‘If I’ve Helped Some People Along the Way, That’s Enough’
An oral history of practicing law in the days when Dictaphones were cutting-edge, women in the office were secretaries, and attorneys worked for as little as $275 a month
Published in 2016 Washington Super Lawyers magazine
on June 10, 2016
Updated on July 6, 2016
Six legal lions who cut their teeth in the tumultuous ’50s and ’60s talked with us about forging partnerships in the transformative ’70s and building celebrated careers over the decades. They reflected on what’s been lost (collegiality, community, a sense of mission) and what’s taken its place (increased complexity, competition, focus on the bottom line). And on how, despite these changes, they are eager to go to work every morning.
Some were born to the profession; others stumbled into it.
George F. Velikanje (University of Washington School of Law, 1965): My parents pretty much made it clear that I was going to go to college and graduate school. The question: Was I going to be a doctor, a lawyer or, heaven forbid, a dentist? I told my son, “Do anything else.” He became a lawyer. His son is now heading off to college and everybody says, “Don’t go to law school!” He said, “Don’t worry, I’m not.” I said, “That’s what I said.”
Frederic G. Emry II (Gonzaga University, 1965): People were always telling me as a kid, “You can’t do this, it’s the law,” and I was curious. But more so, through college and afterward, I went into the law with a sense of purpose: to make a difference while earning a decent living. You could help people without starving to death.
Camden M. Hall (University of Washington School of Law, 1965): I was in the ninth grade, and my mother was a special United States marshal for one of the Smith Act trials in Seattle to root out communists. One of the people being rooted out was a woman by the name of Barbara Hartle. They needed a woman who could be with Barbara Hartle when she’d go to the restroom, things of that sort. Somehow my mother got involved. I went to federal district court a couple times, and I thought it was really interesting. That was the seed that got planted.
George Kargianis (University of Washington School of Law, 1953): As a freshman [at Gray’s Harbor Community College], I decided to join debate and found that I had a certain flair for it—and took the state and regional championships. I’ve always been interested in trying to garner facts and present them in a positive and persuasive manner. I was interested in drama as a kid, too.
Mike Liles Jr. (Harvard Law School 1963): I majored in engineering and applied physics. I decided I didn’t want to be a scientist; I wanted to go into investment banking. [Upon earning my MBA], I was subject to the draft. I thought, I can get drafted and look at a bunch of East Germans over a wall for two years, or I can get a student deferment. Which will be better? I think I’ll apply to law school. Much to my surprise, I got in.
But law school was no easy ride.
Arthur D. Swanson (University of Washington School of Law 1963): Early on, I would work summers in the sawmill. I set chokers in the woods. I worked on the Weyerhaeuser fire crew, in the oyster beds, at Safeway carrying out boxes of groceries. You name it, I did it. During law school, I worked for an independent adjustment company. I got mononucleosis. It was an uphill battle all the way. But it was well worth it.
EMRY: I went to Gonzaga night law school, and worked during the day in a bank. I’d eat dinner and then go to class at 6. Get out about 10 and study until about 2. Then I’d get up and go to work. That was really tough. I was unmarried and living at home—it was embarrassing, but I did pay my way through law school.
HALL: When I got to law school, I grew to dislike it. I thought that the process of the Socratic method was unpleasant. But there were a couple of professors who really wanted me to do well. And I did well for them. I might have dropped out of law school, except I clerked for what was then the firm of Garvin Ashley & Foster, and I discovered that practicing law was different from studying law.
After all that hard work, starting salaries were humble.
KARGIANIS: I was the highest paid attorney from my law school class, and I was making the royal sum of $275 a month, which was less than I was making working in a men’s clothing store.
EMRY: I think they billed me out at $12 an hour.
LILES: My hourly rate in Birmingham [Alabama] was $15 an hour, and I thought that was outrageous. How can I possibly be worth $15 an hour? I think my annual pay was $5,000.
And lawyers were expected to know, or at least figure out, how to handle any sort of case that came their way.
