From Spittoons to Specialization
Five local lawyers mull the changes in their industry over the past six decades
Published in 2019 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine on December 5, 2018
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, law firms and courtrooms were very different places than they are today. No televisions in the courtroom. No air conditioning, either. If you wanted to brush up on a case, your best bet was to walk down the hall and visit the attorney who specialized in that area. And when you did that, you’d rarely encounter women or people of color. Law schools were generally easier to get into, and firms often gave young attorneys a chance without a super-rigorous interview process, but conditions were not ideal.
“Bunch of grumpy old men versus today!” says Donald G. Schweller of Pickrel, Schaeffer and Ebeling, who graduated from law school in 1957.
Five veteran lawyers from Ohio and Kentucky talk about how their industry has changed: for the better and the worse.
Why the law?
William E. Johnson, partner, Johnson Bearse (Frankfort), University of Kentucky College of Law 1957: I grew up on, I guess you’d call it, a rather poor dirt farm. Early on, I recognized that was not for me. I did not care a whole lot about being out in a tobacco patch or a hayfield, and there had to be something better than that. I was always the person who loved to read, and as I read books such as some of the Erle Stanley Gardner early Perry Mason books and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, those kinds of readings made me interested in the law.
Charles E. English, partner, English Lucas Priest & Owsley (Bowling Green), University of Kentucky College of Law 1960: I grew up on a farm. Went to high school and was on the debate team, and then debated in college at the University of Kentucky. I just was always attracted to the law. It so happened that a neighbor of ours was on the faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Law and sort of mentored me along the way.
J. Donald Cairns, of counsel, Schneider Smeltz Spieth Bell (Cleveland), Ohio State University College of Law 1958: When I was in college, I decided law school was not the place I wanted to go, because all the guys I knew who were headed for law school were ridiculously competitive. At lunch conversation, it was like, “Can you top this?” every time. When I got out of the Navy during the Korean War, I worked at the National Security Agency with a very tight-knit group of people, half of whom were lawyers. Our job was to track the nuclear physicists in the Soviet Union. You see, the Russians didn’t have an advanced enough economy in the mid-1950s to have long-distance telephone lines. It was all done by shortwave radio. We had B-52s flying around the Soviet Union [tracking] thousands and thousands of phone calls and, of course, telegrams. We knew when they were going to test the bomb. There were 12 of us in one big office with our desks pushed together, so we had to work closely with each other. [The lawyers] were decent human beings, and they gave me books to read and people to talk to. I decided that law school would be a pretty good place to go.
Johnson: There were still a large number of military veterans from World War II. The Korean War was still going on. Law schools did not have the applications that they have this day and age. I think, in my freshman class, there were about 80 of us who started out and, at the end of the first semester, there were about 40 of us left.
English: Back then, we didn’t take the LSAT. There were 76 that started in the freshman class at the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1957. By the end of the first semester, that had been whittled down to about 45. Going into the second semester, it had whittled down to about 35. There were maybe 28 of us that graduated. At that time, the approach was to let everybody go to law school who had an interest and sort them out that way rather than to sort them out with the LSAT. The approach now is to help students along and try to keep them in. [Back] then, it was more or less survival of the fittest.
Donald G. Schweller, of counsel, Pickrel, Schaeffer and Ebeling (Dayton), University of Cincinnati College of Law 1957: The University of Dayton’s ROTC is an infantry organization. This was during the Korean conflict. One of the happiest days of my life was in summer camp, when my eyes were being examined by a physician. He said, “Mr. Schweller, I’m sorry to tell you, your eyesight is so poor, if your glasses were blown off in combat, you would not be able to lead your men properly. You could be in some organizations, like a quartermaster school …” That’s what I ended up doing. Then I ended up going over to Korea. I was able to have one year in law school before I went into the Army to finish my ROTC.
Rick E. Marsh, partner, Lane Alton (Columbus), Ohio State University Moritz College of Law 1959: The LSAT was around. I never took it. … The grade-point average to get into law school at that time, believe it or not, was a 2.25.
Diversity was lacking
Cairns: Our class started out at 105. I think we had one African-American man, three women, and the rest were all white males. We were excluding a whole group of people who were very talented.
English: There was not a single female in the law school at that time, though there had been one or two. About the second semester, a doctor’s wife started to enroll and wanted to attend, but there was one old criminal law professor that didn’t think that she should be there, and she was more or less ridden out.
Cairns: We interviewed and extended an offer [from the law firm] to a very high-ranking graduate of the Yale Law School. [We] found out after he came that his wife, who had better grades than he did, was not even interviewed because “we don’t take women.” She went on to an outstanding career … and later became dean at University of Florida law school. So we were able to see, right before our eyes, the effect of that anti-female attitude. It was devastating.
English: I had been practicing about 10 or 12 years and there were beginning to be a few women in the practice, and I hired the first woman lawyer in our community. She became general counsel for a large corporation and did well. [Now] I have a daughter who is a lawyer and two granddaughters who are lawyers.
