I Don’t Know What I’d Do Otherwise
An oral history of attorneys who remember wearing fedoras and watch fobs, hopping the “C” train to the office, and triumphantly negotiating a salary of $9,000. A year.
Published in 2015 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
By Stan Sinberg on June 29, 2015
When the half-dozen luminaries spotlighted here launched their careers in the 1950s and ’60s, divorce came with “fault,” criminal offenses didn’t carry “strikes,” nuptials took place without the “pre,” and attorneys were overwhelmingly white and male. There was no law requiring one side to turn over evidence to the other—a situation that encouraged what Melvin Belli dubbed “trial by ambush.” California attorneys were prohibited from advertising, so no Better Call Saul Goodmans. Documents, of course, were made of paper and fashioned on typewriters, while copy machines lay in the future. Faxes? They were the stuff of science fiction.
The following six attorneys contemplate how things were, are and will be.
Even lawyers who have been at it for over a half-century were not necessarily born to the profession.
Kurt Melchior / Nossaman; Business Litigation; Yale Law School 1951
Melchior: I became a lawyer quite by accident. After World War II, I went to college on the GI Bill and got a master’s in international relations. A professor asked me, “What will you do now? You’re not going to work for the State Department, are you?” I said, “No, I think I want to become a foreign correspondent.” He said, “That’s a great idea, but I think you should take a year of law school.” I looked at him funny and he said, “I don’t mean to sell your soul. Just take it as a social science.” I liked law school. I stayed three years and decided to work for the government.
Richard W. Canady / Arnold & Porter; Mergers & Acquisitions; University of Iowa College of Law 1959
Canady: I audited a couple of law courses, and I was amazed how smart those guys were. My first semester in law school, I was working in a clothing store downtown and a corporations [law] teacher was a customer. He said, “You really do well; I’d like you to become my research assistant.” I hemmed and hawed, and he said, “Well, you have to make a decision: whether you want to become a clothier or a lawyer.”
Gerald Sterns / Sterns & Walker; Aviation and Aerospace; University of California, Hastings College of Law 1959
Sterns: I got out of the military and I had the GI Bill. I told my wife I’d like to go back to California. She said, “Great idea! What’ll we do?” I said “law school” because I could get into Hastings.
Jim Brosnahan / Morrison & Foerster; Civil Litigation: Defense; Harvard Law School 1959
Brosnahan: I had played a lot of athletics in college, but I could tell I wasn’t going to be a professional. I watched the Army-McCarthy hearings on TV, and they were all lawyers. McCarthy was accusing everyone of being a Communist, and [Army special counsel Joseph] Welch took him down. I thought, “That’s competitive!” I remember thinking if I was an athlete, I’d be done at 35; lawyers go longer. Now I’m 81. Eighty-one!
It could be easier to hit the ground running back then.
Wesley J. Fastiff / Littler Mendelson; Employment & Labor; Harvard Law School 1959
Fastiff: My first day in private practice, a guy came in; he had a small trucking company. There was a provision that all loading and unloading had to be done by Teamsters. The guy said in his business he picks up palletized loads, so there’s no loading or unloading, because the shipper takes a forklift and takes it off the truck. That violated the contract because no Teamster was doing it. So they had guys who would show up and get “runaround pay”—for hours for doing nothing. The owner said other lawyers told him there was nothing they could do. I had an idea I could attack that clause as illegal. So I filed these charges with the NLRB. Shortly after, I get a call from another company, a friend of this guy, asking if I could represent them. Then I get a call from the California Trucking Association. I’d been practicing two weeks, and I was representing 150 trucking companies and the CTA.
[Later, representing the national truckers association], I sat on one side of the table. On the other side was Jimmy Hoffa. Jimmy starts yelling at everyone, “You better be concerned about this. I’m gonna remember you.” We [then] have a caucus, and the trucking company executives are getting concerned. There’s a knock on the door and it’s Jimmy. He says, “Wes, I want to talk to you.” I go out to talk to him. He says, “Wes, what do you want?” I tell him. He says, “Fine. You got it.” He was always polite, I was always polite. He even gave me a signed picture.
Brosnahan: I had just started as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Phoenix office and immediately got a murder case because there were only three of us—all the Republicans had left after Kennedy’s election. I was thinking, “What am I doing here?” At the end of the government’s case, Judge Albert Wollenberg said, “There’s no evidence against two of the defendants,” and I asked for a recess. I run out and I discover that circumstantial evidence is just as good as direct evidence, so I run back and I say, “Judge! Big news! Circumstantial evidence is just as good as direct evidence!” And he couldn’t have been nicer. He said, “Quite so, Mr. Brosnahan, but I don’t think in this case you really have either.” We got convictions on the other two.
