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Washington Lawyer

Aiming for Persistence? Then Get Me Lechford

From Washington Lawyer, February 2015

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorGene Fowler’s romantic biography of William J. Fallon titled The Great Mouthpiece, published in 1931, set the pattern for biographies and “as told to” autobiographies of successful trial lawyers.

These young legal wizards in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s attracted clients by winning a series of unimportant cases that could not be won by others.

Fowler’s story of Fallon is typical of such people. There is alcoholism, satyriasis, and flamboyant dress. Fallon wins cases through various spectacular stratagems of astonishing novelty. He is a super lawyer. He leaves his wife.

He has with him an associate who does the office work and small cases. The money that comes goes to whoever gets it first.

He is always blessed with a photographic memory and phenomenal powers of concentration that permit him to memorize overnight the financial statement of the United States Steel Corporation and quote verbatim from page 673 during cross-examination of the key prosecution witness. Of course, the witness is shattered. Fallon’s client is acquitted and restored to the bosom of his family.

The great advocate, in formal dress, accepts the tearful thanks of all and returns to the delightful dinner party from which he excused himself previously so that he could prepare for and try the case.

At the peak of Fallon’s popularity his career is threatened by his vices and by allegations that he tampers with juries. Incidentally, Fallon and Clarence Darrow both were charged with jury tampering.

Such stories are heightened in books by the use of dramatic titles: Take the Witness and Final Verdict, both biographies of Earl Rogers; Hollywood Lawyer on Milton Golden; Ready for the Plaintiff on Melvin Belli; Never Plead Guilty on Jake Ehrlich; Attorney for the Damned on Darrow; Trial Lawyer on Max Steuer; and My Life in Court on Louis Nizer. Golden, Belli, and Nizer each wrote his own book.

You will notice that the name M. Thomas Lechford is not on this list of super lawyers. This should not be. In addition to the jury triumphs he has in common with other great lawyers, Lechford has an accomplishment they do not have and no one else shall have in the future. He was the first lawyer disbarred in the New World.

To secure information about Lechford, one goes to the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 4th Series, Volume 6 (Boston), 1863. Lechford’s name appears as one who was retained by William and Elizabeth Cole in the summer of 1639 to prosecute a claim against Mrs. Cole’s brother, Francis Doughty, of Taunton, Massachusetts.

As usual with Lechford, immediately after his emotional closing argument the jury returned a verdict for his clients. But juries were returning too many verdicts for Lechford’s clients. An investigation was launched. The records indicate that on September 3, 1639, Lechford was disbarred by the General Court of Massachusetts.
The record states in haec verba:

M. Thomas Lechford for going to the [jury], pleading with them out of court, is debarred from pleading any man’s cause thereafter, unless his own, and admonished not to presume to meddle beyond what he shall be called to by the Court.

A further examination of the record states that Lechford filed a motion for a pardon. The pardon was granted, and Lechford returned to his law practice.

Once again, he was entirely too successful with juries. Once again, there was an investigation. Once again, he was disbarred.

One would think this second disbarment would end Lechford’s career. Wrong. Lechford had one quality in common with all great lawyers: persistence. Lechford again petitioned for a pardon and, again, his petition was granted. He picked up the thread of his career and, as far as available records indicate, he continued as an outstanding trial lawyer.

In the records there was no mention of Lechford’s physical appearance. Did he affect cowboy boots and a jumbo-size pocket handkerchief like Ehrlich? Did he pull in his suspenders during his courtroom speeches like Darrow? Did he use a lorgnette like Rogers? Did he wear black and white shoes, during winter and summer, like Jerry Giesler? Did he cut his own hair like Fallon? Did he carry his books and files into court in an old brown paper bag like Steuer? Did he wear huge diamonds like William Howe of Howe and Hummel?

Stop here for a second. There are two books about Howe and Abraham Hummel, New York lawyers. Howe was the star, Hummel the book man. A description of Howe’s appearance and dress takes up a number of pages. The better book is Howe & Hummel: Their True Scandalous History (1985) by Richard H. Rovere. The more recent book is Scoundrels in Law: The Trials of Howe and Hummel, Lawyers to the Gangsters, Cops, Starlets, and Rakes Who Made the Gilded Age, published in 2010, by Cait Murphy.

We can only speculate about these things. But maybe Lechford will come to the attention of an imaginative biographer who will supply us the details, which will bring to life Lechford’s personality. The plot is there. All it needs is a beefing up.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.