Alfred “Dave” Steiner: From law school to visual artist


Reasonableman, first published in the Harvard Law Record, Oct. 4, 1996
“Quetico Safari”, 2008

Alfred “Dave” Steiner ’98 didn’t put aside his interest in art while he was a law student, participating in studios elsewhere at Harvard. Another outlet was the Record, for which Steiner drew Reasonableman, a comic about a law student who was anything but what his title implied. The generosity of his firm allowed him the time to develop his art, some tamer samples of which can be seen here. Connections in the art world were hard to come by among fellow JDs, so Steiner relied on assistance from alumni of the Design School, eventually landing shows in New York and elsewhere – and a favorable review in The New Yorker. Below, Steiner explains how he found success in art.


My path from the law to artist started well before law school.  I began college as a fine art major, but my first studio course took more time than all of my other classes combined.  Although I enjoyed it, I didn’t take another studio course the following semester.  I ended up majoring in math and philosophy, and filled what was left of my schedule with art history and studio courses.  During the summer before my senior year, a friend and I took a canoe trip from Cincinnati to New Orleans.  Though it had never even occurred to me, he suggested that I apply to law school.   At the suggestion of another friend, I went to the library and picked up a Nutshell book on intellectual property law.  It sounded interesting enough, so I applied to law school.  Harvard was the only school that accepted me.

While at Harvard, I drew a cartoon for the Harvard Law Record called “Reasonableman”, whose title character was perhaps not entirely rational.  I also cross-registered for an art class at the College with Ellen Phelan, where I had my first sustained exposure to oil painting.

After graduating from law school in 1998, I moved to Dallas and worked for two years as a trademark attorney at Baker Botts.  I continued to paint and draw in what little spare time full-time legal practice afforded me.  In May 2000, I moved to New York with my fiancee (Elizabeth Roff, ’99), where I started working in Morrison & Foerster’s Technology Transaction Group. 

In New York, I got an art studio with another Harvard alumnus (Simon Aldridge, GSD ’99; Simon signed the lease because the landlord’s form asked if the lessee was an attorney).  Simon had more success showing his work than I did mine.  So in 2004, he invited me to show with him at a gallery in Brooklyn run by a fellow Harvard alum, in which a group of artists invited by the dealer each invited another artist to participate.  I spoke with the dealer over the phone and scheduled a studio visit.  During the call, I had to admit that I practiced law and did not have a Master of Fine Arts.  The studio visit never happened, and I missed out on the show.

Under the pressure of mounting artistic frustration, in March 2005, I approached my law firm, still Morrison & Foerster, to request a part-time arrangement so that I could focus more on my artwork.  They were surprisingly receptive, so I reduced my law practice to two or three days a week.  This extra time allowed me to develop a modest body of work.

In 2006, I visited Louise Bourgeois at her Sunday salon and met an artist there (Angelo Filomeno) who helped me get my drawings into my first proper group show, at BravinLee Programs in Chelsea.  Since then, I’ve shown my work in a few group shows each year, most recently at The Brucennial 2010 (350 West Broadway, New York, NY; ongoing through April 12), an unofficial sister show to this year’s Whitney Biennial, organized by one of the Biennial artists, the collective known as The Bruce High Quality Foundation.

Working part time as a lawyer to support a developing art career has its challenges, primarily the unpredictable hours.  But most artists I know have to work some day job, and they usually spend a lot more time than I do at it.  My path may not follow the traditional legal or artistic route, but it may make sense for lawyers who would prefer not to bill 2,000 or more hours a year or artists who need money to underwrite high production costs or just want more financial security.

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