Lowell H. Sucherman / Sucherman-Insalaco; Family Law; Brooklyn Law School 1957
Sucherman: One day a lady came in from Monterey. She was married to a prominent Monterey lawyer and going through a divorce and couldn’t get any representation there. The senior partner at our firm introduced me as “the family law expert.” I didn’t know anything about family law. It was a stacked deck against us. The lawyer representing the husband was the former law partner of the judge. And the husband was the kingmaker in Monterey County. In the courtroom, one day at 1 o’clock the door opened and in walked the judge, the husband and his attorney, all wearing golf shoes. I announced this on the record and the judge was furious. He gave us zero. We appealed and it was a slam dunk. I immediately started getting cases from all over the country.
Sterns: A lady had been hit in a crosswalk. She went to the ER, and she was having some emotional reactions. No one had heard of PTSD in those days. I thought, “I’ll find a neuro-psychiatrist to look at her.” He said, “This lady has some serious, spooky problems. She won’t cross the street; she’s terrified of cars coming from behind.” I put him on the stand. He was marvelous. The jury came in with a verdict for $25,000. The judge leans over and says, “Mr. Sterns, that’s quite a verdict!”
It was a time when being a counselor bestowed instant prestige. Or was it?
Melchior: I don’t know about society, but at law school, we were people who felt that the law was going to make the world over and create a system that was fair and just and work for everybody. It was the aftermath of the New Deal and a very idealistic time.
Sterns: [Lawyers] were probably held in a lot higher esteem than now. Except for personal injury lawyers.
Brosnahan: There’s a lot of talk about how lawyers aren’t respected any more. But I don’t think lawyers were ever respected. Criminal lawyers are not respected—they oughtta be, but they’re not—because they’re representing all these “guilty” people. That’s how the public looks at it. We all remember the “good old days,” but they weren’t.
Sucherman: Within my family, the profession was looked upon as very good—not as good as a doctor, but OK. At the time, family lawyers were considered low-class.
Nowadays, some attorneys bill north of a thousand dollars an hour. It wasn’t always thus.
Brosnahan: The first job I had, in the plaintiff’s personal injury firm, was for $300 a month.
Melchior: Rates were $50-60 an hour. I remember someone saying he charged $100 an hour and it was like, “Oh, my!”
Sucherman: My first year in practice, I made $3,590. For a divorce, you charged $225 to handle the whole case.
Fastiff: In labor law, there’s a lot of negotiations, so I really wanted to negotiate my salary. This was 1963. With all that background, I made a deal for $9,000. Not a month. A year. I thought that was pretty good.
Sterns: As a brand-new lawyer in 1959, I made $340 a month.
Melchior: I was not yet married, so I rented an apartment on Edith Street from an Italian lady on Lombard Street. If I stood at a certain angle, I could see the Golden Gate Bridge. I walked through bohemian districts to go to work.
Sterns: I’d take the Key System—those were trains that used to run from the East Bay to San Francisco on rail tracks on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge.
Brosnahan: I’d ride the “E” bus from Berkeley to my office in San Francisco, and there’d be always be a bunch of lawyers on that bus. We’d all sit in the back; sometimes we’d play cards.
High salary or low, lawyers were expected to dress the part.
Brosnahan: I wore a three-piece suit, and sported a watch with a watch fob. In Union Square, women wore gloves, men wore three-piece suits and fedoras, just to go shopping. I always felt when you meet with a client, they should be able to picture you in the courtroom. The first time I saw a lawyer walk in without a tie, I went, “No, no, no.” I stopped wearing a tie every day three months ago. I must say, it’s kind of liberating.
Melchior: I had an interview with a large law firm in San Francisco. The lawyer had a big corner office. I told his secretary I was here to see Mr. Clark. She looked me up and down. “Where’s your hat?” she asked me. “You want a job with Mr. Clark, you have to wear a hat.” When I walked into Mr. Clark’s office, the first thing he asked me was, “Where’s your hat?” He offered me a job anyway, but I didn’t take it.
Canady: In the 1990s, we were going down to Silicon Valley companies, and if you went in a suit and tie, they’d throw you out. So we started going casual, and then the firm started doing casual Fridays and eventually went all casual. But I still wear a suit and tie [on the other days] because I have all my money in my clothes.
It was a white-male-dominated world, with women and minorities mostly relegated to secondary positions. If that.
