Based on William H. Jeffress Jr.’s Oral History for the D.C. Circuit Historical Society
The biography of Bill Jeffress – one of America’s premier trial lawyers and a renowned criminal defense attorney – is full of highlights any one of which would have been the capstone to a successful lawyer’s career. In nearly five decades of practice, his career has included some of the most important events in postwar legal history.
Bill was born to a GI on an Army base in Birmingham, Alabama, during the summer of 1945, between V-E and V-J Day. He grew up in Richmond as one of four brothers. Like many families in the postwar years, the Jeffresses devoted summer vacation to car trips, which broadened Bill’s exposure to people outside the Southeast. “One thing I remember about the [family] trips is that the people really weren’t any different from me. . . . [W]e would go and meet people in Austin, Texas, and in Los Angeles and Kansas City and whatever, they were no different than us.”
Bill was both valedictorian of his high school’s 1963 graduating class and was student body president. He also was an actor. “I’ve always had something of the performer in me, which I think helps when you’re trying a case in front of a jury.” Bill went on to college at Washington & Lee University in nearby Lexington, Virginia. As a sophomore, Bill married his childhood sweetheart, Judy, and became one of only a dozen married students. His first child, Amy – now a distinguished D.C. lawyer in her own right – was born while he was a student there. Amy afforded Bill a draft deferment as a father, but history doesn’t record whether Bill needed it. Bill again served as student body president. Bill’s high school had been segregated, integrating only two years after he left (one of the first African-American students later went on to become part of Bill’s extended family by marriage). W&L integrated while Bill was there. When singer Dionne Warwick played W&L in 1964, Lexington had no hotels that would allow black guests.
Though Bill was born into a family of engineers and never knew any lawyers growing up, “somehow I knew, before I graduated from college that what I wanted to do was to be a lawyer.” Bill decided to go to Yale Law School to see how he “would stack up against the best people there were.” There he was taught by some legends of the law, including Alexander Bickel for constitutional law and James William Moore for procedure. As a favor to Charles Reich, one of his favorite professors, he proofread a draft of Reich’s landmark environmental law article, “The Greening of America.” Bill again excelled and was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal. Bill also had his first experience cross-examining witnesses while working part time at the Public Defender’s office.
In New Haven of the late 1960s, Bill experienced popular unrest about civil rights and Vietnam, and he participated in some demonstrations. During Bill’s last year there, Black Panther Bobby Seale was tried for murder in New Haven, and Yale cancelled spring semester exams because of fear of disruptions. Bill’s second child, Jonathan – also now a distinguished D.C. trial lawyer – was born during his last year of law school.
Though many of the other top Yale Law students sought appellate clerkships, Bill “wanted to be a trial lawyer,” so he took a district court clerkship with Judge Gerhard Gesell. The clerkship wound up being a master class in trial advocacy, as Gesell, a distinguished former trial attorney, “discuss[ed] the lawyers’ performance and the witnesses and the other things that happened in court” after each day’s proceedings. “I can’t think of anything that contributed more to my upbringing as a trial lawyer than that year with Judge Gesell.” As Gesell’s sole clerk (he habitually hired only one per year), they tried a case every week or two all year long. Bill’s plan to spend the weekend before the bar exam studying was scuttled when Judge Gesell was assigned the federal government’s urgent request for a temporary restraining order to prevent the publication of the “Pentagon Papers,” leaked Defense Department documents concerning the conduct of the Vietnam War. The pair worked furiously all weekend. Gesell then denied the government’s TRO request. The Supreme Court later vindicated Gesell’s decision to allow the publication. And though he hadn’t had time to study, Bill passed the bar exam anyway.
Bill went on to clerk for Justice Potter Stewart on the Supreme Court. Roe v. Wade was first argued during Bill’s term, but because of vacancies (Justice Black died two months before argument, and Justice Harlan two weeks afterwards), it was held over and reargued the following term before a full Court. The Court also heard an obscenity case that required the Justices and clerks to watch a pornographic film, which caused Justice Powell to “turn purple” from embarrassment. It wasn’t long after Bill left the Court that he argued his first and only case in the Supreme Court, on behalf of Richard Nixon. Justice Stewart asked the first question, a softball, to break the ice. Bill “felt perfectly comfortable” during the argument, saying “I’m sure had I not clerked at the Supreme Court, the opposite would have been true.”
