Category Archives: 19th Century NC lawyers

Bright long-term future of the right lawyers and mid-sized firms affirmed by tech guru

Kai-fu Lee, leading artificial intelligence exponent, makes the following observation about lawyers and artificial intelligence. He’s in line with MidLaw’s dogged confidence in the prospects of lawyers who focus on core (indeed, 19th Century) lawyer skills and MidLaw’s confidence in the mid-sized law firms that provide the best setting left for cultivating those skills. 

Top lawyers will have nothing to worry about when it comes to job displacement. Reasoning across domains, winning the trust of clients, applying years of experience in the courtroom, and having the ability to persuade a jury are all examples of the cognitive complexities, strategies, and modes of human interaction that are beyond the capabilities of AI. However, a lot of paralegal and preparatory work like document review, analysis, creating contracts, handling small cases, packing cases, and coming up with recommendations can be done much better and more efficiently with AI. The costs of law make it worthwhile for AI companies to go after AI paralegals and AI junior lawyers, but not top lawyers.

10 Jobs That Are Safe in an AI World

MidLaw has been saying so:

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On the demise of checks and checking, and a “pleasantly remunerative” law practice

More than half of the branches of the largest banks in Sweden don’t keep cash and won’t take cash or checks anymore. Churches, charities, and even homeless street vendors prefer swipe cards or cell phone payments to cash. So do the major retailers worldwide. In Africa and India, most commercial payments move by cell phone. Cash and checks are too expensive, too risky, and too much trouble.

The point when cash and checks will be finished is in sight.

So this is a moment for MidLaw.

There was a time when MidLaw made a tidy practice in negotiable instruments law as an attorney and also as an expert witness. It was a nice practice – just narrow enough to require a quasi-specialist but nonetheless broad enough to keep a steady stream of legal questions and controversies coming in. And it entailed enough money both to keep rogues looking for new angles and also to justify paying lawyers to sort things out.

But the rogue community these days seems to be moving on to email, telephone scams, and the like. Those check scams that are left seem to focus on fake checks and counterfeits, and they just don’t seem to require lawyers so much anymore.

Well, the good old law of paper payments has a long and colorful history and MidLaw hates to see it go. It occupies not one, but two, articles (chapters) in the Uniform Commercial Code. There’s an extensive criminal law of worthless checks, forgeries, counterfeits, and kiting. Can a negotiable order to pay be written on the back of a cow? Can you serve as an intermediary to help the late royal family of Nigeria negotiate a certified instrument? (They said they were royal, anyway.) There’s a well-developed body of precedents about these things. In short — and I am serious: the law of negotiable instruments is a monumental and elegant achievement of Anglo-American jurisprudence.

But now as payments in cash and checks decline and fewer matters arise, MidLaw is mindful of the thoughts of that long-ago lawyer in Bartleby, the Scrivener, who had a practice as a Master in Chancery on Wall Street in the early 19thCentury. He said,

The good old office, now extinct in the State of New York, of a Master in Chancery, had been conferred upon me. It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative. I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages; but I must be permitted to be rash here and declare, that I consider the sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a premature act inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years.

Similarly, modern-day negotiable instruments lawyers can hardly indulge in indignation at the substitution of electronic payments for paper instruments, and they can hardly label it an outrage, but they might be excused a certain regret in noting the passing of this once pleasantly remunerative area of practice.

Blockchain, Bartleby, and real property lawyers

Bartleby, The Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street, by Herman Melville.

It was published in 1835, but it is uncannily contemporary. Uncanny: Bartleby is a direct comment on the application of blockchain to the practice of law in the 21st Century – coming from a guy otherwise best known for his study of albino whales and certain broader aspects of the whaling industry in the 18th Century.

The book is an almost perfect thing for a holiday weekend. It is free. Published in 1835, you can download it at no charge. It is short. And it is written in an engaging style. It is funny.

Withal, you can still feel a sense of accomplishment from reading it. It’s said to be “the most noted of American short stories.” It’s among the most interpreted, commented upon, and alluded to stories ever. The Economist magazine maintains a blog named Bartleby. Bartleby.com is a major Internet repository of classic texts. The character, Bartleby, is a stereotype, a trope even. So, it’s good to know what’s behind all that.

Bartleby has become a mental model, a way of understanding the world.

And – 200 years down the road – it has become impossible to conclude that, with Bartleby, Melville was not commenting on the application of artificial intelligence to law practice – with precision and humor.

The story is told by a Wall Street real property lawyer, who describes himself as:

a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.