Melchior: There were nine or 10 women out of 190 in my graduating class, which was considered very much. When I was a young lawyer in San Francisco, there was one Chinese lawyer who everyone knew as “the Chinese lawyer.” I applied for a couple jobs out of law school and an interviewer asked, “Why do you want to work for the government?” I told him, and he said, “That’s all over. The New Deal is dead, the war is over, there’s nobody left here but us old Jews, and women who can’t get a job anywhere else.”
Sterns: There were two women in the trial bar when we started. One of them said the only way she could survive in the profession was to emulate her male opponents. You know the Sandra Day O’Connor story: She was near the very top of her class at Stanford and she could not get a job anywhere as a lawyer in the Bay Area.
Canady: We hired women many years ago. The only change was maybe we watched our language a little bit. But come to think of it, I don’t think we did.
Fastiff: We were one of the very first firms to have women partners. We had a woman partner before I joined the firm.
A common complaint among attorneys today is a lack of civility in the profession.
Sterns: We all knew each other. You would try to beat them up in a courtroom, but we were all pretty good friends. It wasn’t a war all the time.
Canady: You could have some fierce battles, but you’d shake somebody’s hand and develop a personal relationship. Someone would be right opposite you, and it would be difficult to be a jerk. Today you rarely meet. I hear people say things over the telephone that they’d never say if you were meeting in person, or thought you’d ever meet.
Melchior: I remember running into the opposing lawyers at a bar convention; they wanted to talk to me, I didn’t want to talk to them—they had been pretty bad—and they said, “The judge really blew it, didn’t he?” [Laughs] And you could live on! It was always “the judge’s” fault. Now, you rarely see the same lawyers twice.
Sterns: While I was clerking, I took a job at the Alameda County Courthouse parking lot, where Melvin Belli parked at the height of his career. His entourage would show up each day, with a Rolls Royce or something. I’m sitting there with my law book open, studying. I get a tap on the shoulder. It was Mr. Belli. “Young man, I see you’re studying law.” Couldn’t have been more gracious. Ten to 15 years later, he was at one of my seminars, sitting in the front row. I reminded him of that story.
The legal landscape has changed dramatically over the years. There weren’t even any LSATs until 1948. Cultural shifts—the increased status of women, lowered acceptance of social drinking, propriety of discussing money—have also affected the industry.
Canady: I lived through the three-martini lunch. I didn’t indulge, but I attended them. Lawyers stayed with one firm. You didn’t know what other lawyers made, and you didn’t want to know. Once information on what attorneys were making came out, attorneys would say, “Gee, that guy’s making a lot more than I am,” so people got aggressive about seeking out rainmakers.
Sterns: Clients used to come in; I’d hand them a retainer agreement, they’d sign it. Now people question the small print, haggle about the fee, shop around. One lady, after we discussed her case, she reached into her purse and handed me the agreement—all loaded up in her favor, of course!
Melchior: You used to go to court every week. Now it’s maybe every five months.
Brosnahan: Back then, a trial was a major American institution and there were many, many trial lawyers. Now, about 97 percent of federal criminal cases are disposed of without a trial. And the prosecutors dictate. You spend your time with the sentencing guidelines. It’s all numbers. You add up the numbers and you tell the defendant, “You’re at 26. Bad news. You’re at 37.” They’re a bloodless, unfortunate development in criminal law.
Sucherman: Custody of children—used to be 100 percent to the woman. Now it’s 50-50 down the line. There’s also a big change in women having to pay support. The courts put in mandatory formulas for paying child and spousal support. [Also], judges are paying much more attention to domestic violence now.
Fastiff: When I started, it was 90 percent traditional labor law [unions, employees]; now it’s 20 percent traditional and 80 percent employment law [wages and hours, discrimination, harassment, class actions.]
Sterns: In 1960 there was no provision [saying] you had to declare experts or put them up for deposition. Both sides would walk into a trial having basically no idea what the other side was up to. One time I called a doctor to the stand as a witness and didn’t even identify him as a doctor until I was questioning him. Not knowing who the other side’s witnesses are, and listening to them testify while thinking about how you’re going to cross-examine them, is not conducive to effective counsel. But I’m not so sure if it’s a better system now or not. We take up an enormous amount of time in all that pretrial stuff; it’s much more expensive.
