- Erin Peterson
Joseph A. Ball
On the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Founding of the Long Beach Bar Association, the LBBA recognized Joseph A. Ball as our Lawyer of the Century.
One of the country’s most respected courtroom attorneys; a lawyer’s lawyer, known for his gentle but effective courtroom style and ability to voir dire jurors and deliver eloquent arguments without notes. From a small town in Iowa, Ball liked to refer to himself as a country lawyer but established a legendary, nationwide reputation for his effectiveness in both civil and criminal cases and founded a highly successful firm in Long Beach, California. He served as President of the California State Bar and American College of Trial Lawyers. He was selected by his friend, Chief Justice Earl Warren to act as Chief Counsel to the Warren Commission tasked with investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His awards are too many to mention but his memory will live on and provide a model that will forever inspire attorneys to strive for excellence in the practice of law.
Included in the program for the event was a letter from Donald B. Caffray discussing the legacy of this great man.
Joseph A. Ball
A letter from Donald B. Caffray
to the Joseph A. Ball/Clarence S. Hunt American Inn of Court.
Born in Iowa in 1902, Joseph Ball’s career spanned the 20th century. His civility and polite professionalism made him its most remembered courtroom lawyer. His father was a physician. His natural compassion for people drew him in this direction. Since he could not afford medical school, he went to nearby Creighton Law School for one year. He took a break from school to visit California where he worked as a longshoreman loading and unloading ships at the docks in San Pedro. This backbreaking experience convinced him that he would stay in law where he could use his bright analytical mind to relieve social, not medical, suffering.
He finished law school at the University of Southern California and took and passed the California bar examination in 1927. The examination then was not only a three day written exam but an oral exam also. The question put to him was: “explain the rule in Shelley’s case.” Since he knew all about the creation of contingent remainders, he passed.
He originally worked in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office and then moved into private practice in Long Beach just after the discovery of oil had made it a boom town. There was a great need for capable lawyers to handle oil and gas litigation and he soon became the best.
Ball had so many clients who wanted his services that he had to reach out for help. He formed a law firm that steadily grew. His first partner was fellow graduate Clarence S. Hunt with whom he practiced for some 65 years. As the firm grew his shadow lengthened. It kept all of the high human principles that had originally directed Ball toward medical school. He and his firm did not grow as a successful business. It grew because it was a successful professional institution. As it grew, it became a role model for all lawyers. Clients line up to be represented there. Lawyers lined up to work there. It became a powerhouse of quality. Ball and his firm handled some of the most well known clients and important cases of the age. Prominent clients who would expect to meet with their lawyers in Los Angeles or Beverly Hills came instead to Long Beach. Soon Ball was moving in the highest circles as counsel to the beloved and notorious of the time. Always humble, he steadfastly held to the creed that law is a profession, not a business. U.S. District Court Judge William B. Enright, in paying tribute to Ball at the 1999 Inns of Court National Conference, recalled the words of Joe Ball when he refused the demand of a high paying client, “I value my reputation as a lawyer more than you as a client.”
The Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court gave him a leading role on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President Kennedy. He was offered a position on the California Supreme Court on several occasions. He quietly turned each down. When Pat Brown stepped down as Governor of California, he promptly joined Ball’s firm. The Watergate figures flocked to Ball for advice and defense. Leaders in business, the professions and government came to Ball for advice and counsel. His secret was based on old fashioned clear thinking and honest common sense. All in scarce supply.
For 16 years Ball taught the most popular course at the University of Southern California Law School. He was President of the State Bar of California and the American College of Trial Lawyers. He was the recipient of countless awards and honors up and down the state and across the nation. When introducing Ball to receive the Shattuck Award of the L.A. County Bar, Warren Christopher, later to be Secretary of State under President Clinton, said: “If any of you, lawyers all, had a problem that put your profession on the line, the one person you would call would be Joe Ball.”
In his 73 years before the bar as a courtroom lawyer, Ball tried over 500 jury cases to conclusion. In an appellate opinion dealing with the use of words, the court said “...after all, everyone can’t be a Clarence Darrow, a William Jennings Brian or a Joe Ball.”
Joe Ball once said that resumes are too wordy and “long winded”. He said he was so proud to be a member of this profession, that all he wanted on his resume was: “Joe Ball, Lawyer”
The 20th century produced great technological advances and two world wars. It was a century of crisis. Its two generations knew hardship and gratification. Joe Ball was part of both.
Every crisis produces a great voice of renewal. That voice was Joe Ball’s. His long life brimmed over with achievement. This was a man of towering accomplishment and modest demeanor. This was his century. He would not want us to squander his legacy to this remarkable profession by letting it degenerate into a business.
Let us now understand what this means to our history and our culture. We are united by our common purpose and core values of civility, honor and politeness. As such, we are the guardians of the only thing worth saving: the dignity of the individual and the system that guarantees its survival.
Those joining this Inn of Court will meet these virtues face to face - alive and well. We face great odds and a late start. Nevertheless, we will win the contest for civility. The road we take is steep but the higher we climb, the further we see.
Joe Ball passed away Thursday, September 21, 2000 at 10:00pm at St. Mary’s Hospital in Long Beach.
Our Inn is a living memorial to him and his ideals.
He left us his legacy as our constant reminder to be good to one another. To treat your adversary with politeness; to be role models of civility in and out of court. The ideals he left behind will remain with us forever.