An Afternoon with Marshall Edwards

The following is an essay by David Bergdall recounting an afternoon spent speaking with Marshall H. Edwards, Attorney at Law in 1976. Any names that appear as links in the interview will take you to more information about that person so that you can form a more complete picture of this time in the circuit's history.

Here is my memory of my afternoon interview of Marshall Edwards in early 1976 when I began my practice in Polk County:

Having been a History Major undergraduate and being a recent graduate of the University of Florida Law School, in early 1976, I wanted to interview a Polk County successful trial lawyer who had long experience practicing law here, to help guide my future trial career. One of the most famous attorneys at that time in Bartow was Marshall Edwards. Fortunately, my wife's Aunt knew him well and she was able to arrange an afternoon appointment for me to meet him to learn about his career. Marshall, most graciously, gave me an entire afternoon of his time, to help mentor me.

He began by telling me that he began his career with a law firm in Chicago where he learned a lot about law practice, but he wanted to go out on his own. When he told his firm that he was moving to Bartow, Florida to open his practice, they thought he was crazy because it was too hot to live in Florida in the summertime. He said he was in solo practice for his entire career to the point of our interview, except for a short period early on when he was in partnership with Judge Huffaker before he became a Judge. He said that a neighbor and good friend of his in Bartow, Chesterfield Smith of Holland and Knight, had tried to invite him to join their firm, but he turned down that opportunity. He said that he never made less than $65,000 a year, which was a lot of money years ago, and he felt he would be happier staying on his own. He told me one of the keys to his personal success was his good fortune of finding an outstanding legal secretary, Mrs. Larkin, who was the sister of a very successful lawyer in Dade City in the law firm of Larkin and Larkin. He said she was so excellent in the early years he paid her 10% of everything he made, when that was still legal. Therefore, she was willing to work very long hours if it was necessary, and Marshall told me that when you are a trial lawyer, if you are going to be successful in trials, you have to be willing to put in a lot of long hours of preparation. It is not an 8 to 5 job. He also told me that he believed in investing in having all the law books he needed to be successful, and that he had donated about half of the books in the Polk County Law Library from his personal law library that he had accumulated during his thirty years of practice. Mrs. Larkin had stayed with him through his many years of practice.

When I told Marshall, that I had been interviewed personally by Mr. Bevis, one of the original partners of Holland and Knight, for their firm in Bartow during my last semester of law school, but Mr. Bevis's primary interest was property law and he was not impressed with the fact that I had only taken the basic property courses at Florida Law School along with Mortgages, and that I had not gone to Florida undergraduate or pledged KA fraternity, as he said Bartow boys did, (I went to USF and was President of TKE instead), I got no offer from them. Marshall smiled and said, "I remember Mr. Bevis when he started out as a bank clerk at First National Bank in Bartow. He went to Florida Law School, but never got his degree. In those days you could take the Florida Bar Exam without graduating from law school whenever you thought you could pass it. Mr. Bevis was able to pass it and he became a lawyer for a property title company." Marshall said at that time Judges could still practice law in an area of the law that they did not Judge and Judge Spessard Holland was able to take property law cases in the evenings and began asking Mr. Bevis's advice on titles and other matters of property law. Eventually, according to Marshall, Judge Holland decided to resign his judgeship and go into the practice of law himself and initially went into practice with Mr. Bevis as his partner. However, they needed more capital to make a go of it, and Marshall said they then decided to bring in the playboy son of the owner of Florida Power and Light, by the name of Knight, who had plenty of money, and that is how the firm became Holland, Bevis, and Knight. (Now known as just Holland and Knight after the death of Mr. Bevis).

Marshall told me that the first ten years of his practice in Bartow, he practiced as a criminal trial lawyer and that he had won the Old North Murder Trial which was the most famous trial of that time. (Marshall was the Jack Edmund of his time) He said he had a lot of success winning criminal trials, until he suddenly discovered the deep pockets of the railroad, and decided to become a civil plaintiff's lawyer, taking primarily railroad cases, and he spent another ten years doing that type of practice and had a successful civil trial practice. He said, however, at that point he began having health issues that his doctor blamed on the stress he was experiencing in his high energy trial law practice, and recommended to him to find another area of the law that would not be as stressful. Marshall took his doctor's advice and reinvented himself as a probate lawyer. He found his reputation as a successful trial attorney was very helpful to him in attracting wealthy probate clients. When there is a lot of money involved, they want a lawyer they can trust to prevail at trial if the probate case is vigorously opposed. He also told me he was appointed to some tax board in Washington, D.C., as well, but he laughed and said that tax law had become so complicated he even had to give up on doing his own taxes anymore.

Marshall told me that in 1922 there was a new wing built onto the old Polk County Court House and he said the public complained at the time that they would never need that much added room. He also told me that in his opinion the jury system being used in 1976 was not as good as the system that used to be used back when he was a trial lawyer in Bartow. He said back then there was no such thing as welfare for the poor and if someone was out of work, there was no workman's compensation either, and what the poor and jobless would do is come down every day and sit out on the benches around the Polk County Courthouse in hopes of being rounded up by bailiffs to come into the Court House to serve on juries. He said, "That was our welfare system, and it worked very well, because over time these people sat on so many trials they became professional jurors." Marshall added, "They were the fairest jurors you could find because they knew that they had to be fair or they would never get picked for another jury trial." He said there were so many fewer people in the County at that time, that this pool of jurors became well known by name to all the trial lawyers in Polk County, which then cut down on the length of voire dire. You did not need to ask them many questions when you already knew them well. I thanked Marshall for giving me so much of his time.