Half a Century and Counting
An oral history of attorneys who have been practicing since the 1950s
Published in 2015 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
on October 6, 2015
Updated on November 23, 2015
For a handful of Missouri and Kansas attorneys, the evolution of the legal profession isn’t something to be studied—it’s something they’ve lived through. Crank-style mimeographs and carbon-copy letters have given way to email and instant messages. The practice of law has become more complicated, forcing many to specialize after cutting their teeth as generalists. And female and minority colleagues, once rare, now make up a sizeable percentage of the office population.
These veteran lawyers speak candidly about how they view the law today. Some have embraced the technological changes; some have shrugged them off. Many lament the ways they say the profession has changed into a business.
“Cases that happened before set the rules for what comes next,” says Larry McMullen, a professional liability defense attorney with Husch Blackwell in Kansas City, who started practicing in 1959. “That makes all of us, by training, admire and cling to the past because that’s what teaches us what we need to do. And that makes us resistant to change. So we—particularly old—lawyers are pretty stuck in our ways.”
Here, eight Missouri and Kansas lawyers reflect on the past, comment on the present
and make predictions for the future.
Most toyed with other careers, and few had family role models to follow.
WALTER L. FLOYD JR., 82, Saint Louis University School of Law, 1959; partner at The Floyd Law Firm, St. Louis: I had been studying to be an opera singer. I went to Europe in 1955 and studied in Rome and I got homesick. My father had told me for years he thought I should go into law. He wasn’t a lawyer but he liked to go down and watch cases at the criminal courts when he had a chance. I said, ‘Well, I don’t know what law’s all about, but I’m gonna give it a try.’ I was just like a duck to water.
J. EUGENE BALLOUN, 86, The University of Kansas School of Law, 1954; partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon, Kansas City, Mo.: I thought I wanted to be a chemical engineer. The first semester, one of the required courses was engineering drawing, and I could barely draw a stick figure. I got into law school, and in a month I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do. I just loved the challenge of problem-solving and the idea that lawyers could make a difference.
LARRY McMULLEN, 83, University of Missouri School of Law, 1959; of counsel at Husch Blackwell, Kansas City, Mo.: I wasn’t very good at arithmetic. You’d be surprised how many lawyers ended up there because of that reason.
SHELDON WEINHAUS, 84, Washington University School of Law, 1957; senior counselor for Weinhaus & Potashnick, St. Louis: When I got out of [college], I was not certain I wanted to be a social worker anymore, so I went to law school instead. There was no member of the family that had been a lawyer before. There were doctors, but blood turns me off.
In those days, minority and “lady” lawyers were just beginning to enter the profession.
McMULLEN (’59): When I started practicing, it was almost exclusively a male profession. It looked a lot like a gentlemen’s club. I suppose it sort of resembled the old-fashioned English barrister model.
WEINHAUS (’57): I was trying a case in the 1960s in which my co-counsel [was] a female attorney with the National Labor Relations Board. I remember writing to her, telling her that I thought her work was very good and I was very proud to have her as a counsel on my side in the case. I don’t know that I thought, at that time, highly of most women attorneys. But I think part of the problem is that women had been so shoved to the side.
BALLOUN (’54): I never had the feeling that women were being excluded; I always had the feeling that this was something women weren’t interested in. And frankly, it didn’t take me long to realize that women make excellent lawyers. I think women have more stamina. I think they have a higher pain threshold. I think they outdo men in a lot of respects.
ALAN KOHN, 83, Washington University School of Law, 1955; of counsel at Sher Corwin Winters, St. Louis: In the beginning, [female and minority attorneys] were not on the radar. When I was on the Missouri Board of Law Examiners from ’70 to ’80, at about ’70 it is my recollection that there was a big move for both women and minorities to enter the practice, and they did. My feelings were that it was great.
FLOYD (’59): I didn’t see any prejudice against minorities, either as trial lawyers or judges—if they were men.
DONALD L. SCHLAPPRIZZI, 80, Washington University School of Law, 1959; president at Schlapprizzi Attorneys at Law, St. Louis: Twenty-five, 30 years ago, I don’t think there were many lawyers that thought women would be successful, particularly trial lawyers. That was a man’s deal. And we had to eat our words on that. I was one of them—my daughter’s practicing with me.
Even after 50 years or more, many remember their first cases.
