A Golden Age
An oral history of lawyers who began practicing law more than 50 years ago, and are still at it today
Published in 2017 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine
on July 5, 2017
Updated on March 11, 2021
The six attorneys spotlighted here took streetcars to the office, did research via law libraries instead of laptops and sometimes took home $400—a month. When they started, divorce came with fault, nuptials happened without the pre-, and carbon copies were the tried-and-true method of distributing mass information.
They were involved in some of Minnesota’s most famous trials, and together they account for a total of 355 years of practicing law.
HeRe ARe theiR stoRies.
Some were inspired by family to pursue the law; some just said “what the heck.”
Richard Mahoney, The Mahoney Law Firm; Civil Litigation: Defense; William Mitchell College of Law, 1957: My father came to the United States from Ireland [in the early 1900s] when he was 19. He was well trained as a yard goods clerk in Ireland, and he went to the Dayton’s department store in Minneapolis to apply for such a job. On the door of the employment office, there was a big sign that said: “Irish and Catholics need not apply.” There weren’t any discrimination laws back then.
He knew he needed to get more education, so he went to night law school at St. Paul College of Law and graduated in 1922. He started what became our law firm. It inspired us to do our thing and not be beholden to anyone else.
I was in high school during the Second World War. My father was primarily doing defense work for insurance companies. You couldn’t get secretaries because they were all working at defense plants. So he would bring me down to the office on Saturdays and have me sort out the mail and put it with the correct files. I started reading the files, and one was about an employee for Coca-Cola who claimed he found a mouse in a bottle of Coca-Cola. I was fascinated. It was like reading a TV script. So every Saturday I went over there to read files, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Dick Hunegs, Hunegs, LeNeave & Kvas; Personal Injury: Plaintiff; University of Minnesota Law School, 1958: I had an uncle who was a lawyer, who went to the University of Minnesota and was on the law review there and ended up working for the National Labor Relations Board for many years. I really admired him. He was very erudite, very bright and a wonderful guy. As I remember, he was the first of our family to go to college and graduate. And I felt that becoming a lawyer was a way to serve people.
A. Larry Katz, Katz & Manka; Family Law; University of Minnesota Law School, 1957: I grew up in St. Paul and I come from a family where we never had a college graduate. My parents were both working people, so we had very little. Because of my stature, I wasn’t going to be able to get into an area of physical work. So what was left was either become an accountant, or become a lawyer.
Paige Donnelly, Paige J. Donnelly, Ltd.; Personal Injury: Plaintiff, University of Minnesota Law School, 1960: I was an accounting major, and a fellow accounting major’s father said to me that the best combination was accounting and law, so I thought, “What the heck.” I got into the University of Minnesota Law School, and they worked the heck out of me, holy smokes. The first year was the tough one. They’d flunk half the class.
Allen Saeks, Stinson Leonard Street; Business Litigation; University of Minnesota Law School, 1956: I originally was from Bemidji, and I went to a trial there once as it was tried by the local county attorney against a lawyer from Minneapolis who I later learned was well-known and who represented the Soo Line. That was the first case I ever saw and was fascinated by. So I did some pre-law courses and decided that I wanted to join the folks who wanted to be lawyers.
James Simonson, Gray Plant Mooty; Business Litigation; Harvard Law School, 1959: I had wrestled in high school, and I thought I’d be in over my head in college, but I went out for wrestling anyway at the University of Wisconsin, and wrestled for four years. One day at wrestling practice, I asked one of the other wrestlers what he was going to do when he got out of undergraduate school and he said he was going to go to law school. I said, “They’ve got a pretty decent law school here,” and he snarled, chuckling, “Well, I’m not going to go to this law school.” I said, “Well, where are you going to go?” He said he was going to go to Harvard and my mouth dropped, because I just couldn’t imagine anybody doing that.
He was a competitor at the same weight class for the team at Wisconsin and he was a better wrestler than I was, but I thought, “Damn it, I can beat you in the classroom.” So I had already applied and been [accepted to] Wisconsin’s law school, but I [applied and was accepted] to Harvard law and I went out there with my mouth wide open and looking up at all these future giants in the profession. One of the professors I had had clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes, and I had a feeling that this was as close to the pearly gates as I’d ever get.
