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.