The lawyer’s snug retreat has been threatened by changes in the marketplace and profession, and by accompanying changes in the law and legal system:

The good old office, now extinct in the State of New York, of a Master in Chancery, had been conferred upon me. It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative. I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages; but I must be permitted to be rash here and declare, that I consider the sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a—premature act;inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years.

But, for the moment, the lawyer is experiencing an upswing in his business, and he needs to hire a fourth “legal copyist” or scrivener. Scriveners were 19th Century word processors. (Note for younger readers: until the late-Twentieth Century, word processors were human beings.)

So the lawyer hires a scrivener, Bartleby, who had lost his job as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office of the postal system due to a change in administration. Thereby hangs Melville’s tale of a man who copied legal documents, word-by-word and by hand, for his living.

Today, in the 21st Century, scriveners have been entirely replaced by small machines. Lawyers today – at least those in search of a snug retreat – are now the ones being re-ordered, if not largely eliminated, by changes in the law and by the advance of blockchain, artificial intelligence, and their supporting technologies, also delivered by small machines.

It’s hard to see how Bartley is not commenting on all that – although as Bartleby says, “I’d prefer not to.”

Possibly, the story is also a comment on contemporary politics. That’s for others to say. I’d prefer not.

An odd bit of verse with an odd provenance about notable NC lawyers in the 19th Century

An odd little book found recently in a used bookstore (The Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville), recites the following odd verse, which is attributed to Tarboro’s John L. Bridgers (see below). It features three leading lawyers of 19th Century North Carolina: Bartholomew F. Moore, Judge Robert Strange, Jr., and William A. Wright. All three are figures worth knowing about (see below), but this piece of doggerel about them is its own reward:

Messieurs Moore, Strange and Wright

Met to drink and good cheer to exchange

Said Moore, ‘of us three

The whole town will agree

There’s only one knave, and that’s Strange.”

Said Strange, rather sore,

‘I’m sure there’s one Moore –

A terrible knave and a bite,

Who cheated his mother,

His sister and brother.’

‘Oh, yes,” replied Moore, ‘that’s Wright.’

The book from which this comes is Law Tales for Laymen, written by Joseph Lacy Seawell and published in 1925. Seawell was the Clerk of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Seawell attributes the verse to “John L. Bridgers”. (He says Bridgers “tells” it, not that he “wrote” it.) There were two John L. Bridgers (John and John Jr.).  Both were prominent lawyers, farmers, and businessmen from Tarboro. The elder Bridgers died in 1884. He had commanded the Edgecombe Guards and Fort Macon in the Civil War. His son, John L. Bridgers, Jr., was a local judge and an author of The History of Edgecombe County. He died in 1932. Jr. seems the more likely source of the verse.

Bartholomew Moore was one of that extraordinary line of lawyers who emerged along the Edgecombe-Nash County line. He was among the most distinguished North Carolina lawyers in the 19th Century. Famously, he represented Will in State v. Will, a landmark judicial opinion which arose from Edgecombe County and was a major step forward in establishing the legal rights of enslaved people. Moore strenuously opposed the Civil War and refused to appear in Confederate courts, which required an oath of allegiance. Even so, he remained a prominent and highly respected member of the North Carolina Bar throughout the War and afterward.

Robert Strange, Jr., from Fayetteville, was a lawyer, a superior court judge and a United States senator. He wrote Eoneguski, or the Cherokee Chief, which is said to be the first novel set in North Carolina.

About William A. Wright, a superficial Internet search finds no references, which is Strange, but which permits MidLaw to say nothing Moore, and that’s alWright.

 

“Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s playthings!”

We are at a cultural moment.

Sexual boundaries seem to be the “acutest issue” of the moment.

These are not new questions to North Carolina. This moment is not the first.

In Greensboro in 1878, Quaker editor David Swaim thundered in Greensboro’s leading newspaper: “Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s playthings!”

His conservative counterpart, former Supreme Court Justice and founder of the UNC Law School, William Horn Battle rejoined: “No Southern lady should be permitted to sully her sweetness by breathing the pestiferous air of the courtroom.”

They were arguing about whether women should be permitted to practice law.

The issue was joined in Greensboro and taken to Raleigh. Leading North Carolina legal figures of the day took up the question: Albion Tourgée, William Horn Battle, Richmond Mumford Pearson.

It is the story of Jamestown native Tabitha Holton who became the first woman lawyer in the South.

