If you are like me, you are looking forward to the season premiere of Madmen this month. Have you ever thought what a show would be like, if instead of an advertising agency, it was based on a law firm?
I was not practicing law in the 1960s. So, my version of the show would have to be based on the practicing law in the 70s. I graduated from law school and was admitted to practice law in Virginia in 1971. A few weeks later I reported to active duty in the United States Air Force at Norton AFB, San Bernardino, CA.
In 1976, I started my career in private practice in Roanoke, Virginia. I was incredibly excited about living and practicing law in Roanoke, The Star City of the South. In addition I appreciated living only 37 miles away from Blacksburg, Virginia and Virginia Tech. In the 70s, unlike today, we could leave for a Virginia Tech football game 40 minutes before kickoff and be in our seats before the kick-off.
My initial salary was $14,000. I thought that was a lot of money. My billable rate was initially $35 an hour. I could not believe anyone would be willing to pay that much for my legal work. Having spent five years in the Air Force, I only owned one suit that I purchased for $195.00. I had to make monthly payments for a year to pay for it. The senior lawyers in our firm wore hats. So, I purchased one, but I never felt comfortable wearing it.
Most Roanoke law firms did insurance defense work, among their many practice areas. Young lawyers tried subrogation cases every week in the General District Court. Even though the trials were bench trials, we gained valuable experience making opening statements and closing arguments, guiding our witnesses through direct examination and cross-examining the other side’s witnesses. I also tried several jury trials in the Circuit Court in the 70s. I remember trying several cases without having conducted any discovery.
Practicing law was both easier and more difficult then. Think about practicing law with no computers on desks, no cell phones, no email, no blogs, no social media, no iPads, no search engines, no ATM machines. On the one hand it was easy to get away from work. On the other, it was very difficult to do any meaningful work from home. If I needed to do legal research, I routinely had to go to the Roanoke Bar law library or a law school library. When I found what I needed, I stood over a copy machine and copied each page. I mentioned not having ATM machines because two times when I was out of town, I discovered that I had no money. Each time I had to find the closest American Express office and be the first customer the next morning.
There were no women lawyers in our firm. I don’t remember any in the 70s in other Roanoke firms. I hired the first woman lawyer in the 80s after a friend and I started our own firm.
Working with assistants was very different. Mr. Martin’s secretary, Miss Johnson, who had worked in a law firm longer than I had been alive, called me Mr. Parvin. I referred to her as Miss Johnson. That was the protocol. She, and our other secretaries, typed on regular typewriters, used whiteout for corrections and carbon paper for firm copies. Making edits to documents was really difficult.
I remember the excitement in our firm when we got our first IBM Mag Card “Selectric” Typewriter. I did some research and found the Mag Card II electronic memory held up to 8,000 characters, equivalent to about 2 ½ pages of typing. Once in memory, information could be recorded on magnetic cards. Its memory allowed for making major revisions without retyping. We never envisioned that technology would get any better than that.
I never had a “billable hour” requirement. I am confident I did not bill nearly as many hours as I billed 30 years later. Yet, my first week in the firm I learned that my “mentor” junior partner started work at 6:00 AM and worked Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings before church. I decided it would be a good strategy to match those hours. I learned more about the “art of lawyering” and client development sitting on the other side of his desk at 6:00 AM and drinking my first cup of coffee, than I could have ever learned any other way. Later I learned that the best lawyers in two other firms worked similar hours. So, I thought I was on the right track.
Client development was different back then. Clients were locally owned and were loyal to the law firms who did their work. I was told by senior lawyers that “marketing” was unprofessional. Some lawyers told me to just do good work, get a Martindale A-V rating and wait for the telephone to ring. I was fortunate to receive a Martindale A-V rating as soon as I was eligible, but I did not notice my phone ringing with new clients anxious to hire me. Other lawyers told me it was not what I knew, but who I knew that would make a difference. Since I essentially did not know anyone that mattered, I was forced to try the “do good work” strategy.
Many of you may not realize what it was like giving presentations in those days. Most of the time, I gave presentations without any visuals at all. Over time, I learned I could add visuals by making transparencies and putting them on overheard projectors. That, of course, required a big, bulky overhead projector, which was quite difficult to transport. But, at the time I thought that was a major breakthrough. Later, I started creating presentations with slides. That was another breakthrough, but doing presentations in the dark was not really effective. If you are interested in looking at handouts from any of my early 1980s presentations, you can click on Walk Down Memory Lane.
I doubt there will ever be a TV show about a 1970s law firm, much less one from Roanoke, Virginia. But, it was fun for me to picture what the show might be like. If you are lawyer in my generation, have I missed anything? If you are a young lawyer, would you have liked practicing law with no computers, email, cell phones etc.?