In the 2008 edition of Louisiana Super Lawyers Magazine, we got to know W. James Singleton of the Singleton Law Firm in Shreveport. Before Singleton became a high-powered personal injury attorney; before he played a role in the landmark 1990s class action case against Big Tobacco; before he spent eight years in the Louisiana State Legislature, he was a teenager trying to find his purpose in life.
Hard labor and perseverance are nothing new for the man still known as “Willie James” in his hometown of Frierson, La., which had 200 residents, one school for grades 1-12, and a reputation for hard work–children were expected to work in the afternoon. Singleton’s job was picking cotton. “I told my God and a few faithful people,” he recalls, “that if He ever let me get out of this cotton patch, I’d never be back.” He spent high school summer breaks on construction sites with his uncle in Houston, earning $1.25 an hour pouring sewer and water lines. The 5-foot-8-inch teenager was so skinny he had to balance himself carrying two heavy, five-gallon buckets of wet cement. “If I weighed 100 pounds,” he recalls, “I had to be soaked.”
Even as a child, “I was always outgoing and talked too much. I’ve never had a loss for words. They always said, ‘That boy’s gonna be a preacher or something because he can talk.’
“I also remember very well. Because of my [memory] and my ability to speak, people notice what I’m saying.” Early on, Singleton told his great-grandmother Sally, who raised him, that someday he’d be just like Dr. Kildare or Perry Mason. “Yeah, I hear you,” she told him. “You’re very ambitious. I don’t have the money to send you to college, but God’ll make a way.” Her advice-“You can pray till your knees fall off but you gotta work too”-has become Singleton’s lifelong motto.
His decision to practice law came in 10th grade, when one day he hitched a ride to Shreveport in the back of a pickup truck and witnessed the courtroom oratory of the late civil rights lawyer Jesse Stone Jr., the first African American to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court. “I went downtown to the courthouse and peeped in the door and watched him with his hands on the table, presenting a case in front of this court. And I said, ‘Lord, this is exactly what I want to be.’ Jesse Stone was a great inspiration to me–very talented, very educated, very smart and tenacious.” Stone’s example, he says, “gave me the wherewithal to say, ‘Yes, I can. Somebody else that looks like me did it. Now why can’t I?'”