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Light shed on Tampa's "legal lights'

The Tampa Tribune - August 4, 1996
Author: LELAND HAWES, of The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA -- Lawyers had been practicing in Hillsborough County a half-century before they gathered in May 1896 to form a bar association.

The Tampa Morning Tribune put a whimsical headline on the event, "Learned Legal Lights Lay Their Heads Together for Mutual Good," and referred to the group as the Tampa Bar and Library Association.

However, a resolution passed that night to endorse Thomas M. Shackleford as a candidate for the Florida Supreme Court referred to it as the Bar Association of Hillsborough County.

Joseph B. Wall, called "the oldest member of the bar," was elected unanimously to serve as president of the organization. George B. Sparkman became vice president; G.B. Wells, secretary; and William Hunter, treasurer.

The full account of that event at the county courthouse appears in a new history, "In Pursuit of Justice: Law & Lawyers in Hillsborough County, 1846-1996," by Kyle S. VanLandingham. The 94-page book is a well-illustrated account of happenings beginning with the arrival in 1846 of James T. Magbee, "the first full-time lawyer to locate in Hillsborough County."

Magbee, whose penchant for booze kept him in trouble much of his life, arrived at a time when Tampa residents numbered in the hundreds. As lawyer-historian VanLandingham relates:

"The 25-year-old Georgia-born lawyer ... immediately became embroiled in the long-standing controversy between the settlers on the military reservation [Fort Brooke] and the Army commanders."

Capt. John H. Winder included Magbee's name on a list of settlers he'd just as soon "kick out" because of legal entanglements over stray hogs. But Magbee won election to Florida's General Assembly in 1848.

Another development in that early period was the punishment of a man named James Smith in a pillory. Smith, convicted of larceny, had to stand for an hour in the device -- a wooden board with holes for the head and hands.

Tampa's first mayor, Joseph B. Lancaster, was a former circuit judge and state Supreme Court justice. He moved to town in 1854 and was elected mayor in February 1856. Lancaster died that November at the age of 66.

By 1896, when the bar association organized, Tampa had its share of well-known lawyers whose family names have been interwoven in the area's activities in succeeding generations.

Twenty-eight names appeared on the list of those who attended the first meeting. At a follow-up session the next week, a charter was drawn up, and it did name the body the Tampa Bar Association, and it did mention establishing a law library.

And then the bar association "died a natural death." No documentation survives to explain what caused the lapse, VanLandingham said.

Not until Feb. 8, 1901, was it revived, when the first president urged its reactivation. Somehow it survived a fuss over initiation fees, with Hugh C. Macfarlane arguing for $10 and F.M. Simonton for $2. Finally, Judge Barron Phillips moved for a compromise fee of $5.

VanLandingham, who is president of the Tampa Historical Society, mixes events involving the law with colorful legal personalities.

Peter O. Knight, elected bar president in 1903 and probably the most politically powerful lawyer in Hillsborough County for decades, draws his share of attention.

So does Pat Whitaker, the colorful criminal lawyer who rivaled Knight as a political power and convinced a jury that a mullet was not a fish but a fowl.

VanLandingham mentions Francis M. Robles as the first lawyer of Hispanic descent to practice in Hillsborough County, in 1889. Robles later became a circuit judge. His father, Joseph Robles , was a native of Spain.

M. Henry Cohen, in 1894, and Samuel Borchardt, in 1895, became the county's first Jewish lawyers.

The first woman lawyer, "a cultured young lady from Nebraska" named Mae Wood, arrived in 1896 with an announced intention to practice in Tampa, but no evidence was found to indicate she remained very long.

The author writes that "Hillsborough County can claim Peter W. Bryant as its first African American attorney," but indicates he spent most of his career in Key West. Bryant had grown up in Tampa and graduated from Howard University in 1889.

The county's first husband-and-wife legal practice didn't come until Morrice Uman married his wife, Edith, in 1932, and she, too, obtained her law degree.

"During her career, she studied and prepared cases but left court appearances to her husband," VanLandingham notes.

An interesting section of the book deals with the evolution of law firms in the county. Lawyer T. Paine Kelly Jr. explains how the pattern developed:

"While virtually all lawyers in Florida during that period [the early years of the century] were general practitioners in the sense that they were expected by their clients to be able to handle any legal matter that arose, there was a tendency to form groups of three principal partners having different talents.

"Generally one, usually the senior partner, was prominent in the community with strong civic, political and social connections, who was primarily relied upon to generate business for the firm.

"Another was the trial lawyer, who was equally at home in civil and criminal litigation and in courts at all levels. The third was the office lawyer, who was the preparer of documents of all descriptions and handled real estate transactions."

In the 1930s, mergers and specialization brought expansions of many of the law firms. The trend has accelerated over the years, with some firms having lawyers in the hundreds.

An appendix called "Law Firm Trees" shows the beginnings and offshoots of seven major Tampa firms.

"In Pursuit of Justice" is available by check for $31.58 from the Hillsborough County Bar Association, 101 E. Kennedy Blvd., Suite 2110, Tampa, Fla. 33602.
Caption: PHOTO 3
Kyle S. VanLandingham's "In Pursuit of Justice: Law & Lawyers in Hillsborough County, 1846-1996" tells the county's colorful legal history. <FILED: VANLANDINGHAM, KYLE> Above is a 1920 trial at the Hillsborough County Courthouse, then at Franklin and Lafayette streets. Photo from "Yesterday's Tampa" <FILED: VANLANDINGHAM, KYLE> Kyle VanLandingham <FILED: VANLANDINGHAM, KYLE>
Section: BAYLIFE
Page: 8
Record Number: 042
Copyright 1996 The Tribune Co.
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Light shed on Tampa's "legal lights'
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