Representing Rosa, Cheating the Hangman, and Other Stories from 400 Years of Law
Seven attorneys from four states—each with 50+ years in practice—talk about their careers
Published in 2020 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 30, 2020
Updated on December 3, 2020
Being a lawyer in the Mid-South in the ‘60s meant contending with historic strife:
James Robertson fled his home state of Mississippi for Harvard Law School after not supporting segregation on his college newspaper; H. Watt Gregory joined the Army Reserve partly to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War.
Then there’s Fred Gray. He was a year out of law school when he was called on to represent NAACP secretary Rosa Parks after she refused to give up her seat on a city bus. Shortly afterwards, he was speaking with Jo Ann Robinson about who might lead the nascent Montgomery Bus Boycott. She suggested her young pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “He hasn’t been in town long, he hasn’t been involved in civil rights activity, but he can move people with words.”
“Well,” Gray remembers saying, “that’s the kind of person we need.”
Here are their stories.
WHY THE LAW
H. Watt Gregory III, Kutak Rock, Business/Corporate; University of Arkansas School of Law, 1966: My dad was a small-town lawyer in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I was always fascinated by his work. I was terrible at math and science but pretty good with English, foreign languages and political thought.
Thomas Dillard, Ritchie, Dillard, Davies & Johnson, Criminal Defense: White Collar; University of Tennessee College of Law, 1964: My parents always said I liked to argue—especially with them.
James Robertson, Wise Carter, Business Litigation; Harvard Law School, 1965: I was the editor-in-chief of the college newspaper at the University of Mississippi, in 1961-62, when the first college university in Mississippi was being desegregated. I was not saying what the politicians wanted said—about how terrible it would be if we had to go through desegregation. I was saying it to the contrary. I knew there were people that were after my neck. It got to be real nasty. At the point I graduated, I was very pleased to be accepted to Harvard Law School. When I got the notice, I said, “Oh my goodness. I better go home and talk to my father about this.”
Fred Gray, Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray, Gray & Nathanson, Civil Rights; Case Western Reserve University School of Law, 1954: At that time, almost throughout this country, and certainly all over the South, everything was completely segregated. I didn’t know anything about lawyers, but I did understand they helped people to solve problems. I had to use buses as my means of transportation, and I observed people who had gotten hurt on the buses. They were being mistreated. One man had been killed. Mr. E.D. Nixon, who was Mr. Civil Rights in Montgomery at the time, was a family friend of ours. He encouraged me to become a lawyer. I was going to finish Alabama State College for Negroes, the name for what is now Alabama State University, and go to somebody’s law school.
David Blair, Blair & Stroud, Personal Injury–Plaintiff; University of Arkansas School of Law, 1965: My recollection is I did very poorly on the LSAT. Nowadays, I couldn’t get in law school.
Gregory: Fortunately, they didn’t make the exam focused on math and science.
Bernard Harwood, Rosen Harwood, Civil Litigation, Alternative Dispute Resolution; University of Alabama School of Law, 1963: I had the highest grades in my class, not because I was so bright, but because towards the end, I realized, “You are married, you got a child, you’ve got to support this family, and your grades are going to be the only thing you’ve got to try to get a good job.” I really buckled down.
Robertson: I never had anybody in those three years say, “OK, you’re from Mississippi, prove to me you’re not a racist.” But there was a curiosity. People would ask questions.
Gray: There were five [Black students] who were in my class, as I recall, and about eight or nine who were in the entire law school. Western Reserve University [in Ohio] ended up being a good place for me to get a good legal education. When I got there, my mind was already made up on what I wanted to do, and that was get back to Alabama. They all knew I wanted to go back to Alabama. They didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got back. I didn’t tell them that: “Finish law school, come back and take the bar exam, become a lawyer and destroy everything segregated I could find”—that was my secret desire. And that’s exactly what I tried to do for the last 65 years.
Max Shelton, Harris Shelton, Health Care; University of Tennessee College of Law, 1963: A former classmate who was finishing his last year when I started law school called me and I had lunch with him and he asked me about joining him. He was a really good lawyer, so I jumped at the chance. We practiced law together for 40-some years. I started doing some work for a hospital back in January 1965. Medicare started in July of that year. Somehow hospital law, which we called it then, kept growing and growing, then it became health care law. Then everybody was an expert! It mushroomed, and my health care practice grew with it.
