500 Years of Legal Knowledge
Eight attorneys, each with 60+ years experience, talk about everything from LSAT-less law schools to Freedom Rides to John and Yoko
Published in 2020 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on October 28, 2020
Updated on October 30, 2020
Let’s say you got your J.D. this year and began practicing law. What do you think you’ll be doing in the year 2086? Still practicing? Because that’s the relative time frame for Harvey Weitz, a 1954 graduate of Brooklyn Law School who’s still at it 66 years later. His practice alone is old enough to collect full Social Security benefits.
The eight attorneys featured here have practiced law for a combined 500 years, and they’ve got the stories to go with it. Ernst Rosenberger and Bernard Pogrebin worked civil rights cases in the Deep South during the ’60s. Leon Wildes made new law to keep the U.S. government from deporting John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Family law attorney Sy Reisman remembers the days when women always got child custody—no matter what. None of them were making much at the outset. “I was getting $35 a week,” Weitz remembers, “and I was lucky to get it.”
Here are their stories.
Evan J. Spelfogel, Phillips Nizer, Employment & Labor; Columbia Law School, 1959: My father was a lawyer, my grandfather was a lawyer, my uncles and cousins were lawyers, and they all worked together in the same little law firm. When I was growing up, I used to go into their office all the time. I never thought about anything other than law.
Harvey Weitz, Paul B. Weitz & Associates, Personal Injury–Plaintiff; Brooklyn Law School, 1954: I was a poor kid. When I got out of college, the only job I could get was at a warehouse working nights and I said, “I don’t think this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. What else could I do?” And somebody said, “Well, you could always go to law school.” I said, “OK, as long as it’s cheap.” I could manage the hours and still work in luncheonettes being a soda jerk. I’m an accidental lawyer.
Ernst Rosenberger, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, General Litigation; New York Law School, 1958: I was born in Germany. Hitler came to power and my family—my parents, my sister and I—left Germany and came to the U.S. My grandparents did not leave and did not survive. They were killed in a concentration camp. I wanted to preserve the rights of people, which was not done where I came from.
Leon Wildes, Wildes & Weinberg, Immigration; New York University School of Law, 1957: We had no lawyers in our family whatsoever. I was the first one to choose that area. It seemed something absolutely new to me.
Sy Reisman, Reisman Peirez Reisman & Capobianco, Family Law; Brooklyn Law School, 1959: My father owned a gas station. He was an immigrant and worked himself up from being an employee to an owner, and was working seven days a week to provide for his family. When I was 14 years old, he said, “You’re going to be a lawyer.” That was it.
Paul Rheingold, Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo & Plotkin, Class Action/Mass Torts; Harvard Law School, 1958: It was much easier then. There was an LSAT—it was called something else—but they went more by grades. I never would have gotten in today because the kids are that much brighter. And there were seven women in our class. It’s 50% women now, so you’ve got another pool of very bright people there.
Weitz: I don’t remember them talking about LSATs or MCATs or anything like that. We didn’t do testing. You just put in your application and you went wherever you could afford and wherever your academic achievement allowed you to go. It’s truly a different world, that’s all I can say to you.
Bertrand Pogrebin, Littler, Employment and Labor; Harvard Law School, 1958: I don’t remember anything about the test, but it enabled me to get into Harvard Law School, so I must’ve done OK.
J. Truman Bidwell Jr., Sullivan & Worcester, Cross-Border Transactions; Harvard Law School, 1959: The learning experience was difficult. Did you ever see the movie The Paper Chase? It was made about Harvard Law School. The movie featured a professor browbeating students. (I took a course from the professor this was based on.) A friend saw it and said, “They must have really hammed that up.” I said, “It was understated.”
Rosenberger: At first, I was intimidated by the books. They were so much bigger than the books I used in college. After that, I enjoyed it intellectually.
Reisman: After I graduated from law school, this guy was starting a law firm. I was the first employee at $50 a week. It wasn’t even $50, because he said he didn’t know if he’d have enough money to pay me.
Pogrebin: Coming from a working-class family, my aspirations were to earn $100 a week and not get dirty at the end of the day. That was pretty much realized in my first year.
Bidwell: I was in the Air Force from 1960 to 1963. I spent three years as a JAG officer trying cases. I really liked it. I tried every kind of crime—except rape—including a murder case. I developed a Perry Mason syndrome. I started my career as a courtroom lawyer.
Rheingold: When I was on my own as a single practitioner and had a wife and four children, I just got regular little auto accident tort cases. My first case was some lady who slipped and fell in the Pan Am Building. I got a $3,000 settlement for her and kept $1,000 for myself.
