TENTATIVE FINDINGS RE NEGRO LAWYERS

[Editor's note:  This text is the preliminary report of one portion of a survey of activity by Negro lawyers sent by Charles Houston to Dean Roscoe Pound of the Harvard Law School in February of 1928, shortly after Houston had been named Dean of the Howard University Law School.]

The following tentative findings on the Negro lawyer, his status and activities are based upon two months observation of Negro lawyers and Negro business in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, Toledo, Cleveland and Gary. New York was visited November 20-23; Boston, November 27-29; Philadelphia, December 7, 12-15-; 3altimore, December 9, 21-23; Washington, my residence; Chicago, December 29-31, and January 6-3; Toledo, January 1-3; Cleveland, January 3-5, 10; Gary, January 8. In addition, Wilmington, Delaware, was visited December 5-7, but as there are no colored lawyers in Wilmington it will not be considered in this report.

The method of inquiry was in the main personal interviews and observations, supplemented by some correspondence and reading wherever printed material was available. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Chicago I met the local Negro bar associations; in Cleveland I met the local Negro lawyers club. In my personal interview work I sought particularly the following information:

  1. the attitude of the individual Negro lawyer and the Negro bar in general toward the profession;
  2. the extent to which the individual Negro lawyer and the Negro bar in general touch and effect the life of the community;
  3. the scope and nature of the Negro lawyer's practice;
  4. the relation between the Negro lawyer and Negro business;
  5. the organization and equipment of Negro law offices;
  6. the relation between the Negro bench and bar and the white bench and bar;
  7. complaints against Negro lawyers for unprofessional conduct.
Biographical data, including the matter of preparation for the law, were not stressed in the personal interviews because a questionnaire already prepared and soon to be distributed will cover that work; and it was further felt that too many direct personal questions would interfere with obtaining free and frank conversation on the more subtle matters noted above. Some work was also done on the position of the individual Negro before the Courts; but no separate or special mention of this work will be made in this report.
 

THE ATTITUDE OF THE INDIVIDUAL NEGRO LAWYER AND THE NEGRO BAR IN GENERAL TOWARD THE PROFESSION

In general the younger men have a higher conception of the privileges and responsibilities of the lawyer than the older men. The older men themselves may be divided into those who have had wide contact with the white bar and white clients, and those who have not. Speaking generally, the older men who have had a considerable white clientele and enjoyed wide contact with the white bar, are gentlemen of merit and some distinction, and reflect in their dress, demeanor, and general conduct, a true regard for the dignity and value of the profession. On the other hand, the older men who have depended chiefly on Negro practice and who have had little contact with the white bar, do not show up as well.  In general they tend to regard the profession as a trade for exploitation, and I find a lack of response to civic or racial matters which do not touch directly upon their own personal interests. The marked exception to this statement is found in Baltimore. No Negro lawyer in Baltimore has ever had any considerable white practice. The contacts between the Negro and white lawyers have been chiefly impersonal contacts on strict business grounds. Nevertheless for character and general standing, the older Negro lawyers in Baltimore stand very high. Men like Cornelius C. Fitzgerald, V. Ashbie Hawkins, William C. McCard, Warner T. McGuinn, George W.F. McMechin, and others would be a credit to any community. The reason for this exception is probably found in the fact of their attitude toward the profession. Without exception these men consider the lawyer as a defender of rights and an officer of the Court for the protection of the community. There has never been a case of discrimination or oppression brought to the attention of these men which they have not attacked with or without fee. As a result they have no equal as a class in sober self-respect, quiet confidence and sense of duty.

Among the younger men, on the whole, there is manifest a distinct responsiveness to the ideals of the profession. They are becoming increasingly interested in community matters, and are alive to current communitv and national problems and their possible effects on the Negro group. In every city visited they are making attempts for closer mutual association. In Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Cleveland they are carrying the brunt of the work of the local Negro bar associations or clubs. They are combiningtogether in firms for better service and strength in the practice. They are looking all their problems squarely in the face and are not minimizing one bit the difficulties in front of them, but one has to be struck by their confidence and enthusiasm. On the whole they are studying and accumulating experience. They bar no opponents, and no proposition is too hard for them to tackle. Yet I have my first time for one of them to tell of a case or point won on sharp practice. I can not say this for the older lawyers.