Gregory: It was during the Vietnam War years. When I was set to graduate, the war was reaching a periodic crescendo and most [graduates] were looking for places to go in—the Army Reserve or the National Guard—and I wound up joining an Army Reserve combat engineer group here in Little Rock, just as a flunky. It was natural to think about being in Little Rock, so I was recruited by a few law firms that were here and accepted an offer at the Rose law firm, where I had interned for two summers. I was fortunate in that respect.
Dillard: When I first got out of law school, I was with a law firm in Knoxville that was heavy into real estate and did a lot of title searching. It turned out that wasn’t the type of law I wanted to practice. A good friend was in the U.S. attorney’s office, and I complained to him several times when we were having lunch together. He says, “Well, we’ve got a vacancy, come over and apply for it.” My first question was, “What do they do?”
Gray: Nobody would hire me in Montgomery. I knew I was going to have to start on my own. There was only one other [Black] lawyer there, and his name was Charles Langford, and he was struggling to make it. I found space in the back part of an office with a preacher who was then an official in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and had some space upstairs over Sears Roebuck on Monroe Street. I asked my classmates and contacted people around so that I would be introduced. I had an open house and borrowed some books from a white lawyer so it looked like a law office. On Monday, after it was all over, I had to take them back. That was the beginning of my practice.
Shelton: Remember Pete Stark, representative from California? One of the things he’s famous for—or infamous for—is the Stark Act. It’s an anti-referral, to keep doctors from referring to a clinic or surgery center where they had an interest. Stark thought that if doctors referred patients to an enterprise where they had an ownership interest, they would be biased, and it would be unfair. My own feeling is I’d hell of a lot rather go to a surgery center or a clinic that the doctor does have an interest in, because he’s incentivized to make sure everything goes right and nobody bad-mouths it. I lost that argument. Big-time.
Harwood: I had been appointed by the circuit judge to be the attorney of a young Black man who was accused of a very serious crime in Tuscaloosa: breaking into the mayor’s home and terrorizing the babysitter and the children. In those days, there were no Blacks on the juries in Alabama—nor women, who were actually prohibited from serving. My client was the only African American in the courtroom. I have thought back and said, “People talk about the good old days. Wasn’t anything good about that.” Our defense was he had been invited in by the babysitter, and when the parents of the children returned a little earlier than she expected, she panicked and screamed that he was an intruder and grabbed the children. She said he ran out through the double French doors. If you’re running like that, you don’t turn around and grab both doors and carefully shut them. I only had one case, so we worked and worked and worked and my client was found not guilty.
Gray: I had met Mrs. Rosa Parks, who was the secretary to the Montgomery branch of the NAACP and youth director, while I was in college at Alabama State. She worked right down the street from me. I ended up handling my first civil rights case, of Claudette Colvin, who did what Rosa Parks did, but six months before, without the instruction that Mrs. Parks had and without the experience she had. [Parks] worked at the Montgomery Fair, a department store. She did alteration of men’s clothing. Her husband was a barber. During her lunch hours, we would just bring our little lunches and we talked about young people, we talked about Claudette’s case, we talked about segregation. On December 1, 1955, I told her I was going out of town for a meeting. When I got back, I found phone calls from her and my secretary and everybody else telling me that Mrs. Parks had been arrested. She asked me to come over to her house, she told me what had taken place. This was on a Thursday evening. Her trial was Monday morning at 8:30. I told her I would represent her. I also told her that we need to solve this problem of buses—not only her case, but so it won’t happen again.
Blair: I was appointed to defend an 18- or 19-year-old deaf-mute boy who was charged with first-degree murder, from whom the local sheriff had extracted a written confession. I was able to get the confession thrown out based on testimony of a psychologist that he did not have a sufficient vocabulary to understand the content of the Miranda warning. We got him acquitted of the murder charge.
Dillard: On arraignment day, there would be 70 or 80 cases of moonshining, back at the peak, and several of those would go to trial. This one moonshiner had a still in his house and had an arrangement so that it fit in the fireplace. When the revenuers came to the door, he somehow got wedged up in the fireplace, and as they were searching, all of a sudden they hear this crash, and he falls from the chimney.
