About Fred Abramson
Frederick B. Abramson was a distinguished member of the Washington legal community. When he died in 1991 at age 56, his friends and colleagues wanted to honor him and to establish a suitable memorial for him. They created the Frederick B. Abramson Memorial Foundation. In its original conception, the Foundation provided financial and mentoring support to graduates of D.C. public high schools during their first year of college. It also funded one-year Fellowships, which provided financial stipends to supplement the salaries of recent law school graduates who worked in legal fields that provided service to our community.
There are many lawyers in Washington, D.C. And there are many successful legal practitioners. But how many inspire the deep respect and loyalty that Fred did – both during his life and after his death? What was it about him that caused his friends and associates to want to establish a foundation that would be a lasting tribute to him?
Frederick B. Abramson was born in New York City and grew up in Harlem in a tough neighborhood. He attended Stuyvesant High School for the academically gifted before getting a scholarship to finish his last two years of high school at Cornwall Academy in Connecticut. He then went to Yale University on a scholarship and subsequently graduated from the University of Chicago School of Law.
Fred’s legal career was rich and varied. He was recruited by the U.S. Department of Justice to work in the appellate section of the Civil Division. He then worked as a lawyer in the corporate legal department of AT&T, was Special Assistant to the Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and then became an associate at Arnold & Porter. Subsequently, Fred was a partner at Rollinson & Schaumberg and then at Sachs, Greenebaum & Tayler. Fred specialized in litigation, utility law and equal employment law. From January 1991 until his death later that year, Fred was District of Columbia Bar Counsel, the chief prosecutor for attorney disciplinary matters concerning members of the D.C. Bar. In addition to his practice, Fred taught as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. In many of the academic and professional settings in which Fred found himself, he was a trailblazer; there were few or no black male role models.
His contributions to the legal community were extensive. In addition to serving as President of the District of Columbia Bar, Fred was on the Board of the Washington Bar Association and served on the boards of many public interest organizations including the D.C. Public Defender Service and the National Women’s Law Center. He served for a decade on the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission, including four years as the Commission’s Chair. Fred also was on the Board of the District of Columbia School of Law. He received the Benjamin Cardozo Award of the Anti-Defamation League and was honored in 1988 by the National Women’s Law Center.
Upon his election to the presidency of the D.C. Bar, Zona Hostetler, a partner with Goldfarb & Singer, interviewed Fred for District Lawyer magazine. During the course of that interview, Fred described some of his hopes and aspirations for his fellow members of the Bar.
My goal is at least to get the individuals involved. I am not going to advocate that it has to be of a pro bono nature. I just want them to do more than to come to the office, bill their clients, and then go back home and forget about the surrounding jurisdiction in which they work and are very much a part of.
I think…that lawyers have a unique responsibility as part of this profession to give something back. We are the leaders. We are very privileged. For the most part, we make more than enough money. I think we need to give some of that back by way of help: monetary and actual help and assistance to people who are less fortunate…1
Fred expected his fellow members of the Bar to do what he did – get involved and use their talents and experience to contribute to the community.
During that same interview, Fred talked about his hope that at the Bar’s Annual Meeting there would be a reception for summer associates working in Washington. He felt that gathering the young lawyers together would provide a chance for the local Bar to talk about the many opportunities available for people to practice law in Washington, D.C. He wanted to “sell the merits of this beautiful jurisdiction in which we live as a place for lawyers to live in and practice.”2 Fred did not just work in D.C.; he embraced it and committed himself to it.
After Fred’s death, at a memorial service in his honor, Paul L. Friedman told a story that spoke volumes about his friend.3 When Paul took over the presidency of the D.C. Bar after Fred’s tenure in that position, they had lunch. Paul expected Fred to discuss weighty issues of the day before the Bar. Instead Fred told him about an album he kept of the Bar’s office staff members, with their pictures and birthdates.
Fred referred to the album so that he could recognize every staff member and send each one a birthday card. He stressed the importance of continuing this practice to Paul. As Paul reflected later, “THAT was the guidance and advice he thought was most important to pass on.” By keeping and using that album, Fred showed his respect for and acknowledged the humanity of all the people around him who helped him do his job well. It was that quiet thoughtfulness that engendered deep affection and devotion among his friends and colleagues.
In addition, Fred inspired loyalty and admiration by acting as an elder statesman for younger lawyers – particularly African-American and female members of the Bar. He offered advice, encouragement and support. Through his outreach, Fred touched many lives. Ultimately, he was known as much for his mentoring and support of others as he was for his professional skills and acumen.
[I]n his quiet, unobtrusive and caring way, Fred was a mentor to generations of young black lawyers. He never forgot that doors were often closed to him when he first arrived here, and he vowed to help others. He was an advisor and mentor to so many minority lawyers who have had the opportunity to make their mark largely because of Fred’s encouragement, advice and tangible assistance. There are countless stories of Fred Abramson’s having sent someone’s resume to a friend or making a phone call to recommend a young black lawyer for a job. And Fred then kept in touch with these lawyers to see how they were getting along.4
His friend, the Honorable Gladys Kessler , recently reminisced about Fred’s essential kindness, saying:
Fred had a warmth and a sweetness that endeared him to everyone–with a smile and a contagious laugh to match. He was never too busy to take a phone call and discuss your problem. He genuinely liked helping people–and never made you feel he was too busy to help. And while he wasn’t Jewish (despite his last name), he was a “mensch”–a good person—in the best sense of that word.5
Fred was a very successful and influential lawyer. But it was not his success that made him stand out among his peers and inspired the establishment of the Frederick B. Abramson Memorial Foundation. It was his personal attributes of generosity and thoughtfulness. It was his example and belief in honesty, hard work, discipline and achievement. And it was his commitment to mentoring those coming up behind him and to improving the community of which he was a part.
Fred never forgot the crucial role education played in his success. And he had a special concern for people seeking to pursue their dreams of higher education.
The Abramson Scholarship Foundation aspires to follow Fred’s lead – by helping young people who have already demonstrated their academic discipline and their commitment to their community achieve their goal of a college education, by mentoring them in a way that will help them reach their full potential, and by encouraging them to participate in their academic environments and in their chosen fields with an eye to their own future roles as contributing members of the community, mentors, and leaders.
1. District Lawyer, September/October 1985, Volume 10 Number 1 pp. 24 and 26-27.
2. District Lawyer, p. 25.
3. The Honorable Paul L. Friedman was appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in 1994. Judge Friedman is a founding member of the Frederick B. Abramson Memorial Foundation and was the Foundation’s first president. The Foundation is grateful to Judge Friedman for his vision and support, and for providing most of the information about Fred that is found in this section. Much of the information above was derived from two sets of remarks by him, one before the District of Columbia Judicial Conference on June 13, 1991, and another at a memorial service for Fred Abramson on June 15, 1991.
4. Remarks of Paul L. Friedman before the DC Judicial Conference, Thursday, June 13, 1991.
5. The Honorable Gladys Kessler was appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in 1994. Judge Kessler was an early member of the Frederick B. Abramson Memorial Foundation board.