THE EXTENT TO WHICH THE INDIVIDUAL NEGRO LAWYER AND THE NEGRO BAR IN GENERAL TOUCHES AND REFLECTS THE LIFE OF THE COMMUNITY.

During Reconstruction days the first Negro lawyers were an important factor in the politics of the South; but with the general recession of the Negro from political life, the points of contact between the Negro lawyer and the general life of the community have been decreasing both in numbers and importance. In the North and West the Negro lawyer is still an active figure in local politics. There are Negro lawyers on the city councils in New York, Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland; a judge of the Municipal Court in Chicago and Washington; a magistrate in Gary and Philadelphia; representatives in the district attorney's, county or city prosecutor's office in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Cleveland; and ward leaders in every city. But politically the Negro lawyer is of very minor importance.

The Negro lawyer makes a very poor showing in the matter of community charities. It is exceptional to find them taking an active part in charitable undertakings. One of the most bitter complaints I have received during the Survey came from an important official of the A.M.E. Church, who complains that the lawyers have isolated themselves from other forces and agencies working for racial advancement, and he ascribed the failure of the Negro lawyer to make faster progress to the lawyer's lack of interest in the community at large. This criticism is somewhat justified. It appears to be clear that the Negro lawyer as a whole is not the highest type citizen and professional man the race has produced. So far as the older lawyer is concerned he is not found at the head of any non-political movement or considered as a leader of community thought in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, Toledo, and possibly Chicago. The younger men are doing more in this field. But the general attitude of the older men is that the struggle for existence has been so hard and bitter that they have not had any time for charity, or anything else not directly affecting their practice and income.

There have been sporadic instances of disinterested services to the community on the part of the older Negro lawyer. During the past war riots of 1919 and 1920 the Negro lawyers of Washington and Chicago formed defense committees to see that every Negro charged with a crime incident to or growing out of the riots should have legal representation. But these committees did not survive the riot period. No such committee exists to-day to see that the; cases of indigent Negroes are given a fair and proper hearing; and there is either a general apathy or studied impersonality in the responses to all suggestions about legal aid work. The younger men tend to respond to suggestions of legal aid work, but they shrink from having any considerable portion of it directed to their offices.

THE SCOPE AND NATURE OF THE NEGRO LAWYER'S PRACTICE

The Negro lawyer's practice is still on the whole a distinctly non-commercial practice. Chiefly criminal law, then domestic relations, personal injuries, small claims, and matters growing out of the conduct and management of churches and fraternal associations form the bulk of his practice. The recent war with its shift of population and greater distribution of wealth among Negroes marks the entrance of the Negro, and hence the Negro lawyer, into the field of business in large numbers. In this respect it is worth noting that in the North the great improvement in the position of the Negro lawyer is due to the large practice he has picked up from the Southern migrant Negro. The Southern Negro coming North brought with him race consciousness in business and the professions, and has pointed the way to the Northern Negro in conferring patronage upon the Negro lawyers.

There is also a very marked change of front on the part of the Negro lawyer in the North toward Negro practice. Before the war every Negro lawyer in the North had as his goal the development of a large practice among white people. All of the older lawyers who have made any considerable success in the North directly out of the law have done so out of a white clientele. They have their offices in the white business districts, they often have white stenographers, and do not cater to Negro clients. They say that the two classes of practice will not mix, and since the white practice is more lucrative they tend to discourage any increase in their Negro practice. On the other hand, with the greater Negro population and wealth flowing into the North, the younger Negro lawyers who have come into the practice since the war are locating their offices in the heart of the Negro business districts, and are devoting all their attention toward pushing their Negro practice ahead as rapidly as possible. This is particularly true of New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Cleveland and Gary.
 