Gregory: I was handed a file by my supervisor lawyer, and it was a small insurance claim against an architectural firm that had helped design the Arkansas Supreme Court building. It was a wrongful death case involving a teenage boy who was a newspaper carrier for one of the local newspapers. The plaintiff’s estate filed an appeal in certiorari on constitutional grounds to the U.S. Supreme Court, so I got to deliver my brief personally to the Supreme Court. I was thinking I was pretty important. On the way up the Supreme Court steps, it was a cold morning, and there was leftover ice and snow. I had a pretty inexpensive briefcase that was packed full with briefs. One of the fasteners on my case popped open and my briefs spilled out at 8 a.m. Most everybody going up the steps was laughing at my circumstances as I was scrambling around. One kind gentleman—I never saw him again—stopped and got down on his hands and knees and helped me pick up briefs, which I was able to file. It was a funny comedown from my lofty feeling of self-importance. I won that case, so I could always say I was undefeated in Supreme Court practice.
Robertson: There’s no thrill a lawyer gets like cheating the hangman. I probably handled half a dozen of these cases. The one that sticks out in my mind was Charles Sylvester Bell, who was a kid, 19 or 20, who’d gotten into drugs and killed two law-enforcement officers. The prosecuting lawyer wanted badly to put Bell in the gas chamber. Let’s just say I didn’t like him. I walked into the Fifth Circuit courtroom in New Orleans knowing I could intimidate this guy on the other side, and by the time he was arguing he was fumbling all over the place. While Bell’s sentence was affirmed, the death penalty was vacated.
Gray: After the Bus Boycott started, and after Dr. King’s and others’ homes were burned and bombed, they were ready for me to file the lawsuit. I’d heard about Thurgood Marshall, so I contacted him. I needed some help, because Alabama was going to have the best lawyers that money could buy. He introduced me to Robert Carter, who later became general counsel of the NAACP, and they ended up working with me on the case. We lost the Rosa Parks case, but we didn’t have much problem with desegregating the buses in Browder v. Gayle. The court already had Brown v. the Board of Education, so the Supreme Court didn’t have any problem in affirming the lower federal district court.
HOW HAS THE LAW CHANGED?
Robertson: Billable hours. Overhead. Student loans to be repaid. Not-so civil-competition for blue-chip clients. Tort reform has cut the income for trial lawyers and defense counsel.
Shelton: The office was open half a day on Saturday. It took the weekend to catch up. It’s totally different today. Few young lawyers are interested in working that hard—and I understand that, because it’s hard on your family life and your personal life.
Blair: It’s becoming increasingly technical. The cases that were most fun were the typical felony cases—you did very little preparation, met your client once at the jailhouse, showed up the day of trial ready to go. Nowadays, there’s a rather slavish adherence to deadlines and the courts.
Gregory: In the ‘60s through the ‘80s, the large law firms on the coasts and elsewhere had significant amounts of informational advantages over smaller firms in the Midwest, the South and flyover country. But with the advent of computers and communication advances, information began to be distributed on a much more facile basis, so the lawyer in Kansas City or Little Rock could wind up getting information on a real-time basis.
Harwood: As a young lawyer, I’d be dispatched to drive the 100 miles to Montgomery to deliver some last-minute brief. We got fax machines, and I remember thinking, “Fax machine? You mean I can sit here and send this filing to this lawyer in Montgomery? Technology will never go any further than this.”
Dillard: There are certainly more crimes today than there were. There are more criminal statutes. Prosecutions have become more sophisticated. The bread-and-butter cases that we tried, the stolen cars across state lines, the counterfeiting cases, there aren’t that many of them anymore.
Gray: The problems then were racism and inequality, and the problems today are still racism and inequality. This nation has never lived up to doing away with racism and doing away with inequality—that’s what happened with [George] Floyd’s case. We just need to deal with it and solve it now.
Coping with COVID-19
Dillard: We’re just trying to endure this like everybody else.
Harwood: I’ve been participating in a lot of Zoom hearings with judges. Zoom hearings, Zoom conferences, Zoom depositions. That’s the generic term … but they’ve gotten quite utilitarian.
Gregory: I’m sitting here today in my little home office. It’s voluntary to go in the office but a lot of us are still working from home. That’s really a change of circumstances I’m not sure my dad would’ve seen coming.
Robertson: I have a mask on my face. Actually, I’ve pulled it down to talk to you. I’ve been trying to comply with the rules. With the coronavirus, I strongly recommend to anyone who thinks they want to have an opinion, that they read a book called The Plague by Albert Camus.
Blair: I’m trying to avoid any unnecessary personal contacts. The federal courts are closed to anything other than telephone hearings or Zoom hearings. State courts are trying to have some proceedings, and it’s in kind of a state of confusion, I’d say. I do not miss going in and out of court at all. In fact, you’re better off if you’re never in court.