Canady: At our small firm, clients would come to you with all of their work. Now a corporation’s general counsel says, “We want who is best for this particular project.” I’ve never thought it was that difficult to do M&A for a different industry, but now they want specialists in their industry. I always felt being a generalist was an advantage. I’d be the only lawyer from our side, but I had a background in tax, securities law, corporate law and M&A. I’d be dealing with lawyers for a bigger firm who’d have to turn to another lawyer. I think it’s good for young attorneys today to have broader experiences before they specialize. It gives you better judgment and perspective.
Brosnahan: I’m not sure the decline of the generalist is a good thing. But it’s necessary: The laws have become much more complex.
These men have witnessed seismic change in another area: technology.
Melchior: Lawyers [once] made copies by dipping them into a liquid. In the ’70s, a bright young lawyer in the firm demanded that he get a computer terminal, and the firm wouldn’t let him get one, even if he paid for it himself.
Canady: I started out with a mechanical typewriter, carbon paper and white-out. When the fax machine came along, I’d come in 7 a.m.; and at 4 p.m., the Japanese would begin work and send me a fax, and they’d expect a turnaround at the end of their day.
Some cases—and clients—stand out.
Brosnahan: The case of John Walker Lindh, “The American Taliban.” We represented him in Northern Virginia and everybody in the world said he was a traitor, and they had it all wrong. Although his view at the time—and his father’s—was that we saved him, I regret that America didn’t understand him. Finally, they dismissed all the terrorism stuff, but he was sentenced to 20 years.
Canady: I represented the second Japanese buyer of Pebble Beach, which is several golf courses and hotels, in 1992 and sold PB to Peter Ueberroth, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Palmer and that group in ’99. During that seven-year period, they’d invite me to play in the AT&T tournaments. For a golfer, that’s probably the best client. I was sorry when they were sold.
Sterns: A young couple from England was killed in a DC-10 crash in 1974. It was the first crash of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, which had been rushed to the market to compete with Boeing. [The crash] killed 340 people; it was a huge deal. It ended up in the Los Angeles federal court because we were able to go against McDonnell-Douglas there; the judge picked [my] case as the first one to be tried. [The couple] left two young daughters, 7 and 5. The other side offered us $150,000 each. The defense calls up an accountant from London, complete with bowler hat and umbrella. What a gift. His testimony was that, traditionally, the English culture would have them out of the house at age 16—out of school and out working on the street, selling flowers like Eliza Doolittle, so they didn’t need any money. These are the daughters of college graduates. I was like an alligator finding loose debris in the swamp. I cut him up like a Christmas goose. The jury gave us a million-and-a-half dollars.
Brosnahan: About 12 years ago, I defended a man who had been wrongly convicted of a murder that occurred in Northern Ireland and sentenced to the Maze prison, but then he escaped [to the U.S.]. We defended him here for eight years. I made five trips to Northern Ireland and Belfast to investigate who had committed the murder. I walked around. Asked a lot questions. You could see the prejudice [toward Catholics]. It was palpable.
Melchior: I recently lost a couple cases that bothered me a lot. The courts didn’t follow the law, and it’s shocking. I’m used to losing cases [where] judges interpret the law differently from the way I do. But to ignore the law completely is shocking.
Sterns: In my business they say, “If you’re not losing some, you’re not trying many.”
Fastiff: I had a chance to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Some people will laugh at this, but for me it was a question of whether to go to Washington that weekend or go skiing, and I opted to go skiing! I had someone else argue the case. They lost.
And where do they see the profession heading?
Melchior: I think, like all of society, it will become much more bureaucratic. Lots of lawyers will never do trials.
Sucherman: More and more out-of-court settlements with arbitrators and private judges, especially in family law.
Sterns: We’ll probably see the demise of the trial lawyer. I think we’ll see a “no-fault” system for cases like slip-and-falls, automobile accidents, because the transactional costs now are so high. I imagine it would work something like workers’ comp.
Yet these attorneys can’t imagine not lawyering.
Melchior: I’d probably deteriorate rather quickly if I didn’t have a sense of duty that required me to perform.
Canady: I can’t think of a day when I’ve thought, “I don’t want to go in there.”
Sterns: I don’t know what I’d do otherwise. If you work at a big law firm, when you’re 65 they roll you out or give you senior status. But if you run your own shop, nobody tells you.
In the legal realm, unlike many professions, age has its privileges.
Sterns: You have more credibility. The other side knows you’re going to try the case. It’s easier to settle a tougher case.
Sucherman: I get the respect of judges, backed up by 50 years of experience.
Brosnahan: In some courts, the judge will let you take over the room. They see a senior in the trial bar and might think they will enjoy watching this person. The maturation of a trial lawyer is like an elephant. You don’t just mature in one or two or three years. It takes real time.
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