Legendary Litigator Jake Ehrlich

Our second installment of legendary litigators recounts the life and career of lawyer Jake Ehrlich, known as “The Master.”

What does it take to earn the title “The Master?”  For starters, it helps to have inspired 3 Television shows and be the lead counsel on landmark first amendment cases.

Jake Ehrlich’s Legal Education

Born in Rockville, Maryland in 1900 Jake Ehrlich began his legal education at Georgetown Law School. According to the Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law, Jake left Washington, D.C., and arrived in San Francisco nearly penniless.  He continued his legal studies at San Francisco Law School and boxed professionally to help make ends meet.

Never Plead Guilty

If you have heard anything about Ehrlich, it is this famous aphorism: “never plead guilty.”  His first major case was defending and reversing a charge against Alexander Pangages in 1931.  Following his successful defense, a stream of Hollywood celebrities entrusted their legal affairs to his practice.

Ehrlich’s roster of clients was as eccentric and flamboyant as he was (much like his fellow lawyer, Melvin Belli, whom Jake knew).  A few of the famous personalities and actors Jake represented during his legal career were:

  • Sally Rand
  • Caryl Chessman
  • Howard Hughes
  • Errol Flynn
  • Billie Holliday

Perhaps the only thing more astounding than the celebrities he represented is the sheer number of clients he whisked away from the death penalty.  Jake Ehrlich defended 56 individuals accused of murder and never allowed one to be sent to the gallows.  While he is most famous for this area of his practice, much of his legal career was also dedicated to divorce law.

The Howl Obscenity Trial

It is impossible to talk about Ehrlich and not discuss the famous 1957 Howl obscenity trial.

In May 1957 two officers from the San Francisco Police Department entered the City Lights Bookstore and purchased a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems from Shigeyoshi Murao.  Next, they arrested Murao and later the owner of the bookstore and publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

As the court proceedings state, “The complaint alleged that the defendant did willfully and lewdly print, publish and sell obscene and indecent writings, papers and books, to wit: ‘Howl and Other Poems.’”

The lead prosecutor was an attorney named Ralph McIntosh, who had developed a specialty in trying obscenity cases.  Opposite McIntosh was Ehrlich, Alan Bendich and Lawrence Speiser from the ACLU.

Ehrlich’s role was noted for his devastating cross-examinations and his especially marvelous presentation of the case to the court.  “The Master” called a cavalcade of writers, literary critics, and professors of literature to defend the literary merits of Ginsberg’s poetry.

Based on the Living Character  J. W. “Jake” Ehrlich

We mentioned earlier in the article that there were more than a few television shows based upon the life of Jake Ehrlich.

The three shows based upon “The Master” were 333 Montgomery (named for the location of Ehrlich’s law offices for a number of years), Sam Benedict, and Perry Mason.  By far the most popular show was Perry Mason.  Actor Raymond Burr even spent two weeks shadowing Ehrlich so he could obtain a better understanding of Jake’s mannerisms.

Ehrlich was also a prolific author, finding the time during a busy legal career to pen 12 different books, including an autobiography.  But the most popular book on Ehrlich was not written by the man himself.  The 1955 book chronicling the life of Ehrlich, Never Plead Guilty, sold over 2 million copies, boosting the renown of the already famous lawyer.

Closing Arguments: Fisticuffs, Cufflinks, & an Off-hand Remark

One of the popular quotes attributed to Jake Ehrlich is, “[W]hen I defend a man in a capital case, my fee is EVERYTHING he owns.  The way I have got it figured, if I win him his freedom it is worth it, and if I don’t, he won’t need it anyway.”

While this quote is admirably pithy, it might nevertheless appear to be far too whimsical for an ominous matter like a murder trial.

To really grasp the meaning behind this quote however, we need to revisit (if briefly) the least talked about aspect of Ehrlich’s life; what has constituted, for all intents and purposes, an off-hand remark in many of the sources that discuss Jake Ehrlich: his boxing career.

As a prize fighter, “The Master” would have learned a few lessons in the ring, and one of them would have almost certainly been that in order to win a fight giving up would not be an option.  He would need to use the maximum amount of his energies to win.  Or as Jake himself said, “I never forget a friend or forgive an enemy, and if somebody is stupid enough to make themselves my enemy I destroy them.”

Thus, the first quote is really a clever admission of what the lawyer himself was going to put in the trial.

And that was everything.

We might understand The Master as saying, “When I defend a man in a capital case, my fee is EVERYTHING he owns.  Because I’m going to put EVERYTHING I’ve got into winning that trial.”

And maybe that’s the real reason why Jake Ehrlich was The Master.