June 24, 2020

Member Spotlight: M. Joe Crosthwait, Jr.

Tell us a little bit about your career.

The summer after my sophomore year in college, I started an electronics company and continued to operate it full time through college, and all but my last year in law school. I attended part of college and most of law school at night. As a senior in law school I was hired by the Attorney General of Oklahoma as an intern during which time I prosecuted mostly misdemeanor but second-chaired a few felonies. Taking the bar exam before graduating (one of the last times that was allowed), I was sworn in by the Chief Justice in a private ceremony with my parents present three days after graduating in May 1974. Then I hung up a shingle and waited. Having been an avid duck hunter growing up, I was accustomed to waiting for some unlucky duck to fly over. Before long, I snared a few clients, but only a few at first, which gave me time to bother the lawyers at the other end of my office building to find out what to do. In fact, my first client began as their client, coming over to my office while I was sitting at my desk with a bologna sandwich while they were gone to lunch. Bang! I prepared my first quit claim deed! The rest, as they say, is history.

Shortly after starting my practice and in hope of securing food, I annoyed the local junior college until they invited me to teach a business law class at 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. three days a week. A year later, I was invited to be the first Director of the Legal Assistant Program, a full-time position. After determining that I could still practice during the day and teach at night and that I would be paid, I set out to find out what a legal assistant was. A year later, we were the first junior college in the country to receive full ABA accreditation. My luck had held.

For 46 years now I have practiced in a small firm, typically with only one other lawyer. I have practiced in virtually every area of law as the times and market dictated. It has rarely been boring and at times quite terrifying, but I have always been able to call my own shots. And while I have had opportunities to work in larger firms, I quickly persuaded myself that I should not work for any firm that would hire me. That decision has no doubt been to the everlasting relief of even those who don’t know it.

What has been the highlight of your career?

Without question, my involvement with the organized bar has been the highlight of my career. Being in a solo or small firm, it is easy to become isolated and out of touch with the profession. Clients all too frequently come to us because they have a problem they can’t really afford and that, at the end of the day, really can’t be totally resolved, leaving it up to lawyers to do damage control. I like people, and I really like lawyers, even those who sometimes don’t act like people. Since I like them best when they’re not on the other side of me in a case, where else would I find them but in the bar associations? Growing up, I hardly knew any lawyers, but I met a bunch right out of law school playing in bar association tennis tournaments. And then I was appointed to a fee grievance committee of the county bar. Wow!  Did I ever learn a lot they don’t teach in law school! And so it has been for my entire profession: meeting new people and learning new things all the time. I wouldn’t trade my days at the bar for anything (figuratively speaking that is)!

If you could go back to the beginning of your legal career, would you have done anything differently?

Probably, and I would have made mistakes and had successes either way.  I’m just lucky things have been as good as they have been. But one thing that is absolutely necessary is maintaining your physical and emotional health. It can be easy to get lost in the “fog of war.” While I think I’ve done very well in that regard, I’d probably amp it up even more. I’ve seen too many fall by not adequately managing their stress or by using alcohol or drugs to help. It’s much better to have a dog to pet and talk to and to exercise and to have a spouse who listens…and talks.

What advice would I give someone considering law school today?

In the words of Joseph Campbell, “Follow your bliss.”  Be true to yourself. Don’t do it because you’re supposed to or because you’ll make a lot of money. As to money, you’ll make a comfortable living, but if you have a huge student loan, that’ll take away from your comfort zone big time. Regardless of why you go to law school, have YOUR reason to go. And don’t fall in the trap of thinking that the more you pay for law school, the better the education. That is simply not true. I would tell anyone considering law school to remember that once a lawyer, you are always a lawyer. 24/7 you are a lawyer in the eyes of all. If you aren’t prepared for that, don’t do it. I like to say “Honor your profession and your profession will honor you. Dishonor your profession and it dishonors us all.”

What were the biggest changes you have seen in the legal profession over the course of your career? 

In order of magnitude, I would say first, the profession has become a mature marketplace. Legal services have been seen more and more as commodities distinguished more by price than by quality. Second, hands down, is technology. The solo and small firm can compete with the larger firms more effectively. When I first started practice, a law library was the single greatest expense after personnel. Now, that’s a relatively negligible expense. And finally, non-lawyer personnel, such as paralegals, can help provide better, faster and cheaper legal services and allow the attorneys to do that which they are best prepared to do: give legal advice.

When did you first become a member of the ABA and why did you join?

I joined my first month in law school. I thought everyone did. I have remained a “patriotic” member because the ABA does things state and local bars can’t do --- important things such as judicial candidate review, law school accreditation, and promoting legislation which benefit the public and the profession. Do I agree with everything the ABA does?  Of course not, and when I disagree, I do so loudly, working within the organization. That helps make us all, society and the profession alike, better. If the ABA didn’t exist, who would do what it does? 

What has been the highlight of your work with the ABA?

Again, I am admittedly a bar junkie. I love working with lawyers, solving problems, making the legal system better. The ABA has been an outlet for that. I started when I was a member of the first ABA Computer Committee in 1979 when a bunch got together and said why don’t we do these things –those things are now called LegalTech. I have served on all kinds of committees and task forces and within different sections. Sometimes good things got done, but always the efforts are made that steadily make us better. Having now served in the ABA House of Delegates for 26 years, I can say it is a great deliberative body --- most of the time!

If you had not become a lawyer, what do you think you would have done?

I can’t even guess. From early childhood, it never occurred to me to be anything but a lawyer.

Author

Joe Crosthwait serves in the American Bar Association House of Delegates where he continues to serve as a delegate for more than 26 years. He has served the ABA on a wide range of committees and efforts including the first American Bar Association Computer Committee, as well as the Standing Committee on Law and National Security, Chair of the Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners, and the House Committee on Scope and Correlation of Work. Joe has been recognized nationally with the American Bar Association’s Small Firm Merit Award (awarded to one small law firm nationally each year for outstanding service to clients, the profession, and the bar), and the American Bar Association’s Edward Finch Law Day Speech Award (3rd place).  Locally, Joe has received the Oklahoma Black Lawyers’ Diversity Award, the Oklahoma City University School of Law Distinguished Alumnus Award, the Oklahoma County Bar Association’s Young Lawyers’ Trailblazer Award, and numerous others.