April 25, 2021

The Life and Times of a Country Lawyer: Chapter 9

The Life and Times of a Country Lawyer: Chapter 9

As a result of the death of Spearman Webb in 1950, there came into existence the Law Offices of Neilson Rogers. I inherited a small country law office with a large trial docket and more work than I could handle. Before his death Spearman had told me how to handle the transfer after his death, a protocol that I carefully followed. The office now consisted of me, Spearman’s widow Ms. Goldie, and Miss Ruth plus a good law library. In the 1930s there had been no more than two dozen trial lawyers who regularly tried civil cases in Grayson County. Most of these lawyers represented defendants and the majority of them came from the trial sections of law firms in Dallas. The Webb office had most of the cases on the plaintiff’s side of the docket. These Dallas lawyers all knew Spearman, and after many years of trials they had developed a respect for him.

The camaraderie between lawyers occurs because there are many delays during the course of a jury trial: during recesses, while the court’s charge is being prepared, as well as while the jury is considering its verdict; and during these periods the trial lawyers visit with one another, discussing changes in procedures and rulings in other courts and engaging in general legal gossip. Among this group of trial lawyers an “inner cadre” existed. These were the more competent, experienced trial lawyers who adhered to a code of conduct that they believed in and enforced among themselves.

If any lawyer engaged in sharp practices, the word would quickly spread throughout the group and they would punish the offender. He would be confronted with harassing motions, no stipulations or agreements facilitating the trial and no settlements. Spearman had been an accepted member of the inner cadre, and he had what could only be called a good settlement value status.

On one occasion he had taken me to Dallas with him. His briefcase contained five or six files of cases which were being defended by members of the Strasbuger & Price firm. Their offices, in the Gulf States Building north of the Adolphus Hotel, were the finest law offices I have ever seen. It consisted of a long, carpeted and paneled hall with offices, conference rooms and library rooms on each side. Almost in a pleasurable way, each of the attorneys who represented defendants in cases Spearman had filed consulted with us exploring the possibility of settlement. No settlement was achieved, but in each case the defendant’s attorney agreed to recommend a certain figure to his client and Spearman agreed to recommend the same figure to his. In a few weeks these settlements would be accomplished. Now, with Spearman dead, I was not a member of the inner cadre. If I wanted to advance my career, I was faced with the problem of acquiring membership.

Acceptance was acquired upon achieving competence as a trial lawyer, knowledge as to the value of a case, a reputation among lawyers for integrity and carefully following unwritten rules of ethics in the courtroom and elsewhere. I had recently tried a case defended by Henry Strasbuger that I thought I could not lose. My clients were driving a Model T Ford in a blinding snowstorm when they were struck in the rear by a bus traveling in the same direction. Their car was knocked off the road, damaging it and injuring them. The jury found for the defendant. This was a shock to me and to this day I still don’t know what happened.

Strasburger was in his prime. He was a master at jury selection; the first to be able to memorize the jury list (each attorney is permitted to scratch six names off of a list of at least twenty-four prospective jurors and the first twelve unscratched names becomes the jury). The plaintiff’s attorney examines the jury panel first, and while I did Strasburger memorized their names. When he examined the panel he remembered all their names without looking at the list or his notes. This amazing feat impressed everyone in the courtroom as well as the jury. During the trial he was a master at convincing the jury that the plaintiffs had exaggerated their injuries and damages.

We always appealed any case we lost and to compound my loss of competence, I failed to file a timely notice that was critical to the appeal process. To my amazement Henry Strasburger offered a smaller settlement than would have been accepted before the trial but much more than was deserved after losing the case and the right to appeal. He obviously liked me and that would help one get in the inner cadre.

I liked and respected him. Before Spearman’s death a very young son of a prominent lawyer had married a very young girl. Both parents were humiliated, and the two children wanted out of the marriage. Sherman was a small town, and knowledge of such a marriage would spread like wildfire should it become known. I filed a petition to annul the marriage in Dallas County and asked Henry Strasburger (at that time I believed he was the busiest attorney in Dallas) to act as attorney for the young girl. I drove the young married couple to Dallas, and when he met us for the hearing in the courthouse he asked me only one question: “Have you briefed the jurisdiction?” (i.e., was Dallas a proper place for this proceeding?) I answered: “Yes sir.” The annulment was granted and to this day knowledge of this marriage has been concealed from the people of Sherman. There were no attorney fees and the court cost was paid out of our office account. This type of transaction would help one qualify for the inner cadre.

I can never know, but will always believe that Spearman, shortly before he died, had asked Henry Strasburger not to take advantage of me. Spearman was afraid that I was not capable of handling the large trial docket which the office had, and the two of them were very good friends and respected each other. For whatever reason in the years following Spearman’s death, while other lawyers were forcing me into trial before settlement could occur, Mr. Strasbuger personally answered cases which I had filed and settled them with me. He did not neglect his clients, for the settlements were fair to both of us. However, the fees generated from these settlements permitted my office to remain solvent during a difficult period following Spearman’s death.  In effect, Strasburger treated me as a member of the inner cadre.

Neilson Rogers practiced law in Sherman for almost 60 years, from 1938 until 2002, except for the five years he was in the U.S. Army during World War II. In 2007 he was recognized by the Grayson County Bar Assn. for seven decades of service to the legal and judicial communities. In retirement he wrote this memoir, which will be serialized in the North Texas e-News. Before his death, Mr. Rogers asked Dr. Jerry Lincecum to edit the memoir and gave him literary power of attorney to make decisions about publishing his writings.

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