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A fond remembrance of Sam Williams

From the president

By Sheldon Sloan
President, State Bar of California

Sheldon Sloan

Last month I received a note from one of my law school classmates who reminded me that I was the second member of our class to be elected President of the State Bar of California, the first being the unforgettable Sam Williams. I decided to write an article remembering this very special man, and enlisted my good friend, Justice Laurie Zelon, to write also, as I remembered that Sam was a mentor to Laurie during her early days at Beardsley, Hufstedler & Kemble.

When my friend Sam left this world for a better place 13 years ago, sadly at the very young age of 61, then State Bar President Margaret Morrow called him a "natural leader." Sam was much more than that; he was a role model and mentor for several generations of California lawyers.

Today, nothing could still be truer. Sam faced many challenges in life, created many opportunities for himself and tackled huge obstacles one by one, forging a path for future generations.

Sam Williams
Sam Williams, 1933 - 1994

He is often remembered as the first minority president of the State Bar, but his legacy is so much broader: a superb athlete who played quarterback for Cal as well as baseball and was an Academic All-American; one of just a handful of African-American students at USC Law School; a person with a strong and never-waning interest in young people and their personal opportunities; the good friend of then- Attorney General and later California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk; a senior partner at Hufstedler & Kaus until his retirement in 1990.

And his service to the community was nothing less than tireless: President of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners; staff attorney for the McCone Commission that investigated the 1965 Watts riots; service on the boards of Walt Disney, the University of Southern California, the California Afro-American Museum, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and both the LA Chamber of Commerce and LA Music Center.

I first met Sam in 1958 as we both entered law school. Sam was a magnet for friends and had more than he could handle, but we started a friendship that lasted up to his untimely death.

Sam was rumored to have passed up the opportunity for high judicial office, when then Gov. Jerry Brown wanted to appoint him to the state Supreme Court in 1981. I know that it was no rumor, but the truth, as Sam and I spent almost an hour late one afternoon talking about the plusses and minuses of service on the bench. I had earlier called him to gauge his interest in the USDC in the Central District and we debated the issues and he just concluded that the education of his children had to come first.

Earlier, when Ed Davis decided to retire as Chief of Police of the LAPD, I represented an unhappy Command Staff, who were faced with a Police Commission that did not want to hire a replacement from within, while the Command Staff all wanted Daryl Gates to succeed Chief Davis. At times, the brief exchange of comments were tense between the parties, but Sam and I continued a friendly, cooperative dialogue throughout, just two old friends trying to work it out amicably. That was vintage Sam Williams.

Sam was the youngest of six boys, born and raised in Los Angeles. His father drove a taxi. He won both academic and athletic scholarships to the University of California at Berkeley. After earning his degree in criminology, he enlisted in the Army and spent two years as an officer in the Military Police.

Sam's interest in criminology led him to the Los Angeles County probation department, where he worked with juveniles and discovered what he called a "tremendous gulf between the perspective of a probation officer and the perspective of the legal system." As always, Sam was true to not just his words, but also to his ideals. He immediately decided to become a lawyer.

That was not an easy decision for an African-American in those days. As we all know, the late 1950s was a different era, and the opportunities for minorities in our profession, as with all professions, were miniscule. Sam had made up his mind, though, and truly can be seen in retrospect as a trailblazer.

When he graduated from law school in 1961, not only were law firms not hiring black attorneys, they weren't even interviewing them. Sam persisted. He became a deputy attorney general in Los Angeles, where Stanley Mosk not only became his friend, but also his mentor. Four years later, Sam joined Beardsley Hufstedler & Kemble, where he became a partner in 1969. He became the first person of color elected President of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, and, by the time he was elected the first African-American — indeed, first minority of any ethnicity — President of the State Bar in 1981, he had become that natural leader who would pave the way for many young people to enter our profession and succeed in private practice and large law firms.