I got out of law school in 1959 and in 1962 the Big Ten wrestling tournament was in Minnesota, and lo and behold 20 rows in front of me was [my old Wisconsin wrestling rival]. I went down and said, “How are you doing? You know, you inspired me to pull out of law school at Wisconsin and I went out to Harvard and I looked around and I never saw you out there.” He said, “Ah, I didn’t go.” I said, “Oh really, where did you go to law school?” He said, “I didn’t go to law school.” I said, “What are you doing?” and he said he was working at a packing plant in Waterloo, Iowa.
Their early years of practice were formative and challenging.
Hunegs: First years were a mixed bag. Looking back, I wasn’t as mature as I thought I was, but at the same time it energized me. I tried a lot of things, and ultimately decided to be a trial lawyer.
Donnelly: I hung up a shingle, and did everything: divorces, corporate law, criminal law, security law. My wife was on my case about doing these felonies—one guy had raped someone and she said, “That could be our daughter.” It even extended to small crimes, and I said, “Mary, pretty soon you’re gonna get me down to only handling cases where people are driving 30 miles an hour.” So I narrowed it down and got into personal injuries and I liked that right away. That’s all I do now.
Saeks: The reason I joined the firm was I wanted to learn from Amos and Benedict Deinard, who were outstanding lawyers. The reason I was hired was because at the time the Twin Cities streetcars had been sold to Mexico, and there were allegations that the scrapyard people who were in business in Minneapolis and St. Paul were selling the tracks for artificially high prices. It was a big fraudulent deal in which Kid Cann, who was the mob boss in Minneapolis, was at the center of. I miss the streetcars. They were just great.
The profession didn’t put you on the fast track to wealth.
Mahoney: We were primarily representing insureds, and the fees were very nominal. I’m not sure what the lawyers were charging, but my dad was charging five and eight dollars an hour for my work.
Simonson: Four hundred dollars a month in Minnesota was standard.
Saeks: I’d been in the Army for three years before I started so I was a little advanced, but I’m pretty sure I started out at $500 a month.
Hunegs: Let me put it this way: I thought that if I could ever get to a point where I was making $10,000 a year, that would be a lot.
But they have plenty of fond memories of starting out.
Hunegs: It was a much more trusting environment and atmosphere. When you look back, you wonder if you’re just seeing things like the good ol’ days when it was better to go to a drive-in movie or things like that, but I can really look back at those early days as being a golden age of practicing law in Minnesota.
Katz: When I left law school, I partnered with Ross Sussman and we started on our own. It was exciting to open up our own office at 350 Rand Tower on 6th and Marquette on May 1, 1958. We were just two guys going on our own.
Donnelly: The first trial was exciting. I had to do everything. In those days you didn’t have a book to tell you how to do it, you’d have tough times and learn from a punch in the nose.
Saeks: Loyalty. There was a great feeling of esprit de corps not only in our law firm, but in other law firms. Everyone was loyal to their firms and happy to have a job.
Simonson: The esteem I felt for the lawyers in our firm—there were 15 of us, and I came to realize that firm was highly regarded in the judiciary. I had the sense that the members of the profession, the judges especially, were sort of walking barely with their feet on the ground. You had to be careful not to be so awestruck that you couldn’t remember what to say to them in court.
The legal profession was almost exclusively white, male and Christian at the time.
Katz: I’m Jewish, and at that time anti-Semitism was [widespread] in Minneapolis. At that time, the non-Jewish firms were not hiring Jewish lawyers. There were only two or three Jewish law firms, and [two judges] gave me the advice to go it alone because of the anti-Semitism. I must admit, I was not aware of the depth of the anti-Semitism within the Twin Cities. I never really was confronted with it that I recall, and at home we never talked about it—the idea that being Jewish was difficult.
Donnelly: In my first year of law school, they accepted 200 to the class and there was only one girl.
Saeks: At the time I joined the firm, Minneapolis was the center of anti-Semitism in the country. There were only two law firms that were considered to be Jewish firms, where a Jewish lawyer could get a job. Otherwise he could not, or she could not, but there were no women lawyers then. One exception was Leonard, Street and Deinard, where we had the first woman partner in the Twin Cities. Her name was Irene Scott. She was an excellent lawyer, and it was earth-shattering when she was hired. She’d been there for four or five years when I was hired in 1960.
Simonson: I heard there was a woman lawyer working at Leonard, Street and Deinard. I never met her, and she was the only one I’d ever heard of. As far as race was concerned, everyone was Caucasian. I remember a lawyer of color sometime in the early years that I liked and we had a lot of fun together practicing law and we had some common experiences—I think he had wrestled—but it was consistent with what was going on in the profession generally.
Some say civility in the legal world has waned since then; some say it hasn’t.
