Lessons From the Careers of Leon Jaworski and James A. Baker, III
by Talmage Boston
The second chapter of my recently published book, Raising the Bar (TexasBarBooks 2012), is on “The Two Most Important Lawyers of the Last 50 Years.” For me, Leon Jaworski on the litigation side, and James A. Baker, III on the transactional side, were easy choices. Why them?
Jaworski’s work in United States v. Nixon cemented the power of the Rule of Law, preserving the imperative that not even a president is above the law; and Baker’s counseling, negotiating and deal-making skills were the keys to the success of Presidents Reagan and Bush. As Secretary of State, Baker’s orchestration of the Cold War’s end made the world a better place.
Leon Jaworski made his mark largely due to three traits. First, he was always ready to serve a higher cause. As a young lawyer in Waco (when Harper Lee was a child), he played Atticus Finch in real life by representing Jordan Scott, a black defendant charged with murdering a white couple. Like Atticus, Leon tried his case before an all-white jury in a prejudiced community and gave his all for the futile defense of Mr. Scott. His capacity to take on higher causes led him to become the leading prosecutor of Nazi war criminals; to represent the Justice Department in compelling Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett to integrate Ole Miss; and to serve as Watergate Special Prosecutor.
Second, Jaworski knew his greatest talent was trying lawsuits, and he allowed nothing to prevent him from doing that. In 1947, Governor Beauford Jester invited him to serve on the Texas Supreme Court. Jaworski responded, “No thanks, Governor. I’d rather try lawsuits.” In the mid-1960s, Lyndon Johnson offered Jaworski a spot on the U.S. Supreme Court. Again he refused: “Mr. President, take me off your list. I’m best at trying lawsuits.”
Third, he refused to be intimidated by impossible odds. In 1958, late in the game, he took on the case of Ron Cooper after (a) Cooper had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death, (b) the trial court’s judgment had been unanimously affirmed on appeal, and (c) in two days, time would expire on the right to file a motion for rehearing. Cooper had clear mental incapacity (so clear the Army had dismissed him); yet somehow the courts had not recognized it. First, Jaworski got an extension to file his motion for rehearing. He then filed it, lost 2-1, but with the dissent, had standing to file a second motion, which was granted 2-to-1, thereby getting a new trial. Before the new trial began, the state’s psychiatrist and district attorney acknowledged their error in ignoring Cooper’s incapacity. Instead of dying in the electric chair, Ron Cooper spent the rest of his life receiving treatment in a mental institution.
Three different talents also led James Baker to his success. First, he used “principled pragmatism” to turn ideas into transactions, thereby “accepting victory on terms that can be won—even if they’re something short of perfection.” Baker often quotes President Reagan: “I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flag flying.” Making the principled pragmatic deal usually requires building positive rapport with one’s counterpart. In negotiating to end the Cold War, Baker developed a close friendship with Soviet foreign minister Shevardnadze, and as their dialog progressed with increasing candor, the timetable accelerated for reaching an agreement.
Second, Baker’s career embodies the “5 P's:” ”Proper preparation prevents poor performance.” “Proper preparation” includes painstaking attention to detail, and empowers one to understand not only what is on people’s minds today, but what is likely to arise in the future. He used this talent in November 1980 when President-elect Reagan named Baker Chief of Staff and Edwin Meese Counsel to the President. The delineation between the two positions was not clear, and Baker foresaw a fractious turf battle on the horizon. So on the left side of a piece of paper, he listed what he thought should be his duties, and on the right side, Meese’s duties. When he finished, he gave Meese the chance to tweak it, Baker approved the changes, and then they initialed the document, allowing roles to be clearly defined before the inauguration.
Third, after considering multiple possibilities to give him the highest likelihood of getting positive dialog rolling right off the bat, Baker chose the best opening in negotiations. In meeting Israeli Prime Minister Shamir the first time, Baker introduced himself as follows:
“We both know the media likes to pigeonhole people with catchphrases. You’ve been described to me as a man of principle who’s incapable of being practical. I’ve probably been described to you as a man totally lacking in principle who cares only about being practical. Let me tell you, like you, I'm very much a man who believes in principle, but I also think you have to be practical if you’re going to realize your principles. I also suspect you’re more practical than your reputation. I think you and I may surprise some people by working together.”
Baker’s introduction was warm-hearted, self-deprecating and honest—and immediately put Shamir into a more flexible mindset.
May these practice points from Leon Jaworski’s and James Baker’s esteemed careers inspire us to “raise the bar” in our own legal practices.