I arrived at Columbia Law School hoping to keep a low profile, having no desire to be called upon in class by professors. I sat in the back row of every class, head and shoulders hunched, making myself as inconspicuous as possible.
In the early 1960s, the case method of instruction was much in vogue. I found the fact patterns of cases immensely complicated. Who were all these people and what were they trying to achieve in their numerous and not always very interesting transactions? In seeking to untangle the cast of characters and their deeds and misdeeds, principles of law were easily lost.
Professor Richard N. Gardner, who continues to teach international law at Columbia, and my mother were professional colleagues. He thought he was furthering my career by frequently calling upon me in class. Alas, with Professor Gardner, and all the other professors over this three-year period, I never answered a question to anyone’s satisfaction. (The passage of time can be salutary. When we now see each other, Dick introduces me “as one of my best students.” I know better, but do not correct him.)
In Professor John Kernochan’s seminar on copyright law, I was discussing an old English copyright statute. “What about the proviso?” Professor Kernochan asked. “What proviso?” I responded. “There is none. The statute ends here.” I pointed to a page with a single printed sentence at the top, the rest of the page being blank. “Turn the page,” he gently suggested. There I found a lengthy proviso, dashing to smithereens the position I had been advocating. I felt done-in by an 18th century printer with a penchant for eccentric design layouts.
My happiest experience at law school was writing a paper on the political thinking of two Virginians, Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall. Gerald Gunther, who was teaching constitutional law, took me under his wing.
For many weeks I shifted my venue from the law school library to Butler Library where I spent wonderful days and nights in the American history room reading everything I could on these two remarkable men. Then I began writing.
Professor Gunther read my long paper. When he returned it to me in his office, I did not dare look at the grade in his presence, instead, retreating to the basement depths of the law school library. There, turning to the last page, I beheld the glorious first letter of the alphabet. I rushed back to Professor Gunther’s office and burst-in on him as he was talking with another faculty member. “Thank you! Thank you!” I gushed. He expressed surprise. How could he know that the letter A had eluded me through much of my academic career.
While at law school, I taught current events one afternoon a week at St. Bernard’s School, a remarkable elementary school in the city which I had attended. Upon graduating from law school and taking the bar examination, the headmaster asked me to go down to Fajardo, Puerto Rico, to start an elementary school. On opening day, there were three teachers, including me, and 21 students. I taught the 11 children in grades four through eight in all subjects but art and Spanish.
The children had no history books. I had only my copy of “The History of the United States,” by Henry Steele Commager. I lectured and the students took notes. The notes of the little ones, the fourth and fifth graders, were not too coherent, but the older children did absorb some of the subject matter. (I regret never having the opportunity to meet Professor Commager. I suspect he would have enjoyed hearing about his influence on the minds of these young children.)
I worked very hard. School ran from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then I dealt with parents, officials at the department of education calling from San Juan, the garbage collector, the plumber and various other people, followed by a swim, supper and my return to school to prepare for classes the next day.
This was in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis. Mother would call from New York with dark thoughts as to the future of the world. I had no time to discuss cosmic events.
I was demanding of the children and made them stretch their minds. One day a letter arrived from the New York State Board of Law Examiners informing me that I had failed the bar exam. I couldn’t believe it. To fail my final examination at the conclusion of 19 years of schooling! From that day on, I became a better teacher, and perhaps a better person, being more forgiving of human failings.
After four months, the permanent head of the school arrived from England. I returned to the city to take the bar examination again, this time passing.
I still have nightmares about the exam. The dream begins in a benign manner, I have passed, but then disaster follows. On the 31st day after receiving official notification, I appear at the Appellate Division, First Department, to enroll. “Mr. Dean,” the clerk informs me, “you missed the enrollment deadline by one day. You will have to take the bar exam again.” At this point, I wake up screaming.
I began practicing law at 20 Exchange Place at Baker, Nelson, Williams & Mitchell. Clients included the government of India and National Review Magazine. My leftist political leanings led to my being assigned to the government of India.
One day, C. Dickerman Williams, a partner at the firm, who had clerked for Chief Justice William Howard Taft, said to me that there had been no famines in India under British rule. I challenged him and the next day placed on his desk a history of India describing horrific famines under British rule. Mr. Williams came to the little room I shared with other lawyers to acknowledge his mistake. A man of enormous charm, he and I became good friends.
The day arrived for me to make my first court appearance. I was to request an adjournment. With keen anticipation, I set out for court. On the subway platform I realized that I did not know where the courthouse was. I asked people for directions, but as usual with New Yorkers, no one knew anything. Then a man volunteered that the courthouse was by the Brooklyn Bridge and told me to board his train. I did so and landed at High Street in Brooklyn. But I wanted the Southern, not the Eastern District! I fumed. Why can’t New Yorkers give correct directions? Why didn’t Columbia Law School provide me with a map of courthouse locations?
Thus began my career as a lawyer.
William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.