Katz: Lawyers of our generation were really concerned about the client’s well-being. But I think now the [lack of] civility has gotten out of hand in the family law area. Your word was your bond, and that doesn’t exist anymore.
Donnelly: I go to court a lot; I’ll have two jury trials a month. I’m trying cases many times against the same attorney I tried a case against just months ago, and I get along with them very well. They respect me and I respect them, and I get to like them. In fact, I had a surgery about eight years ago on my back. I’m in the hospital, and I doze off. When I wake up, there’s three defense attorneys there. I looked at them and thought, ”My God. Did I die, and is this hell or heaven?”
Simonson: I always thought if a lawyer was an obnoxious opponent—while he might make my life less pleasant—he would do himself in on his own.
Hunegs: Some of the finest lawyers that I ever met were the lawyers on the other side of the cases I had. They were extraordinary, and intelligent, and decent. In many instances they became some of my closest friends, and my family’s closest friends. There’s something about going into that battle together that brings you closer together. Lawyers were much more respected when I first started practicing law. They were leaders in their communities. Back then, you’d hear gentle jokes about lawyers. Now they’re cruel. Perhaps it’s just a crueler society, generally.
They’ve had to keep up with plenty of changes in technology.
Mahoney: When I went to law school, I carried a yellow pad. Now they carry a laptop.
Donnelly: Thirty years ago, I had six or eight law students who would come in and do research for me. But now you can do this research so much faster. So that is wonderful.
Saeks: We had one of the largest law book libraries in Minneapolis, and you would have to sit in this library and look through these books for your information. Now almost everything is computerized, so we don’t have a traditional library anymore. I mean, there’s a room with a few computers, but the books are gone.
Of the dozens upon dozens of cases they’ve handled, a few still stand out.
Saeks: T. Eugene Thompson allegedly killed his wife using intermediaries. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, and Ben Deinard wanted to represent Thompson in a civil claim for the life insurance on his wife. It was $1.7 million, among seven different insurance companies. I was opposed to representing Thompson [but] started helping on it. Ben contracted cancer and died, and I ended up representing Thompson. I got to know him, and visited him in jail. It was just little me against all these well-represented insurance companies and the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled against me.
Donnelly: I just tried this one a few years ago: The daughter of my injured client used to be a really good high school basketball player, and he used to practice with her and shoot hoops. He’s kind of slow getting out, and he hears his daughter say, “Oh, let’s leave Dad behind, he can’t do anything anyway.” The poor guy started crying on the stand, and so did some of the jurors. When you get someone like that and if you can get him somewhat out of his problem, that feels good.
Hunegs: The couple of cases I worked on where we disposed of sovereign immunity in Minnesota—the idea that the state is immune from blame for causing injury to citizens. Those were the most significant of my life, because I just thought it was a wrong proposition that in America, in a democracy, that a state has the right to shield itself from basically the most fundamental criticism one can have. This whole thing grew out of the notion that we descended from Great Britain and the [King and] Queen of England couldn’t be sued because of harm they caused because they owned the people.
And they still love it as much as when they started.
Katz: I feel strongly about how lucky I am to, at my age, go to court. Among others, I’ve got several very complicated cases right now that I’m working on, and that’s what keeps me going.
Hunegs: When I got out of high school, I had a great many interests. I thought being a journalist would be a fantastic thing; I thought being a teacher would be incredible; I thought about going into anthropology. But I haven’t had a moment of regret. Not a moment.
Simonson: I recognize that the technology and the burden of discovery is not much fun. I’d rather try a $100 case that gave me a chance to go to court than to be involved in a landmark case where I spent my time arguing over whether this or that subject matter could be explored in depositions.
Saeks: I do [love it], but things have changed. All of the strong St. Paul law firms moved to Minneapolis. Also, there’s a big influx of the big law firms coming in from New York and Houston and other major firms coming in to compete, so there’s all sorts of competition with law firms who’ve never been here. And there’s not as much loyalty to a law firm that there once was. If a lawyer is doing very well in a law firm but doesn’t think he’s making enough money or happy enough, he will move now to another law firm for more money or happiness.
Donnelly: My daughter, Sheila, has been working with me for 25 years. She said one day, “Dad, this is a wonderful business. We’re helping people.” And that’s one of the finest things about being in this business. You can take someone whose life is upside down, can’t work, can’t play with their kids, and you can help them. I feel guilty if I’m not working hard enough. I work Saturdays and weekends, and, at the end, if I get them in a better position than they were before, I think, “God, I did something right.”