In Memoriam: William T. Coleman, Jr.
O’Melveny mourns the loss of our beloved senior partner William T. Coleman, Jr., who passed away on March 31, 2017, at the age of 96.
A gifted lawyer, respected statesman, distinguished public servant, civil rights hero, and habitual history maker, Bill carved out a unique legacy that spans the legal profession, the corporate world, national politics, and international relations. One writer began a profile by noting that Bill had “ties to nearly every significant event any living generation has seen.” As a young lawyer, he played a central role in the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, one of his many legal milestones that have changed our country forever. Over six extraordinary decades, Bill was the quintessential counselor, serving leaders at the highest levels of industry and government with distinction. During the White House ceremony in 1995 to award Bill the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Clinton paid tribute this way: “If you are looking for an example of constancy, consistency, disciplined devotion to the things that make this country a great place, you have no further to look than William Coleman, Jr."
Bill joined O’Melveny in 1977 following his service as US Secretary of Transportation and became the firm’s first lateral partner since Judge Louis W. Myers 50 years earlier. Bill went on to serve as co-chair of the firm’s Washington, DC, office from 1977 to 1991, and was a part of the leadership team that charted O’Melveny’s international expansion. Throughout his career as an O’Melveny partner, Bill was the consummate colleague, personifying the firm’s values of uncompromising excellence, distinctive leadership, and superior citizenship as he advised the country’s leading corporate executives. He relished the role. Indeed, it is said that he declined a nomination to the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit by President Johnson in 1964 mainly because he enjoyed being a lawyer too much. While looking back on his life and career for a 2007 magazine profile, Bill said that “getting new clients and keeping old clients happy” was one of the things that made him happiest.
One of Bill’s proudest recent achievements was the 2010 publication of his autobiography, Counsel for the Situation: Shaping the Law to Realize America’s Promise. The memoir chronicles the obstacles Bill faced as an American of color in the segregated times of his youth and early adulthood, his resolve and determination in breaking through those barriers, and his journey to the highest levels of government and the law.
Perhaps the most enduring achievement in Bill’s illustrious career was his role as one of the architects of the legal strategy and the coauthor of the legal brief in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark case in which the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools. Bill also had a leading role in several other successful legal battles in pursuit of racial equality. The list includes Bob Jones v. U.S., which upheld the government’s power to revoke the tax-exempt status of private schools that discriminate on the basis of race. Additionally, he served the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund almost continuously since the 1970s, through various leadership roles, including president, chairman, and co-chair emeritus of the board of directors.
Bill’s distinguished public service resume includes membership on many important Presidential Commissions dating back some 50 years. Bill was a member of President Eisenhower’s Committee on Government Employment Policy (1959-1961); a senior consultant and assistant counsel to President Johnson’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, headed by US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren (1963); a consultant to the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (1963-1975); a member of the US delegation to the twenty-fourth session of the United Nations General Assembly (1969); and a member of the National Commission on Productivity (1971-1972). In 2003, Bill was appointed by the Secretary of Defense to a panel reviewing military commissions. Over the years, he also served on the Executive Committee of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition to the Medal of Freedom, Bill received France’s highest civilian honor, the title of Officer in the French Legion of Honor.
When he was 84, Bill told the Washington Business Journal: “I’ve lived a good life; I’ve had an interesting time.” Indeed he did. From the time he was a student in the 1920s-era Philadelphia public schools facing race-based restrictions that denied him the chance to compete for a spot on the school swim team and other opportunities, Bill always managed to strike his blows for equal opportunity through achievement, rather than acrimony. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941. Following a stint in the Air Corps of the United States Army, Bill became one of the first black Americans to serve as an editor of the Harvard Law Review and, in 1946, earned his J.D. from Harvard, first in his class and magna cum laude. After graduation, he returned to Philadelphia, working for a year as law clerk to Judge Herbert F. Goodrich of the Third Circuit. A year later he again broke a color barrier when Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter selected him to be his law clerk.
Early this year, the firm created the William T. Coleman Legal Diversity Fellowship in his honor.
We send our heartfelt condolences to Bill’s wife, Lovida, and their children Lovida, Bill III, and Hardin, and grandchildren, as well as all those at O’Melveny who knew and admired him.