I Wish I'd Known

Vol. 41 No. 1

By

Morris Dees is co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Alabama. Dees and SPLC have long been recognized for their record of civil trial victories against the Ku Klux Klan, White Aryan Resistance, and other such organizations.

At this year’s Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association, Dees received the ABA Medal—the association’s highest honor—to recognize his exceptionally distinguished service to the cause of American jurisprudence. In 2006, the law firm of Skadden Arps partnered with Dees’s alma mater, the University of Alabama School of Law, to create an award in his honor, given to lawyers who work for the public good.

You can learn more about Dees in A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees Story (ABA Biography Series; written by Dees with Steve Fiffer).    

 

I can’t say there’s anything I know now that I wish I’d known while in law school, because my decisions about my life and law career have been based on things I’ve known all along.

I learned early on that it’s important for a lawyer to have a passion for justice and to help the least among us. At age 16, I “represented” before a justice of the peace a poor black man wrongly charged with assaulting a deputy sheriff. That is probably why I went to law school. 

I might should have taken the Yale Law School scholarship that was offered to me, but closer to home, I was allowed to complete undergraduate in two years and University of Alabama School of Law in 27 months and then begin practice without taking a bar exam (all of that, of course, has long since been abolished). I did not even know where Yale was, and when I found out, I learned it got real cold up there in the winter. Also, I wanted to run for governor, and I knew that in Alabama, graduating from Yale would have been the kiss of death.

I might have learned to write better, but that has not really held me back as a lawyer because I work with smart associates. Liberal arts subjects such as art, music, history, and psychology probably would have helped me be a more well-rounded, educated person, but to be a good trial lawyer, what you really need to know is how to be a good salesperson. That’s a must for most any lawyer—and I knew this before I went to law school.            

I would never have considered going to a big city; I knew that while picking cotton in rural Alabama. I would have never considered working for anyone or joining a firm—I learned that on the farm, too. Instead, I hung out a shingle with my friend Millard Fuller—who went on to found Habitat for Humanity—the day we graduated.

Fuller and I practiced general law for only three years before closing the firm to focus on business. In the 1960s, I did a few civil rights cases out of our business offices. I bought Fuller out in 1965 and sold our book publishing company to the Los Angeles Times in 1970; I founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971.

Life has been really good for me. I hope life is good for you, too, and I urge you to keep in mind all the things you already know—about yourself, and about what it is you hope to accomplish in the world.

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