THE RELATION BETWEEN THE NEGRO LAWYER AND NEGRO BUSINESS

Except in Baltimore the Negro lawyer does not get the cream of Negro business. In seeking an explanation of this situation one runs into considerable mutual recrimination between the older lawyers and business men. The larger the business the rarer the case where a Negro lawyer is regularly retained. In general, the complaint is that the Negro lawyer is incompetent both in training and experience to handle complex matters involving any considerable amount of detail. A charge varying in severity from mere shiftlessness to dishonesty also generally accompanies the allegation of incompetence. Against this the Negro lawyer retorts that big Negro business has never given him a fair chance; that he is never retained except in some minor matter already so hopeless that the business is unwilling to spend a decent fee on it; that whenever the case is of any importance, he is forced to get a white associate, and then if the case is lost he gets all the blame, but if it is won, although he does all the work, his white associate gets all the credit. Both the larger businesses and the older lawyers have some merit in their positions. There is no denial that Negro business has had some very disastrous experiences with Negro lawyers. On the other hand they have had equally sad experiences with some white lawyers; yet they have not interpreted these latter experiences adversely to the white lawyers as a whole. Likewise it is only too true that such Negro business refuses to pay a Negro lawyer the same fee for the same work it would pay a white lawyer. Consequently there is a justifiable resentment on the part of the Negro bar.

But the Negro lawyer himself has failed to keep in touch with the trends of business development. The greatest deficiency in the general equipment of the Negro lawyer is a lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of economics and business practice. In the main, the older lawyers have made and are making no effort to make themselves conversant with book keeping, accounting, banking practice, production and distribution. Life insurance is probably the largest single business among Negroes, but very few Negro lawyers know anything of either the social or economic significance of life insurance, or-of the development of state regulation of life insurance companies and the reasons therefor. Few Negro lawyers have any really thoughtful opinion on the business needs of the community; or what particular form or type of association is best fitted for the enterprise projected and the community it is to serve.

Negro business is passing through a transitional and experimental period. The older type of one-man business which developed by a process of natural growth is disappearing or else becoming too large for its founder to handle alone. Enterprises with pooled capital are appearing in increasing numbers. Businesses are being refinanced and reorganized. Striking business failures are occurring. But throughout it all the average Negro lawyer appears unconcerned and unaffected. Apart from the strictly legal aspects of the matter, the average lawyer has no helpful suggestion to make as to why the business failed or the reasons for its success.

But the Negro lawyer to survive will have to go further in his business interest than the mere question of legality or illegality. For the next generation in my opinion he will have to sustain the most intimate kind of a relation with the now nascent Negro enterprises as a business solicitor. This work will take him into an extensive and intensive study of economics and kindred subjects. He will be at the controls in many situations with great potentialities for racial misunderstandings and friction. Both black and white will look to him for interpretation and a fair solution of contested issues between the races arising out of increasing commercial competition and civic and social consciousness. Such situations and such issues will tax the utmost capacity of the Negro lawyer of the future. I think that the better class of the young Negro lawyer recognizes this, and are more or less effectively trying to put themselves in a position to meet these responsibilities when they present themselves. But this aspect of the matter chiefly concerns the law schools, and the law students now in training and yet to come.
 

THE ORGANIZATION AND EQUIPMENT OF NEGRO LAW OFFICES

The general run of Negro lawyers are practising alone. The average Negro law office will not support more than one lawyer, and this statement becomes less subject to exception the farther back in time one goes. In large measure this explains the absence of many real law firms among the older lawyers. In most instances where two lawyers are practising together there is no integration of the practice and division of profits, but only joint offices. Other reasons advanced by the older lawyers themselves are failure to obtain any increased prestige or business from the formation of a firm; refusal of the associations to specialize for fear lest they be disadvantaged; and general suspicion.

On the part of the younger men there is a marked leaning toward firms, and an increasing willingness to specialize. To-day most such firms are either full partnerships or else mere joint offices. The instances of an office with a real junior law clerk are rare. Perhaps the most notable example is the office of Raymond Pace Alexander, Esq., 1901 Chestnut 3treet, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mr. Alexander employs three young lawyers (John Francis Williams, Maceo Hubbard, and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, his wife), and a law student (Lewis Tanner Moore) as assistants and law clerks. Their calibre is uniformly high. Mr. Williams is a former editor of the Yale Law Review, class of 1922; Mr. Hubbard is a "B" man from Harvard's class of 1926; and Mrs. Alexander is a Ph.D. and law graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, class of 1927 law and a former editor of the Pennsylvania Law Review. Mr. Alexander himself is a Harvard man, class of 1923, and is now in his fifth year of practice.

