Back to the Future
Fifty-year lawyers reflect on how the legal profession has changed since 1970.
Every year at the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting, the bar celebrates its 50-year lawyers with a reception, a time to catch up with colleagues and classmates and to meet new peers and swap stories.1 This year, we asked the 634 members who took the oath in 1970 to tell us how the legal profession has changed since they began practicing law. We heard from attorneys across the state and from different practice areas, and their responses made it very clear that technology—more than any other factor—has unequivocally transformed the legal profession over the past five decades. From computers and fax machines to the internet and cellphones, technology has changed the way lawyers work.
Kelly Frels, one of four past State Bar presidents from this class—the others are Terry O. Tottenham, Harriet Miers, and Allan K. DuBois—wrote the following: “The technology revolution has changed the law practice the most. The fax machine was the first major change followed by FedEx and other overnight document delivery services. The internet has facilitated emails and texts, which have resulted in instant communication by handheld devices—forever changing the way lawyers communicate.”
But as much as the way lawyers communicate has forever been changed, the manner in which they strive to uphold the rule of law has not. In the words of Clinton S. Morse: “The people we serve are still considered clients, not customers and they still respond with great appreciation to the loyal attorneys who have done the very best job that they can to represent them professionally.”
Read the following excerpts to learn what other 50-year lawyers have to say.
“The legal profession has changed since 1970, not because the individuals practicing law have changed, but technology has dictated the change with the personal computer, cell telephone, online research, among others, driving that change. No longer is the attorney subservient to the office library, the staff assistant, or the office itself. Each, in a way, have become anachronisms. The attorney of 2020 is independent, that independence being the gift of technology.”
—Calvin A. Hartmann, Spring
“In 1970, my firm asked me for a list of law students to recruit for the following year. I turned in a list with several women on it and was told ‘the firm was not quite ready for that yet.’ I never thought I was ‘championing women and minorities in the law.’ I just wanted my firm to hire the best young lawyers possible so that we could win. Today of course, our firm has a big HR department, policies and committees on behalf of every group imaginable, and mandatory annual sex harassment and EOO training.”
—Clinton S. Morse, Hunt
“It seems today that the younger lawyers are not as friendly as we were ‘back in the day.’ We used to be able to fight it out in the courtroom representing our respective clients and then sit down with opposing counsel afterwards and perhaps have a drink and laugh about it. Today, younger lawyers seem more goal-oriented and less friendly and accommodating. I think the legal profession has lost some of its glamour and, in my opinion, the profession needs to get back to some of the respect that we had in the 1970s and 1980s. I still enjoy practicing law, even after 50 years, but I do miss the good old days.”
—Dennis R. Croman, Irving
“As both a prosecutor and defense attorney the development of DNA has been one of the most remarkable and significant developments I have seen and worked with during the past 50 years. DNA has aided with the prosecution of serious criminal cases and the protection of the innocent. DNA is critical in eliminating reasonable doubt.”
—George S. “Steve” Hebert, Conroe
“Big Changes in Three Ways:
1. From NO advertising to Lots of Ads.
If I were starting out now, I would probably do it. However, I still believe the only way to build a lasting, loyal clientele is diligent work and word of mouth.
2. General Practice vs. Specialists.
East Texas still has a number of GPs like myself. It was the only way to make a living then. Now, criminal law, family law, personal injury, real estate, probate, etc., the specialists prevail.
There were few, if any, female practitioners. Now, at least 50% serve in East Texas, particularly judges. This has changed the legal profession for the better.”
—John E. Trube, Tyler
“Four E’s mark developments in the Texas practice of law:
• Exponential Expansion: Statutes and caselaw multiply faster than rabbits. Lawyers become specialists or fade away.
• E-filing Experts: E-filing is great for courts since clerks and lawyers no longer haul boxes of paper to the courtroom. A computer easily handles legal research; no more dusty library trips! Keeping up with the necessity for encryption and double passwords changed every fortnight does mean a bit more effort.
• Ethics Education: Once upon a time, ‘Trust me, I’m a lawyer!’ meant something solid. No more! If an agreement between counsel isn’t written, it doesn’t exist. A court order is even better.
• Everlasting Evolution: From discovery to complex relationships between federal and state law, the practice of law will continue to evolve. So, it’s never dull and boring!”
—Mary Ellen Keith, Meadowlakes
“There have been many changes since 1970. There used to be compassion in the practice of law. … I can only hope that in the next 50 years there will be a reversion to protect the rights of our citizens. I sincerely urge my brother and sister attorneys to work toward that end.”
—Randy Wilson, Abilene
“In fall 1969, as I entered the last year of my law study at Texas Southern University School of Law, I approached one of my professors with an idea I had been considering for a few months: ‘How would this new piece of technology called the computer change the way we practice law?’ He stated that I should put my ideas on paper and send them to a list of 10 law schools. I did so and each school wrote back requesting more detail. I immediately outlined my proposal for graduate programs in computer law. Six of those law schools admitted me to their program of study and I accepted the offer from Stanford University School of Law.
My proposal suggested that the computer would create both new legal problems in the areas of contracts, torts, privacy, intellectual property, and many more. I also believed that the computer could be programed to aid the lawyer in his or her practice. I arrived at these ideas because I worked my way through law school as a software analyst in the space program.
