General Practice 50 Years Ago

Vol 29 No 2


Seth Rosner is a former Chair of the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division and practices law in Saratoga Springs, New York.


General practice 50 years ago? Such a title brings to the mind of an author the immediate thought: “It’s not possible!” That said, the fact stares me in the face that a half-century ago I was a practicing lawyer.

I have chosen here not to describe at length the staggering changes in the technology that we apply daily, hourly, to the service of our clients. (For more on that, see the article “Lawtech of Yesteryear” on page 20). But I will take a moment to describe a phone conversation I had with my mom a few years ago that illustrates the differences. I was to take her to dinner, called her just after 6:00 pm to apologize for being a bit late, and explained that I had drafted a contract for the client of a cousin of mine in Australia and was just about to fax it to my cousin, Michael, a partner in a very large firm of solicitors in Melbourne. Mom says, “What is that fax thing—I’ve heard about them but know nothing about them.” I tell her I’ve prepared this draft agreement and I’m about to put it into the fax machine and send it to Michael, who has probably just come into his office in Melbourne tomorrow morning and will be taking out of his fax machine a copy of what I just sent.

Mom: “Get out of here! What, are you kidding? How does it work and how do you know how to make it work?”

Me: “Ma, do you know how your phone works?”

Mom: “Of course not.”

Me: “So I have no idea how it works. But you use your phone, not because you know how it works but because you know how to make it work. You know that if you push some numbers, it will connect you with the person you’re calling. I put Michael’s agreement into the fax machine, dial Michael’s fax number just like you dial your phone, push a button that reads ‘Send,’ and off it goes.”

P.S.: Mom was 85 at the time, born in 1903!

But now, let’s return to general practice, circa 50 years ago. So what was it like? In very many ways there comes to mind an old French proverb: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” or, “the more things change, the more they are the same.”

Law practice, especially for the general practitioner in a solo or small firm, continues to be in its essence helping ordinary people. Few lawyers in such a practice context serve the needs of big business or wealthy individual clients. Most of our clients sitting across the desk from us are in some kind of personal stress or trauma. Their kid’s been busted for DUI; they just got a dispossess notice from a landlord or served with process in a foreclosure proceeding on their homes; they’re writing a will (an event that far too few lawyers realize is traumatic for many clients—it forces them to contemplate death, and that ain’t pleasant); maybe they’re buying their first home, which itself can be very stressful. Our clients and their problems haven’t changed.

That said, apart from the technology, perhaps the biggest change during the last 50 years has been in the expectations of clients. Our instant communications world, the instant gratification society that it has spawned, and the incessant advertising mantra that “you deserve the best” have created clients who expect their lawyers to be available to them 24/7 by phone or Internet. They expect us to draft immediately any requested document and have it waiting for them in their inbox by the next time they check their e-mail. In short, they expect instant everything.

Ah, yes, 50 years ago my small business corporate client (typically a family-owned business) might call me on Monday morning, describe an important new business arrangement, ask if we could have lunch on Wednesday to discuss it—which we would—then say he’d appreciate it if I could draft a proposed agreement and have it to him by next Monday. I would work through the weekend (that hasn’t changed at all!) and then, not to disappoint the client, have my secretary finish the typing on Monday morning, and, to keep the client happy, have it delivered across town by a messenger Monday afternoon.

Fast-forward 50 years: Same client e-mails me at 10:00 Monday morning to describe the terms of the proposed transaction, calls me at 10:15 to discuss it (she assumes that I have read and digested her 20-page description), and says: “Can you e-mail me a preliminary draft by 5:00 this afternoon” (note that I did not end this apparent question with a question mark—she meant it as a demand).

You have not just read an exaggeration or a bad joke; this has happened to me on more than one occasion. In the most recent instance the client was not a woman, but I chose to write “she” above simply to underline another salient (and welcome) difference between general practice today and 50 years ago: Today we are almost as likely to be representing women in business transactions as men. Reminds me to point out that in my law school class of 250 we had 12 women. Today women outnumber men in most law school classes.

Now I want to write briefly about people and money. My dad, who was himself a lawyer (and my law partner till he passed), paid for my college and law school expenses. Dad made “a good living,” but he was far from wealthy. My college tuition in 1950 was $750 a year. Columbia Law School two years later might have cost $1,000 a year. When I became a lawyer, I had no debts. Today, most law graduates leave law school with student loan debts well into six figures. In 1955 my annual salary as a beginning lawyer was $7,500. Today, a starting associate at a 1,000-lawyer mega-firm may earn $150,000 a year. Many of her classmates this year will be earning $0. The former will be expected to bill not fewer than 2,000 hours annually. The latter will hope to be able to find a few clients in a start-up solo practice to fill a few compensable hours a week and will go to bed every night frightened about paying her current bills, let alone the thought of paying off her student loan obligations.

Many years ago at the informal fifth-year class reunion of a dozen or so of my high school classmates, I heard light-hearted lamenting for “the good old days.” One of my buddies said, “That’s a bunch of B.S.! These are the good old days!” Depends on whom one asks.

I am very glad not to have been asked to guess about law practice 50 years from now.



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