Changing Culture of Law Practice
The Bencher—May/June 2021

By Marshall L. Gates, Esquire

The practice of law has changed greatly since I was admitted to the Bar in 1973. When I was looking at careers during my college days in the 1960s, one of the attractions to the law was that it did not require the use of machines. The primary attraction was to assist people with their problems. I did not understand or appreciate the social and collegial aspects of the profession. Of course, machines and technology are dominant in society today, and we will never be able to change that, nor should we. But the effect on the practice of law is profound and personal in ways that could not have been envisioned a generation ago.

When I started out in law practice, I did not even have a resume. I simply asked around to friends and family contacts to find a job after law school graduation. I located a position with a small father-and-son firm as an associate, where I worked for a few years to learn the ropes.

Of course, technology has a place in the practice of law, just as it has become part of the world we live in. However, the reliance on technology is changing the nature of personal relationships in society as a whole. Repeated emails back and forth can often yield less complete information than a single telephone call.

Early in my career I learned there had been minimum fee schedules set by the local bar association. Although these were outlawed before I got into practice, it did give a guideline as to what we could charge for certain items. The hourly billing rate ranged from $35 to $50 per hour in our area in the 1970s. My first salary was $10,000, and I received one-third of the fees I brought in. My boss was very accommodating and suggested that I might go to the local public defender’s office and ask to handle assigned cases, which I did. They paid $15 per hour at the time. Beyond the money, it was a great learning experience. I was in court nearly every week and tried numerous cases, beginning with small bad checks and muggings. Gradually, I gained experience and the confidence of the lawyer who ran the public defender’s office. I was assigned more serious cases, eventually handling murder and death penalty cases on behalf of the public defender. I found that if I treated the clients fairly and decently, they would actually refer many of their friends who had the ability the pay. It went a long way toward building my practice. The same was true of the many pro bono clients I helped through legal services, where I was board chair and a volunteer for decades.

As a newly minted lawyer, I went into my office one day wearing a jacket and tie. My boss, who was admitted in 1929, remarked that I was lucky not to be going to court that day because I should be wearing a suit. Although I had one for court appearances, I went out and bought another suit so I would be appropriately dressed in the office every day.

The interactions among attorneys were very different. My boss took me to the courthouse on a motion day and I met most lawyers from our county. Every motion required oral argument, so the courtroom was packed. Within a few months, I felt I knew almost everyone and they knew me. At the time there were only a few women lawyers—an assistant prosecutor, a legal aid lawyer, one small firm associate, and an insurance company staff attorney who covered our county. The local coffee shop across the street was like a clubhouse. It wasn’t quite like Abraham Lincoln sharing a boarding house with other circuit-riding lawyers, but it was a gathering place where lawyers went for coffee and had lunch. We discussed cases and how to handle clients, but also the news of the day, sports, and our families. Many became not just colleagues, but friends. When I started my own office, senior attorneys sent referrals. I still send referrals and conflicts to young lawyers.

Everybody was wonderful and taught me a great deal of collegiality and how to deal with lawyers and clients. On one occasion, something went sour with a case. When I told my boss, his response was, “Gee, that’s too bad.” Although he worked hard, he understood the line between getting emotional about a case and working hard at it.

Personal computers, email, and Zoom did not exist. Dictating machines used a tape belt. Older lawyers dictated to a secretary who took shorthand. Typewriters and carbon paper were the way to produce letters and pleadings. When fax machines came out, they used rolled thermal paper, not bond copy paper like today. The office did not have an answering machine with voicemail but used a local answering service.

At that time in our area, most of the lawyers were general practitioners. Many had a particular slant or specialty, but most did most types of cases: real estate closings, divorces, debt collections, tenancies, wills, light criminal cases, general civil matters. Today, most have specialties and limit their practices. There was no advertising. Clients came by word-of-mouth and personal referrals.

There was no such thing as arbitration or mediation. Lawyers would talk with each other and try to work out settlements. This was much easier when we knew each other and were able to call up and talk about the cases with people we knew. Later, arbitration and mediation evolved, as did settlement panels for family law. However, in the early days, the full extent of mediation would be a conference with a judge before the case was reached for trial. We used to report every Monday to the courthouse for civil and criminal calendar calls. If your civil case was not reached or not ready, you had to return the following week and go through the process again. The criminal court worked a little better because the prosecutors had their list and many of the defense cases were with public defenders and other local lawyers. Most cases could be worked out, and the others were set for trial.

At that time in the 1970s, our county had one judge handling criminal matters; two judges handling civil, which included small claims and landlord tenant; one judge for family court; and another handled chancery division matters. Today in the same county, there are four criminal court judges and six family court judges, of which several are women. The volume of cases has increased enormously and with it, the need to know all the adversaries and judges. The reliance on technology and short message blurbs is changing the written word. Now, with emails and text messages, poor spelling and poor grammar are becoming the new norm. The nature of the written language is changing. Lawyers can expect to receive text messages at all times of day and night and even on vacation. Much of it is nearly indecipherable gibberish. I recently received an email reading, “U NO TH 1 RE MVX”.

Attorney courtesy is different when you do not know your adversaries. Often, I get an email from an adversary I do not know when a simple phone call might have solved the problem. In past years, we would have called each other. I recently had a case with two other veteran lawyers. We all knew and trusted each other for over 30 years. We worked cooperatively to resolve the problem. Younger lawyers may never have that experience.

In short, although the practice of law has greatly changed, it is the culture of the law practice that has changed even more. It is less personal and less collegial. Groups such as the American Inns of Court and the bar associations are helpful, but with reliance on Zoom for meetings necessitated by the pandemic health concerns, it is more and more difficult, especially for veteran practitioners. Many younger lawyers are simply not “joiners.” At the Worrall F. Mountain Inn of Court in Morris County, New Jersey, where I have been a Master of the Bench member for many years, we have a blend of young and older lawyers, large firm and solo, and try to bridge the collegial and generation gap. It would be unrealistic to say that the “good old days” were really so good, but certainly it is different today.

Marshall L. Gates, Esquire, is a certified trial attorney and sole practitioner in in Succasunna, New Jersey. He has been a Master of the Bench member of the Worrall F. Mountain American Inn of Court in Morris County, New Jersey, for more than 25 years.
© 2021 Marshall L. Gates, Esq. This article was originally published in the May/Jun 2021 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.