At age 93, James D. Harrison still makes a daily appearance in the law firm he co-founded more than a half century ago. Make no mistake: it’s not for show. The Indianapolis attorney remains an active part of the legal landscape he’s been navigating since before World War II, and he’s reached a 70-year milestone of practicing law that puts him into a rare league of legal elite who’ve been practicing longer than many firms stay together or attorneys stay in practice.
His adventures yield more stories than he knows how to tell, stories that now include a recent reception in March where he was designated an honorary secretary of state by Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita. But many in the Indianapolis legal community know him best as a founding member of law firm Harrison & Moberly, where he maintains the of counsel title and every practicing attorney there has come to expect to see his wave or hear his voice in the office each day.
Those who know him best say Harrison has kept a sense of humor and maintains modesty in everything he does, which was evident during an Indiana Lawyer lunchtime interview when he wanted to chat about the law instead of talking about his past – since "there’s not much excitement to write about there."
"He’s got a wonderful wit about him but doesn’t like to be in the limelight and doesn’t make a big to-do about himself," said Flora Crain, a receptionist at the law firm who’s been working with Harrison for 35 years. "Really, he’d just prefer to go unnoticed."
After graduating from high school in 1932, the Logansport native spent time traveling between coasts by freight before returning to his hometown. He was about 20 at the time and started working at a Shell filling station to save money, eventually earning enough by pumping gas and cleaning windshields to start law school. A friend who wanted Harrison to "do something with his life" brought him to Indianapolis where they visited three educational institutes Harrison could possibly attend: chiropractic, embalming, and law school.
The young Harrison started at Benjamin Harrison Law School in Indianapolis in 1934, which later became part of Indiana Law School and then absorbed by Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis. He has a degree from all three.
"I got along with the law school dean best, and he called the next day and said he had a prospective job for me if I’d come to school there," Harrison said. "That was enough for me."
That job as an insurance claim filing clerk helped Harrison pay for law school, and he eventually worked his way up to claims adjuster and attorney for a big Indianapolis insurance company after graduation.
Harrison recalled how the tough, Depression era before World War II meant a unique law school experience for students at that time.
"In ordinary times, you wouldn’t have the best lawyers in town teaching you," Harrison said. "But things were tough in those days and everyone needed money, so we had the best lawyers in town in those classrooms."
After law school, Harrison continued his work as an insurance claims attorney and eventually ventured into the Indiana Attorney General’s Office in 1943. As a deputy attorney general for four years, he handled cases that included matters such as insurance and bank mergers.
He spent a little less than two years away from the law when serving the U.S. Navy in Guam, enlisting with a fellow deputy attorney general who later went on to become a judge in Peru. After returning to work at the AG’s office, Harrison became Indiana’s traffic safety director under Gov. Ralph Gates in 1947.
Those were interesting times because no official speed limits were in place; only "reasonable speeds based on the circumstances" were to be followed, he recalled. The Indiana State Police was in a state of disarray and the motorcycle police had been dubbed "the riding peacocks of the highway," he recalled.
The governor appointed him to help establish a variety of traffic safety missions, Harrison said, which brought not only plaudits from the National Safety Council and AAA organizations but also a public war of words with the Indianapolis mayor over traffic control and arrest laws.
Harrison resigned in 1948 when a new governor from the opposing political party won the election – even though Gov. Henry Schricker was a Sigma Delta Kappa fraternity brother of his.
"I put my resignation in immediately, politics being politics," said Harrison, a lifelong and ardent Republican. "To save him from having to fire me for a Democrat."
After that, Harrison practiced briefly with Rinier Thayer & Harrison before teaming up in 1950 with an attorney he knew from local political and legal circles – Warren C. Moberly – and two friends with a trucking law practice. They formed Boyce Guenther Harrison & Moberly and kept that name until the first two entered semi-retirement. They had various other permeations of the name but eventually settled on Harrison & Moberly because "two names are better than 20."
Each of them served as president of the Marion County Republican Veterans Association, a powerful and influential group for years following the war that had a lot of influence in the legal community, Harrison said.
