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"Civil Action' lawyer snaps back after hitting bottom

After he lost the case of a lifetime, lawyer Jan Schlichtmann traded in his Bally wingtip shoes for a pair of brown plastic sandals _ fleeing Boston in 1991 to live a self-described beach bum's life in Hawaii.

Pummeled and bruised, deep in debt, haunted by defeat and cringing at the sound of his own name, he lived in $3-a-night campsites while hiking the mountainous Napali Coast of Kauai. Eventually he got a job selling energy-efficient lighting and splurged for $20 hotels in Honolulu.

The idealistic, all-or-nothing lawyer _ whose story was told two years ago in the Jonathan Harr bestseller, A Civil Action _ had lost it all. His condominium. His black Porsche 928. His girlfriend. And life as he knew it.

The movie adaptation of A Civil Action opened last week in New York and Los Angeles. It opens around the rest of the country Friday.

"The past was pain and failure, and I didn't want to think about it," said Schlichtmann, who fought an obsessive nine-year legal battle in which he sued two large Massachusetts companies on behalf of families who believed the corporations' pollution poisoned the town drinking water supply and gave their children cancer. When he ultimately lost the case and subsequent appeal process, all he wanted was to forget.

"I was crushed, and it took a long process of uncrushing myself," said the 47-year-old lawyer, who speaks with a thick Massachusetts accent that immediately transports one to the working class streets of Woburn _ where the novel was set _ and to the crowded federal courtrooms of Boston _ where much of the legal battle was fought.

Once again practicing law, Schlichtmann drives a gray Volvo these days, with car seats in the back for his two toddler sons. He's married to a woman he met when he was "homeless and penniless" in the last years of the case and lives in an upscale suburb of Boston, in a four-bedroom house that overlooks serene Beverly Harbor. In 1996, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health concluded that children exposed to water from Woburn's wells experienced a greater than normal chance of contracting leukemia, a finding that gave Schlichtmann some sense of redemption for his work, even though a jury didn't see it that way.

Since the publication of A Civil Action, he has become one of the most sought-after lawyers in the country, inundated with requests from environmental organizations to take on their causes.

He advises families in Toms River, N.J., where officials are trying to determine the cause of an apparent cluster of cancer cases among children who live in the area.

As for the movie, he said he's thrilled, and he believes it's a tale that should be told. "It's a great human story, a journey," he said, speaking of the Woburn years like someone who recently emerged from a 12-step program. "It's a polemic. People will be enlightened. They'll watch it as entertainment but realize it's crucial to their existence."

Schlichtmann was a paid consultant on the Disney movie, which cost more than $60-million. He flew to Los Angeles last year to observe some of the filming, which re-created his office in Boston as well as some of the court scenes. "It was hard to compare to anything. The events of the past were re-created in front of you. It was both eerie and exhilarating."

Last week, he saw the movie for the first time. "I was overwhelmed by the experience," he said. "It's rich, and I think it's going to be a classic. It's done a service to the Woburn experience by talking about the human drama and complexities of people caught up in that struggle."

And when the movie opens Wednesday in Boston, he plans to be there with his mother, a retired college administrator, his wife, Claudia, and several of the Woburn families he represented.

Schlichtmann said he'll never again put so much of himself on the line for a justice system that he now sees as tragically flawed. "It doesn't honor reality. It's destructive, it uses truth as a weapon. The civil justice system is neither civil nor just," he said.

By the end of the seven-month trial, he'd invested $2.4-million of his own money into the case to cover the cost of expert witnesses, tests that would prove that the companies polluted residents' water and caused their children to contract leukemia. The jury found the company, Beatrice Foods, which Schlichtmann considered the most serious polluter of the two companies, not liable. He appealed unsuccessfully. The other company, W.R. Grace, settled out of court.

Today he's more selective about his causes and prefers to mediate disputes rather than go to court.

Causes that keep organizations accountable are what Schlichtmann counts as his own legacy, culled from years of learning the hard way about how to fight. It's what has elevated him from self-described failure to a sort of folk hero.

Still, the notoriety comes with trepidation. "The thing about being elevated is that you have a healthy respect from that elevation, you can fall," he said. "The higher up you go, the harder you can fall."