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Washington Lawyer

A Luncheon Speech That Raises the Bar

From Washington Lawyer, June 2015

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorPresident of the bar, guests, judges, lawyers. Your introduction suggests I am a Super Lawyer and thus unshakably confident in myself. But even a Super Lawyer is in doubt sometimes.

The lawyer in court and the actor on stage are both subject to disappointment. When a lawyer loses a case, he or she wonders whether the judge or jury does not like him or her. It is the same with the actor when there is no applause.

Your adversary made all the mistakes and you made a marvelous closing argument, but you lost. The first time it happens you put it aside. Let it happen twice and you wonder whether the problem is something about you as a person.

Well, I will put those reflections aside and turn to another matter. When I received your invitation, I was reading the biography of Daniel Webster, the great man in the courtroom. I would like to say a few things about Mr. Webster.

He was raised on a very poor family farm. However, there happened to be a lawyer’s office next to the farm. When the time came for him to be a farmer, he decided to live at home but study law.

Webster went on to Dartmouth College and obtained an admission to the bar. Webster’s biographer, Robert V. Remini, opens with this description:

That voice. It mesmerized. It dazzled. And it rang out like a trumpet. Never shrill, never unpleasantly loud, but deep, dark, with a roll of thunder in it, tempered by a richness of tone and powered by a massive chest that sent it hurtling great distances, even in the open air, it turned “on the harps of the blessed” and shook “the earth underground.” Under perfect control, it never broke however high it was driven to convey an emotion or emphasize a point. For a typical three-, four-, or even five-hour oration it usually needed some form of lubrication to be fired up and ready to perform. But once it started to function, it sang out like music in clear and sonorous cadences and swelled and diminished on command. Nobody who heard it ever forgot it. 

In time, Webster moved to Boston and entered politics. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and then the U.S. Senate, where he became its leader. Citing an October 1, 1831, report in the New York Mirror, here is how Remini describes the way Webster made his speeches in Congress:

He usually began his speeches slowly and quietly, sometimes with long introductions to prepare the ground and capture the undivided attention of his audience. He knew of course that his appearance—bushy eyebrows, deep-set eyes, dark complexion—and most especially his magnificent voice could produce within the first half hour a hypnotic effect on his listeners. But once he entered the main theme of his address, “all his faculties expand or take on a new character. His large black eye dilates and kindles . . . his voice ranges through all its powerful notes . . . and his gestures, frequent and sometimes violent, are accompanied with a forward fling of his body, which is more emphatic than graceful.” His words then reveal a “lethal intent.”

All of this is background. The main part of my speech to you is about Frank Walsh. Mr. Walsh was an elegant gentleman, with a Princeton and Harvard background. He tired of the civil practice on 15th Street where the well-known firms were located. He liked the criminal practice around the Courthouse on Fifth Street. It was where one met (as he put it) the big parade—the bondsmen, the detectives, the prosecutors, the has-beens who never were, and many good lawyers.

Mr. Walsh’s office was in a small office building on Fifth and D streets NW. There was and is a plaque on the front of the building which states that this was the place where Daniel Webster had his office. You may have seen the plaque.

One spring morning in 1960, Mr. Walsh was getting ready to walk across Fifth Street to the police court when a man walked into the building and saw him in the hallway with his briefcase. From now on I tell the story as Mr. Walsh told it many times:

A man walks in, sees me, and asks if Daniel Webster is in.

I give him an ambiguous response. I then asked him what I could do for him. He said he had been arrested for driving while drunk. I asked him if he had any priors. Had he ever been arrested before for drunk driving? He said no.

I asked him if anybody got hurt. He said no. I knew then I could get the DUI knocked down to excessive speed.

He asked me what it would cost. I said three hundred dollars. He took out a small checkbook. I said, you know, Daniel Webster likes the cash up front. He counted out the three hundred dollars and gave them to me. I walked across the street to the police court and worked things out.

So you see, I concluded the career of Daniel Webster right here on Fifth and D.

Well, friends, it is two o’clock. I hope you enjoyed it. Now, can anyone tell me the quickest way to get back to Washington?

Reach Jacob A. Stein.