Because I’d never actually lived in a small town, I’d harbored this idealized notion of what it would be. That vision quickly crumbled. What I saw was more from the pages of Peyton Place than It’s a Wonderful Life.
“You have to be a general practitioner,” they told me. I knew I didn’t want to be one, so I didn’t become one. “You can’t take credit cards, because it’s not professional,” they also told me, and I became the first to take Mastercard and Visa. And I would go on to get the first fax machine and the first to use email. And to take a month off from work at a time. Because I could.
And that would lead to taking a month off in the winter, and another six months later.
In 1997, I closed up shop and moved to Mexico, where I would maintain my law license, letting it go inactive incrementally before making the final break over a decade later. Somehow in the back of my mind, keeping up that license was a safety net.
I’m still not retired, having transitioned from practicing law to herding lawyers and writing about them.
Venue changes, work changes, but one constant remains: Membership in the American Bar Association.
Is it what you had planned when you started law school?
While what I’m doing now is more or less what I’d envisioned long before I started law school back in August 1973, I never thought the route would be as circuitous as it was. I never contemplated practicing law, because I thought a law degree would be just something I’d pick up before getting some great job that had nothing to do with law. I thought I’d be another Clark Mollenhoff or Geraldo Rivera. Or even Joan Rivers (though she never was a lawyer). Back in law school, I would’ve been voted “The Person Least Likely to Ever Practice Law.”
I didn’t go to law school to pursue truth, justice, and the American way. I went to please my grandfather, and because it was the easiest path to a doctoral degree. In my law school application essay, I wrote about legalizing marijuana and developing shopping centers, neither of which I ever came close to pursuing.
What has been the highlight of your career?
Getting that Martindale-Hubbell A-V rating, being included in Best Lawyers in America, and chairing the Iowa State Bar Association Family and Juvenile Law Section were the highlights of the early ‘90s, replaced by a decades-long run as editor-in-chief of The Compleat Lawyer, which later become known as GPSolo magazine.
My legal career might’ve been demanding, at least to me, but it definitely wasn’t sophisticated. It was a big deal to be invited to be on The Sally Jesse Raphael Show, which I wisely turned down, and to be interviewed by Entertainment Tonight about Roseanne Barr’s divorce from Tom Arnold and their Big Food Diner featuring loose-meat sandwiches.
If you could go back to the beginning of your legal career, would you have done anything differently?
Sure, it’s easy now to say I would’ve done things differently, but the reality is that I probably wouldn’t have. I had to sate that curiosity about rural and small-town Iowa. I would’ve loved to gone off to New York before the ink on my bar card was dry, but I couldn’t afford to do so, and I didn’t want to return to California, where I’d grown up. Uncomfortable surroundings impelled and enabled me to change directions earlier than most and do what I’m doing now, where I appreciate both where I’ve been and where I’m going. It’s all been good.
What advice would you give to someone considering law school today?
Learn and excel at something that has nothing to do with what you think is important to learning and practicing law, whether it’s basket-weaving, speaking a foreign language, folk dancing, or cultivating arugula, because those skills will get you through the hard times and when you least expect it. Yes, that means that the college course in meat science can be more important than one in American political theory. Learn to do something that will set you off from the rest of the pack, because those skills will make you a better lawyer.
I have mixed feelings about taking a break between college and law school. Those who take a straight path from college to law school are still malleable and will put up with the bullshit foisted upon them, because they don’t know any better. Starting to practice law at 25 means that there are five good years when you can comfortably experiment, mess up, and learn before you’re forced to become a real adult. Had I taken a break between college and law school, I very likely would’ve lost the momentum and walked out the first week of law school. On the other hand, a break might’ve developed better work habits and focus.
What were the biggest changes you saw in the legal profession over the course of your career?
Legal research has become more accessible than ever, both to the profession and to the public. We’ve gone from receiving slip opinions followed by advance sheets and bound volumes, delivered by a uniformed servant of the U.S. government, to instant access to all of that online. What used to be very restricted and very expensive can be accessed by a cellphone-toting teenager in Dime Box, Texas.
We’re living more in a time of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock than Charles Reich’s The Greening of America. Accessibility of information, speed of communication, and a tendency DIY: Whether it’s a lawyer typing and filing a document without interference or assistance from anyone else or a layperson dissolving a marriage at a kiosk, these so-called advances have changed the landscape more than anything else. These changes come at the expense of the profession, which no longer commands the prestige and respect it did back before man landed on the moon.
When did you first become a member of the ABA and why did you decide to join?
I never really did decide to join the ABA, because the decision was already made for me when ABA dues were included in my law school tuition. Back then, I would join as many sections as I could, because the journals and magazines were a real bargain. Once I passed the bar, I paid $10 to join the ABA and continued my membership in a couple of sections. Somewhere along the line, it dawned on me that ABA membership wasn’t mandatory, but I continued, just because it was a conduit to what I considered the good stuff. I guess that makes me a cradle ABA member.
What has been the highlight of your work with the ABA?
The breadth and quality of friendships made through the years is really the most important aspect of my involvement with the ABA. Sure, there’s the professionalism angle, continuing education, betterment of the profession, but it’s more than that. The ABA has spelled an opportunity to get to know lawyers who wouldn’t otherwise have been part of my sphere: BigLaw lawyers, government lawyers, judges, lawyers from exotic places like Long Island and Seattle, famous and infamous lawyers, lawyers whose lifestyles and foci were light years from mine as well those who were just like me, lawyers from The Federalist Society as well as those from the National Lawyers Guild.
Lawyers in rural areas without a strong local bar (or a local bar amounting to seven lawyers who gather for lunch once or twice a year) need the ABA more than ever. It’s more than just their opportunity to get out of Dodge; it’s a chance to get some fresh perspective and thrive. I’ve enjoyed editing newsletters, chairing substantive and standing committees, serving as editor-in-chief of one of its flagship magazines, participating in the General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Section Council and serving as its secretary and vice-chair, and serving as a member of the Standing Committee on Continuing Education of the Bar and the Standing Committee on Publishing Oversight.
If you had not become a lawyer, what do you think you would have done?
Talk show host, restaurant critic, and comic come to mind, but those are a stretch. I’d probably end up working as an editor, consultant, tour guide, voiceover actor, translator, ghost writer, artesania buyer, property manager, landlord, organic gardener, book collector, Internet sensation, zeitgeist-buster, and panjandrum. Wait a minute: those are all of things I’ve been doing for more than the past twenty years.