Schweller: The tax [field] was hot then. They just had come out with a new Internal Revenue code in 1954. The expertise in the field was pretty damn limited and I thought I’d like to be outstanding in an area.
Johnson: I’ve always been in litigation. I had my first taste of it in the Army, when I was an assistant trial counsel; and, as I recall, there were 34 cases I was involved in. So that gave me a leg up on many of the lawyers coming out of law school, because I’d actually been in a courtroom. The real romance of the law, to me, is trying cases.
Cairns: When I finished law school, I went right to Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, a then-large firm of 65. Now you’re only large if you’re 600 or 700 or more.
Johnson: At that time, 1959, here in Kentucky, even the law firms that were thought of as large had probably eight to 10 lawyers. What they would offer a young lawyer in the way of salary was very low. I felt like I was making more money as a state employee. But I knew that was not something I wanted to do all my life, so I went out and opened up my own office. The opportunities were not that great with law firms at that time.
English: We didn’t have public defenders, and the bar had the responsibility for representing people who couldn’t afford lawyers. The court would appoint you. That’s what I did. I tried a lot of criminal cases in my earlier years. One of them was a fellow that was a bootlegger, and they tried to rob him in the middle of the night. And to protect himself, he shot the robber. I was appointed by the court to defend him. I got an acquittal. It took about two or three days to try the case and, bless his heart, he sent me $100 a week or two later. I also defended a young black man in a capital case. It took about two weeks to try it and was highly publicized. In the end, the jury refused to impose capital punishment.”
Marsh: The first jury trial I had was in November of 1963. It was a contentious case. The partners didn’t want to go up to Marion County to try it, so they sent the kid. I still remember the judge, whom the locals referred to as “Old Green Eye Shade,” because he wore one of those eyeshades that you used to see on dealers in Vegas or something. Supposedly he wore it so that way he could fall asleep and nobody could tell! This was a very minor automobile accident in a shopping center. A lady, I think she was pregnant at the time—my client simply backed into her car, or bumped her car, but it was clearly his fault. She was claiming fairly serious injuries, and the jury didn’t buy it. The jury returned a verdict for my client. I was just exhilarated. I drove back and I had the feeling my heels weren’t touching the ground. I returned to the office—and my balloon was punctured because that was the day President Kennedy was assassinated. And then you had the aftermath, when Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Oswald. Everybody was shaken by it, and the horror of it.
Johnson: Even though I had two years of law school, I was called into service as an Army infantry officer. I was stationed at a post that had lawyers in the JAG group, and when they found out I had two years of law school, they would cut an order periodically and bring me up as an assistant trial counsel in general court-martials. One of the most interesting [cases] was a lieutenant charged with arson. This building burned down some distance outside the post, and there was evidence that he had set the fire; while he denied doing it, he had purchased the solvent. He had an affair with a young woman off the base and, evidently, she dropped him. His defense was that he was so aggravated, it caused him to burn the building down. That was one of the few times in my life I was prosecutor.
Old versus new
Cairns: When I came to Squire Sanders, a third of the lawyers spent most of their time in estate planning and probate. By the time I left Squire Sanders, there were five of us in a firm of 200. Part of that was the probate laws were simplified. We used to have to go to court to get a court order to sell stock. Now, corporate stock is almost like currency. With automobile titles and boat titles and stuff like that, it used to take forever, and now it’s done by legal assistants and secretaries with almost no court involvement. People don’t really talk to each other about their cases because they get everything off their computer. That’s been the biggest change. In many ways, it’s been wonderful. We used to spend countless hours researching and networking. … Nowadays, you can get a pretty good [sense of things] from an hour of an employee’s work compared to half a day or more.
Schweller: What we were seeing at that point was more and more specialization—larger and larger firms, so you could have an advantage by knowing more about less and less. If the problem got into something else you didn’t know, why, there would be somebody down the hall that would have that [subject area] in his or her orbit. And we’re seeing more and more of that.
Marsh: The old courthouse had an elevator with a cage. It didn’t have any air-conditioning. The court recessed in the summertime. Each courtroom had a deputy clerk of courts in the courtroom, which was just a little sinecure. In most of the courtrooms, there were spittoons.
English: There are so few cases tried now. One thing that I see now [with] young lawyers: How do you train them to try cases when you don’t have that many cases go to trial? You take depositions and mediate. But that’s so different. In a community like ours, it’s hard for young lawyers to get trial experience.
Marsh: We have a different variety of jurors than we used to have. I guess it’s because of the Motor Voter [Act]. We have more young people on juries. It used to be retired folks. You used to have 12 jurors. We now, in most places, have a jury of eight. It’s gotten too expensive to try cases. What I would call the garden-variety, or small personal injury claims, they just aren’t worth much anymore. Jurors, at least in Franklin County, don’t bring in large verdicts for questionable claims.
Schweller: Back then, there were quite a few less lawyers. You knew who the slippery ones were and you were able to act accordingly. Now, the idea is you don’t know whom you’re dealing with, so you assume the worst and act accordingly. I totally miss that: knowing everybody and being able to deal on a personal basis.