Now, the sole living founder is proud of the firm that he sees as rating as high as any of the top firms in Indianapolis. That is a result of intentional moves in hiring attorneys the pair liked and who were high-rated on the Martindale-Hubbell listings, he said. He knows Moberly, who died in 1989, would also be proud.
"We’re small, but have the same ratings as a big firm," Harrison said. "We did something deliberate that other firms our size might not have, and that means lawyer for lawyer those firm don’t have the percentage basis of top-rated (attorneys)."
Not chiropractics – remember?
Harrison didn’t make the choice for chiropractic school earlier in life, but the intersection of that field and his chosen profession have played a significant part in his legal career. He spent more than 50 years as general counsel for the International Chiropractors Association.
Colleagues recalled how he’s been a staple in that organization, traveling to board meetings in Iowa and Washington, D.C., and spending hours on the phone each day with ICA leaders and individual chiropractor members. Some saw him as the "Merlin behind the throne."
"He was simply indispensable, and when they measured prospective counsel against Jim Harrison, they found no one measured up," said Brian Niederhauser, who worked with Harrison for years on the ICA and sees him as a mentor. "It didn’t take long for each new administration to realize that no matter how clean they wanted their new broom to sweep, it couldn’t and shouldn’t sweep away Jim Harrison."
Early on, his work involved representing unlicensed chiropractors that were being sued for practicing without a license, Harrison said. He had about 30 clients at any given time and had dozens of $25 fines lodged against the chiropractors – a sympathetic and kind punishment for his guilty clients, Harrison admitted.
One of the highlights of his time representing the ICA came in a 1976 federal suit against the American Medical Association – one that lasted 14 years. Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division, the federal antitrust suit of Wilk v. AMA, 671 F. Supp. 1465, N.D. Ill. 1987, involved chiropractors suing the AMA for conspiring to destroy the profession of chiropractics. The federal judge issued a 101-page opinion that ruled the AMA had done this by organizing a national boycott of chiropractors by medical doctors and hospitals using an ethics ban on interprofessional cooperation. The decision was ultimately upheld by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of the United States in 1990.
Harrison was the one who’d spent a year trying to find an attorney to take on the unpopular task of representing the chiropractors against an army of AMA attorneys in litigation that could last several years, he said. That person was a Notre Dame law school graduate, who Harrison keeps in touch with and is now an antitrust lawyer in Chicago.
"(Almost) Sixteen years it took, but we beat ’em," Harrison said, an energized gleam in his eye and a grin on his face. "I thought it would take about six, but it was 10 more than that to get a federal injunction to stop the AMA from bad-mouthing chiropractors."
He still represents the organization’s Indiana affiliate, but he pointed out that is mostly just for fun.
Still going strong
Those in his law firm describe Harrison as an inspiration to everyone and not only because he’s 93 and still coming into the office where his colleagues describe him as "the epitome of esquire."
Outside the law firm office west of Monument Circle a block from the Indiana Statehouse, Harrison’s work on the Indiana Supreme Court Committee on Character and Fitness has helped shape the state’s legal community since 1976. He’s one of more than 300 lawyers who personally interview all applicants to the bar, and in that role he frequently offers advice to young attorneys entering the field.
The advice he gives: "Be a straight arrow, like the Indians. We, as lawyers, have to be on a high road." Then, he starts describing ethical or moral dilemmas they could get into and what the legal profession would say about it.
Harrison has no plans to slow down or stop practicing. He admitted, though, the legal world has changed and he’s not quite sure for better or worse.
He doesn’t recognize many of the attorneys or staff in the courthouses each week, nor many on the street corners of Indianapolis, Harrison said. More settlements were made on the street in his early days, and he noted that a handshake deal made on a street corner today probably wouldn’t hold up in court or even until the attorneys returned to their offices.
"We have an entirely different way of doing things now," he said. "There’s just too darned many of us. We’re no worse or better as lawyers, just different."
He doesn’t have any immediate plans to retire. In fact, he’d originally planned to retire at age 65, but compatibility with the people in his office kept him from that, he said.
"It’s too much fun," Harrison said. "If I stayed home, I’d be miserable. The secret is staying active, being a part of it all."