Wildes: When I practiced at HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, I introduced two brothers who were each convinced the other did not survive the concentration camps. They didn’t need an introduction. But they spent a lot of time crying.
Weitz: The first case I tried was probably worth about $250 if I won it. And I lost it when the jury walked out the door and came right back and said, “Verdict for the defense.” I couldn’t understand why my client lost the case—she was injured, she had a terrible bruise on her arm when a subway door closed on her. I was naïve. I thought all I had to do is go in and say my client was hurt and she would be paid.
Spelfogel: My first salary with the government, when I joined the Department of Labor, was $4,950 a year. As soon as I was admitted to the bar, I got a $1,000 raise. Over the four or five years I was with the government, I moved up to around $10,000. When I joined Simpson Thacher, my salary was $12,500 for the first year. Three or four years later, it was just under $20,000. Then I moved over to Dewey Ballantine at $25,000 in 1969.
Bidwell: The murder case I tried as a JAG officer was a standard two-guys-fighting-over-a-girl. One guy was off for a drive with the girl in a park outside of Fort Worth, and the kid accused of the crime chased him, forced him over the side of the road and shot him dead. The only witness was the girl. I asked her about 10 times what happened after he pulled the trigger. “Nothing,” she said. Just before the trial, the father of the deceased came to see me. He said, “My son was dying, and the guy said, ‘If you don’t shut up, I’ll shoot you again!’” I hauled in the girl—she was my only witness, a 19-year-old kid—and said, “Your former boyfriend’s father said he offered to shoot him again.” “Oh, I should have told you!” she said and burst into tears. I thought, “Wait till the defense counsel hears this!” I marched her into the courtroom and put her on the witness stand. “What happened after the killing?” She said, “Nothing.” Later, I told another lawyer the story and I thought he was going to fall on the floor laughing. He said, “Didn’t you go to Harvard Law School? With all those fancy degrees, you couldn’t crack that high school kid?”
Rosenberger: In 1961, during the Freedom Rides, I came down [to Jackson, Mississippi] and did 14 cases. At the time, I was a sole practitioner. It was pro bono, through the Congress of Racial Equality, the only outfit that was supporting the Freedom Riders. Of the four original lawyers who tried those jury trials, I’m the only one who’s still drawing breath. Of all the cases that were tried, none were successful at the trial level—on appeal, yes, but not at trial. It was often very uncomfortable. I was having breakfast at the motel, and the waitress at breakfast said, “Well, I’ll talk to you. I don’t care what they say.” To appear in what we would now call pro hac vice, somebody has to propose you in the courtroom, and Jack Young was the black lawyer who did that in Jackson. He once had me at his home for dinner, but that was a danger to him—to have a white social visitor at his home. The judge would not address him as “Mr. Young.” He called him “Jack.” He called me “Mr. Rosenberger.”
Wildes: I received a call from a classmate. He was employed with a group in show business. He said, “I’d love for you to come over and see my office. We have this very important client—his name is John Lennon and he’s married to a woman named Yoko Ono.” I accompanied him to their apartment in the village. It took me a while to focus on their exact names. Later, I said to my wife, “Yeah, this couple was named Jack Lemmon and Yoko Moto.” She was not uncultured like myself and said, “Are you referring to John Lennon and Yoko Ono? Well, they’re famous, Leon.”
Reisman: I liked dealing with people during some of the worst times of their lives. I remember a case I had many, many years ago. It was Christmas Eve and the wife took the children to her parents’ house for dinner, and when she came home all the furniture had been moved out [by the husband]. That left such an indelible mark on me: How could you do that to your family? Your kids come home and all the furniture has been taken out of the house? The day after Christmas, I was in court. The wife did very well.
Rheingold: The big work came in the big mass fen-phen torts, when there were thousands and thousands of people injured. I went to Japan several times taking depositions from the company. Those were exciting days, because you’re working for a lot of lawyers and you’re not only getting your own cases but you’re getting a share of the common fee for all the work you did.
Spelfogel: When I was at Dewey Ballantine, I went down to Washington and argued a case before the postmaster general against the post office changing the postal rate for magazines that included advertising cards. Some low-level postal employee decided “these cards and advertising materials are not bound in the magazine,” and converted the cheapo third-class mail [rate] to the more expensive second class. So I represented CBS Records, Columbia Records, RCA and all sorts of other companies that were facing multimillion-dollar increases in their postal rates. I argued before the postmaster general and his top lawyers in a very unusual conference room; it looked like the most palatial facility you could ever imagine. I was successful.
