Remembering Chesterfield Smith
By Michael T. Moore
Special to the News
Born 100 years ago on July 28, Chesterfield Smith was a great American and a great lawyer. Part Atticus Finch, with a touch of Vincent LaGuardia Gambini, he was an original. He would become not only the president of The Florida Bar, but would also lead the charge to construct the building that houses The Florida Bar today. He did not just become president of the ABA, he transformed it into a force for good. In his time, he was revered and feted by civil libertarians, minority groups, and pro bono lawyers. He was an early supporter of taking the interest from lawyers’ trust accounts to pay for lawyers who would work for the poor, something today we call the IOTA program. It seemed that he worked every day to help those who needed a hand. To those who “did not want for much,” like many lawyers he knew, he simply encouraged them to “Be Somebody!” and “Do good!”
For the writer of this column, the relationship with Chesterfield Smith, started over dinner at a small French café in Coral Gables. By the end of that dinner, promises would be made; to those not present, promises would be broken. Specifically, an accepted associate position with another law firm would be reneged on. On the sidewalk outside the restaurant, I told my young wife, “I’m going to go with him.” Her response: “There was something about the way he painted his vision of what a lawyer should be. You’d be a fool not to.”
In his book, The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw devoted a chapter to Chesterfield Smith. In contrast to his accomplishments and influence on those who came within his orbit, he never held elected office and seemingly did not seek fame or fortune, but found both.
In his day, “Mr. Smith” was mostly thought of as the guiding light and creator of a remarkable firm: Holland & Knight. The internal debate in the firm over whose name would follow “Holland, Knight, Smith…” ended the moment Smith announced, “I think ‘Holland & Knight’ is a fine name.”
By most accounts, Smith, a World War II veteran, was motivated by the greater good. His aspirations were based on nothing less than the Declaration of Independence as limited by the U.S. Constitution. Though not an overtly religious man, he understood that these two documents were sacred, as articulated by earlier founding fathers, Jefferson and Madison. To Smith’s way of thinking, all people are, in fact, equal, and nothing should ever stand in the way of this immutable truth.
His beliefs were brought into the halls of Holland & Knight. As compensation for himself, he refused to accept more than the firm average; it was a fraction of what he could have commanded. He let it be known that the top earner in the firm should be paid no more than three times the lowest earner. Any disparity in productivity, he believed, was explained by factors inherent in each person’s particular station in life. Smith believed they could and would do better if given proper support and opportunity.
Behind his jovial public persona was a battle-hardened warrior serving an honorable calling. His drive led Holland & Knight to spend millions on pro bono activities and causes.
When the inevitable grumbling began over so much spending on what many considered to be waste, he addressed this position by asking, “How many times has the firm been on the front page of The Wall Street Journal?” He then answered his own question: “Three times: But never once because we are great lawyers. On each occasion, it was because of our good works. Do good and you will do well.”
Smith was an early proponent of the multi-office law firm; so rare at that time, and so commonplace today. His thoughts on the subject were crystal clear: “It is as far from Key Largo to Pensacola, as it is from New York to Chicago. We must have offices from one end of this state to the other if we are to be ‘Florida’s law firm.’”
In his years with Holland & Knight, Smith never held a title. When a reporter pressed then-Managing Partner Bill McBride about our lack of a home office, he answered, “Our home office is where Chesterfield Smith is sitting on any given day.”
For most of my time with Holland & Knight, my office was next to Mr. Smith’s. When Mr. Smith needed me, he rarely phoned; he simply yelled through the wall. It was always a welcome summons, and I always announced my presence in the same way, “Mr. Smith?” In more than two decades of working for him, I never once addressed him as “Chesterfield,” and he never once invited me to.
On one occasion, he launched into, “I want you to chair a dinner that’s coming up.” I said, “With pleasure,” my head swirling with questions. I knew the answers would come in due time.
A day or so later, with no interim discussion, he said: “I’m going to ask my friend Sargent Shriver to speak at my dinner. I want Sarge next to the podium; I want you next to Sarge.” I asked, “But doesn’t that mean with the podium to his left and me to his right that he will have no one to talk to?” Mr. Smith looked at me with the expression a kind teacher gives to his dumbest student and said, “You’re not nobody.” With that he waved me on my way.
That evening, I looked up Sargent Shriver. Good Lord, the poor man I would be cutting off from the rest of the world for four hours turned out to be the founding director of the Peace Corps; a Yale alumnus; and a United States ambassador to France.
The dinner in his honor raised enough money to fund The Chesterfield Smith Center for Equal Justice Building, which, for more than two decades, housed The Legal Services Corporation of Miami. His motivation for supporting Legal Services of Greater Miami was simple: “Everybody should have a lawyer if they need one and don’t have the money.” He rarely minced words.
In 1974, America was in turmoil. President Nixon had fired a special prosecutor investigating reports of serious misdeeds at the highest level of the federal government. The firing of the special prosecutor led to the resignations of the U.S. Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General, which history would call the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
The next day, Mr. Smith was in the stands with Bill McBride at Chicago’s Soldier Field watching the Bears play the Patriots. At half time, Smith turned to McBride and said, “Let’s go.”
The next day an “Open Letter from Chesterfield Smith” was released to the news media and ignited a fire storm. It began, “No man is above the law…,” and ended by calling for the impeachment of a sitting president. Some say that letter led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
In the early part of 1993, Mr. Smith was again on fire. He thought one of his friends, a woman lawyer, was getting a “raw deal.” The woman in question was a friend, an already distinguished jurist from D.C. named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As details of his latest mission came together, it became clear to me Judge Ginsburg was being compared to Judge Stephen Breyer, whom Smith “liked a lot.” But in his mind, the time was right for Judge Ginsburg to be a Supreme Court justice.
From next door, I could hear him talking loudly on the phone. The discussions focused on “gender,” “sex,” and “sexual orientation.” Mr. Smith had a habit of raising the volume when discussing the most controversial terms and subjects.
When the time seemed right, I took a breath, and asked him, “Is your nominee gay?” He said, “No, but her former clerk is, and ‘they’ are making a big deal of it.”
In August 1993, when Judge Ginsburg went to Smith’s Washington apartment, it was not to celebrate, but to commiserate. The press made it clear that she had been passed over in favor of Judge Breyer.
Mr. Smith and Judge Ginsburg were well into the evening of wine and dinner when Mr. Smith answered the telephone in his Georgetown apartment. The voice on the line said, “The president of the United States is calling for Judge Ginsburg.”
And so it was with Chesterfield Smith. He was a man, take him for what he was. We may “not look upon his like again.”
Michael T. Moore was with Holland & Knight for 23 years before starting the firm of Moore & Company, a firm focused on maritime, aviation, and art law.