Senior U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. wasn’t sure he would be in a position to make a difference in the world while growing up on Jacksonville’s Eastside, but a law career filled with historic firsts has changed his mind. His life has been illustrated in the film “Conversations on Catfish, Courtrooms, and Change: The Life and Times of Henry Lee Adams, Jr.,” which was shown during The Jacksonville Bar Association meeting Tuesday as a part of its Diversity Week 2012 program.
Adams was the first African-American judge in Northeast Florida when he was appointed in 1979 to the Fourth Judicial Circuit, the first African-American U.S. district judge in the Middle District of Florida when he was appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and the first African-American senior U.S. District judge in the state.
“The idea really kicked in when I started practicing law. You have a concept that if you become a lawyer, maybe you can make a difference. But until you get into the practice of law, you don’t really feel positive on whether or not you can make a difference,” said Adams. “Once I started practicing law I felt that and we had some cases that I thought made a difference.”
He also was involved with making change in the practice of law as an attorney with the firm of (William) Sheppard, (Lyman) Fletcher, (Jack) Hand and (Henry Lee) Adams, whose partners believe it to be one of the first integrated law firms in the state of Florida.
“One day Bill (Sheppard) walks into the office and says that we need to ask Archie to join us,” said Hand.
Adams received the nickname “Archie” from an uncle when he was growing up.
Adams was working in the Public Defender’s Office of the Fourth Judicial Circuit in 1972 when the firm asked him to join.
“I credit him with making me a good criminal defense lawyer,” said Sheppard.
The firm not only was different because it was integrated, but also because of the variety of practice areas. Though they all were involved with civil rights cases, Adams and Sheppard handled criminal defense, Hand practiced in business and real estate, Fletcher practiced family law and, later, now Circuit Judge Hugh Carithers “handled a little bit of everything, but mostly criminal defense and civil rights,” said Sheppard.
“You were working with folks that you liked and doing something that made a difference,” said Adams.
Adams was credited with maintaining the peace in what could be “volatile” discussions of the business of the firm.
“You were the glue that kept us together. You could always calm down the volatile sessions,” Hand told Adams.
That ability was evident as the firm soon split up after Adams left and joined the bench in 1979.
Although Adams was hesitant to participate in the film directed by Sheppard and his son, Lang, he was glad that he did and is happy with the finished project.
“I didn’t think about it when we were making the movie, but I’m glad it will be a part of my legacy,” said Adams.
Sheppard hopes to raise more money for additional projects to highlight the legal careers of other prominent African-American attorneys from Jacksonville.
“Their stories need to be told, so people can see what is possible,” said Sheppard.
Sheppard also talked about what was possible when the firm began in 1972 and what is possible today.
“We didn’t have any loans hanging over our heads so we had freedom to take the cases we believed in,” said Sheppard. “Today, it’s different because law school students come out with $50,000-$70,000 in loans and have to put up their own shingle. It’s a different time.”
Source: Daily Record