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A lawyer’s creation story – John W. Davis of West Virginia

What I've Learned About Life On The Way To The Courthouse

By R. MICHAEL WELLS SR., Special to Lawyers Weekly

mikew@wellsjenkins.com

 

He was just another young lawyer in a small firm in a small, tough, mountain town. At least, that’s the way it started.

In time, however, he became a lawyer of great distinction nationally. Over the broad reach of his distinguished career, he was revered by even his most ardent opponents as a lawyer’s lawyer.

John W. Davis was a lawyer who rose from obscurity and his small town roots in Clarksburg, W.Va., to be the solicitor general of the United States, a Democratic nominee for president of the United States, an ambassador to the Court of St. James’s and, at one time, the lawyer who had argued more cases in the Supreme Court of the United States than nearly any lawyer in history.

The firm he built in New York 70 years ago, Davis Polk, still bears his name.

One might think a lawyer of this success must have had a brilliant mind. But actually, he did not.

The lawyers he defeated were often the most brilliant lawyers of his generation, but he bested them by more predictive, if pedestrian, values: hard work, a commitment to clarity, brevity (clarity’s first cousin), close reasoning and a respect for all people. He had learned one of life’s greatest treasures which people of intelligence and strong pedigrees sometimes overlook: you have a lot more success in life if people like you.

As a fierce advocate, one would think he was a man of fierce emotion, and that he could ignite the passion of those in the audience whom he sought to sway. But his passion was of another kind.

In the rough and tumble days around the turn of the 20th century, Clarksburg was a burgeoning industrial center of coal, oil, and gas interests. Passions often flew, and John W. Davis was one who let them fly. He was once held in contempt for striking his opposing attorney in court. On another occasion, he threw an ink well at his opposition.

Davis learned very early in his career that he was not going to succeed as he hoped to succeed if he did not learn to control his emotions. His work ethic, his personal charm, his attention to detail and his advocacy skills – a considerable skill set for any lawyer -were compromised by this weakness.

In time, Davis learned to curb his outward, emotional passion, and he became a lawyer of dispassionate focus. But it took great personal discipline. In a sweet irony, it became his abiding strength that he kept his head when others around him lost theirs, to borrow Kipling’s happy phrase.

“The best way to predict your future is to create it,” said another backwoods lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who rose from obscurity because of his similar commitment to dispassionate, clear, concise, and labor-intensive argument.

The distance between a hard-fighting rural practice in Clarksburg, W.Va., to the boardrooms that controlled the economic power of the nation, was not as great as one might think. And revealingly, the journey came not through the doorways of elite Ivy League schools, entrenched wealth, or superior intellect, but through the doorways of those old-fashioned values we learned from our parents and grandparents, including one’s disciplined shoring up of a compromising weakness.

In the close hand-to-hand combat among the nation’s most elite leadership in the turmoil of the Great Depression, where emotions often ran high, it was the self-disciplined and now even-tempered John W. Davis, who beat the demon temper at its own game, who would dispel the hard emotions in the room with the gentle word. At which he became the master of his age.

In a very real sense, he created his future, as Abraham Lincoln had predicted a lawyer could do, by shoring up his greatest weakness. Which really allowed his considerable strengths to flourish fully, trumping more often than not the intellectual brilliance of others.

What I’ve learned about life on the way to the courthouse is this: the best way to become a lawyer’s lawyer and to achieve success in life is to create your own way. When you face your most compromising weakness honestly and you shore it up adequately, your strengths – more defining than you realize – can literally change the trajectory of your career.

A lesson we can learn from a lawyer who started out much like you and me.

Editor’s note: Wells is a partner with the firm of Wells, Jenkins, Lucas & Jenkins in Winston-Salem, where he practices in the estate planning area. He also writes a monthly legal column for the Winston-Salem Journal, and he is the host of a weekly public service legal call-in show on WSJS 600 AM.

One comment

  1. John W. Davis was a racist, who attempted unsuccessfully to defend segregation and “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education. Let the entire story of this man’s practice be told.

    To celebrate him during Black History Month is insulting to me, and probably many African Americans.

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