Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Regarding Another "Counsel for the Situation"


The recently-published memoir of William T. Coleman, Jr. Esq., the distinguished lawyer, may have slipped your notice. It is Counsel for the Situation: Shaping the Law to Realize America's Promise (co-authored with Donald T. Bliss). In the memoir, Coleman, the first man of color to clerk on the U.S. Supreme Court (for Justice Felix Frankfurter), a strategist and brief writer in Brown v. Board of Education, and U.S. Secretary of Transportation during the Ford Administration, discusses a number of notable subjects. Those subjects include: clerking for Justice Frankfurter; collaborating with Thurgood Marshall, his "mentor;" working with Charles Hamilton Houston and William Hastie; litigating Bob Jones v. United States; and testifying against the appointment of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Justice Stephen Breyer penned a foreword to the memoir. In it, he writes:

Bill Coleman's story is one that younger generations should mark and inwardly digest, lest they forget the pioneers who helped to make a better American possible. That story also shows us something important about the legal profession, helping us understand how in the mid-twentieth century, an individual could become, at one and the same time a great lawyer, a wise statesman, and a leader in the fight for equal rights. ...

After Bill Coleman completed his clerkship at the Supreme Court, Justice Frankfurter sent him a letter, which said, "What I can say of you with great confidence is what was Justice Holmes' ultimate praise of a man: 'I bet on him.' I bet on you." This book makes crystal clear the accuracy of Justice Frankfurter's judgment.


Coleman's memoir focuses to a significant extent on the civil rights-related dimensions of his practice; however, the memoir's title is, of course, a play on Justice Brandeis's term, "counsel to the situation." With this term, Brandeis described the model lawyer--a generalist capable of handling a range of matters for a variety of clients, whether in litigation or through advising. Coleman played this generalist role for most of his career; in addition to litigating civil rights cases, he worked as a corporate lawyer for major law firms, served as a government lawyer, and advised six Presidents of the United States. The memoir mentions these aspects of Coleman's work, as well, and meditates on the idea of lawyer-statesman/counsel for the situation.

For more on Coleman, listen to his conversation with Charles Ogletree (Harvard Law School). A recording of the discussion is here (scroll to the bottom of the press release).

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