Ideas from the Front
Uncovering a Firm’s Past Doesn’t Have to Be Done by the Book
Posted Aug 1, 2004 2:04 PM CST
By Margaret Littman
In the 1840s, deep in the heart of Texas, it was virtually unheard of for a white attorney to represent a black client. Abolition hadn’t come to Texas yet, which meant slaves had no legal rights.
But Peter W. Gray, then a 28-year-old attorney in Houston, took on the case of Emeline, a 25-year-old freed slave from Tennessee. A Houston man, Jesse P. Bolls, claimed ownership of Emeline and enslaved her. During the 18 months that the case was in progress, Emeline (and her children) remained involuntary charges of Bolls. Many of the documents detailing the case have been lost to history, but others were recently uncovered in the Harris County archives.
According to judges and researchers who have pored through the newly found historical ephemera, Gray likely handled the case pro bono, perhaps even posting $200 of his own funds as Emeline’s bond.
In the end, Emeline was declared free but awarded just $1 in damages. Then the paper trail goes cold. Researchers suspect she moved north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
While pro bono work is laudable in any era, the commitment is all the more significant in a time when interviewing witnesses in Tennessee and Louisiana meant mailing requests (written twice by quill pen, no less) and relying on the U.S. mail and out-of-state magistrates.
For history buffs—legal and otherwise—Emeline’s story is a fascinating one, from a time when freedom in America had much different meaning.
But at Houston-based Baker Botts, interest in the case is more than an academic exercise. In January of this year, Joe Cheavens and several other partners of the firm went to the Harris County Courthouse to examine the documents that had been found, and then contributed $5,000 to help restore and preserve them. Cheavens, who is chairman of the firm’s trial department, and his partners became involved in Emeline’s history because she is part of their history: Peter Gray, the attorney who represented Emeline, was Baker Botts’ founder.
Cheavens feels the case helps illustrate the principles of integrity that all firms hope their institutions represent. “We are the oldest firm in Texas, and when we commissioned a writing of the history of the firm, we never learned of this case,” Cheavens says. “To find this record of a case that he tried, and to have such a magnificent result in a slave state, it is a great part of our history. It is almost like a To Kill a Mockingbird story.”
As Baker Botts did 15 years ago, many law firms of a certain size commission books detailing the firms’ early days to give to prospective clients and employees.
Typically chock-full of black-and-white photographs and remembrances from retired partners, these books are often written by university or private historians who cull through a law firm’s warehouse and conduct oral histories with those who may remember significant details of a firm’s past. In most cases, those historians also riffle through local historical societies and museums, looking for logical places where a city or county’s history and documentation merges with that of the law firm.
“You are looking at city histories, legal newspapers, bar associations, basically looking for the same kinds of sources ... as any history project,” says Deborah Gardner, a New York historian who has researched firm histories for New York City’s Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft; Philadelphia’s Drinker, Biddle & Reath; and the New York State Bar Association.
Among the things uncovered in the Drinker Biddle research, compiled in honor of the firm’s 150th anniversary, was a 1939 telegram documenting Henry Drinker’s assistance to the Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music fame. The firm helped the musical family secure U.S. visas during World War II along with housing while the family toured the country.
Publicizing the Trapp family story didn’t raise confidentiality concerns. In general, however, time doesn’t always erase the ethical implications of releasing historical documents, says David Maxey, a retired partner with Drinker Biddle who acted as editor of the firm’s history. “There is a fair amount of thought in the profession about what can be usefully released,” he says. “This is a ticklish question.”
Cadwalader Wickersham made the final decision about what would and would not be released in its firm retrospective. Gardner remembers searching for a descendant of the prominent New York Astor family sot that she could obtain permission to quote from a letter she found referring to a long-ago Astor family divorce.
PRESERVING AND SHARING HISTORY
Many firms hire researchers like Gardner or rely on retired partners to compile books that document their histories. Some, however, are looking for new ways to uncover their history and share their finds.
At Miller & Chevalier, based in Washington, D.C., the tax firm’s 84-year history is passed down in the form of an oral history at an annual luncheon for new associates, as well as in a videotape given to new attorneys and staff.
At Gray Plant Mooty, one of Minneapolis’ oldest law firms, new office space gave Bruce Mooty, managing partner and son of one of the firm’s namesakes, the motivation to start displaying letters, photographs and other documents in display cases. During the lunch hour in the firm’s library, different employees—even attorneys—take turns “scrapbooking” by helping the librarian and others identify items in the collection and preserve them, making them accessible to anyone who visits the office. “It has turned into a history club,” says firm librarian Jill Sonnesyn.
The investment of time and money to research firm history doesn’t necessarily have a direct payoff for law firms. Still, there are rewards. “We think it is the right thing to do, but it has nothing to do with business,” concedes Baker Botts’ Cheavens.
Most firms do not have a set budget for these projects and do not expect the money they invest to have a return. Some, like Miller & Chevalier partner Robert L. Moore II, think the investment can help preserve a sense of corporate culture that can be lost in an era of mergers and multiple office locations. “When I came here in 1967, I was the 14th lawyer. Now, there are in excess of 120,” Moore says. “We try to keep the small-firm culture. That’s one reason why history is important.”
But James A. Williams, a partner at Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody in Austin, Texas, thinks there is a more emotional reason many lawyers like to know where their firms have been, although he suspects that is becoming as archaic as taking depositions with a quill pen.
“As firms become less like social organizations and more like business enterprises, many firm cultures are basically being merged out of existence,” he says.
“Without the social aspect, I think there will be fewer and fewer firm histories.”