On attorney Frederick B. Abramson's desk stand five stacks of paper. Briefs and memorandums for pending cases pour from brown accordion envelopes. Notes for his work as president of the D.C. Bar Association cascade from blue and yellow files. The file cabinets bulge, but the bookshelf holds only a few bound volumes. On the floor lie framed pictures yet to be hung.
It looks like Abramson just moved into this corner office at Sachs, Greenebaum & Tayler, though he's worked for the firm for eight years and occupied this office for two. Looking around at the bare busyness, Abramson laughs. "My partners used to worry if I was staying because I never put books on the shelf."
If Abramson works in cluttered spareness, he moves with the forceful, athletic grace bequeathed him by years of afternoons on basketball and tennis courts.
A few days ago, at 50, he assumed the presidency of the 40,000-lawyer local bar, the quietly driven son of a St. Croix-born elevator operator and an Eastern Shore food service worker, by way of Harlem, the Catholic Church and the Ivy League.
This past year he served as president-elect of the D.C. Bar -- the second black so elected. He currently serves on three legal boards. For nine years, including four as chairman, Abramson worked with the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission, which recommends to the White House candidates for the city's Superior and Appeals courts. Abramson once called it the most important commission in the city.
It is all, he says, part of a simple desire "to be active in the profession and not just a member of the profession . . . to do the jobs other people don't want." His own drive, he says, never needed rewards.
The Abramson code, he says, is a product of many sources: the values of his hard-working parents, his childhood Catholic faith and discipline, the armor he built as the rare black in academic and professional settings.
"My parents brought me up to believe in honesty, hard work and achievement," he said. His mother is still living in New York and he has two older sisters, a social worker and a nurse.
"Most of my life growing up was spent on one block. It was the rough section of Harlem with the notorious 146th Street gangs. My parents knew this was a setting fraught with danger. So they instilled discipline," he remembers. The community was the same one Claude Brown wrote about in his classic look at Harlem, "Manchild in the Promised Land."
But Abramson found an early track out. He was chosen to attend Stuyvesant High School for the academically gifted, and received a scholarship to finish his last two years of high school at Cornwall Academy, then located in Connecticut, where he was the first black. In 1952 Abramson went to Yale on scholarship, one of four blacks in a class that included former senator John Tunney; John F. Akers, the chief executive officer of IBM; and Rep. James Jeffords (R-Vt.).
When Abramson was at Yale, his ambitions were to be a writer or English teacher. Those ambitions were slow to change. He attended the University of Chicago Law School, however, thinking the additional training many of his classmates were getting was a good idea. During summer jobs and clerkships with prestigious black firms in Chicago and New York, he met black lawyers who were "achievers, leaders and pioneers . . . always trying to be innovative and push economic advancement."
In 1961, the young attorney was recruited for the Justice Department. "The story is that when Robert Kennedy walked through the Justice Department he was absolutely appalled at the fact there were no black lawyers there. He put out the word, 'I want the complexion of this department to change,' " says Abramson. He became part of that change, and for the next five years, enjoyed work in the appellate division, where he could write and argue in courts across the country.
Among the few books on his shelf are five bound volumes of briefs, including one of Supreme Court briefs, from those days. "Of the Court of Appeals cases I participated in, we had 104 wins, two losses," he says proudly.
In the early 1970s, when he was chairman of the D.C. Neighborhood Legal Services Program, the board selected a staff director who was white. The staff, largely black, resisted the choice. Abramson believed the best person had been chosen for the job and fought for that principle.
A few years later, he was treasurer of attorney Clifford Alexander's race for mayor. The Alexander campaign generated its share of controversies. "Fred was part of the group, with Jim Dyke, Cliff and me, who decided it was necessary for us to come out and advocate a black police chief for Washington," remembers attorney Vincent Cohen. "All hell broke loose and people were accusing us of just wanting to put anybody in as long as he was black. From a political standpoint in 1974, the town wasn't ready for it. Now it is taken for granted."
Likewise, Abramson has represented a white corporation without hesitation against a claim of discrimination by a former black employe in front of a black judge and a predominately black jury.
"While race does play a part in most of what you do. There are rights and wrongs on all sides . . . Just as sure as I am sitting here, I was sure that wasn't a bona fide discrimination claim," he says. "I had not the least problem defending that claim and trying to beat him on it."
So, did having a name like Abramson ever help? He laughs about childhood teasing around Jewish holidays, the surprise to this day when he walks into a first meeting with a client. He wants to research the name and has been told either his father's family adopted the name of a Jewish family his ancestors worked for or it's a misspelling of a Danish version of Abramsen or Abramssen.
Cohen, who is also black and has faced the same disbelief, remembers an incident from their days together at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Then-chairman Clifford Alexander had just announced his staff when a street activist barged into his office. With all the sensitive discrimination questions he was working on, the activist demanded, why was Alexander hiring the Cohens and Abramsons of the world?
"Cliff smiled and said, 'Let me introduce you to these guys. You will like them.' When he walked into our office, the guy almost dropped dead."
But in the 25 years Abramson has been a lawyer, he has learned names rarely matter in the game of access and mobility for black attorneys.
When he first moved to Washington, he recalls, only three or four white firms had black lawyers. In 1969, he was the first black lawyer hired at Arnold and Porter, then Washington's leading liberal firm.
*In the late 1960s, as law schools expanded, major firms adopted the social consciousness of the times and vigorously recruited blacks. Now the numbers are decreasing again. In 1984, according to the National Law Journal, only 1.5 percent of the lawyers in the nation's largest firms were black -- a drop of nearly 50 percent from the minuscule 2.9 percent in 1982.
Abramson concedes that issues in the firms are complicated. The competition is rough with firms choosing attorneys who have been top-ranking students and worked with law journals. In the ultimate test for partnership -- bringing in the clients -- few blacks have the opportunity to match the record of their white counterparts. Many drop out, he says, discovering "law firms are not that great a place to be. It is an exploited system, they work you very hard . . . At the same time the pressures (on the firms) have changed," says Abramson. "The law firms are still nearly segregated today. The black partners are meaningful only in the sense that they are there . . . I don't see that situation changing anytime soon . . . Law firms are highly selective entities."
But those issues won't be swept into the background of his year at the helm of the local bar. "I don't intend to be a bar president who is going to dwell on the race question. Probably one of the columns I am going to write on my president's page is 'who have you elected as bar president? A bar president who is black? Or a black bar president?' . . . To revisit that whole area," he says.
Many bar presidents look to the bench as their next legal goal, but Abramson says right now he doesn't want to be a judge. "My views on that might change in the next two years . . . But judges become somewhat isolated . . . They can't be actively political, they can't be active with bar activities -- things I like to do right now -- to advocate and get involved and try to change things," he says.
"This job is going to involve a huge time commitment. Lots of grief in terms of dealing with daily fires. I don't expect to get anything out of it. Perhaps the recognition that I was president of the bar for a year. If I do a good job, hopefully that will be recognized as such. If I do a bad job, the record will be there."