The absence of opportunities for law clerkships is the most serious problem facing the Negro law graduate. The problem is the same whether he graduates from a white law school or from the Howard Law School. The white law schools appear powerless to place their Negro graduates as law clerks, no matter how creditable their scholastic record. As a general rule the white offices will not have them and the Negro offices can not afford them. The result is that the young Negro law graduate is thrown out into the active practice' without the seasoning of an apprentice period; and his lack of practical experience shows up in his work.

For the physical lay-out of the Negro law office, there is the primary problem of location. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Negro lawyers to get office space in white buildings, especially in the modern, more desirable buildings. In Baltimore and Washington the lawyers have been driven to the purchase of the buildings where their offices are located in order to guarantee themselves a location. Needless to say such offices are in small buildings which white persons have abandoned, on side streets away from the trend of white business development. In the Negro districts no particularly difficult problem of location arises. At the present time the older lawyers are refusing to locate in the Negro districts, claiming superior advantages and prestige by being located where they are. But it would not be surprising if they should finally be forced to locate in the Negro business districts by virtue or irresistible pressure from their clients.

Few Negro lawyers have adequate working libraries. The statutes, court reports and digests are not kept up to date; and very often one will find most of the library to be books on miscellaneous non-legal ' matter.' Usually this lack of a working private library is not compensated for by membership in bar association or other public or semi-public libraries. The truth is that the older Negro lawyer is not a student. What practice he has does not require that he should be. The major portion of his work involves only a few, very definite, stereotyped situations: the errant spouse, the parent abandoning the children, administration of small estates comprised of a little money in bank, life insurance policies and the family residence, and petty criminal offenses. As long as the cases run true to type he makes a fairly brave showing. But shunted ever so little off the beaten path, he becomes befuddled.

The Negro lawyers, especially the older ones, say as a group that an investment in a working library or bar association library membership does not make itself pay in increased practice. The businessman claims that the Negro lawyer's disposition to sit on hisndiploma and consider his study at an end, is just sheer laziness. Much of this seems to be true. They do not know how to study and are too shiftless to learn.

The Negro stenographer is a poor lot. In New York and Boston the more successful lawyers catering to white clients have been forced to employ and retain white stenographers because competent colored stenographers can not readily be found. And throughout the cities visited, the common and most general single complaint of the lawyers seems to be the matter of stenographers. In explanation it should be said that office work is just beginning to pay enough to attract the better educated, higher type of Negro girl. In the past such a girl has gone into teaching, social service, or has made a career of marriage. But there are now instances of girls with a college education taking up a secretarial career; and also instances of offices paying secretaries as much as they could earn in any other field.

In general, however, the organization and equipment of the average Negro law office reflect neither industry nor prosperity.

THE RELATION BETWEEN THE NEGRO BENCH AND BAR AND THE WHITE BENCH AND BAR.

Mutual relationships between the Negro bench and bar and the white bench and bar in the cities visited seem to be cordial. From rather broad inquiries among white lawyers it would appear that the Negro judges and magistrates enjoy the respect and confidence of the white bar, and measure up fully to the average of the white judges and magistrates of equal position. But on the whole the white bar does not have a very flattering opinion of the Negro lawyer. This is due partly to lack of intimate personal contact, partly to the fact that the most conspicuous Negro lawyer has often been the least desirable, and partly to the truth.

The extent and degree to which the Negro and white lawyers associate, vary in different cities. In Cleveland the Negro lawyers are members of the white bar association, attend all its meetings and dinners, and enjoy full and unrestricted membership. Also in Boston and New York. But in Philadelphia, Toledo and Gary, by custom the Negro lawyers rarely participate in the dinners of the associations to which they belong. In Baltimore and Washington they do not belong to the white bar associations at all. Full information about Chicago is still unavailable.