Wildes: [Editor’s Note: In 1975’s John Lennon v. the USA, Wildes used the Freedom of Information Act to demonstrate the U.S. was spotty in choosing deportation cases; when he won, the case became immigration precedent.] The Freedom of Information Act was a new method of approaching a case and we hadn’t any experience using it. It turned out to be an extraordinary choice because it’s allowed us to secure information in many areas. It worked well. When I realized that the government was not doing the right thing, I hit them hard.
Pogrebin: I went down South for the civil rights movement and was employed in a case in Danville, Virginia, in 1963. It was definitely pro bono. We represented the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chapter, which had engaged in a series of demonstrations. There were about 234 arrests at the time. We ended up going to the 4th Circuit and got an injunction on all the arrests and the cases that were then pending. It was a very big legal victory. It felt like going into a foreign country. Suddenly, the police became the enemy. I can’t tell you the tension—physical beatings, people who were taken out of jail in bad condition. If you watch the movie Selma, you got some inkling as to what the situation was; ’63 was just the beginning of things.
HOW HAS THE LAW CHANGED?
Bidwell: In the 1960s, you didn’t have computers, you didn’t have artificial intelligence to do your fact research. You basically went out and interviewed people and read piles of documents. Getting ready to make a compelling presentation was an intellectual challenge.
Rosenberger: Discovery is now the large part of the work of a litigator.
Weitz: We’ve allowed too many so-called expert witnesses to testify. We have made cases too complex. They’re really simple.
Reisman: Gender-neutral—that’s the big change in family law: the Supreme Court decision [Orr v. Orr, in 1979], which said husbands could get alimony. In all of your custody cases until then, if you had a child, say, 3 or 4 years old, and the mother was having sex with her paramour in front of the child, the mother would still get custody. Now things work both ways.
Spelfogel: Union-related matters used to account for 65 or 70% of our work; now maybe 15% at the most. Maybe I’ll have one new union National Labor Relations Board election a year. I used to do these every week.
Weitz: In those days, the insurance companies ruled the courts. There was Jack the Fixer, a real gangster-type figure, who represented the cab companies. He was in the back room talking to the judge before the trial. Yeah, they had access! Cab companies, insurance companies—it was a lot of money that changed hands, and they saw to it who was appointed. Listen, it wasn’t 100% crooked, all right? There were plenty of honest judges. But when the West Side liberals took over the Democratic Party, they were all reformers, all high-minded. The old judges were replaced. We got cases tried on the merits rather than being settled because of the prices put on the cases by the insurance companies.
Rosenberger: I argued my first appeal in either September or October of ’59. Years later, I served on that court for 19 years as one of the judges for the appellate division. The courtroom was absolutely unchanged. It looks the same now as it did the day it opened.
Pogrebin: Law firms didn’t make that much money and we didn’t expect to make that much money. What you did expect was to have an interesting career, and hopefully when you retired you’d have enough to live on and you’d be able to send your kids to good-enough schools. Obviously, today, when the biggest law firms run something like 11,000 [employees], it’s a business. And people are much more interested in money in the law business.
Wildes: Well, my son, Michael, now runs our practice. I’m the oldest guy here.
THAT COVID-19 THING
Reisman: Nobody comes to the house because they don’t want to infect us. The kids do the shopping and they leave it on the front walk; you stand at least 6 feet away from them and talk. You’re conversing with clients on the telephone. You do sneak into your office when you need to. We’re getting our work done, but the courts are basically closed. It’s a tough time for everybody.
Spelfogel: I don’t know which is worse, working from my desktop at home for many months, or not being able to go out and play softball Sunday morning.
Pogrebin: There is a huge amount of regulations and rules relating to COVID-19 and employers’ responsibilities. That takes up a lot of time.
Rheingold: The volume of work isn’t there. And you’re just wasting so much time. The files are in the office. My paralegal lives in New York City, goes into the office once a week, gets the stuff, takes it to her house and then we can talk it over from there. I did think, “What’s the sense of working under these circumstances?” But if anything, it’s more like a challenge.
Wildes: I’m staying at home. I don’t go to the office at all, and if I walk outside I wear a mask.
Reisman: One of the good things about having a law degree, you don’t have to quit. As long as you have your mental and physical health, you can work.
Rosenberger: I’m still a litigator. I like being in the courtroom.
Spelfogel: There’s nothing I can think of that I would do in retirement that I’m not already doing.
Bidwell: I love practicing. They’re going to take me out feet first.
Weitz: As soon as the courts open up to try this case, there’s this expert I want to blow out of the water. I’m going to have fun.