The elevator opens on the fourth floor of the Wellington Building, just off Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and you’re in a small anteroom — too small, really, to be called a lobby. It could be the sitting room in a London flat, it’s that understated. One leather couch, brown. Two brass torchieres. Beige walls, beige curtains, nondescript Persian rug, dull red its predominant color. Even the small cherry wood business-cards holder is modest, as are the cards themselves: the words Sprague & Sprague in AT Light Classic Roman. No imposing receptionist’s desk, no framed testimonials, no overhead sign trumpeting that the office beyond these walls houses one of the best-known, most powerful lawyers in the city.
When you’ve reached this level of prominence, those trappings seem superfluous.
Just how powerful is Richard Sprague? “If I were in serious trouble of any kind, or if I needed advice or help on a matter of great importance, Dick Sprague is the guy I would call. He is, and has been for many years, one of the greatest courtroom lawyers in America. There are very, very few real trial lawyers that I would rank with him.”
The words come from F. Lee Bailey, himself no slouch in a courtroom. They serve as the forward to a new biography of Bailey’s friend of four decades, aptly summing up a legal career that has thrust Sprague onto the national stage for more than half a century, a career that shows no signs of stopping.
The book’s title? “Fearless.”
Maybe he first appeared on your radar screen when he took on Tony Boyle, president of the United Mine Workers Union in connection with the 1969 slayings of Joseph “Jock” Yablonski and his wife and daughter. If you’re a little younger, Sprague might have entered your consciousness when Congress named him counsel to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, investigating the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. You likely recognize him as the man who walked away from a 20-year battle against the Philadelphia Inquirer with a $24 million award for libel. (The settlement figure is confidential.)
But for Sprague, power means one thing and one thing only: the ability to get things done.
“In my view,” he said recently, “being powerful is being somebody who knows which doors to open to get results. That also includes a belief that the individual can do things on his own to achieve successful results, and also has sufficient contacts that there are other individuals in a position of authority who want to please you.”
Richard Aurel Sprague — the middle name is short for Aurelius, as in Marcus — Penn Law ’53, son of a Jewish mother and stepson of a Quaker father, first tasted that power when he joined the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office in 1958, a career move that would ultimately see him win 73 first-degree murder convictions. It was here that he began to hone the technique that gained him national repute: infinite attention to even the smallest detail, scrupulous examination of prospective jurors, meticulous choreography of witnesses’ testimony.
It was here, too, that Sprague fell in love with the drama and stagecraft of a jury trial, and with his role in it. The love affair has never turned sour.
“When I first got into the courtroom, I realized it was like producing a play, and I’m the producer, the actor, the composer,” the attorney said during a wide-ranging interview in his cluttered corner office overlooking Philadelphia’s most famous park. A trial lawyer has to be two steps ahead of the judge, three steps ahead of the jury, he believes, maintaining control and directing the action without appearing to cross the line into belligerence. It’s a complicated ballet, and for Sprague, it never, ever gets old.
He’s heard all the pejoratives his enemies can muster — that he’s arrogant, fierce and uncompromising, that ice water runs through his veins — and he takes them in stride. Embraces them, even.
“If somebody says I try to be controlling, I think they’re right, especially in the courtroom,” said the man Philadelphia Magazine identified as one of the city’s 50 most influential people. “I want that jury, and even the judge, to look at me as though I’m the dominant person there.”
Sprague acknowledged that he goes to great lengths to cultivate his mystique, largely staying out of the public eye by refusing media interviews and television talk-show appearances. His philosophy is the less people see of you — know of you — the greater their curiosity … and their awe.
He has never Googled himself, Sprague said, and he seemed mildly surprised to learn that 29,900 listings pop up when a user types in his name and city into the search engine. “Except for my law work, I really am a private person,” Sprague said. “I’m not a joiner, not a hail-fellow-well-meet type of person. I’ve never joined fraternities or social groups. I really enjoy my privacy.”
Sprague’s face is familiar to newshounds based on a career that has spanned service with the District Attorney’s Office as well as 30-plus years in private practice. He has represented such outsized personalities as F. Lee Bailey, Allen Iverson, Larry King’s former wife, and John DuPont, a member of the DuPont family who was convicted of murdering Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz. His firm — Sprague & Sprague, the other Sprague being his son, Thomas — has the luxury of picking and choosing among clients; if you’re an average Joe looking to sue your neighbor over a property dispute, chances are your case won’t wind up at 135 South 19th Street.