VELIKANJE: It wasn’t unusual to go to court and see the senior partner of a law firm trying a divorce case or a drunk-driving case. We were all trained to do what lawyers do. Motion day was Friday afternoon, and every lawyer in town was at the courthouse. Except for the days when we had the Bar association meeting, we all ate lunch at the Golden Wheel. There were about six booths with lawyers who would tell each other how crummy their cases were, or how good they were. And the judges ate lunch with us.
EMRY: I did divorces, I did some bankruptcy, I did real estate. I did some securities law. Today, you kind of get into a very narrow area of the law fairly quickly.
HALL: When I first joined Garvin Ashley & Foster, I was about 26 years old, and they had me do a little bit of everything. I did some criminal law stuff, I did some probate stuff, I did some corporate things, I did some civil litigation. It’s really been helpful for the rest of my career. Now, I think, a lot of times you come out of law school and you immediately get into a slot.
Being the youngster in the courtroom often meant being given the tough cases, exhibiting the confidence of youth, and discovering you might not be a litigator at heart.
KARGIANIS: When I joined the Rutherford firm, they were doing primarily defense work, and I was the junior. So they’d assign me these cases to try, and I’d go over there with a knife in my teeth and a file. I’d come back and they’d say, “How’d you do?” And I’d say, “I won.” They said, “We didn’t think anybody could win that case.”
SWANSON: In the prosecutor’s office, I tried, I think, 33 jury trials in about two years. A lot of the trial lawyers wanted to make sure that they had a perfect record of wins. What I wanted was the experience of the trial. So all of a sudden, I would end up with short notice: “Here, Swanny, go ahead and try this.” There were some extremely difficult cases, and cases I ended up losing because they probably shouldn’t have ended up being filed as a felony. I didn’t complain. I loved it.
HALL: [In 1971, Hall represented the Seattle School District, which had been enjoined from implementing a desegregation busing plan.] There was a hearing before Judge William Wilkins. I thought: We need to, basically, shake the judge to change his mind. Part of my argument was, “Judge Wilkins, what you’re doing in Seattle is most unfortunate. It’s like what Governor Wallace is doing to the children of Alabama.” Wilkins looks down at me from the bench and says, “Mr. Hall, I can only attribute that unkind remark to your youthful exuberance.” Next day, first page of the Seattle P-I, there’s a headline, “Attorney Hits Judge,” and then it explains what happened. But the president of the Bar association maybe can’t read, I don’t know; he [took the headline literally and] filed a complaint against me for hitting a judge. That went nowhere.
VELIKANJE: When I [joined my father’s firm], I was a litigator, because I thought it would keep me away from my father and try to limit the nepotism problem. I always felt sorry for the people on the other side. Either they had a bad case and shouldn’t have been there—and I just wanted to tell them—or they had a bad lawyer. [A partner] used to counsel me on how I needed to have more of a killer attitude.
The community of lawyers was smaller and tighter-knit; clients were more loyal.
KARGIANIS: You pretty well knew every attorney practicing in Seattle. And you knew early on who the attorneys were whose word was good. A lot of it was more informal. Filing a brief in King County before you went to trial—a lot of people didn’t do it. As extraordinary as that seems, you’d go in and kind of tell the judge what your case was about.
VELIKANJE: I went down to Prosser when I was a young lawyer. Some nice lady from the clerk’s office came out and said, “Are you here for a hearing?” I said yes, and she said, “Why aren’t you back in the library with the other lawyers?” She said, “Come with me.” So we went back to the library, and there was a big urn of coffee and a big pile of chocolate chip cookies that the clerk’s office had made, and the judge was sitting behind a table. And he said, “Now, what is this bullshit, Joe? This is a bunch of baloney.” The judge sort of decided all the cases in the library before we went to court. But the result was OK.
EMRY: The clients would take the advice of the lawyer generally and follow it. Nowadays, clients will maybe get second opinions. Clients will sue their lawyer if they don’t get the result the clients want.
SWANSON: When I was in the prosecutor’s office, I was in the courtroom all the time, and we had a group of retired people who would go from courtroom to courtroom as their entertainment rather than sitting and watching TV. When I’d be going up to a courtroom, two or three of them, they’d say, “Swanny, what have you got going today, anything exciting?” So I would talk to them and spend time with them. When [one of them] died, I got a call from his son. … He wanted me to handle his estate.
