William & Mary

Remembering John Levy

by Paula Hannaford-Agor J.D. '95

Like many W&M Law alumni, my first exposure to John Levy took place during the second week of August, 1991 at “Law Camp,” a weeklong introduction to the law and legal education for 1Ls.  Standing in the front of Room 119 on the first morning was a diminutive man with white hair who took us through an elaborate exercise in law-making and legal interpretation with a series of hypotheticals involving the ubiquitous “Pat Marshall,” a unisex denizen of Wytheville living in a new country with a still-undeveloped legal code.  In the first hypothetical, Pat Marshall killed a stranger he/she encountered in the neighborhood.  Was this illegal?  Most of us answered yes, to which Professor Levy (he was very much “Professor Levy” at that point) asked us to point to the law Pat had broken.  The answer, of course, was “none” – the law prohibiting homicide had not yet been enacted in Wytheville.  After Wytheville remedied the oversight by passing a law against homicide, Pat Marshall kills again … and again … and again … while Professor Levy ushered the class through a variety of aggravating and mitigating circumstances and defenses to homicide.  I’m sure some of my classmates thought this was a facile exercise, but for me, who really had no idea what to expect from law school, it was a profound exercise in “learning to think like a lawyer.”

Later that day, I discovered that I had been assigned as an associate in the law firm of Levy & Someone for Legal Skills, so I could look forward to at least two more years of learning practical skills such as negotiation, legal writing and citation, trial and appellate advocacy, and legal ethics from “John,” who insisted on familiarity rather than formality with his junior associates.  More importantly, he opened his office, his house, and his community to the students in his firm.  The first weekend after Law Camp, he invited us on a trip across the James River on the ferry for an afternoon of “fossiling” at Chippokes State Park, followed by a meal featuring peanut soup, crab cakes, and peanut-raisin pie at the Surry House Restaurant (then a destination point for travelers).  I so enjoyed Chippokes that I often traveled across the river looking for a place of solitude to escape from the craziness of law school.  After graduation, I moved to Surry, in large part to live close to the park.

Ironically, it was due to the fraudulent conduct of a Newport News attorney, that my friendship with John Levy really began.  In 1992, the Hampton Roads legal community was reeling from news that David Murray, a prominent Newport News attorney, had embezzled more than $42 million from clients over many years.  Several lawyers managed to recover some of those funds for Murray’s former clients, but the settlement agreements always included a clause that they would not disclose the misconduct to law enforcement or the Virginia State Bar.  Murray’s malfeasance was eventually reported by his own bookkeeper.  I remember bursting into John’s office demanding to know what perverse provisions of the Virginia Code of Professional Conduct would require lawyers to keep silent and allow Murray to remain a clear and present danger to his clients.  Many discussions followed – and even an independent writing project – about the vagaries of client confidentiality, legal regulation, zealous advocacy, and the occasional but necessary divergence of law from morality.  

Because he knew of my interest in legal ethics, John invited me to participate as an intern on a Virginia State Bar committee to which he had been appointed to revise the Code of Professional Conduct.  That “internship” lasted well over two years, and my fondest memories of law school were our monthly commutes to Richmond for committee meetings, during which our conversations spanned far and wide, including living abroad, managing (or not) teenage girls, environmental concerns, caring for aging parents, LGBT rights and his work with the ACLU, and vegetarianism, to name just a few.  I came to think of these trips as “quality time with John.”

I remained in the Williamsburg area after graduation, so was able to stay in closer touch with John over the years than might have been possible if I lived further away – meeting for lunch at Chez Trihn (his favorite restaurant, which had added a vegetarian entrée to its menu named for him), or just dropping in to each other’s office or home for a quick chat from time to time.  Looking back over the past 25 years, I see how much of an impact he has had on my life both professionally and personally, and it saddens me no end to think that I will never again experience the happiness of having him pop through the door with a friendly “Greetings!”