FLOYD (’59): My client had a delivery service for newspapers, and he fell on a raised sidewalk and broke his elbow. I got him a $2,500 verdict. We had contributory negligence in Missouri up until 1969. Theoretically, if your plaintiff was 1 percent at fault, you lost. You got nothing. Of course, the juries overlooked that, and in cases where the client was not more than, say, 25 percent at fault, they would give you a verdict. My client failed to keep a careful lookout and he should have seen it, but they gave him a verdict anyway.
RICHARD HITE, 87, Washburn University School of Law, 1953; partner at Hite, Fanning & Honeyman, Wichita: It was a case involving the interpretation of very complex statutes regulating the trucking industry. By all standards, it would be considered to be a very boring case. At the time I didn’t think so. I was just starting to practice law and was excited about the prospects.
McMULLEN (’59): My first case came after I followed around my boss for two or three years and he said, ‘It’s time for you to jump out of the nest.’ So he handed me a file and sent me over to the courthouse. It was an intersection-accident case. The stakes were not very high but it was nerve-wracking because he didn’t send anybody with me. The judge was tough and stern but he was doing it on purpose so that I would learn from the experience. And he talked to me afterward, gave me pointers and we became very good friends. I won the case, so I decided to be a trial lawyer. I wake up at night sometimes thinking about that case.
Many attorneys started out as generalists.
HEYWOOD “WOODY” DAVIS, 84, The University of Kansas School of Law, 1958; partner at Davis, Sands & Collins, Kansas City, Mo.: While I was a trust and estate lawyer, primarily, we used to do federal income tax returns for clients and contract matters. Now maybe if you’re an individual or small firm practitioner, you could do that. But I think, even among us smaller firms, it’s more specialized.
KOHN (’55): I used to do anything that would come across the threshold of my office. I’d grab ‘em, sit ‘em down and take their case. But as life went on, my focus in litigation got narrower and narrower, and now I do primarily complex business litigation. You have to learn more and more about less and less until you don’t know a damn thing about anything. The clients have become, especially in the business area and also in the injury area, more and more sophisticated and, like in medicine, they want a guy who’s treated only the left nostril. And you’ve gotta have a lot of lawyers [in a firm] before you find a guy who treats only the left nostril.
McMULLEN (’59): The law firms in those days were all entirely male, and they were also small. My firm had 10 lawyers, and I was the 10th to join. The tax lawyers specialized, and some of the corporate lawyers specialized, but by and large most of the lawyers were general practitioners. One of my early cases, about 1965, was a medical malpractice case defending a doctor. Nobody had any experience defending a doctor. Nobody particularly wanted to do it, and I was the junior fellow, so they said to me, ‘You go do it.’ So I did and I found that I liked doing that a lot.
BALLOUN (’54): Many lawyers were sole practitioners, and a sole practitioner had no choice but to be a generalist. If somebody came in and said, ‘I want a contract,’ you prepared the contract. If they came in and said, ‘Will you prepare a will for me?’ or ‘Will you file a lawsuit?’ you did. Whatever law business came in the door, that’s what you did.
The years have ushered in a tidal wave of technological advances.
BALLOUN (’54): When I first started practicing law, if you had a case, you’d get a letter from the other attorney. You’d study the letter for a day or so, then you’d write him a letter back, dictate it to the secretary and later to a Dictaphone. So it was pretty revolutionary when we got the fax. You thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we are really speeding up.’ Now, of course, if you don’t get 15 emails a day on your case, something’s wrong.
FLOYD (’59): We’re using more technology and demonstrative evidence in the courtroom. I think juries demand it. For instance, in my larger cases, where the case will stand the expense, I do reenactments. We call them cartoons, but they’re computer-generated reenactments of the wreck.
SCHLAPPRIZZI (’59): There was a Dioxin case we tried back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. A partner of mine working with me from Philadelphia called his paralegal and she said she was going to fax him something. He said, ‘Oh it’s just a fad. It’ll go away.’ I guess people thought emails were that, too. Now you get buried with them day after day.
KOHN (’55): Things now are way too fast. It’s harder for me to adjust to it than a guy who’s 25 years old. He doesn’t know how nice it is to have a little looking-out-the-window time. You need to be able to look out the window when you’re thinking about a case.
The digital age brought other changes, too.
