May 22, 2019 Practice Management

Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul—Sandy D’Alemberte

By Melanie Bragg
Former ABA President Talbot (“Sandy”) D’Alemberte (photo courtesy of Matthew Coughlin)

Former ABA President Talbot (“Sandy”) D’Alemberte (photo courtesy of Matthew Coughlin)

Talbot (“Sandy”) D’Alemberte, 1933–2019: Lead a Productive Life of Public Service

It is with great sadness that this month’s column is devoted to Talbot (“Sandy”) D’Alemberte, a former American Bar Association (ABA) president and former dean of the Florida State University College of Law, who passed suddenly on Monday, May 20, 2019, at the age of 85.

He was an iconic leader and legal scholar, really a reluctant hero. My interview with him was fun. He was humble, smart, and very humorous. His life was about public service, and he leaves us with a great legacy in every area of life he touched. He was born right next to the capital of Florida and served there in the House of Representatives from 1966 to 1972. He was dean of the Florida State University College of Law from 1984 to 1989 and was ABA president in the 1991–1992 bar year. Then he became president of Florida State University in 1994 and led the school until 2003. He is referred to as a national treasure. To honor him this month, here are excerpts from his interview in the book Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul, where his chapter appears in the “Legacy” section.

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Sandy was born in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1933 in an old house that was directly across the street from the Florida State Capitol. It was the days before air conditioning, and he could sit in a rocker on his grandmother’s front porch and actually hear people debating in the legislature. His great-uncle’s house was right out of the front door of the Capitol. In those days, there were wheat fields on both sides of the Capitol. It was a wonderful playground. The Capitol was very much a part of his life, and his father was a lawyer who became a lawyer back in the middle of the Depression in the segregated South. Sandy went to all white schools in Chattahoochee, Florida, 50 miles to the west.

He remembers Chattahoochee fondly, “There were many acres of well-maintained, beautiful green expanses that were great to play in during the daytime, and as night fell, especially in the summer months, you’d see fireflies everywhere. It’s one of those great mystical things in my memory to think back on how many fireflies you would see—illuminating the grassy areas.”

Sandy’s father went into the service during World War II and he says,

World War II is really a critical part of my understanding of the world. First of all, I lived both in the north and the south during this period of time. The south, of course, was thoroughly segregated, the north was not. I think my understanding of World War II may have been deeper than most people’s understanding of it, and partly because we were dealing with countries that were in some respect a maze to us. Our troops were stationed in England; we were fighting with Germany; we were dealing in parts of the world fancier than we understood, and we were blessed in those days to have leaders who could actually explain why we were at war. Think back on the speeches of Roosevelt and of Churchill. Think how important it was for your understanding to have a president or prime minister who were so articulate and who could explain to you what was happening in the war and why we were at war. I think people who lived through World War II had the benefit of remarkable leadership. That leadership was largely missing during the Vietnam War. Roosevelt articulated the four freedoms: the freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion and thought. Those were principles. They were spoken of in ways that were connected to the war effort. They were thinking about the basics.

These early experiences formed the basics of Sandy’s life work. He decided early on, by the time he was a junior in high school, that “segregation was wrong. I thought it was stupid.” He went to the University of the South, or Sewanee, with a scholarship. Then he went to graduate school after serving in the Navy. He went to the London School of Economics for a year and then went to the University of Florida to law school. He says, “I was hired by an old-line Florida firm; a firm that had been established back in the 1920s, and it had a number of incarnations, but it was originally organized by a person who was himself a president of the American Bar Association, and for a short time, a United States senator.” He got to represent big clients like National Airlines, which merged into Pan American Airlines. He also represented the Miami Herald and Florida Power & Light.

Sandy’s commitment to racial equality continued during his career. He remembers, “Florida had a great governor named LeRoy Collins. He successfully integrated Florida. When he ran for Senate he lost in part because [of his efforts to integrate]. I realized that Roy Collins is by far the greatest Florida politician that I’ve known, in part because he had the guts to deal with that issue in a way that it should have been dealt with, and he got Florida through that period of time without any great violence. But he stuck to principle.”

Sandy was the Florida campaign manager for Bob Kennedy in 1968 but “Of course, we never got to run a campaign because he was assassinated before we had our primary. The primary was in September and he was assassinated in June of 1968. That left me discouraged about political life and made me withdraw from national politics.”

But not for long. When the McGovern campaign came along in 1972, George McGovern asked him to be his Florida campaign manager.

In law school Sandy was president of the Student Bar Association and very active with moot court. And he was on Law Review. He got involved in what was then called the Junior Bar Association, which is now called the Young Lawyers, where he was elected president, then a member of the Dade County Bar Association Board of Directors. He says, “My belief is that bar activities are essential to lawyers who want to stay in touch with what is going on in their profession. Lawyers who are connected to the bar association are lawyers who are caring about lawyer’s ethics issues, caring about the bold, new ideas of professionalism which are not either bold or new, but are still very important.”

Although he eventually became president of the ABA, his first entry into the ABA was slow to come. When asked to be a part of it by his friend Chesterfield Smith, he said, “I don’t care anything about the ABA. It opposed integration; was against Brown v. Board of Education; it helped block ratification of the treaty against genocide. I supported you as president because I like you and I wanted you to achieve that, but I don’t have an interest in getting involved.” Chesterfield kept calling and getting told no by Sandy. The third time Chesterfield called, he told Sandy that he had formed a committee to study the election laws after the 1972 election and all the Watergate problems. He had already sent out a press release with Sandy’s name on it and told him, “Certainly you’re not going to embarrass me by making me withdraw the press release, because I’ve already issued it.” Sandy says, “That’s the way Chesterfield did business.”

Sandy admonishes lawyers to “lead a life that is productive in terms of public service. Don’t get so focused on billable hours that you lose track of the reason you wanted to become a lawyer in the first place. Then for the litigators, I would give them the advice that I got from a crusty old judge when I first became a lawyer. He told me that the only way to be a litigator was to wake up every morning deciding that you were going to hit the dog closest to you with his mouth widest open.”

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Sandy had the best sense of humor and, of course, that is great advice. RIP Sandy. We love you and value the legacy you have left us all. Please send me comments or queries about this article at melanie@bragglawpc.com.

Parts of this article were excerpted from Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul. ©2019 by the American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul

Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul

Defining Moments: Insights Into the Lawyer’s Soul
By Melanie Bragg
ISBN: 9781641054195
Product Code: 1620777
2019, 241 pages, paperback and e-book
$29.95; member price $23.95

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Melanie Bragg has long enjoyed a reputation as one of Houston’s fiercest attorneys in her representation of children, the elderly, and mentally disadvantaged people. Her firm, Bragg Law PC, is a general civil firm in Houston, Texas. She also writes and produces legal education programs through Legal Insight, Inc. (founded by Bragg in 1993). Her writing credits include Crosstown Park, an Alex Stockton legal thriller; HIPAA for the General Practitioner; chapters in How to Capture and Keep Clients, Second Edition; Effortless Marketing: Putting Your Unique Qualities to Work, Second Edition; and The Conscious Lawyer: How the Practice of Mindfulness Will Increase Your Bottom Line; as well as the forthcoming ABA book, Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul. When she is not writing, Melanie devotes her time to her work as Chair of the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice (GPSolo) Division and to sharing ideas with fellow authors. She is interested in your feedback and ideas about how solos, small firms, military, and government lawyers can lead richer, happier lives and thereby improve the delivery of legal services to the public. Melanie can be reached at melanie@bragglawpc.com.