with his wife, Leslie, and took a job in the state attorney general's office. In 1978 he narrowly lost a race for attorney general and went into private practice. In addition to his other pursuits, McPhillips helped preserve a Montgomery home once occupied by F. Scott Fitzgerald '17 and his wife, Zelda. In 1993 he helped organize alumni to save Princeton's wrestling program.

McPhillips put politics on hold as he raised his family -- two daughters and an adopted son he saved from abortion. McPhillips, a Democrat, opposes abortion -- "an extension of civil-rights doctrine," he says. He also practices a charismatic variety of Christianity. This mix of liberalism and evangelism will soon be put to the test. Fresh off a stint as state campaign chairman for Bill Bradley '65, McPhillips is planning to challenge first-term Republican senator Jeff Sessions in 2002. "I think I have a darn good shot at the Democratic nomination, and a shot at winning," he says.

Louis Jacobson is a staff correspondent at National Journal magazine in Washington, D.C.