They are remembered as lawyers who wore baggy pants and conducted most of their business out of briefcases. They stalked the cellblocks and hallways of the D.C. Superior Court, looking for clients, demanding whatever dollars they had in their pockets in return for legal counsel.
They were known as "Fifth Streeters," where the city's Superior Court is located, and were generally regarded as second-class practitioners -- an image that the lawyers who now defend the poor at Superior Court are trying hard to dispel.
"We don't hear much about Fifth Streeters anymore, at least not in that sense," said Chief Judge Harold H. Greene the other day.
Greene was addressing a criminal law training session sponsored last weekend by the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association. The session, held in the pink ballroom of the Annapolis Hilton and conducted by the National College of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Public Defenders, was seen by the lawyers there as testimony to their new status -- and further evidence of the success of their efforts to overcome the old Fifth Streeter image.
"The fact you are here for three days at your own expense . . . shows that the lawyers who practice criminal law are interested in quality representation," Greene told them.
"We've come a long way baby," said the judge of the court to the defense lawyers who practice before it.
"No one believed that 100 lawyers would show up," said Leroy Nesbitt, the association's president. Nesbitt needed 100 lawyers, at $100 a head, just to cover the costs of the three-day conference.
"I sold each person, one by one," Nesbitt said over breakfast Sunday. Eventually they (the Superior Court lawyers) get tired of me and said, 'Hell, here's the check,"
The Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association was organized in 1971 and for years held its meetings in the dingy, small Lawyers' Lounge at the Superior Court or in empty courtrooms that happened to be available.
Now they meet regularly at the National Lawyers Club, 1815 H St. NW, said Nesbitt, and, last September, for the first time, "we gave a black-tie affair" at a Washington hotel.
"There was some grumbling about going out and getting a tuxedo" and complaints that a formal dance was too "institutional," Nesbitt admitted, but he said people clamored to get in that night.
The association now has about 150 members, Nesbitt said. "We cut across all the lines, but we have to be honest, there are some older lawyers who are resisting us, but we keep the door open," he said.
Nesbitt looked up from his ham and eggs and glanced around at the other members in the hotel dining room. "I can look across the room and see a lot of contradictions really working out," he said.
While the association's social functions give the members a sense of community "instead of the lone wolves we've been historically," as one lawyer put it, the association's concern now is to upgrade the level of criminal law practice at the Superior Court.
The group brings guest speakers to its meetings and keeps track of the conduct of its members and the judges at the court.Last weekend's seminar, for which each member will get a certificate attesting to his attendance at 15 hours of lectures on topics ranging from the art of cross-examination to preparation of a homicide case, is substantive evidence, the lawyers say, of their intention to improve the quality of their work.
"It's an effort to say we're professionals who do a good job and want to do a better job," said one lawyer, who has practiced at the Superior Court since 1967.
When the association was first established "it was the old-timers protecting vested interests," said Fred Grabowsky, who was its first president.
Now, he said, most lawyers who practice at Superior Court are "a different breed of cat . . . vigorous . . . younger . . . pretty samrt," Grabowsky said.
"There are still people hustling in the halls," said Wallace Shipp Jr., a member of the association's executive board. But there is the appearance, Shipp said, that some of them are trying to "clean up their act."
The lawyers say the improvement in the quality of attorneys defending indigent clients is due in part to the Criminal Justice Act, under which courtappointed attorneys are paid by voucher for their representation of the poor.
There are more young law school graduates these days and many of them are "cutting their teeth" at the Superior Court, one lawyer said.
Many lawyers say there is no better place to learn the practice of criminal law than in big city court-rooms such as those at the D.C. Superior Court. Many of the young lawyers view their court-appointed cases as practical extensions of their law school experiences.
Other young lawyers say, they are now practicing criminal law in Superior Court because they became frustrated with the "sweatshop" atmosphere at the big corporate firms or simply because they wanted to practice law on their own.
Not all the "new" criminal lawyers at Superior Court are young. One lawyer Peter Kuh, 56-years-old and a member of the Harvard law school class of 1948, said that after he became miserable in his longtime government job, he turned to the Superior Court and started taking court-appointed cases.
"I needed to make a living. I've got eight kids. It's a skill I knew I had . . . I thought why not give this a try," he said.
While the weekend conference may have been a step toward a new image and an effort to upgrade the practice of criminal law at the Superior Court, what counts is the everyday performance of defense lawyers in the courtrooms.
There has been "some improvement," said J. Patrick Hickey, Director of the D.C. Public Defender Service. "And there is some room to go."