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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: A Tour of My Office, A Look in My Books

From Washington Lawyer, March 2014

By Jacob Stein

Jacob Stein illustrationIf you are around Connecticut and K and you have 10 minutes with nothing special to do, drop by my office. The office is small and square with no windows. On the four walls are books.

Let’s start with the west wall. There we see the collected works of Samuel Johnson, who made many comments on the law and lawyers; near them are the works of William Hazlitt.

There is an impressive collection of Winston S. Churchill’s speeches commencing in 1897.

Let’s take volume VII and read Churchill’s speech on December 26, 1941, to the Joint Session of Congress, Washington, D.C., right after Japan and Germany declared war on the United States. Churchill opened in a friendly way:

I feel greatly honoured that you should have invited me to enter the United States Senate Chamber and address the representatives of both branches of Congress. The fact that my American forebears have for so many generations played their part in the life of the United States, and that here I am, an Englishman, welcomed in your midst, makes this experience one of the most moving and thrilling in my life. . . . By the way, I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own. In that case, this would not have been the first time you would have heard my voice. In that case, I should not have needed any invitation, but if I had, it is hardly likely it would have been unanimous. So perhaps things are better as they are. I may confess, however, that I do not feel quite like a fish out of water in a legislative assembly where English is spoken.

Now we move to 35 volumes of Benjamin Franklin’s letters. I bought these books in 1968 when I was at an ABA meeting in Philadelphia. The ABA session was dragging on and I decided to examine Philadelphia’s bookstores.

In looking through the letters, I see that he wrote and received many letters in French. Where did Franklin pick up the language and write it so skillfully?

In the bookstore was a bust of Franklin. I looked at him, he looked at me, I bought it. It is on the north shelf of my office.

On the high, upper west shelf is an old-fashioned, two-hand staff telephone. You see these in the 1930s movies. With one hand, you hold the staff mouthpiece; in the other hand, you place the receiver and hold it to your ear.

On the north wall is a record player that plays the songs as old as the telephone.
The record player is on a standup desk. Why a standup desk? I saw pictures of Oliver Wendell Holmes standing with his standup desk. The first one I saw was in a secondhand furniture store on Indiana Avenue near the courthouse.

The second one I brought was a standup desk in New Orleans. It is a beautiful piece of furniture.

Let’s go to the east wall where we see a number of things. There is a fish mounted, a rather large fish, and above it are the words, “If I had kept my mouth shut, I wouldn’t be here.”

I caught the fish from the office of Charlie Ford. This was long ago. Charlie Ford was a great 5th Street criminal lawyer. Charlie liked saying to the client, “My man, if you kept your mouth shut, you wouldn’t be in all this trouble.”

Let’s take a look at the south wall. There is on the shelves a collection of books of quotations, mainly drawn from literature, maxims, eulogies, analogies, metaphors, and specialty books such as The Experts Speak. Here are some samples:

You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore—because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.
—Richard M. Nixon
(former vice president of the United States), addressing reporters after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election, November 7, 1962

I have no political ambitions for myself or my children.
—Joseph P. Kennedy,
I’m for Roosevelt, 1926

The thought of being President frightens me. I do not think I want the job.
—Ronald Reagan
(Governor of California), 1973

On the east wall are these words: “Sharpshooters don’t charge by the cost of a bullet.” I take it to mean that the lawyer, in sending a bill, is not bound by the hours, but by what is accomplished.

I have one big thick book with a yellow binding that contains proverbs from all over the world. Here is a Turkish proverb. The explanation is Worse than the Blunder:

In the old days, a king known for his cruelty demanded that his court jester illustrate, within the hour, the meaning of a proverb, or be tortured to death.

As the king and his queen, attired in royal robes, were some time later slowing mounting a staircase, the jester stole behind them and gave the king a loving pinch. The king, with sword drawn, wheeled around and was about to decapitate the fool, who yelled: “Sorry, Your Majesty, I thought it was the Queen!”

HEY!!! Did you hear that 1936 telephone ring? Is that possible? Who could be calling me through that phone? Could it possibly be a client?

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