The turmoil of the ’60s didn’t permeate every practice—though women and minorities began to find their place in the profession.
VELIKANJE: Believe it or not, the revolution of the ’60s didn’t happen here. Yakima is an agricultural town. No one was burning their bras or their draft cards. When I went to law school, we had four women in our class. Now, women are, if not 50-50, better than 50-50. At the risk of offending my friends who are male on the bench, I think that women are particularly qualified to be judges. They are excellent attorneys. They have skills that we men envy in terms of organization, memory and logic.
HALL: I think what was then Foster, Pepper & Riviera was pretty farsighted in starting to hire women and minorities. I always felt you hired the brain; it didn’t matter what package it came in. I do remember when we were at a meeting and talking about hiring a black attorney named Rafe Stone [now a partner at Foster Pepper], one of the attorneys said, ‘What will our clients think?’ One of the other attorneys said, ‘That’s their problem.’ I thought that was so good.
The firm used to have its firm meetings at The Rainier Club. The first woman we had at the firm had to come through a side door. After we hired Rafe and he couldn’t be in The Rainier Club, we stopped having our meetings there. Of course, the Rainier Club long ago abandoned its discriminatory policies. It is a much different place today.
Early on, many attorneys billed according to minimum-fee schedules set by Bar associations. In 1975, the Supreme Court ruled that minimum-fee schedules violated antitrust laws. Hourly billing became the norm.
HALL: In the good old days, you’d send a client a bill that would say: “For legal services, $25,000.” Well, clients are a lot smarter nowadays; they want to know what you did. Now it’s changing even more. For this you spent .2 hours. For this you spent 1.5 hours. For this you spent .3 hours, for a total of X. I think that’s a positive step.
LILES: You could bill any way you wanted, and frequently it was more directed toward the result. [Hourly billing] makes lawyers more wealthy, but I don’t like it. It’s not nuanced enough. You get a lawyer that’s not that good; they have a billing rate and just crank it out and bill it out.
VELIKANJE: People say: “So what’s your hourly rate?” When you tell them, they hang up the phone. And I think: “Well, that was pretty stupid. What you really should have [asked me] is, ‘About what will this cost me?’” I think the hourly rate will go away at some point, but I don’t know what is going to replace it.
In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that lawyers have a First Amendment right to advertise—which further altered the landscape of the profession.
EMRY: That changed everything. Whether it really helped, I’m not so sure.
KARGIANIS: The theory or the philosophy was that, if an attorney could advise the public about his abilities, etc., that was fine, but, right now, I think the average person has a difficult time determining who in the world the qualified attorney is. You see these flashy ads on television, and it really doesn’t tell you an awful lot about the attorney.
LILES: People should be able to find out what it’s going to cost in a more rational way. “Operators are standing by”—that’s if you want a kitchen gadget, not a lawyer.
HALL: We have a lot of people whose mother didn’t teach them manners. I think we have a lot of people in the practice of law who went into the law to make money and not to do good. At my former law firm, I was on the executive committee. At one point—it was in the ’90s and there was a recession—the senior lawyers on the executive committee decided they would take less money so they wouldn’t have to let people go.
EMRY: The older attorneys took us under their wing. We just felt protected. It was with the understanding that, when they get old and retire, we would protect them. We’d pay them out a fair whatever it was. The young kids want to know what’s the expectation, how many hours, what are they going to get paid, how’s the compensation determined. In part, I think, because of the law school debts.
In the face of these unhappy trends, they keep going—driven by a love of the work and a larger purpose that has never gone away.
HALL: I like solving problems. That’s why—let’s see, I’m 75—I’m still doing it. And the money isn’t that big a deal. Most lawyers, they’ll make plenty of money to live on. It’s not like they’re about to pitch a tent under a bridge. You’re not going to make a lot of money in the terms that it’s defined nowadays. But you’re going to have a really interesting profession.
KARGIANIS: I think the law has made me a better person. It’s made me more attuned to the needs and wants of other people.
EMRY: I had a friend I grew up with; he practiced back East, and he says, “You know what I want them to put on my gravestone? I had a few grateful clients.” And I think, if I’ve helped some people along the way, that’s enough.