On the Shoulders of Giants

Robert H. Alexander Jr. credits his success to the struggles of his ancestors; now he pays it forward

Published in 2007 Oklahoma Super Lawyers — November 2007

When attorney Robert H. Alexander Jr. takes in the expansive view from his elegant offices, which occupy the entire 24th floor of the First National Center in downtown Oklahoma City, he can see just how far he has come.

The city landscape below his art and memorabilia-studded office is in transition. Urban renewal has swept away his childhood neighborhood, along with the original Avery Chapel AME Church where his late father, civil rights leader Rev. Robert H. Alexander Sr., served. 

“I used to look up at the First National and imagine all the rich white people who must work downtown,” he says. “Back then, [African Americans] couldn’t even use the restrooms downtown.”

If he looks back further, he can’t help wondering what his grandfather, Moses, and great-grandmother, Cassandra, would have thought of his climb to such heights.

Born into slavery in 1824, Cassandra’s striking beauty condemned her to life as a bed slave in Virginia and Georgia. “A bed slave,” Alexander explains, “was a black woman who was purchased for her master’s sexual pleasure.”

Cassandra had nine children by her masters. When she gave birth to one fathered by a slave she loved, her enraged master flogged her in front of her fellow slaves—and her 5-year-old son, Moses. She bore the scars for the rest of her life.

As dark as those times were, Alexander has drawn strength and inspiration from his roots. “I think of my ancestors like Cassandra and tell myself, ‘You have no excuses.’”

But from the day he graduated in 1969—the last Douglass High School class to be educated under de facto segregation from kindergarten through 12th grade—his climb to First National Center wasn’t easy. He worked 55-hour weeks (while serving as executive officer of his ROTC battalion) to help pay his way through Howard University, and still managed to finish in the top 1 percent of his class. 

“When I left for Harvard Law School in the flesh, a lot of people who supported me left for Cambridge with me in spirit.” At the end of his first semester, Alexander momentarily faltered under the strain of those expectations and walked out on a final exam.

After learning he had a bleeding ulcer (“I thought that was just the way fear felt—because I was afraid!”), he mustered the courage to convince university officials to give him a second chance. 

The man who held Alexander’s fate in his hands, Vice Dean William L. Bruce, had an intimidating reputation among Harvard’s law students. Both physically and academically imposing, with the formidable self-possession of a D-Day veteran, he sat pokerfaced as Alexander pleaded his case.

“I didn’t want to fail myself,” Alexander recalls. Even more, he dreaded failing the people back home, “because so few blacks from here had gotten such opportunities.”

Overcome by desperation, he broke down. “I wept—shoulder-shaking weeping.”

To Alexander’s astonishment, Bruce came around his desk and embraced him. That simple act of kindness still reverberates. “He wouldn’t have known how much that meant to me then.”

With Bruce’s mentorship, Alexander returned to his home state with a Harvard law degree. He eventually became the first African American to be hired by a major Oklahoma law firm—and the first to make partner in a major firm. In 1988, he struck out on his own. 

Since then, the Law Office of Robert H. Alexander Jr. has grown into an elite national product liability law practice specializing exclusively in Fortune 500 clientele. The firm’s lengthy client list includes Wal-Mart, GlaxoSmithKline, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, major automobile companies and many other high-profile entities.

“I think Bob is superb,” says Richard W. Silbert, vice president and associate general counsel of Purdue Pharma. Alexander represented the company in a series of lawsuits filed in Oklahoma involving the drug OxyContin. “He is creative, plain-spoken, and has great integrity. He also has the ability to articulate complex issues in a simple way for a judge and jury to fully grasp.”

Though Alexander’s firm handles some of the biggest product-law cases in the country—cases that can determine the fate of entire product lines, with billions of dollars at stake—he has never lost sight of those who helped pave the way for him. “I have been very successful, but the truth is there are no self-made men,” he says. “We all stand on the shoulders of giants.”

One is attorney Andrew Coats, former mayor of Oklahoma City and current dean of law at the University of Oklahoma. He hired Robert Alexander at Crowe & Dunlevy when no major Oklahoma law firm had ever employed a black attorney.

Another is Russell M. Perry, secretary of commerce under Gov. Frank Keating and owner of Perry Publishing and Broadcasting, and First Security Bank & Trust Company. He helped shape Alexander’s business acumen.

But it is Bruce whom Alexander casts as a giant among giants: “I wouldn’t even be a lawyer if it wasn’t for Dean Bruce,” he says.

“The people who helped me—Andy, Russell, Dean Bruce and numerous others—they’re so far ahead of me that I can’t pay them back,” he says. Instead, he’s determined to share their compassion.

In 2005, Alexander established a $100,000 endowment for minority scholarships at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. One aim is to help increase the number of young African-American attorneys who choose to remain in Oklahoma to practice law. Alexander named the endowment in honor of Bruce.

Alexander also hires minority law students to intern in his firm. While providing on-the-job seasoning with legal cases, he works to build their self-confidence. “Someone made me believe in myself somewhere along the line,” he says. “That’s what I try to put in anyone who works with me, because once you have that, there’s no limit to what you can do.”

“I have met few people as passionate as Robert Alexander,” says Col. (ret.) Stanley L. Evans, assistant dean for students at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Law students who intern for Alexander “talk about the mentorship. He also has a great staff that looks out for them.”

Possessed of an unbendable can-do attitude, Alexander insists on the highest professional standards in his firm, as well as gender and racial diversity. “If you can play ball, we’ll give you a uniform. What we want people to do here is to be the best person that they were born to be,” he says.

Tonya M. Ward is a case in point. The firm’s executive administrator/information and technology manager, she designed the firm’s state-of-the-art computer system—but her high school dream was to be an attorney. Working with Robert Alexander inspired her to seek that law degree.

“I have never, ever come across anybody who’s so devoted to his practice and clients,” she says. At 6 feet 5 inches, Alexander has been called a commanding, tiger-like presence in the courtroom. “But he has great kindness; he is extremely sensitive. He knows how to relate to all types of people.”

Family legacy, social history and a deep sense of gratitude to his giants are woven inextricably through the fabric of Alexander’s approach to his law practice, and fuel his desire to pass along lessons he learned the hard way. At times, the pattern of that fabric is startling. Not long ago, as he and Bruce walked together following a reunion at Harvard, Bruce turned to him with a stunning revelation. 

“You know, Bob, I think I ought to tell you something,” he said. “In my ancestry, some of my folks were slaveholders.” In fact, they owned among the largest number of slaves in their state, Bruce explained, his eyes filling with tears. 

“Tears welled up in mine too,” says Alexander, “because as different as we might have seemed to an observer, we two men were the embodiment of Martin Luther King’s dream that ‘One day, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveholders will sit down at the table of brotherhood.’”  

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