Oscar Fendler ’33 has always done things his own way
He remains the only graduate of HLS to ever practice law in Blytheville, Ark. He has taken cases and clients avoided by other attorneys. He speaks his mind, and declares his opinions in numerous letters to the editor. And at 91, he still practices and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.
The winner of the Founders Award from the American Bar Association’s General Practice Section in 1992, Fendler is not only a “legendary sole practitioner,” according to the ABA Journal. He is also a strong advocate for the general practice he has focused on during a legal career that has spanned eight decades.
“There’s been more of a tendency toward specialization,” he said. “I’ve led the fight against specialization.”
That is not the only fight he has led in his career, which began with his decision to attend HLS. He intended to go to Vanderbilt University Law School but changed his course when that school lost its accreditation. The demands of HLS were great, with a faculty that included such luminaries as Felix Frankfurter ’06 and Roscoe Pound, who served as dean.
“They were wonderful people,” said Fendler. “I had the best, I imagine, in the history of the Law School. It was tough, but I enjoyed every bit of it.”
HLS also trained him for the type of career he would pursue. “In those days, you didn’t have as much specialization,” Fendler said. “[HLS] really did prepare you for a general practice.”
After graduating, he joined a small law firm and became a partner in 1935. Fendler served in the Navy from 1942 to 1946 and then opened his own practice in his hometown of Blytheville, where his HLS pedigree didn’t endear him to all.
“I was odd because I went to Harvard, of course,” he said. “I got a lot of cryptic remarks, smart-alecky remarks, but I got results, and that’s what matters.”
He has taken on unpopular cases, including that of a client convicted of murdering a police officer. That man’s sentence was eventually overturned by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. He also represented black people at a time when no other white lawyer in his area would.
“I didn’t care if they had the money. I’d represent them for free,” Fendler said. “I thought it was the right thing to do.”
A past president of the Arkansas Bar Association, Fendler has emphasized that the legal profession should work to build the trust of the public. He has always been aware that a solo lawyer, particularly in the Midwest and South, serves as a “leader in a small town. People look up to you and respect you.”
“Here in Blytheville, I don’t think people have thought of me as anything but a good old-school lawyer,” he added. “I think the most important thing of all is to have a good reputation.”
Despite his reputation, not everyone has heeded his advice. Fendler, who was Hillary Clinton’s friend for 20 years, offered to represent the current first lady in divorce proceedings when her husband was governor of the state. Like everything else he’s done as a lawyer, he made the offer because he thought it was the right thing to do.