The Life and Times of a Country Lawyer: Chapter 9

The Life and Times of a Country Lawyer: Chapter 9

The law firms of Neilson Rogers were formed following the death of Spearman Webb in 1950. I inherited a small law firm in a country with a big lawsuit and more work than I could handle. Before he died, Spearman had told me how to handle the post-death transmission, a protocol I carefully followed. The office now consisted of myself, Spearman’s widow, Mrs. Goldie, and Mrs. Ruth, and a good law library. In the 1930s, there were no more than two dozen trial lawyers regularly trying civil cases in Grayson County. Most of these attorneys represented defendants, and most of them were from the litigation departments of law firms in Dallas. The Webb office had most of the cases on the plaintiff’s side. These Dallas attorneys all knew Spearman and had developed a respect for him after many years of trial.

The camaraderie between lawyers occurs because there are many delays in the course of a trial: during breaks, while the court’s indictment is being prepared, and while the jury is considering its verdict; and during these periods the trial attorneys visit each other, discuss changes in procedures and decisions in other courts, and engage in general legal gossip. An “inner cadre” existed among this group of litigators. These were the more knowledgeable and experienced litigators who adhered to a code of conduct they believed in and enforced among themselves.

If a lawyer practices harsh practices, it would quickly spread to the group and punish the perpetrator. He would face harassment requests, no rules or agreements to facilitate the process, and no settlements. Spearman had been a recognized member of the inner cadre, and he had a status that could only be described as good settlement value.

He took me to Dallas once. His briefcase contained five or six files of cases defended by members of the Strasbuger & Price firm. Their offices in the Gulf States building north of the Adolphus Hotel were the best law firms I’ve ever seen. It consisted of a long carpeted and paneled room with offices, conference rooms, and library rooms on each side. Almost happily, each of the attorneys who represented the defendants in the Spearman cases has contacted us to investigate the possibility of a settlement. No agreement was reached, but in each case the defendant’s attorney agreed to recommend a specific number to his client, and Spearman agreed to recommend the same number. In a few weeks these settlements would be completed. Now that Spearman was dead, I wasn’t a member of the inner cadre. If I wanted to advance my career, I was faced with the problem of acquiring a membership.

Acceptance has been gained through attainment of litigation competence, knowledge of the value of a case, advocates’ reputations for integrity, and careful adherence to unwritten ethics in the courtroom and elsewhere. I had recently tried a case defended by Henry Strasbuger that I thought I couldn’t lose. My clients were driving a Model T Ford in a blinding blizzard when they were hit in the back by a bus going in the same direction. Her car was thrown off the road, damaged and injured. The jury found for the accused. That was a shock to me and to this day I don’t know what happened.

Strasbourg was in its prime. He was a master at selecting the jury; the first to remember the jury list (each attorney may cross six names from a list of at least twenty-four potential jurors, and the first twelve unscratched names become the jury). The plaintiff’s attorney first investigated the jury, and while I was doing that, Strasburger made a note of their names. As he examined the panel, he remembered all of the names without looking at the list or his notes. This amazing achievement 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 damage.

We appealed every case we lost. To add to my loss of competency, I did not submit 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 would have been earned after losing the case and the right to appeal. He obviously liked me and that would help you get into the inner roster.

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 to get out of the marriage. Sherman was a small town, and knowledge of such a marriage would spread like wildfire if it were known. I filed a marriage nullity motion in Dallas County and asked Henry Strasburger (then I believed he was the busiest attorney in Dallas) to serve as the girl’s attorney. I drove the young couple to Dallas, and when he met us for the courtroom hearing, he just asked me one question: ?? Did you brief the jurisdiction? (ie, was Dallas an appropriate place for this procedure?) I replied, “Yes sir.” The waiver was granted and to this day the people of Sherman have been ignorant of the marriage. There were no legal fees and legal fees were paid from our office account. This type of transaction would help one qualify for the inner cadre.

I can never know, but I will always believe that shortly before his death, Spearman asked Henry Strasburger not to take advantage of me. Spearman feared that I would not be able to handle the large trial report the office had, and the two were very good friends and respected each other. For some reason, in the years after Spearman’s death, while other lawyers tried me before a settlement could be reached, Mr. Strasbuger personally answered and closed cases that I had filed with me. He didn’t neglect his customers because the settlements were fair to both of us. However, the fees generated from these settlements enabled my office to remain solvent during a difficult time after Spearman’s death. In fact, Strasburger treated me as a member of the inner cadre.

Neilson Rogers served as a lawyer in Sherman for nearly 60 years from 1938 to 2002, except for the five years he served in the U.S. Army during World War II. In 2007 he was recognized by the Grayson County Bar Assn. Serving the legal and judicial communities for seven decades. In retirement, he wrote these memoirs, which will be published on the North Texas E-News. Before his death, Mr. Rogers asked Dr. Jerry Lincecum to edit the memoir and gave him literary authority to make decisions about the publication of his writings.