The Man to See: Edward Bennett Williams by Evan Thomas

The Man to See: Edward Bennett Williams by Evan Thomas is an exceptional biography of an incredible man.

Williams is the definition of a man who was larger than life, both in and out of the courtroom–Washington D.C. was truly his playground.

What follows are my takeaways from this book.

Pg. 44

Boyd stressed preparation. Never go to court, he instructed Williams, without knowing more about the facts than your opponent, your client, or anyone else. Williams quickly showed Boyd his capacity for work and his attention to detail. Years later, Boyd still liked to recall how Williams had defended the Capital Transit Company in a lawsuit filed by a woman named Ella Thomas, a somewhat neurotic spinster who claimed she had been injured when the bus in which she was riding collided with another bus. The collision had been minor, and Miss Thomas was the only passenger to claim an injury. The doctors could find nothing wrong with her, but her complaints kept worsening; she often ran a high fever, and she kept coming back to the hospital for further examination. Meanwhile, the medical bills mounted. Before the trial, Williams stayed up all night reading her hospital records. He began noticing a certain pattern: Every time  she recorded a high temperature, the nurses’ notes showed that she had asked for a hot water bottle a half hour earlier. During his cross-examination, Williams asked Miss Thomas about her fevers. She vividly described feeling flushed and pained. Then Williams began asking about the hot water bottle. She squirmed uncomfortably, bit her lip, and nervously eyed the jury. Finally, she broke into tears. “You think I put the thermometer in the hot water bottle don’t you? . . . Well, how else could I make them know how sick I was?”

Pgs. 45-46

Williams was extremely aggressive. In his very first case at Hogan & Hartson, Williams defended a bicyclist who had been sued for knocking down a pedestrian; Williams’s strategy was to countersue the pedestrian for not getting out of the way (the client won $500). Williams would simply not accept defeat. In an early case, he defended a department store sued by a woman who had hurt herself sitting down at a counter. The stool had not seat, and the woman wasn’t looking when she sat down. Williams lost at trial, and insisted on appealing. Boyd told him that it would cost the insurance company more to appeal the case than pay the judgment. Williams managed to persuade the insurance company to go along. Williams lost–and insisted on appealing again. This time, he had to do it free of charge. He won, and the woman recovered nothing.

Pg. 47

[W]hen the Filipino waiter placed a thick cut of red sirloin in front of Williams, he created a moral dilemma for the young Catholic, who was prohibited from eating meat on Fridays. Williams solved the problem by dipping his finger in the water glass, sprinkling a few drops on the steak, and declaring that his definition of a fish was anything that swims.

Pg. 53

[H]e . . . felt a deep private reward in defending the criminally accused. In streetcar cases, Williams was defending a corporation. In criminal cases, he later reflected, “you have a person sitting right there who is dependent upon you–a flesh and blood breathing person instead of a corporate entity.” He often found that he came to personally like the defendant, who was generally scared and humbled. “When they are in deep trouble they are usually less arrogant, less obnoxious,” Williams told a newspaper reporter who, some years later, was helping him write about his experiences. Williams enjoyed the satisfaction, he went on, of “bringing out the best of the worst” as he consoled and prepared his clients for trial.

Pg. 54

“The ideal client,” Hogan liked to say, “is a rich man who is scared.” It was a line Ed Williams would quote for years to come.

Pg. 57

Williams, however, closely studied all of Ford’s moves, including his Robin Hood fee schedule–a pittance for poor people charged with serious crimes, ten times as much for the rich no matter how minor the offense.

Pg. 113

[Williams] found that in almost every case where the defendant refused to take the stand, he was convicted. In practice if not in law, juries held a presumption of guilt. “Nowadays,” Williams told a reporter, “if a defendant doesn’t take the stand, he might as well take his toothbrush to court on the last day and say good-bye.”

Defense lawyers are not supposed to suborn perjury–to incite their clients to lie on the stand. Generally speaking, Williams followed this rule, for practical as well as ethical reasons. “A lie is the prosecutors’s best weapon to destroy you,” he told his young associates. But most lawyers believe they have considerable leeway to help a client fashion a plausible story. Over the years, Williams proved extraordinarily adept at coaxing a defensible “theory” of the case out of a defendant without actually putting words in his mouth or making up the facts.

Pgs. 135-136

A few minutes later, when Williams excused himself to go to the men’s room, Goldfine turned to Sam Sears and said, “Who does that young monzer from Washington think he is, telling me I have no defense? Defense? If I had a defense, I’d still have Slobdkin!”

Over the years, Williams would tell that story over and over again. It became part of the monologue he used to warm up audiences, especially clients. The story was funny, especially as Williams told it, eyes twinkling as he mimicked Goldfine’s accent and his scorn. But the story also had an important subliminal meaning that Williams wanted to convey without putting it into words: When you’re in deep, deep trouble, when you have no defense, the man to see is Edward Bennet Williams.

