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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: John Wilson, William Gardner, Leonard Woolf, and a Few Metaphors

From Washington Lawyer, December 2005

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

There are anecdotes, metaphors, and maxims that clinch the point of the facts and the law under discussion. One of these clinchers I heard used by John Wilson.

Wilson had a remarkable career. He and a few partners represented local banks, department stores, insurance companies, utilities, and builders. He carried on a case involving the postwar rights to a German chemical company for six years longer than the war itself.

No one enjoyed the law practice more than Wilson did. His office law library and his home law library were where he wanted to be when he was not in court. He had a temper and he could be belligerent. A trial practice was just right for him. He had a true legal mind, analytical, cold, and backed up with an astonishing memory of decided cases. It was said of him that if a passerby asked him on his daily walk up 15th Street how to get to Virginia, he would go back to his office and look for a law book that had in it a map of Virginia.

When addressing the court on a legal issue, he put on the rostrum the books he was to use. Piling the books, one on top of the other. After reading the relevant passage from the book on top, he carelessly tossed it aside and went to the next one. When he completed his presentation, he gathered up the books in both arms and lovingly carried them back to counsel’s table.

He was comfortable in both civil and criminal litigation. During Watergate he represented President Nixon’s closest advisers, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. During the Ervin Committee hearings Wilson was on display arguing the fine points of evidentiary law and constitutional safeguards with Senator Ervin, a friend of his.

When Haldeman and Ehrlichman were indicted, Wilson told them that he could represent one or the other but not both. Haldeman stayed with Wilson. Ehrlichman selected William Frates, a well-known Florida lawyer.

During these times I had an occasion to be in Wilson’s office when a lawyer we both knew was discussing a personal problem. The lawyer, after going over the facts, said, “John, there it is, and I think if I don’t do anything, it will, like many things, just go away. What do you think?” Wilson thought for a minute and said, “Frank, I think you are sitting on a crack that is expanding. It won’t go away.” A crack that is expanding. A perceptive insight.

In complicated and unsettled situations Wilson followed the maxim that it is best to let someone else make the first move. When Frates, Ehrlichman’s lawyer, suggested a bold trial tactic, Wilson chose caution. He thought it best to judge such things on the recoil.

I learned a helpful story from William Gardner. He, too, had a fine legal mind, tempered by sympathy for the underdog. Bill had seen life from many angles and he knew how difficult it could be for most people. I heard him repeat the words “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” As a judge he did not lecture the people who were before him. He ruled with no personal comments directed at the losing party. He remained neutral.

I was in a case with Bill in which our client wanted to litigate a matter of no particular importance for the sole purpose of getting even with someone. I tried to explain to the client that bringing the case would be a mistake. It would be costly and the defendant would find some way to bring a nasty counterclaim. I was getting nowhere. The client turned to Bill and said, “Bill, what do you think?” Bill said, “Let me tell you a story my father told me. A man was standing right near a cesspool. He was probing it with a stick. His friend said to him, ‘Why are you standing so close to the edge of that bad-smelling cesspool?’ The man said, ‘Ordinarily, I would not go near a cesspool, but I dropped my lunch in there and I am trying to get it out.’ ”

Alcohol has been a problem for lawyers, perhaps more so in the past than now. I have worked with lawyers who were recovering alcoholics. Without exception these men and one woman had a grade A sense of humor, and they hesitated to criticize those who may have departed from what we like to believe is the path of virtue.

This brings me to a lawyer I will call Leo Cooke. I don’t know if his ability to concentrate fully on the representation of a client and at the same time remain detached was brought about by his long but finally successful struggle with alcohol. He had an interest in English literature. In one of our long (but nonalcoholic) conversations I asked him how it was that he could be so involved and remain detached. He referred me to a passage in Leonard Woolf’s autobiography:

I was born an introspective intellectual, and the man or woman who is by nature addicted to introspection gets into the habit, after the age of 15 or 16, of feeling himself, often intensely, as “I” and yet at the same time of seeing himself out of the corner of his eye as a “not I,” a stranger acting a part upon a stage. I always feel, from moment to moment, that my life and the life around me is immediately and extraordinarily real, concrete, and yet at the same time there is something absurdly unreal about it, because, knowing too well what I am really like inside, I cannot avoid continually watching myself playing a part upon a stage.

Lawyers also play two roles. In representing a client we are the “I.” The “I” makes the mistakes. The “not I” gives the grades.

Leonard Woolf was Virginia Woolf’s husband. He had a distinguished career as a writer, a judge, a publisher, and a participant in British political life.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.