Generally however the Negro lawyers are developing their own associations. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Chicago there are active Negro bar associations; in Cleveland there is an active Lawyers' Club. The bar associations in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington in the past have had no particularly well-defined program and have not been very effective. Attendance at meetings is poor and irregular; the true financial membership is very small; and the associations function chiefly upon the occasion of the annual banquet and the demise of a member. The Washington, D.C., Bar Association is now taking an increasingly active part in matters affecting the conduct of the profession. It has expressed its choice of candidates upon the occasions of recent vacancies on the local bench, is prosecuting a campaign for admission of Negro lawyers to library privileges in the white bar association library, and is sponsoring a movement, to have a colored probation officer appointed in the District of Columbia Police Court.

But the Chicago bar association, properly named the Cook County Bar Association, is the most influential of all. It numbers 113 paid financial members, and includes all but about ten of the Negro lawyers in active practice in Chicago. At its annual meeting January 6, 1928, eighty-six members were actually present  while proxies brought the total number of votes cast in the election to 108. The endorsement of the Association is sought by candidates for the bench and other elective officials connected with the administration of justice in Chicago. It handles all complaints and grievances against Negro lawyers, and during the past year successfully initiated disbarment proceedings against two of them, It is recognized by the Superior Court of Cook-County as a representative body.
No bar association has ever been formed in Boston or New York for fear that any such movement would be seized upon by a certain element of the white bar to jim-crow and set the Negro lawyer apart. For the same reason the Cleveland lawyers refuse to allow their club to be known as a bar association.

In the past it very frequently happened that a Negro lawyer would make connections with a white lawyer as a sort of protector and advisor, and use the white lawyer to try all his cases. Striking examples of this used to occur in Washington. Then again the white lawyer would often be called into the case by the client himself who would be unwilling to trust the matter entirely to his Negro lawyer. This is now vanishing by degrees. The clients have more confidence in their Negro lawyers, and the lawyers have more mutual confidence in themselves. So that in many cities at the present time a Negro lawyer loses face both with his client and his brother lawyers if he calls in a white lawyer instead of another Negro lawyer as associate counsel.

In cases where white and Negro lawyers are on opposing sides, instances do occur of the white lawyer attempting to disparage the Negro lawyer as such. But these instances are neither numerous nor typical enough in the cities visited to count. On the whole in these cities white lawyers do not try to make capital out of the fact that opposing counsel is black. But the same thing can not be said for all the judges. There is a very decided and general feeling among Negro lawyers, especially in the border states such as Maryland and in the District of Columbia, that certain judges will not give a Negro lawyer an impartial hearing where opposing counsel is white.

COMPLAINTS AGAINST NEGRO LAWYERS FOR UNPROFESSIONAL CONDUCT

The most encouraging thing about the present status of the Negro lawyer is that in integrity he stands above the great average of the white lawyers in the cities visited. The Secretary of the Cleveland Bar Association (white) states that he remembers no case of a local Negro lawyer being called before the grievance committee within the last twenty years; and the grievance committee meets twice a week. Baltimore reports only one out of fifty-odd disbarred within the last forty-two years. Chicago and Philadelphia have a high average integrity among their Negro lawyers.

Two years ago a survey was made of the white bar associations to ascertain their experience with Negro lawyers in the use of bar association library privileges. In not a single reply out of twenty-six was one complaint registered against a Negro lawyer for abuse of his library privileges. Baltimore even reported that it had less trouble with the Negro lawyers than with any other group.

In answer to the question whether the low disbarment record is not due to a dual standard of conduct set up for Negro and white lawyers, under which a white lawyer would be disbarred for conduct that would bring a Negro lawyer a mere reprimand, let it be known that the matter rests chiefly with the local grievance committee. The Cleveland Bar Association, by its Secretary, stated that it would probably lean backwards to see that a Negro lawyer up for disbarment had a fair trial; but ether bar associations made no similar indications.

Considering the hardships of the Negro lawyer in practice, his small fees, his lack of legal experience and meagre education, and the very great inducement to take advantage of an ignorant, trusting clientele, the record of the Negro lawyer in holding down his professional delinquencies to such a small figure bespeaks under the circumstances an inherent moral integrity.

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