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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Actors, Writers, and Lawyers

From Washington Lawyer, March 2008

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator All three have had alcohol problems and perhaps for the same reasons. They live or die based on the opinion of others, an opinion that may be more subjective than objective.

The actor awaits the call from his agent. When he does get a part, he is at the mercy of the critics, the audience, and the people who put up the money. John Barrymore, a distinguished actor, had a serious alcohol problem.

The writer, like the actor, is at the mercy of his publishers, his editors, and his envious critics. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a distinguished writer, had a serious alcohol problem.

The trial lawyer, like the actor and the writer, is at the mercy of clients, judges, and juries. William Fallon, a sometime distinguished lawyer, had a serious alcohol problem.

Years ago many of the D.C. criminal lawyers had offices on 5th Street, between E and F, across from the courthouse. In the morning they attended arraignments, met with clients, and worked out dispositions. The cases involved gambling, bootlegging, petty theft, drunken driving, and simple assault. Their work was concluded by 1 o’clock, at the latest. Unfortunately, the afternoon was theirs. The drinkers among them spent the afternoons in the small bars and lunchrooms near the court-house. There were in that group good lawyers, interesting people, at times introspective, at times irreverent, and at all times on the side of the accused. Their careers were ruined by alcohol.

One I remember was called “the Duke.” After several whiskeys at Tommy’s, his favorite bar, his personality changed. Without his ration of whiskey, he was quiet. Afterward, he became the Duke. He talked like an actor. His friends urged him to recite poetry, which he did like a Shakespearian actor, overpronouncing each syllable. He sported the white mustache and the full head of white hair. He knew he looked like the movie actor Frank Morgan, and he mimicked him. You can get a good idea of what the Duke was like by watching Frank Morgan in the old 1930s and 1940s films on the Turner Classic Movies network.

The Duke had a brother who, before he got his law degree, had been a boxer and a referee. He, too, had a serious alcohol problem. Clients came to him because he had a reputation for working out favorable dispositions in gambling cases. He rarely tried a case. In one of the cases he did try, he represented several defendants charged with running a numbers racket. For those who know nothing of the numbers racket, the promoters (the defendants) accepted three-digit number bets. The winning numbers, based on results at designated racetracks, produced a big return for the lucky person who “hit the digit.”

In his closing argument, this reserved man appeared to express so much indignation that he became unsteady on his feet. He told the jury the police who had raided his clients’ office were the real criminals. They messed up the numbers slips, the records of his clients. Therefore, they were unable to determine who won. They could not deliver money to the winners. A tragic and embarrassing situation brought on by the coppers. They destroyed the reputation for reliability of the defendants. The coppers should be sued for what is called defamation.

I recall one among the criminal bar lawyers who overcame his addiction. Thereafter, he followed the general rule that we must be kind to everyone we meet because each of us is fighting a great battle. He profited from his own adversity in a way that came through in his trial work. Judges, juries, and witnesses responded favorably to his gentle, considerate manner.

He gave me Edward McGoldrick’s 1954 book, Management of the Mind. He knew McGoldrick, whose father had been a justice of the New York Supreme Court. McGoldrick, himself, had been a successful New York trial lawyer, whose legal career was ruined by alcohol.

McGoldrick finally subdued his addiction and then changed careers. He chose to devote his time to helping others, including many lawyers. He conducted the New York City Bureau of Alcohol Therapy.

McGoldrick did not believe alcoholism is a disease. That is an easy out. I am sick. Cure me. Even if it were a disease, it could not be cured by any medicine. The real cure, as McGoldrick writes, is personal discipline. This requires a study of oneself leading to the management of the mind, the title of his book.

I recently spoke with friends of mine who say they cured themselves. They are of the opinion that there is a certain susceptibility which, under given circumstances, brings on addiction.

Enough of this bad news. Some people enjoy drinking and have no trouble with it. Churchill said he got more out of alcohol than alcohol got out of him. From what I have read, Churchill started the morning with a glass of whiskey, which he refilled. With his lunch he drank champagne. At dinner, he drank whiskey, wine, and cognac.

When Churchill was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s guest, he gave explicit instructions to his attendants concerning the brand of whiskey, the brand of champagne and wine, and the brand of cognac he wished to be close at hand.

Today’s lawyers don’t drink as much as the old timers did. Perhaps it’s because today’s lawyers have been specially selected by the good law schools. This excludes from the practice people such as the 5th Street irregulars, always ready to defend the underdog and at very low wages.

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