News & Politics

The Only Kind of Washington Lawyer That’s Gone Extinct

Fifth street used to be the center of the Washington legal world. What happened?

Future judge John Sirica got his start in an office on Fifth Street. Photo by Dennis Brack/Newscom.

Fifth Street Lawyer /fĭfth-strēt loy-er/ [archaic] An attorney who frequents Judiciary Square and whom, in times of trouble, you call before your spouse.

At one end of Washington’s legal food chain is K Street, home to swells known as lawyer-lobbyists. At the other is a breed known, when we refer to them at all, as Fifth Streeters: the last-ditch criminal-defense attorneys lurking around Moultrie Courthouse at Fifth and C streets, Northwest, waiting to get picked for your trial. Urban Dictionary defines Fifth Street lawyers as “the bottom-feeders in an industry already consisting of scum-suckers.”

But for those who recall the Prohibition era’s vice, outsize characters, and scandalous, high-profile cases, the term has quite different connotations. Fifth Street used to be home to some of the best trial lawyers in DC’s history.

That spot on the map had been the heart of the District’s legal world since the 19th century, and by the 1930s, “Go down to Fifth Street and get yourself a good lawyer” was a gentle way of saying, “You’ve got a problem.”

The options included Charles E. Ford, dubbed the Fifth Street Cicero, a flamboyant 220-pound advocate who once dispatched a client’s first-degree murder charge by dramatically accusing him of manslaughter. His partner, H. Clifford Allder, defended Mae West (in a civil suit over a dispute between two men in her act), Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, Washington casino impresario Jimmy Lafontaine, and Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo. Attorney Robert Miller, who carried a $1,000 bill in his breast pocket for the purpose of ostentatiously wiping his eyeglasses, never hurt for clients after he successfully defended himself at his own murder trial—for shooting his wife’s lover at the corner of 11th and G in broad daylight.

Fifth Street wasn’t all high drama. A number of serious counselors got their start there. Jacob A. Stein, a partner at Stein Mitchell Muse Cipollone & Beato who represented Monica Lewinsky, rented his first office in 1948 for $35 a month at 635 F Street. John Sirica, the DC district-court judge who ordered President Nixon to turn over the Watergate tapes, started out in private practice on Fifth Street.

But by 1963, one attorney told the Evening Star, Fifth Street had been “deteriorating for the last fifteen to twenty years.” The better breed of lawyer had stopped taking criminal cases and moved to 15th Street, taking the money clients with them. That year the culture changed forever when, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court ordered states to provide defense attorneys to those who couldn’t pay for one, thereby ending the chaotic hustle of the old days.

Today, says Webster Knight, a Fifth Streeter for 38 years—whose office is actually at Seventh and D—the term simply means “a very local lawyer.” Which didn’t always sound like such a bad thing.

This article appears in our August 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Britt Peterson

Britt Peterson is a contributing editor for Washingtonian.