Pg. 157

In a stern article in Television Quarterly, Williams wrote, “Television has taught the public through endless repetition that trial lawyers are a scheming, tricky lot.” Law students are instructed “that deception may be more important than the difficult and grubby disciplines. They would like to avoid the digging that makes the law student a competent attorney.” Williams castigated these shows even though they had been inspired to some extent by his own well-publicized successes. The month One Man’s Freedom was published, “Perry Mason”  star Raymond Burr asked for an audience with Williams at Toots Shor’s so he could see what a real-life legal miracle worker was like. But it was precisely the fact that Perry Mason never lost that seemed to bother Williams most. In an early draft of One Man’s Freedom, Williams had written:

Once in a while the illusion is created, probably by an overenthusiastic press, that some great trial lawyer never loses a major case. This is pure fiction, and not harmless fiction at that. It casts the whole administration of justice in an unfavorable light. The greatest football coaches lose games. There is a limit to what a genius can do with a football team to the best coach in America, he may win two more games than the most incompetent coach would win with the same material. Likewise if you take a hundred criminal cases and assume fifty of them should be won on the merits and that fifty should be lost, and then turn them over to the most able and experienced advocate, he will probably win sixty and lose forty. Turn the same cases over to the most incompetent trial man and he will win forty and lose sixty. The concept of a great trial lawyer who always wins has no foundation in reality. It is a television or Hollywood fiction.

Pgs. 189-190

Williams only turned down clients if they failed to meet his demands: If they refused to pay up front or give him total control. . . . Williams had two basic rules for clients: don’t talk to the press and don’t make your crime worse by compounding it, by trying to bribe a witness or a juror.

Pg. 192

Williams carried his own bag, unlike most hotshot lawyers.

Pg. 195

William’s basic approach was to get along with prosecutors, particularly if his client was obviously guilty. He did not want prosecutors to think of him as a hostile adversary who would stonewall or dissemble. Rather, he wanted to be regarded by them as almost a co-worker who could help resolve a mutual problem.

Pg. 323

Williams disdained cross-examiners he called “truth seekers–they just shake the Christmas tree and hope something good falls off. Usually more bad stuff comes off than good.” Instead, Williams put a bridle on witnesses “so taut that all they can do is follow your lead, answering your questions, yes or no.” Like a pointillist painter, Williams was putting small dots on a canvas that would, in the end, paint a devastating portrait of the witness.

Pg. 326

Williams dropped his measured tone for summation. He roared and whispered and turned red in the face. He attacked Turkheimer: “The prosecution’s case is in a shambles! A wreck!” He took a last swipe at Jacobsen: “Sordid, despicable, mendacious, noxious, heinous . . . spewing forth a litany of lies. . . .” Echoing his assault on John Cye Cheasty in the Hoffa trial, he declared, “The words lie and liar do not flow easily from my lips. They are ugly words. . . .” He was solemn: Have we reached the point in our society where scoundrels can escape their punishment if only they inculpate others? If so, we should mark it well. Today it is John Connally. Tomorrow it may be you or me.” . . . His final plea was straight out of thirty years of closing arguments, “I ask you to lift at last the pain and anguish, the humiliation, the ostracism and suffering, the false accusation, the innuendo, the vilification and slander for John Connally and his family. And if you do, the United States will win the day.”

Pg. 328

Williams hated working with other lawyers, at least those whom he could not control. To him, working with co-counsel on a case was “like watering down fine wine,” said Brendan Sullivan. “He thought other lawyers just got in the way. They were Slobodikins! They were just going to screw up his artistry.”

Pg. 386

Unlike other big firms in Washington, Williams & Connolly had no formal pro bono publico program to help indigent clients. Nonetheless, Williams would, from time to time, help out the poor. He would personally read hundreds of letters pouring into his office, many from crackpots, seeking his help. He could be moved by a good sob story. Ordering a lawyer in his office to represent a penniless old lady, he declared, “I want to show her there’s justice in the world.”

Pg. 403

When Williams talked to young associates who had come to the firm hoping to be great trial lawyers, following in the footsteps of the firm’s founder, he scoffed. “Trying cases! That’s all you guys talk about,” he growled at them. I’ll tell you what a great trial lawyer is. He keeps his client from going to trial in the first place. That’s victory. Don’t give me this crap about trial law.”

Pg. 410

[C]lients did not come to Williams unless they were in serious trouble. Guilty or not, they always came to the right place. For the last decade of his career, Williams never lost a client to jail–and it wasn’t because they were all innocent.

Pg. 495

Williams may well have found peace in God, but his spirit was too restless to be easily fulfilled. He was throughout his life a victim of what he called “the betrayal of success.” Addicted to winning, he could never quite satisfy his yearning. He had accomplished a great deal in his life, but not, he believed as much as he could have. . . . Yet if lives are measured by those they touch, Williams lived fully and well. He had dozens of “best friends” who truly believed they were. With politicians and gangsters, churchmen and “little people” alike, he had an ability to convey the sense that they mattered at that moment to him more than anyone in the world. In a real sense, he was not deceiving them. If he was often calculating, he possessed as well a true openness of heart.