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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Investment Buildinge

From Washington Lawyer, September 2001

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator

The northwest corner of 15th and K is where the old Investment Building was located. I say "was located" because the only thing that now remains of this once proud building is its exterior walls preserved for historical interest. When I last walked by there was a big sign hanging from the builder’s rigging announcing that when the restoration is complete in August 2001, Sidley & Austin would be the flagship tenant.

I wonder whether Mr. Sidley and Mr. Austin believe in ghosts. I do, because when I watched the progress of the rebuilding, I saw the ghosts of those who were tenants in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I saw busy lawyers gathered around a conference table to discuss the need to allege contributory negligence in every answer and the need to assert in every complaint an extortionate ad damnum clause.

I see Frank Stoutenburg’s drugstore with its lunch counter and tables and Rothschild’s Cafeteria. They serve as the building’s club-rooms. There the boys (and in those days it was just boys) meet and give one another legal advice based on an in-depth knowledge of the relevant headnotes and what somebody told them. They speak of their wins and losses and the big one that got away.

I see Harry LaPorte (not his real name) sitting at one of Stoutenburg’s tables describing a supernatural event. LaPorte represented aggressive real estate speculators who believed in the divine right of caveat emptor. LaPorte himself was gentle and virtuous. As fate would have it, he often was in court defending the indefensible.

Now the supernatural event. One of his clients was sued concerning a questionable business transaction. On cross-examination the client got caught by documents that contradicted his testimony on direct. His face reddened. He grabbed his chest, fell forward, and died, right then and there, of a heart attack. Right there on the witness stand.

This restored LaPorte’s faith in the human experiment. Who would have thought that a higher power would find its way to a courtroom where a witness was trying to lie his way around exhibits 105 and 226? And who would have expected that the higher power would impose sentence within 10 minutes of the crime? Life should be that way but rarely is.

LaPorte, when telling the story (and he told it many times), concluded the narration by saying, "It happened once and maybe it will happen again." But the story does not end there. LaPorte was named the executor of the will of the deceased gentleman. In that role LaPorte canceled the usurious notes that were part of the estate. This made many borrowers very happy. LaPorte’s fees as executor freed him up from the trial work he detested.

I see Albert Beasley, a southern gentleman, patient, careful, and redundantly loquacious. Beasley represented casualty insurance carriers. His expertise was not in negotiating a good settlement for the carrier. No, he was the expert in drafting the release that closed the case. A big case or a small case, once concluded, must be honored with colorful language that gave protection against any contingency and "any and all persons, firms and corporations, whether herein named or referred to or not, their respective heirs, legal representatives, successors and assigns, of and from any and all causes of action, claims, demands, damages, costs, loss of services, expenses, compensation and all consequential damages on account of, or in any way growing out of, any and all known and unknown personal injuries, death and property damage resulting or to result from anything that happened from the beginning of the world to the date of execution . . ."

The Investment Building lawyers did not take themselves seriously as lawyers do today. They had no expectations of obtaining great wealth by practicing law, as lawyers do today. They were happy if they made ends meet, with enough left over to make small investments in real estate ventures. The practice was local. Controversies among local businessmen, landlord and tenant cases, automobile accidents, the exploitation of the complicated probate law and procedure, the buying and selling of a small business, a dispute over a broker’s commission, a suit to rescind a lifelong contract for dancing lessons, and domestic relations cases. Few ever handled a criminal case. That was for the lawyers on 5th Street, not 15th Street.

The Investment Building’s leading trial lawyer was H. Mason Welch. He, his brother Harry, and their friends, Jack Daley and Joe Barse, completed the firm. I called Barse to get his recollections of Mason Welch. Barse recalled Welch’s astonishing memory and his speed in getting at the heart of the matter. These two qualities seem to be what a successful trial lawyer must have to excel.

Mason Welch, during a trial, took few notes. Nevertheless, he had instant recall of all the testimony. If you were to put Mason Welch’s name in a Lexis search, you would see that he appeared for the defendant doctor in just about every medical malpractice case tried during the time Welch practiced.

Occasionally a lawyer would make a big score. How did he spend the money? He would go to D’elia and Marks, custom tailors, on the second floor of the building, select the cloth, and then watch as Mr. Marks made dozens of measurements and announced the measurements to Mr. D’elia-sleeve length, chest, low right shoulder, raised left hip.

If there was any money left after D’elia and Marks computed the bill, the lucky lawyer treated himself to a shave in the Investment Building barber shop. A real shave by a real barber who knew how to apply hot towels and then the lather and then the quick ballet movements with the straight razor, a flick here and a flick there, and then some stropping on the leather belt attached to the chair. The barber shop was on the 15th Street side with a big window facing the sidewalk. Passersby stopped to watch the show.

If Mr. Sidley and Mr. Austin see any ghosts, I hope they give me a call so I can come right over. Perhaps Cam Burton will make an appearance. A good lawyer and a very good tap dancer practicing the "Puttin’ on the Ritz" number, right there in his third floor office.

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