COOPER MITCH: THE FIRST SOUTHERN UNION LAW FIRM

By Joe R. Whatley Jr.[1]

The Cooper Mitch law firm was founded in 1950 by Buddy Cooper, Bill Mitch, and Hugo Black Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama as the first law firm specializing in the representation of labor unions in the Deep South. By the late 1970s, Cooper and Mitch had recruited a talented collection of lawyers including Bob Stropp, who later became General Counsel of the Mineworkers Union, and Earl Brown, who later became General Counsel of the Teamsters Union.

In 1979, I was lucky to become the associate at Cooper Mitch.  When John Falkenberry died in November, Bob Stropp and I sadly reminisced that we were the only surviving lawyers from the first three decades of Cooper Mitch.  Craig Becker and Bob decided that we needed an article on the law firm for the LCC, and since I was the associate, the task of initial drafting fell to me.

The firm’s three founding partners were all determined to return to their homes in the South to assist working people after going away for college and law school.  Jerome A. (“Buddy”) Cooper grew up in a Jewish family in a small mining community between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.  After completing Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Buddy served as Justice Hugo Black’s first law clerk. Buddy was determined to use his education and training to return to Alabama and help the people he grew up with. William E. (“Bill”) Mitch Jr. also spent much of his youth in Alabama before completing college and law school at the University of Indiana.  Bill’s father was the Mineworkers Union representative who John L. Lewis sent to Alabama to organize the mines.  After he experienced success in that effort, President Lewis then picked Bill’s father to lead the effort to organize industrial workers in the South, including the Steelworkers Organizing Committee. And Hugo was originally from Alabama, though he spent much of his youth in Washington, DC, where his father was a Senator and then an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.  After graduating from Yale Law School, Hugo returned to Alabama with the same goal as Buddy and Bill—to form a law firm that could speak for labor.

In the mid-60s, Business Week published an article on Cooper Mitch, entitled “Law firm helps shape Southern unionism.”  (September 30, 1967).  In that article, Buddy explained why the three original partners formed the firm:  “Management was always well represented by lawyers.  We wanted to give labor’s side competent representation.”  The three founders made no secret of their political views.  “’We’re liberals and we admit it,’ Cooper sa[id].  ‘We’re interested in helping the community.’”  The article quotes a veteran labor official as saying: “Back in the 1950s, when Southern organizing was like going into enemy territory, we used to tell our people, ‘Do the best you can, and if you get into trouble, holler for Cooper, Mitch & Black.’”  Their commitments resulted in many late-night, threatening phone calls, but Buddy, Bill and Hugo stood firm.

The firm worked with other union lawyers like future Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg and future Professor David Feller in precedent-setting cases such as Lincoln Mills v. Textile Workers Union.  They saw their role in representing workers broadly including being involved from the start in one person/one vote litigation such as Reynolds v. Sims.  They also handled environmental cases as well as personal injury and workers compensation cases for workers.

Buddy led the representation of the Steelworkers Union, one of the firm’s two major clients.  Jay Smith has published an article in the LCC Bulletin on Buddy and his role in the civil rights movement in Birmingham, “Bull Connor, Martin Luther King Jr. And the Labor Movement,” (August 1, 2017), https://aflcio.org/2017/8/1/bull-connor-martin-luther-king-jr-and-labor-movement.  Several decades earlier Buddy was the lead lawyer for the CIO’s massive effort to organize in the South – Operation Dixie.  Buddy also served as a leader in the Jewish community in Birmingham in various positions including as President of his Synagogue and of the Jewish Community Center.  Buddy never let his obvious brilliance go to his head.  He often said, “I’m just a country lawyer.”  When a Judge would compliment an argument he made, his regular response was: “Even a blind hog can sometimes find an acorn.”

Bill led the representation of the Mine Workers, the firm’s other major client.  He was an equally outstanding lawyer, but he was also the funniest men I ever met.  When one of the leading lawyers in one of Alabama’s corporate defense firms was seeking a Boys Market temporary restraining order against a Mineworkers wildcat strike, Bill’s statement to him was: “Why don’t you get a good job like playing a piano in a whore house?”  When a respected insurance defense lawyer made an offer of $500 to a client with a workers’ compensation case based upon an industrial accident that had injured the client’s private parts, Bill’s response was: “We are talking about my client’s penis, not yours.”  Bill’s ability to respond to his adversaries with humor as well as legal arguments made him an extremely effective advocate.

