Lessons From the Past

John Chisholm has a nice post about his father retiring after 59 years in the same Australian law firm; a feat that will likely never be matched in this era of modern law.

John’s piece however is not just an homage to his Dad, it’s also instructive for those of us practicing today.

As John notes, in the 1950’s, the 1960’s and even the early 1970’s,

There was no place for 10 redrafts of something, you had to get your letters right the first time as paper was money and there were no photocopiers or printers. ….

You took your fellow practitioners and peers at their word and cemented undertakings with a handshake.

There was no written partnership agreement. You trusted your partners and they trusted you. After all why have them as partners in the first place?

There was no overdraft. You only got paid after all the staff and the rent was paid and clients paid the firm….

Articles of clerkship were spent in the room with your principal so you could watch, observe and learn-mostly in silence. You didn’t charge out your articled clerks to clients-they were indentured to learn not to make money from. Young solicitors were taught legal skills but also skills called common sense and common courtesy.

There was no formal mentoring program. Work was shared around the firm. That was just expected.

You didn’t work on weekends. Weekends were sacrosanct for family or home time.

You rang your clients before you sent out a bill to get a “feeling” of what they thought of the work you did for them. The bill reflected accordingly. You charged your clients basically whatever they could afford.

A timesheet was something factory workers at Ford clocked into. Hourly rates were for shift workers.

Of course things went all to hell when too many lawyers decided to make different choices – like the choice to make far more money – and more money could be made by charging by the hour. But there has been quite enough written about the evils of the billable hour…..

My point – and John’s – is that there was a time when lawyers did not operate as they do now.

That they did make 10 drafts of every document and negotiate every comma (as they knew there was little value to the client or to themselves in doing so).

There was a time when lawyers did not view their court cases as “going to war” (perhaps because, unlike litigators today, after going through real wars they recognized the difference between war and a court room).

A time where trust and civility among professionals was valued much more highly than a client demanding that you “be a pitbull”.

A time where lawyers didn’t joke about “churn baby churn” because it wasn’t about how much more time could be spent on a file.

And perhaps even a time when the depression rate among lawyers was no higher than that of the general public.

The generation of lawyers that revered the so-called modern practice of law are edging closer to retirement and will shortly be gone – their legacy still undetermined.

Will subsequent generations finally realize what went wrong with the profession and re-mold it into something healthier and more admired by the public?


  1. Cristina Libro

    Great post Mitch! I wonder what it is that we lost or changed in the past 15 years? Technology has brought with it efficiencies and allowed lawyers to focus on pure legal work but it seems obvious that we are still missing something that we mastered in the past. Either that or lawyers and clients have changed or maybe the practice of law has become more complicated than it was 15 years ago. I don’t know the answer but I going to be focussing much of my energy to working it out.

  2. Graeme Mitchell, Q.C.

    While Mr. Chisholm Sr.’s accomplishment is extraordinary, you should look a little close to home. In Saskatchewan there is a senior counsel by the name of Tom Gauley, Q.C. who is a name partner in the firm of McDougall Gauley LLP (with offices in both Regina and Saskatoon)who continues to practice law more than 65 years after his call to the Bar. Mr. Gauley’s illustrious tenure is unlikely to be matched in the common law workd.