Friends Recall a Giant of Civil Rights Law
Some of those who mourn John Payton share their memories of the NAACP LDF's chief.
A True Super-Lawyer
In the last few days, many written tributes have referred to John Payton as a civil rights lawyer. He would have fully embraced that description, but in truth he was much more unique than that. In 1972, Joseph C. Goulden wrote a book about powerful Washington lawyers called The Super-Lawyers: The Small and Powerful World of the Great Washington Law Firms. The book, about men such as Clark Clifford, Abe Fortas and Lloyd Cutler, cartoonishly and unflatteringly describes them as lawyers who used their considerable legal skills and enormous influence in pursuit of their clients' private interests, often at the expense of the public interest.
John was also a Washington super-lawyer in the vein of the men about whom Goulden wrote. What made him unique, however, was that he used his skills and influence to pursue the public interest and not just the private interests of the major corporate clients he also represented. In all other respects as a lawyer, he was a direct descendent of John Pickering and Cutler, super-lawyers who were his mentors at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, the firm they founded (now known as WilmerHale).
I met John the first time by telephone. He and I were supposed to start as Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering associates in the fall of 1978. John started on time, but I delayed my start to assist with a congressional investigation. One afternoon I received a call from a man who introduced himself as John Payton. He said he had just started as an associate at Wilmer and thought I should know that a former associate who was African American had made a discrimination allegation against the firm. He wanted me to know in case it might affect my decision to join the firm. He said he was staying at the firm and he hoped I would join him. His tone was matter-of-fact; it obviously never occurred to him that making such a phone call might not be the right thing to do.
From that day in 1978 until his death, John and I were friends, and for a chunk of that time law partners in the special way that John Pickering and Lloyd Cutler had been friends and partners. We became the first two African-American partners at Wilmer ...
John was an important partner at Wilmer; he personified all that was good about the firm. His presence helped the firm to recruit many of its most outstanding young associates, whom he then mentored when they arrived at the firm. He was a role model, a confident, inspirational and wise adviser for lawyers at all level of the firm, especially those who were African American. And he also cared about the staff at the firm; he was always their champion and they knew it.
James E. Coleman Jr.
John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law
Duke University School of Law
Editor's note: Janell Byrd-Chichester's remembrance has been updated to reflect John Payton's role in the Supreme Court case NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware.