From Then … … to Now
An oral history of lawyers who started practicing in the 1960s
Published in 2018 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine on March 26, 2018
In the ‘60s, attorneys called their next witnesses from phones in courtroom lobbies. Men graduating from law school might be drafted into the military. Holland & Hart, the biggest firm in Denver, had 30 attorneys. And women and minorities—including aspiring Jewish lawyers—had a hard time even getting into law school or procuring top jobs at firms.
“We had torts classes, contracts, future interests, basic property. Those were bread-and-butter-type courses,” recalls Chuck Goldberg, a partner with Denver firm Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie and a 1964 University of Denver College of Law graduate. “They still have core classes at the local law schools, but let me give you a couple names: Advancing Diversity and Inclusiveness in the Legal Profession. We certainly could have used it back then! Animal Rights. Who knew?”
Many of the nine Colorado attorneys interviewed for this story recall a collegiality that has dissipated over the decades. “That’s in part because technological advances have caused lawyers to spend huge amounts of time simply working on their computers,” says Charlton H. Carpenter, a director at Fairfield and Woods and a 1964 University of Colorado Law School graduate. “In the past, they would spend a lot of time considering legal matters face to face with each other.”
Here are other ways the profession has changed.
Ed Kahn, of counsel, Lass Moses & Ramp, Harvard Law School 1965: My parents left Germany—because they were Jewish and they were afraid of Mr. Hitler—in 1936. I was born in 1938. I think my heritage of being a child of immigrants who fled injustice somehow entered into the mix, subconsciously.
Bob Benson, of counsel, Holland & Hart, University of Pennsylvania Law School 1965: I planned to be a lawyer when I was just a little kid. I don’t know what caused that, but it never deviated for me.
Michael Canges, of counsel, Senn Visciano Canges, University of Denver College of Law 1965: I’m first-generation-immigrant Jewish. My choices were law or medicine. I say that facetiously!
Carpenter: I became interested in going to law school while serving as a legal officer on a U.S. Navy cruiser, after having attended the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island. Concepts of due process, constitutional rights and legal precedent familiar to practicing attorneys were somewhat similar to those of military law, which is governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I found the similarities and differences fascinating.
Mike Williams, owner, Michael A. Williams LLC, Harvard Law School 1959: I was a very naive kid. I did very well in college, and I didn’t know what to do about law school at all. I saw a sign in the common building in 1953. It said, “Harvard Law School national scholarships.” It’s the only law school I wrote to. I had no idea it was hard to get into. I got some material that said you had to take the LSAT. I think I wrote back and said, “What’s that?”
AFFORDING LAW SCHOOL
Canges: I was working in this department store called Dave Cook Sporting Goods. When I was in law school, I would work Monday and Friday from 4 to 9. You could squeeze in a lot of time to study. When I got out [of law school], for a year I was lawyer by day, sporting-goods store employee by night.
Carpenter: To make ends meet in law school, I joined the Boulder Naval Reserve Unit, one of four part-time jobs I had in law school, including being a waiter at a couple of restaurants and a retail credit investigator. I remember having an insurance exam and trying to get up at a given time so I could be there for two hours of the exam, and I’d been up all night with a small child who, we later found, was allergic to milk. So I missed the first hour of the exam and I tried to get somebody to give me the other hour and they said no. I went ahead and took the exam and ended up with a pretty good score.
Williams: The Korean War was ending and I was in the ROTC. I get in my mailbox, the same day, two letters: one from the U.S. Air Force saying, “Congratulations, you’re going to get this commission,” and one from Harvard Law School saying, “Congratulations, you’re accepted.” I went up to the commanding officer of the ROTC and I showed him both letters and he said, “I think I can get you a one-year delay. You better take advantage of this opportunity to see if you can do that work at Harvard.” The tuition at Harvard in those days was $800 and the scholarship was $1,600.
Dale Harris, senior of counsel, Davis Graham and Stubbs, Harvard Law School 1962: I got a scholarship to Harvard the first year and took some loans from the law school to stay there. And summer jobs. And then I got married at the end of my first year at Harvard, and my wife, bless her heart, worked hard to help provide the financing for me to get through and borrowed money.
LIFE AT THE FIRM
Benson: I wrote letters to all the big law firms in Denver. Holland & Hart was the largest, and it was 36 lawyers. When I joined, our group made it 42.
Canges: When I started, most lawyer offices had linoleum on the floor, not carpeting. More than half of the typewriters were manual. Xerox machines didn’t exist. It took about a minute per copy. You were very conscious of cost and expense. Printed documents were expensive—you had to do it with carbon paper and tissue copies in triplicate and duplicate. You were very, very resourceful and careful with what you typed. You relied more on verbal communication. Depositions were a rarity. A typical jury trial would last two, two and a half days. A murder case would last three or four days. That was it.
Harris: All of what we thought of as major firms in Denver had about 20, maybe 25, lawyers maximum. So we knew each other. We saw each other on the street.
Goldberg: I started pounding on doors in late 1964. I had a very difficult time getting a job, and so did the number-one graduate in our class, Ronald Pred. After we found the doors closed to both of us, we looked at each other and said, “Let’s give it a try.” I won the coin toss, the firm was known as Goldberg & Pred. Nobody would ever indicate [being Jewish] was the reason for not being hired. One never really knows for sure, obviously. But I can tell you this: By the early-to-mid-1960s, the discrimination bar against Jews and other minorities began to fall.
Canges: There was no such thing as specialization. You did anything. You’d handle a criminal case in the morning and a bankruptcy case in the afternoon.
Neil Peck, of counsel, Snell & Wilmer, Yale Law School 1962: I was born and raised in New York City. I graduated from Yale in 1962 and became an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York at a time when John Kennedy was president, Robert Kennedy was attorney general and Robert M. Morgenthau was U.S. attorney. I prosecuted federal criminal cases for three years, and then I went to work for a firm on Wall Street. I was offered a position as in-house counsel to a company, then located in Colorado, and I began to commute to Colorado in July 1969. Finally, in January 1970, I moved out here, and I have been here ever since. Moving to Colorado was culture shock! You couldn’t get The New York Times in Denver on a daily basis. You could only get it on Sundays, but you had to go to the airport to get it, and if the weather was bad, forget it.
Canges: When I started as a lawyer, the highest-paid wage in Denver was $500 a month, and that was paid by Holland & Hart. You’d drive a Buick or an Oldsmobile or a Pontiac and you were generally living in a nice or modest home in either Hilltop or Congress Park. The money that is being made today, nobody could even contemplate it in those days.
Benson: I won my first one, so that’s all that counts. It had to do with damage in an underground parking lot. The firm, for several years, let me try my own small cases. In those days, the jurisdictional limit—the biggest amount the county court could handle—was $500. That’s $10,000 to $15,000 today.
Williams: I was hired to do municipal bond work. That was the last thing I wanted to do, but that was the only job they had available. I did it for a year, but it was so dreadfully boring that I told them I was going to leave and find a different job. But they found me different things. One day, there was a deposition to be taken and nobody else was available. They handed me a folder. … All I remember was that there was a propane fire in a dog kennel and all the dogs were killed. I did quite a bit of work on that case, and the insurance company that sent cases to the law firm assumed I was experienced.
Canges: I remember the cases where I got my ass kicked all over the courtroom. My client had been in an auto accident, banged up pretty badly, and I had pictures that showed the blood and the gore on my client, on her face and body. Over the course of time, she healed. I very, very proudly introduced those photos into evidence. Myron Burnett, the opposing attorney, said: “No objection.” I figured he was going to yell and scream. Nothing. By the time we got to court a year and a half later, you couldn’t see [the injuries] on her face. She’d pretty much recovered. Myron took those photos, one by one, and said, “Does she look like that today? Of course she doesn’t! She’s fine, and she was fine then!” And that’s how you learn.
Williams: I took plaintiff’s cases, which weren’t done in the conservative firm [that I worked for at the time]. I became the garbage man. When the firm had things they didn’t want to do, like a traffic ticket, I got it. I took some of my friends’ traffic cases and a couple of them hit the newspapers. There was a woman I had dated who had a traffic ticket and it turned out I hadn’t seen her in quite a long time and I managed to win it. She jumped up in court and gave me a big kiss.
Benson: I was only a second-year associate and I was appointed by the federal court to defend an alleged bank robber. He had been given immunity to [testify against] his two alleged co-bank robbers. After refusing to testify, he had been held in contempt of court. Pretty hard to defend him when you have two judges saying, “We gave him immunity on two different occasions.” I’m not sure if it took the jury two and a half minutes to find him guilty. I lost that one. Boy, did I! But snitches are not popular in prisons.
Peck: The Mob was also involved in the meat industry in New York and I investigated the meat industry. Federal meat inspectors were there to make sure the health standards for the meat complied with federal hygiene and health standards. What we discovered was the Mob was bribing these inspectors to look the other way. Out in this part of the country, in the winter during severe storms, a lot of animals died. And there was money to be made by shipping them to mink farms in Minnesota to feed the mink—but some of [this tainted meat] was diverted and sent to the hot dog factory. We got a number of convictions after I left the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the prosecution was carried on by Daniel Murdock.
Jack Trigg, partner, Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, University of Denver Law School 1963: I got a call from a major company: “We have a little problem.” The next thing I knew, I was general counsel. I tried many of those cases and won. One of the [arguments] I frequently used was: “Wait a minute, ladies and gentlemen, the people at this company all have their families using these products—do we think they’d design something where their children and wives and loved ones were at risk, and they’d intentionally make a product they knew was no good?” That had a great deal of appeal.
Peck: One of the cases the attorney general of Colorado brought was against a company called Gulf and Western. One of the properties they own is called New Jersey Zinc, which owned the largest zinc mine in Colorado, in a little town called Gilman. The state of Colorado alleged that all the mining that was done to produce all the zinc to produce all the battleships that went into World War II pounded the waste up the river. The allegation was this waste was leaking into the Eagle River and destroying the fish habitat. They sought hundreds of millions of dollars in alleged damages to natural resources, plus they wanted the mining waste relocated. I and a team of lawyers defended a number of cases that took 11 years and 11 months, from 1985 to 1997. As far as I know, the fish have been restored back to normal, but Gulf and Western became Paramount, and Paramount became Viacom, and so all these years later I think Viacom is still paying the bill to the water-treatment plant.
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
Kahn: Denver was small enough that most businesspeople knew each other, or knew of each other, and most disputes were settled out of court. It changed pretty dramatically in the early 1970s, when Denver became larger, the firms became larger, more out-of-town businesses located to Denver. The litigation group was six people when I joined the firm; 12 years later, it was 36.
Canges: The cost of litigation and the cost of legal services has skyrocketed [to] where I think we, as an industry, have priced ourselves out of the market and only the very wealthy or large corporations can afford lawyers. And mandatory arbitration has added the final deathblow to the ability of the citizen to seek relief or regress through the courts. That’s a tragedy.
Carpenter: Extensive law firm libraries have changed to a few bookshelves scattered about the offices.
Benson: I can remember vividly both the first woman that joined the firm and the first female partner of the firm. I’ve never counted, but I would strongly guess that today the firm is 50 percent women.
Trigg: Back then, I would try a case, and many times I had no idea who the witnesses for the plaintiff were going to be, and they had no idea who the witnesses for the defendant were going to be. Many times, someone would walk into the courtroom and somebody would say, “Who is that?” and I’d say, “I don’t know.” That would never happen today, and that’s all attributable to massive discovery.
Williams: Firms have gotten bigger and they have to keep everybody working. They didn’t have such a thing as paralegals when I started. And they pay big salaries—the partners are used to making more money. And it’s gotten a lot less pleasant. When I started out, there were about half a dozen lawyers that everybody in town knew they couldn’t trust. Other than that, you could take a lawyer’s word for something. It meant something.
Peck: [In Denver], you had one or two steak places, some Chinese restaurants and some pizza places, and there were maybe one or two fine-dining places. One of which was in Larimer Square called the Promenade. So we tended to live in the Promenade. It was a small town. It’s unimaginable, what it’s like now, compared to what it was like then.