Fifty years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Our junior high school principal, Mrs. Beckley, interrupted class that afternoon. She asked Miss Neaylon to step into the hallway. A few minutes later, they returned. Our teacher was quietly crying. Mrs. Beckley told us the President had been assassinated. We were stunned, bewildered, afraid, and, for some, in denial. Old enough to understand what had happened, we were too young to understand what it meant.
Sudden change can have the same effect on people, whether the change is marked by the milliseconds it takes for a bullet to travel 200 feet to kill a President or by the decades of precedent nullified by a court’s decision.
org gbrown wisbar George C. Brown is the executive director for the State Bar of Wisconsin.
Six months before President Kennedy’s death, astronaut L. Gordon Cooper was the first person to spend an entire day in space, orbiting the Earth 22 times. It was the last flight of the Mercury program. In 1963, it would be another four years before Lexis-Nexis became an experiment developed by the Ohio State Bar Association. Bill Gates was eight years old.
In 1963, lawyers wrote (or more likely, dictated and their secretaries typed) a letter and then waited a week or two for a response. Today, you type and send an email message and the response arrives in minutes or seconds. Modern fax machines, now little used, were not introduced until 1964 (the State Bar acquired its first one in the late 1980s). And in 1963, being out of range meant not being able to listen to the radio while traveling. Today, a lost signal means you can’t talk on the phone or respond to an email (leading a recently retired friend to quip that retirement is a lot like vacation except you don’t have to answer emails.) Although the cost of implementing essential new technologies continues to rise, more than office technology has changed in the practice of law.
Since 1963, we have seen the rise of mega-sized law firms and the demise of a few. But the vast majority of lawyers in private practice today still work in firms of five or fewer attorneys. Associate salaries were modest until they skyrocketed in the 1990s. With the great recession came a resetting of the profession. Law firms are hiring fewer new associates and monthly school loan repayments can equal mortgage payments, forcing more new lawyers to work a second job, hang out a shingle, or look for non-law employment.
“Fifty years seems like a long time. In terms of change, it is actually quite short. Think what the next 50 years will bring in the practice of law.”
Many contemporary practice areas did not exist in 1963. Elder law and animal law are just two. Environmental law had its early beginnings in 1963 with proposed siting of the Storm King Mountain power plant in New York. The increasing complexity of the law (and its availability through electronic delivery) continues to challenge lawyers.
The relative monopoly on the practice of law that lawyers enjoyed in 1963 no longer exists. The first real change in Wisconsin began with the Dinger case in 1961, when the supreme court said real estate agents were allowed to complete standard forms. While fraudulently representing oneself as a lawyer has always been with us, the increase in recent years of competition from various incarnations of form filler services has required lawyers to reconsider how and what they practice. The latest variant is the creation of limited license legal technicians by the Washington Supreme Court. Some see this as threatening the practice; others as a harbinger of the future and an attempt to regulate what cannot be stopped, the practice of law by nonlawyers.
Fifty years seems like a long time. It is actually quite short. My mother was born one month after JFK. She is still alive today. Think what the next 50 years will bring in the practice of law.