“My practice is a little bit different from other attorneys’. I get inundated with requests, and as a result I can be very selective,” Sprague said. “I don’t take a case for the money — I take it if the legal aspects interest me, or the people. I’m looking for really good legal issues. As a result, a lot of the cases I wind up handling are better known.
His rates for clients are high, said to be among the top in the city. There’s a reason for that, Sprague said with a rare grin: People think you must be pretty great if you can get away with charging such high fees.
Only about two percent of the firm’s workload involves criminal cases; the rest are civil cases, among them a $200 million suit in which Sprague is supporting Aetna Insurance against a group of insurance companies. His custom during a trial is to gather the other lawyers in his firm and kick around different approaches until one feels right.
“I don’t think I’m the guy who knows it all. I like strongminded people around me. I appreciate someone saying, ‘Hey, Sprague, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,’ as long as that person can defend his statement. People who work with me here, if they think I’m dead wrong, they’ll tell me.
“But you have to be the one who makes the quick decision in the end — you can’t tell a judge and a jury, ‘Hmmm, let me think about that, I’ll get back to you.’ ”
Although he thoroughly immersed himself in his work as a prosecutor, leaving in 1974 only after a public dispute with District Attorney Emmett Fitzpatrick, Sprague said being in private practice has opened up a broader world to him. “Getting out of the DA’s office has made me a better lawyer,” he said. “I can’t think of a single kind of case I haven’t tackled. I think because of that I’ve become more of an innovator, a better thinker and planner. Every new case becomes a challenge to me, because it represents an area I haven’t yet explored.”
His voice, remarkably strong still at 83, becomes animated when he talks about what still lies ahead. Retirement? Don’t even think about it. Other than a space heater at his feet, he’s made no apparent concessions to age in this, his ninth decade, and he still plays tennis every Sunday morning, and Monday and Tuesday evening.
“I’ll die with my boots on — if I die,” he said, and a listener gets the distinct feeling he’s only half joking. As comfortable ensconced in a box at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House listening to his beloved Wagner and Puccini as he is in a courtroom, Sprague said he loves nothing more than dumping old clothes in his car and driving to the Blue Ridge Mountains for an afternoon of antiquing and visiting Civil War sites. He’s a big amateur photographer and, no surprise, a fanatical chess player.
Had he not wound up in law, Sprague probably would have become a scientist, said the son of two psychoanalysts who failed to persuade him to follow in their career footsteps. “I love science — especially the study of the universe and the stars,” he said. “I’m always excited to hear about new planets and new solar systems. The idea that there are more stars out there than grains of sand — that’s just mind-shattering.”
It’s easy to imagine this legal legend running for public office — U.S. Senate like his mentor Arlen Specter, say, or the state bench. Over the years, opportunities presented themselves, but Sprague steadfastly refused the calls for a simple reason. “I love my independence,” he said.
Way back when he was first assistant DA, poring over some now-forgotten brief at 2:30 in the morning, he took a call from a local resident griping about noisy neighbors. Look at the time, man, Sprague replied — call back during working hours. Not so fast, came the indignant reply: Don’t forget I’m a taxpayer, and you work for me.
“I realized that was true — when you’re in elected or appointed office, you are not quite a free soul. You’re subject to the whims of the electorate, or of those of the people who appointed you. Being in private practice makes me the most independent person in the world. You can’t tell the press to drop dead if you’ve been elected. You have some invasion of your personal life, and you can never forget that.”
Throughout his career’s various permutations, Sprague’s passion for the law has remained unwavering. Although he spent his formative legal years representing We the People as prosecutor, he believes it’s the people — lower case — who need protection from their often-intrusive government.
“The way to judge a society is not by how it treats its saints, but how it treats its sinners,” Sprague said. “The federal courts used to be very good at protecting the constitutional and privacy rights of anyone who appeared before them. That has dropped, probably because of 9/11, with putting national security ahead of personal rights. In general today, there’s a greater interest in protecting government against the individual. But government is very strong; it’s the individual who needs to have his rights protected.”