Cook On Concord: Practicing law through the lens of the ‘good old days’


A couple of young lawyers in my office asked me recently what had changed over the period of time that the “older lawyers” in the office had been in practice. I told them to ask the “older lawyers,” and they told me I did not understand the question. After getting over that shock, I thought about the question. After all, I reflected, I have been looking out of the windows of Manchester’s Hampshire Plaza for over a third of a century, so maybe I do qualify. Manchester and New Hampshire were very different in 1972, when I was a summer clerk here at one of New Hampshire’s “largest” law firms. This was the first modern glass and steel office building and there was great excitement as the firm moved into this structure, occupying three quarters of the 18th floor. Other lawyers thought the leaders of the firm were crazy to spend the amount rent cost, almost $10 per square-foot! When I came back the next year and passed the bar, I was the 15th or so lawyer in this “large firm” and was paid over $10,000! The office was open on Thursday nights, as was the custom in town, and we worked a half day on Saturdays. Lunch often was at the upstairs sandwich shop over Ferretti’s Market at the corner of Bridge and Elm streets, where the Bank of America (formerly Fleet, Shawmut, New Dartmouth, Dartmouth, Numerica Bank) building now stands, or on the second floor of the Carpenter Hotel. The class of 1973 took the number of members of the New Hampshire bar over the 900- and 1,000-member mark — and a few of the new attorneys were women.
Those are obvious changes. We can all be proud of the changes in New Hampshire, both in its business and economic climate, the professionalism of its doctors and lawyers, the improvements in the fine institutions of higher education, health care, arts and charity. We can marvel how small towns have become suburbs, bemoan the traffic jams getting out of town, and welcome the cleaned-up Merrimack River that now looks like a lake in the summer, as water skiers and recreational boaters use its clean waters. We can enjoy the professional hockey and baseball games, new restaurants and renovated schools. But none of that is what struck me as the answer to the young lawyers’ question. Maybe it is just my impression, but I think we had more fun then. In those days, of course, money was important in order to support our families, just like it is now. But people did not get out of school with debts as large as mortgages, and have to strategize about what job to take just to survive. Also, both employers and employed were more loyal to each other — not figuring out an excuse to be unhappy in order to leave for the other side of the fence — for the dough. Young lawyers looked for the place they might work for the rest of their lives — or expected to change jobs only once or twice — instead of the five or six that seems to be the norm today. In return for training and the loyalty of the employer, young attorneys became part of the team and didn’t succumb to being “raided.” Lately, I have had several acquaintances who have jumped ship for the money tell me that such attitudes are “old-fashioned.” Count me in that “old-fashioned” group. We worked hard, but everyone knew each other better. We knew a lot more members of our profession than we do today, at least as a percentage of the whole, and that made it more of a profession and less of a confrontation or competition. We also collectively knew who the lawyers with suspect ethics or other characteristics were and generally helped police conduct or at least stay out of their way. There was not the same need for as many rules, boards, hearings and the like to keep order. We were more tolerant of mistakes and willing to grant a favor. Clients were different, too. Once they had a “counselor,” they stayed loyal to him and his firm, and the clients and lawyers got to know and trust each other.
Today, as everyone has to look over his shoulder to see who is trolling for his clients, and as clients send letters to their attorneys, whose advice they seek on million-dollar matters one day and whose bills they have audited the next, with the salutation, “Dear Vendor,” it is hard to get the same feeling of a trusting relationship. Perhaps that is the saddest change. However, it also is true that in the “old days,” when the same attorney would go to court in the morning, write a will at lunch, and form a corporation in the afternoon, the quality of specialization and the legal knowledge available to clients was not as good as it is today. Is practicing law better or worse today? It certainly is different. But that is what the attorneys who had started in the 1930s and 1940s told us in the early 1970s, no doubt, when we asked the “older lawyers” what had changed. Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.