A circular published when Holton died proclaimed:

The power of thy genius has broken the iron bands of brutality which had been rivited [sic] for ages upon thy sex. No more can the barbed shaft of prejudice and envy reach thee in thy eternal repose.

First in all the Sunny South to claim, and obtain, the full rights of womanhood

Tabitha Holton’s story is fabulized here. Her victory, which upset the custom and practice of centuries, was, in the end, based on merit. Opposition based on her status as a woman failed to stand against her unquestioned merit as a lawyer.

 

Hot new book from crackerjack Guilford College novelist

Greensboro author and ace Guilford College professor, Mylène Dressler, who is the Director of Guilford’s Sherwood Anderson Creative Writing Scholarship Progam, has a new book out. The Last to See Me. It’s a good one, a ghost story.

Ghosts, one of her characters says, are

[l]ike those waves out there hitting on the beach. Again and again and again. Unsettled souls are like that. They don’t release emotion the way that we do. If they did, we’d have to say they were still living. We can try to imagine what they’re feeling, but we can’t really do it. Because they are what they are, and we are what we are. The charge isn’t life. The charge is all that’s left.

Professor Dressler says that her book is about “work, class, and justice, and what it means to be visible or invisible in history.”

The story is set on the West Coast and it is indeed about justice and class, and unreleased emotion, and invisibility in history. But those are themes that are not limited to the West Coast. They come up in almost every place where there’s a past. In M. Dressler’s telling though, there’s also this woman whose face is gone from being underground.

It pops at the end. (The story, not the face.)

I got me a copy of The Last to See Me. You should too.

Landmark court opinion defining rights of enslaved people arose in Edgecombe County

In 1834, on a plantation in Edgecombe County, a slave named Will refused to share a hoe he had made with his own hands, an act of defiance that got him shot in the back by his white overseer. As he lay wounded, Will reached up and fatally slashed his attacker on the hip and the arm, earning himself a trip to the gallows.

Josh Shaffer, The News & Observer, June 8, 2017

The upshot was a landmark decision of the North Carolina Supreme Court that was a major step forward in the ongoing definition of the status and rights of enslaved people.

Will was sentenced to death in the Edgecombe County Superior Court, Judge Donnell presiding, but plantation owner James S. Battle became convinced that Will had acted in self-defense and so he hired Bartholomew F. Moore to represent Will on appeal. In an opinion written by Justice William Gaston, the Supreme Court reversed Will’s conviction — holding that, if a free man was entitled to the defense of self-defense or to a lesser charge of manslaughter, then the same analysis should apply to an enslaved person. This was a step forward. It moved away from Justice Thomas Ruffin‘s earlier opinion in State v. Mann, in which Ruffin seated his reasoning on the nature of slavery, while Justice Gaston, four years later, focused on Will’s humanity, not his legal status as property.

Will’s case is recognized as a landmark. And so, on June 10, 2017, a historical marker is erected where his case began, at 275 New Hope Church Road in Battleboro, North Carolina.

Guilford College president makes brave decision, teams undefeated after

guilford_college_fernandes_college_boardGuilford College President Jane Fernandes recently posted on her blog a dynamite note titled “Moving from Safe to Brave.” It mirrored her remarks as a featured speaker at the 2017 Higher Ed Colloquium in Florida, a national program of the College Board.

That post puts me in mind of an earlier Guilford leader who chose “brave” over “safe.”

In the period immediately after Lincoln called for troops, “trouble and perplexity were in the air” at Guilford College and in North Carolina. War was coming. Many Quakers and others who opposed secession were leaving. At that point, New Garden Boarding School (later Guilford College) was full. Nereus Mendenhall was its Superintendant and the principal teacher. But Mendenhall owned property in Minneapolis and his brother-in-law urged going there. For Mendenhall, this promised “worldly advancement and the accumulation of wealth.” And, as a pacifist and abolitionist, he had concerns about raising his family in slave territory.

So, he and his wife, Orianna, packed their bags for Minnesota.

On the day before they were to depart, they went over to the school to close up. But when it came to closing the school and leaving the students, Nereus could not do it. Their daughter Mary later recalled both her parents standing at the library, weeping. Nereus said, “Orianna, if I feel that the Lord requires me to stay, is thee willing to give up going and stay here?” Orianna said, “Certainly, if that is thy feeling, I am satisfied to stay.”

So Nereus and Orianna made the brave choice, certainly not the safe one. They stayed.