Hugo Black Jr. completed law school at Yale and jumped at the opportunity to start the firm with Buddy and Bill.  Like his father, Hugo Jr. tried many cases before juries for injured workers. However, after Brown v. Board, it was not easy for a lawyer named Hugo Black Jr. to present cases to juries in Alabama.  In 1962, after Alabama juries ruled against Hugo in two consecutive cases that he thought he should have won, Hugo moved to Miami, where he became a leader of the Miami Bar.  As Buddy said in the Business Week article, Hugo “found the triple burden of being a liberal, a labor lawyer, and the son of a Supreme Court Justice more than he cared to bear in Alabama.”

In place of Hugo, Buddy and Bill recruited Tom Crawford.  Tom’s father had been President of District 20 of the Mineworkers.  Over time, Tom became the go-to lawyer for Taft-Hartley funds and was one of the early ERISA experts.

The firm then added George Longshore, who had been a champion high school and college tennis player before law school.   In addition to representing unions, George represented the Alabama ACLU in a number of matters.

Buddy’s son-in-law, Ben Erdreich, also a graduate of Yale College and the Editor in Chief of the Law Review at the University of Alabama Law School joined the firm after George.  Not long after joining the firm, Ben decided to pursue a political career, and ultimately served five terms in Congress.  Ben was the second Jewish member of Congress from Alabama; the first one having served a single term before the Civil War; and there has not been a third.  Ben continued to serve in Congress until gerrymandering made it practically impossible for a progressive white Southerner to be elected.

John Falkenberry then came to the firm after clerking for the same federal judge who I clerked for a number of years later. John grew up in Selma where his father ran the local newspaper and covered the civil rights movement.  John developed his practice as Title VII litigation reached its peak.  He handled a number of cases where he attempted to preserve as much as possible of seniority systems that protected workers from arbitrary treatment while making modifications to remedy past discrimination.  John also tried a number of civil rights cases on the plaintiffs’ side.

Bob Stropp came to the firm after John.  Before law school, Bob had played baseball for the University of Maryland, which made the ACC/SEC rivalry a hot topic within the firm.  Much of Bob’s practice involved representing the Steelworkers in the part of the Southeast covered by what was then District 35 prior to the merger of the districts.  Bob had a unique ability to communicate with and inspire workers to support union activity.  For those of us who knew Bob well, there was no surprise that President Trumka picked him to be General Counsel of the United Mine Workers of America in 1989.

Earl Brown was the last lawyer hired by the firm before I was hired in 1979.  While in college at Yale, Earl created his own Peace Corps-type program and led protests against the Vietnam War.  After law school, Earl clerked for a federal judge in Virginia before Bill Mitch recruited him to represent the Mineworkers Union as Bill planned for his own retirement (although Bill continued to work until a week before a died on March 5, 2005).  Earl became General Counsel of the Teamsters in 1997.  Thereafter, Earl spent the last 17 years of his life advancing international labor and human rights through the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, including in Thailand, where he lived a number of years.

Even after the late 1970s, Buddy and Bill continued to mentor and train union lawyers.  Jay Smith, a now long-time partner with Gilbert Sackman in Los Angeles (or as those of us from Lower Alabama say, the other LA), still credits Buddy as his mentor.  Richard Rouco, who is one of the leading union lawyers in the South, learned his craft at Cooper Mitch.  His partner, Glen Connor took over from Tom Crawford as the go to lawyer for Taft Hartley plans and complex ERISA issues and now serves that role in the Southeast.  Even though the Cooper Mitch firm no longer exists, it continues to have a major impact on the representation of unions in the South and across the country.

I was extremely lucky to have started my law practice at Cooper Mitch.  As Buddy would say, even a blind hog can sometimes find an acorn.

 

[1] Joe Whatley grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, the site of both To Kill a Mockingbird and Just Mercy.  After Harvard College and the University of Alabama Law School, he clerked for the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Alabama.  He practiced for many years with Cooper Mitch and currently is with Whatley Kallas.

Article originally published in the Lawyers Coordinating Committee Bulletin (AFL-CIO LCC), January/February 2020 and can be found at https://lcc-aflcio.org/cooper-mitch-the-first-southern-union-law-firm-by-joe-r-whatley-jr-1.