In June 1971, I graduated from Stanford University School of Law with a graduate degree in computer law and I have spent the last 49 years of my life helping and watching many of my predictions come true.”
—James M. Douglas, Houston
“The practice of law has changed greatly in the 50 years since I was licensed in 1970. There were fewer lawyers in 1970, and virtually all of them were white men who claimed to be trial lawyers. There were only 13 women in my University of Texas School of Law graduating class with only a couple minority students. In 2020, half the law students are women with an increasing minority student representation. Litigation in 2020 is no longer the overwhelmingly dominant legal practice—business and transactional lawyers abound. Today about 10% of Texas lawyers work for corporations while another 10% are employed in some level of government.”
—Kelly Frels, Houston
“The last 50 years of law in general was a meteoric evolution of existing concepts and theories that have coupled with new technologies to take American jurisprudence to its zenith in some areas while at the same time plunged others into professional despair. Specifically, the arena known as tort law exploded as we came out of law school and the boomers took over the making of law. More specifically, legal malpractice was not even a required course in law school. Why then in 1972 did law schools begin to teach the subject? Answer: Nixon was one of us and we lost the public trust in more than one way.”
—Larry Joe Doherty, Burton
“When I started practicing the IBM Selectric typewriter was a new phenomenon. There were no fax machines, emails, and, of course, no internet. … Another phenomenon that came of age during the last 50 years was the mediation practice. The mediation practice ‘thinned out’ many cases that would have gone to trial but did not. Obviously, people will look at this as a good thing since it did away with cases that were clogging the courts’ dockets. However, it also did away with the ability for young lawyers to try the minimal exposure cases. As a trial lawyer, the abolition of the weekly docket call in Harris County removed an event where both sides of the bar would meet, discuss their cases and establish personal relationships with trial lawyers on both sides of the docket. Today, with the seven days a week, 24 hours a day filing process, the personal relationships that were created among trial lawyers at the courthouse is gone.”
—William Book, Houston
“To use a phrase from a poem, ‘Let me count the ways’ the legal profession has changed. I must start with the obvious: COMPUTERS AND SOFTWARE. Probably more important was the congeniality of the opposing counsel. We never played the game with malice and there were no personal attacks on the opposing counsel. … I am just thankful that I was blessed with the opportunity to practice law in the state of Texas with a bunch of people that for the most part respected one another and enjoyed the company along the way. Thanks for everything to all the judges and opponents I faced over my 50 years of practicing law. Still practicing today.
—Don Chrestman, Weatherford
“I decided to become a lawyer when I was 13 years old when I discovered my magic lawyer skill—I could talk the neighborhood bullies out of beating me up. Later, I found myself in the University of Houston library building with 200 or so law students crammed into the small underground law school. I did well, and so it looked like my 13-year-old unbruised self was right. After working in D.C. in the age of Nixon, I started my practice in Houston. In those days, our tools were mechanical typewriters. We literally cut and pasted with scissors and tape and tried cases with discovery taking place during trial. Then along came MS-DOS. OMG. Starting with the crackle of automated typewriters, floppy discs, WordPerfect, and all the rest, work eventually became portable in our notebook computers. Now we bring our office home, to the coffee shop, and to the courthouse in tiny electronics. When I was in law school, I never imagined that I would be that 13-year-old kid, now 73-year-old lawyer, with a Dick Tracy device on my wrist. But there it is.
—Richard L. Petronella, Houston
“I have the perspective of having represented clients for over 25 years, and, as a business executive for the last 24 years, been a client. When I began practice, very few firms saw the need for professional management. Many firms seemed to fear that becoming more businesslike could degrade their professionalism.
The need for businesslike management later became apparent as firms’ profitability became a competitive issue in the hiring and retention of talent. But, by the ’90s, some firms had become focused on maximizing profitability, sometimes at the expense of client service and fair billing practices. Some failed, others opted to merge with, or disappeared into, larger firms.
Most business clients can see through a law firm which regards a client or a new matter as a business opportunity rather than an opportunity to serve. However, other firms who, competing on the basis of excellent legal service, have remained professional while operating in a businesslike manner and earned long-term client loyalty.”
—Schuyler B. Marshall IV, Dallas
“Today, we routinely exchange ‘Rule 11 letters.’ TRCP Rule 11 says that, for an agreement involving a lawsuit to be binding, it must be in writing. When I started practicing law in 1970, Rule 11 was ‘on the books’ just like it is today. Back then, it would have been an insult to ask a lawyer to put in writing an agreement regarding a lawsuit. With a few exceptions, every lawyer that I dealt with back then considered his word to be equivalent with his honor. So, no one would ever suggest that you needed something in writing to be assured that the opposing lawyer would abide by his commitments. If the issue of what was promised ever came into question, the lawyer on the other side would say, ‘If that’s how you remember it, that’s how it is.’ In those few instances where disputes arose and the matter was taken to court, judges looked askance on anyone who would call into question another lawyer’s ‘honor.’ So, if such a disagreement happened, the judge would be likely to say, ‘Both of you go away, and, from now on, as between the two of you, perhaps everything should be in writing.’ This, of course, would be a huge insult to at least one of the parties. It would be a signal to the rest of the legal community not to count on ‘the honor’ of that person.”
—Robin M. Green, Lubbock