Opposed to secession, opposed to slavery, and opposed to war, Mendenhall kept New Garden/Guilford open throughout the war. During that time, people associated with the College often gave food and shelter (refuge) to deserters, bushwhackers and escaped slaves.

Guilford was “the only school in the South that was not closed during the war or during reconstruction.”

From this evidence, it may be deduced that Guilford’s athletic teams must have gone undefeated during that period.

Brave. Undefeated.

The Mendenhall home, The Oaks, is for sale now by Preservation North Carolina and likely to be demolished.

Guilford College president meets with Congress, President

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NC Capitol

War came and North Carolina Quakers were in a bad spot. They were abolitionists and unionists and pacifists to boot.

A bill was introduced in the North Carolina legislature to require that every free male over sixteen years old must publicly renounce allegiance to the government of the United States and agree to defend the Confederacy. The penalty for noncompliance was banishment.

It was a bridge too far. Former governor William Graham, who Bishop Cheshire said was one of the greatest men North Carolina ever produced and who represented North Carolina’s traditions of progress and moderation, spoke against the bill. He said it would be “a decree of wholesale expatriation of the Quakers.” “The whole civilized world would cry ‘shame,’” he said.

And so the bill was defeated, although “not so the hostility” from which it came. “Hatred and malice … fell with much violence” upon North Carolina Quakers.

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Virginia Capitol

Legislation was proposed at both the State and Confederacy levels to provide exemptions from military service for Quakers and other “peace churches.” North Carolina Quakers recruited a committee to go to Richmond and make their case to the Confederate government.

Among the five-person committee was Nereus Mendenhall, the leader of New Garden Boarding School (later Guilford College) in Guilford County. He was “well known as one of the most learned men in North Carolina and a prominent educator.”

At Richmond, they met with a committee of the Congress. It was summer and they met at night outside on the grounds of the Capitol. One of those present said later,

It was the feeling of the delegates that Nereus Mendenhall was preeminently the man to present our case. It seemed impossible, almost, to secure his consent, owing to his natural reserve. Finally, [the chairman] said: “Gentlemen, the Committee is ready. Please state your case.” A dead silence followed. In a few minutes, fearing the committee would not understand or appreciate our holding a silent Quaker meeting then and there, I reached over and gently touched Nereus. He arose slowly, and when fully aroused and warmed up to his subject I thought I never heard such an exposition of the doctrines of Friends on the subject of war.

Later, the group visited Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. Davis received them courteously but remarked that he “regretted to learn” there was a group of people who were not willing to fight in defense of their country.

A statute was passed that exempted Quakers and members of other peace churches from military service upon either payment of money or rendering noncombatant services. A participant in the process said that

To Nereus Mendenhall’s argument, perhaps more than any other one thing, was due the passage of this law.

In later times, some Quakers refused to serve and refused to make payments or perform noncombatant services. Some of them were punished severely.

Mendenhall’s home, The Oaks, was located on what is now NC 68 between Greensboro and High Point in Guilford County. It is for sale by Preservation North Carolina and may be destroyed.

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Nereus Mendenhall

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The Oaks

Guilford College president charged with possessing subversive literature, house for sale

nereus_mendenhall_the_oaks-16Circulating anti-slavery literature was a crime punishable by imprisonment and a whipping in North Carolina in the years just before the Civil War and The Impending Crisis by Hinton Rowan Helper was the very definition of such literature.

Nereus Mendenhall, the Superintendent (president) of New Garden Friends School (which became Guilford College) and himself an abolitionist, owned multiple copies of The Impending Crisis which he made freely available to others. So Greensboro authorities determined to seize his books and put him in jail. They sent out a posse for that purpose.

But Mendenhall’s brother Cyrus, a Greensboro lawyer, businessman and the Treasurer of the North Carolina Railroad, had learned of the plan and sent word to his brother. More to the point, he also sent word to his to his sister-in-law, Orianna Mendenhall. Upon receiving the news, Nereus sat stolidly in his chair and refused to take any action. He continued reading. No so, Orianna. When she saw what Nereus was doing, she gathered up the books and threw them into the fire. Arrest averted. (Go Orianna!)

nereus_mendenhall_the_oaks-21
nereus_mendenhall_the_oaks-19Mendenhall’s home and Orianna’s fire were on a farm known as The Oaks between Greensboro and High Point out on what is now NC Highway 68. The house where Mendenhall received his brother’s message and the room in which his books were burned are now for sale by Preservation North Carolina. The house was built in 1830 and is an architecturally significant example of a Quaker Plan house. If not sold, it will likely be destroyed.