BALLOUN (’54): Alternative dispute resolution, particularly mediation, has really changed the character of civil litigation. Next week I’ve got a mediation on a case that is very complicated, and if we had a trial it would take two weeks. And I will bet you a dollar to a doughnut that we’ll get that case settled at that one-day mediation.
WEINHAUS (’57): When I started, the level of protection of individuals and their rights was far less than it is now. If there are any good things about the nature of the change in the profession, it is that it leads to groups of attorneys who are really committed to helping the underdog, helping the poor person. And it has given much rise and emphasis to the contingency-fee case far outside of the personal injury field.
McMULLEN (’59): Most of the cases that I tried in those days were automobile accident cases. Every Monday morning you might have two or three cases ready for trial and you wouldn’t know which one was going to be called on the docket. So you had to be ready on all of them. That’s pretty much gone away. The insurance companies have hired lawyers like me to defend auto cases, and they’ve learned that they can handle those themselves more economically.
FLOYD (’59): Back in the 1950s, the old trial lawyers, the preeminent defense lawyers—and I was a kid then—would tell the insurance company what to pay on a case. When it came up on the court docket, they would make a phone call to the claim manager and say, ‘Look, you’ve offered $5,000 on the case. I can settle it for $7,500.’ The insurance company would go along with the lawyer’s recommendation. Around the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, the lawyers were telling me, ‘These insurance companies do not take our advice anymore. They want to call the shots.’
Many say that civility among and public perception of lawyers has declined.
HITE (’53): In our state, all the lawyers who had motions pending would gather in the courtroom on motion day and wait ‘til their motions were called and listen to the cases being argued. We were able to become better acquainted and we learned a lot from observing other lawyers, and we learned to get along.
SCHLAPPRIZZI (’59): There was a major [split] between lawyers who had been practicing 25 years and those practicing less. Young lawyers wanted to get out of school, hang out a neon sign and get the business and succeed. And the older lawyers said, ‘Wait a minute. We were always told that your reputation was everything. You got a following and that’s how you became successful.’
DAVIS (’58): The litigation arena has become far more adversarial in a personal way. In the old days, trial lawyers used to fight pretty hard in court for their clients, but they otherwise respected each other and were friendly and courteous. Now, particularly in the big-dollar litigation, it can get pretty nasty.
FLOYD (’59): I think lawyers were held in high esteem back in the 1950s and ‘60s. Now when I walk in a courtroom, I’m the most suspected and unbelievable person in the courtroom, at the bottom of the totem pole. I have to dig myself out of a hole. You have to earn their trust.
Who knows what the legal profession will look like in the future?
FLOYD (’59): I think in the next 10 years we won’t be trying many automobile collision cases anymore because they’ll have automatic cars. Of course, we may be suing the manufacturers of the equipment that automate the cars when they go haywire.
WEINHAUS (’57): The mid-size firms are just beginning to crumble and disappear. So you’re gonna have to be on your own as an entrepreneur. You’re going to have to learn survival techniques and ingenious techniques to use the law to help people and make a living as well.
SCHLAPPRIZZI (’59): With technology comes a whole bundle of different rights that have to be sorted out. There’s always gonna be a right and a wrong, and rules, but they’re probably going to be modified as we stumble through the future.
For now, retirement is not an option.
McMULLEN (’59): I keep working because my firm allows me to and because I enjoy it. I like making a contribution to help somebody who thinks maybe I can be of some use to them.
BALLOUN (’54): My wife and I became foster parents almost 30 years ago and we’ve cared for a number of foster children. I have a 16-year-old daughter, so my last child was adopted when I was 70. When they ask me when I plan to retire, I always tell ‘em, ‘As soon as I get my youngest kid out of college, I might go part-time.’
FLOYD (’59): I think if I quit I would feel like less of a person. Secondly, I do it for health reasons. I see so many judges and lawyers who retire at 70 and they don’t make it to 80. [Working] also gives me the satisfaction of knowing I’m still doing some good in the world. I wish I knew when I was 30 what I know now.
HITE (’53): I don’t know what else I would do. I enjoy coming to the office. I just can’t sit home and twiddle my thumbs all day.
KOHN (’55): I believe a person, if he or she is lucky, should engage in his highest and best use. I feel being a trial lawyer is my highest and best. I will retire when the marketplace requires me to do it because I don’t have any more clients, or when God tells me I’ve got to slow down. Until that happens, why on earth should I retire?