After clerking, Bill passed on offers to join big firms because he thought it would take too long to become a real trial lawyer at them. Instead, he joined Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin as only its seventh lawyer. They had enough cases (and small enough cases) that Bill, as a brand new lawyer, could walk into court on his own and argue cases or take witnesses. Two years after Bill joined Miller Cassidy, Nixon resigned. Because the firm had represented other administration officials in connection with the Watergate investigation, Nixon hired the firm to represent him concerning a possible indictment and to negotiate the disposition of Nixon’s White House audiotapes and presidential papers. Bill recounts that everyone in the tiny firm worked furiously day and night. After Congress passed a law giving the federal government control of the tapes and papers, the firm won a landmark lawsuit establishing that the presidential materials were Nixon’s personal property. The firm then spent the next 25 years litigating (and eventually winning) compensation for the government’s seizure of them. Although he began his involvement disliking Nixon, Bill enjoyed representing him, because he likes to represent underdogs and Nixon was very much an underdog after leaving office.
Some of the highlights of Bill’s career involved his criminal defense work in Louisiana, beginning as lead counsel in a major felony trial when he was just 29 years old. In the 20 years that followed, Bill tried 19 cases in Louisiana, including representing codefendants in three of the four federal criminal trials of the state’s colorful three-time governor, Edwin Edwards.
In addition, Bill has done some of the most high-profile representations in criminal and civil cases all around the country. Bill represented a Cincinnati savings & loan executive in the wake of the S&L crisis, when such figures were extraordinarily unpopular; he represented ABC News when the Food Lion grocery chain sued it because of a television expose; he represented the controversial Texas federal District Judge John McBryde in disciplinary proceedings that required Bill to argue before the entire Fifth Circuit Judicial Counsel; and he represented Scooter Libby, counsel to Vice President Cheney, against charges that Libby lied to the FBI.
While Bill has practiced at the top of his profession in both civil and criminal cases, Bill prefers criminal cases, explaining that “There is a lot more at stake for the individual [in criminal cases], and you feel more responsibility. So the highs are higher and the lows are lower.” Bill prefers trying cases to a jury, because jurors begin the trial with a clean slate. A judge learns about a case through pretrial proceedings, and already has “decide[d] how he feels about a case . . . by the time you get to trial.” By contrast, a “jury comes to it fresh. The first day of trial is the first thing they know about the case.” Bill is concerned that the costs of litigation have grown so great that it has drastically reduced the number of trials and forced litigants to settle or go into alternative dispute resolution.
Although Bill was born into a family of engineers, his immediate family is now full of lawyers (though his youngest son went into business, not law). Bill notes that a trial lawyer’s life is hard on families because of the amount of time they spend away from home trying cases. But Bill’s family manages to have personal and professional time together. “There was a time my daughter was Assistant U.S. Attorney, my son a federal public defender, and I was a defense lawyer all trying cases in the same courthouse, and it was fun. We would run into each other in the hall and have lunch together.”
William H. “Bill” Jeffress, Jr., is a trial lawyer. He was born July 17, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama, and grew up on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, where he attended public schools. He graduated from Washington & Lee University and from Yale Law School, where he received his LL.B in 1970 and was Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Law Journal.
Bill Came to Washington in 1970 and served as the law clerk to U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, and then as a law clerk to Justice Potter Stewart on the U.S. Supreme Court. He began practicing law in 1972 with Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, then a 6-lawyer firm devoted entirely to litigation and specializing in white-collar criminal defense. In 2001, the Miller Cassidy firm merged with Baker Botts LLP and Became the core of the trial department in its Washington office.
Over the years Bill has tried 34 cases to juries in ten states and the District of Columbia, and many more to judges and administrative tribunals. He served for six years as a member of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professionalism, and chaired the ABA’s Criminal Justice Standards Committee. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.
Bill has been married almost 50 years to his high school sweetheart Judy Jones. They have three children and five grandchildren, all living in the District of Columbia.