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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Case of the Would-Be Lawyer

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2000

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorI often think how easy it would be to enter the legal profession through a back door by just showing up in court with a client. Practicing law does not require the special talents that other professions do. One cannot very well be a musical impostor or a fake structural engineer. But someone who wants to be a lawyer can make a reasonable showing in court by using his wits and the legal platitudes picked up from a Grisham or Turow movie.

I assume that at any given time a number of would-be lawyers are appearing in court as duly licensed advocates. In times past I met two such people, one who got caught and the other who did not. The one who got caught had an appropriately formidable name for a legal impostor: Daniel Jackson Oliver Wendel (sic) Holmes Morgan. He was an ex-convict practicing in the District of Columbia in the 1960s under the name L. A. Harris. The facts appear in summary in Morgan v. United States, 114 U.S. App. D.C. 13, 309 F.3d 234 (1962), affirming Morgan’s conviction on 13 counts of forgery, perjury, and fraud. The opinion says that for some 14 months, Morgan falsely held himself out to be attorney Lawrence Archie Harris, a bona fide member of the District of Columbia Bar. The real Harris resided in California. Morgan, as Harris, made numerous appearances in the local courts representing defendants in criminal cases.

Among the issues submitted on appeal by Morgan/Harris after his conviction was his contention that although he was mentally competent to stand trial, he was legally incompetent to act as his own chief counsel. Although the court rejected the argument, it shows that Morgan/Harris still had the touch.

I met Harris in the days when he was trying serious criminal cases. He was gaunt, dressed in black, with a strikingly erect posture. His abrupt, exaggerated movements attracted attention. He had the intensity of a lawyer inflamed with warm zeal for his clients’ needs and with a zest for the law well beyond that of the legitimate members of the profession.

I had a number of conversations with Harris. We spoke as lawyers do in the corridors of the courthouse about such things as the wisdom of putting the defendant on the stand in a criminal case and the unpredictability of clients who do take the stand.

In time I heard rumors about Harris. The gossip was that he had never attended law school and that he had done jail time. I heard that a prominent member of the criminal defense bar knew the real L. A. Harris and knew of Morgan’s using Harris’s identity. Then I heard that a prominent member of the bar had his Cadillac parked on 5th Street across the street from the courthouse and that Harris collided with the Cadillac, causing property damage. Harris carried no insurance. He defiantly refused to pay for the repairs. The prominent lawyer threatened to expose Morgan/Harris. He still refused to pay the property damage. A mistake. The story goes that the prominent lawyer dropped a hint to certain people in authority. The indictment, prosecution, and conviction followed.

How did Morgan/Harris define himself to himself? Was he saying that he had a gift for trying cases that he must test in court? Was he saying that he, without a formal education, was the match for those with years of academic training? Was he retaliating against the system? When he made an objection that was sustained by the court, when he obtained an acquittal (as he sometimes did), was his sense of accomplishment augmented by the thrill of the danger of getting caught?

There are surprisingly few decisions dealing directly with the question of whether a conviction must be upset when the defendant was unknowingly represented by a person disqualified from the practice of law. Our court of appeals decided in Harrison v. United States, 359 F.2d 214 (D.C. Cir. 1965), that the trial in which Harris represented a client in a first-degree murder case must be upset. New counsel for the defendant refused to move the District Court for a new trial. Counsel’s theory was that by moving for a new trial, counsel would be waiving the defense of double jeopardy. When counsel failed to act, the trial court vacated the judgment of conviction and overruled the double jeopardy defense. The case was retried and the defendant convicted for a second time, despite the presence of competent counsel.

The person who practiced without a license and who never got caught appeared around here in the 1950s. He carried on in the courtroom as an evangelical minister, making frequent references to the Bible. It had jury appeal. He obtained some big verdicts. His style compared favorably with Burt Lancaster playing Elmer Gantry.

The details of how he took his place in the profession by adverse possession became known to me by a series of coincidences. First, I met someone who knew him when he was a clergyman in the Midwest. Years later I met a person who shared an office with him. From that person I learned that the impostor’s wife had located the would-be lawyer. She threatened a suit for divorce in which she would spill the beans. Thereafter he disappeared.

The mystery that attaches to both these would-be lawyers is, how did clients find them? Why didn’t the clients find their way to lawyers who were not only competent but also licensed to practice? I think we all know by this time that clients are not the best judges of legal talent. And in some respects the impostor has an advantage over a licensed lawyer. The impostor can tell the client just what the client wants to hear. A licensed lawyer sometimes has trouble doing that.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].