From a protégé

By Laurie Zelon
Justice, California Court of Appeal

Laurie Zelon

The Sam Williams I knew was not capable of being summed up on paper or by his resume; he was a big man physically who was even bigger in heart and mind. He was my mentor, and my friend, but also my teacher, guide and advisor. And I shared this with many others, as Sam was committed to people who were prepared to make a commitment to the things he believed in. The trick was, you had to be willing to give as much to the enterprise as Sam; his loyalty, for which he was renowned, demanded the same of his friends.

I met Sam when I was a very new associate at the firm, and he was a legend. Going into his office, you never knew whether he would be on the telephone (he was always on the telephone) with the Mayor, the Governor, or merely the CEO of a major corporation. But when the call was finished, he had the time to listen, to offer advice, solace or a drink. Once Sam knew you, whatever it was you liked to drink, from Diet Coke to something more serious, mystically appeared in his office, to be ready whenever you dropped in.

Sam had overcome considerably more than I had to come to the practice of law at Beardsley, Hufstedler, and had broken more trails than I could even understand at the time. What set Sam apart is that those facts were never a visible part of the relationship; they were the unspoken past. That unspoken past, however, benefited the women and minority lawyers who Sam worked with and advised. He was never satisfied, but wanted all of the barriers to fall. That he had pushed down so many never meant that others needed to push without assistance; instead, he stood against those barriers without discussion and pushed again to make sure others could succeed. To have been the beneficiary of that support made success easiest for me and many of my colleagues.

Our first real project came about because I complained to him about my perceptions of the Eula Love shooting. I learned that the right to complain required action; Sam challenged me to do something about my concerns other than standing by and talking about it. As a result, I spent  a number of volunteer hours looking at records and logs, being driven at full speed in a police car, and standing next to Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates while someone threw a knife at us. Being Sam's friend was never just a time commitment; it was a physical and mental challenge.

Luckily, I never learned that lesson. After that, we worked together regularly, on client and community projects. When the time came that Sam decided I should become involved with bar association activities, he called me into his office, told me what it was I was going to do, and telephoned the person I was to do it for. Saying no to Sam was never an option. He may have regretted starting me down that path later, when my activities took me away from some other projects, but Sam never complained about finishing what he set in motion, or about supporting what one of his friends found important. The doors he opened for me and for others counted as success to Sam, for moving others forward was a goal he did not speak, but simply performed.

As a teacher, and a partner, Sam gave his best and demanded everyone else's best. In long sessions with clients or co-counsel discussing cases, Sam listened carefully, challenged everyone, and led the discussion to the solution that seemed obvious once he vocalized it but that no one else yet had in mind. He gave credit publicly and often where it was not deserved, but he gave blame in private. Receiving Sam's critiques was painful, largely because they were not only accurate, but were deserved. More importantly, knowing you had let Sam down was unthinkable because Sam gave his best and expected the same. But, no matter the discomfort, at the end of it, Sam had made you better, as a lawyer or as a leader.

Just knowing what Sam was like as a lawyer tells so little of who he was.  Some of my best memories are the more personal moments. When I married, I had the bad taste to choose a day of major college football play-offs. Sam didn't miss the ceremony, but he found a spot during the reception where he could watch the games. I may be one of the few people in California whose wedding album includes Sam watching football.

Later, Sam was always available when my children came to work on Saturdays with me. They were welcome to play in his office, to watch television, and just to visit. His favorite story came about when my then 4-year old son, who had known Sam since birth, finally asked why Sam was in the office on the weekend. When I replied that Sam worked there, he asked, "Does that mean boys can be lawyers?" Sam told this often, as a story on himself.

Losing Sam was a blow to the profession, to the clients he served, and to our city. It was an enormous loss to his family, his partners and his friends. Sam's legacy, however, is the continued commitment of everyone whose lives he touched to carry on his projects and his hopes and dreams. We have not finished changing the face of the bar or the profession, and his voice should speak to all of us, reminding us not to stop pushing down barriers and eliminating unnecessary obstacles. Twenty-six years after his bar presidency, his work is not finished; if he were here, he would be proud of the steps that have been taken, but remind us all that we can do better. And so, we are not done.

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