It's Just Lawyers Talking at Primos Part II

Terryl Rushing

Article by Terryl Rushing Featured Author


As parents, our job is to provide our children with emotional support, shelter, food, clothing, and an unlimited data plan. Many of us offer the added benefit of unsolicited advice. I’ve seen some parents who basically backseat drive their children’s entire lives with a continual stream of helpful hints. I like to take a broader, big picture approach, with just a few, but important, pieces of wisdom. For my daughter, it was, “Never drink anything you didn’t see poured from a container, and keep your drink with you at all times” and “Never trust a man who wears a bow tie.” (Sorry, folks, just a personal preference.) With my son, it was, “If you get serious about a girl, take a long, hard look at her Mother” and “There’s no such thing as a short-sleeved dress shirt.” (Oops, another personal preference.)

When my son entered law school, entire new vistas of advice-giving opened. Before classes started, for example, I told him, “Raise your hand a lot the first two weeks, and the professors will get tired of you and leave you alone for the rest of the semester.” Of course, I also told him to go to every class, always prepare, and take copious notes, but I think that all fell on deaf ears. When he started clerking and was about to attend his first trial, I told him, “If you’re walking into the courtroom, and your client turns to you and says, ‘There’s something I need to tell you,’ that rumbling sound you hear is his case falling down around you because of what he is about to say. Choose not to hear it.” He actually had that experience — or one pretty similar — and he called me on the way home to say, “Mom, you were right!” No, duh …

So who is raising the current crop of young lawyers? In the first part of this article, I related some stories about the watering holes and gathering places that existed for lawyers in downtown Jackson many years ago. Those were places where young attorneys could observe sage practitioners, and where, if those young lawyers were wise, they would stay quiet and listen to them. This part of the article will address the changes that have occurred since so many firms have moved out of the city center and the impact of the changes on lawyers, young and old.

Law firms moving away from downtown areas began in most major metropolitan areas in the 1980’s. Several factors prompted the attorney diaspora — cheaper office space, the availability of parking, the fact that clients were moving out of downtown — all of these were cited as reasons for the move. Jackson was no exception, although the movement here started a bit later. By 2013, an article listing the largest law firms in Mississippi included sixteen in the Jackson metropolitan area. Where almost all of them that were in Jackson in the 1990’s were based downtown, of those sixteen, only eight currently have offices in the center of the city. Four firms are located in Ridgeland, along Highland Colony Parkway, three are located near Meadowbrook Road and I-55, and one is in Flowood. Of course, several small and medium sized firms, as well as sole practitioners, have also relocated outside downtown Jackson.

It was not just geographical happenstance that drew lawyers together in those days, but also the manner in which legal business was conducted. Then, pretty much every official legal communication was in paper form, delivered either by snail mail or by hand. The Post Office served, more or less, as a primitive Wi-Fi hotspot, which had to be visited at least once a day. Pleadings were often delivered to the courthouse by the lawyers who drafted them, who would run into other lawyers in the hallway. Sitting in courtrooms for docket calls and hearings, lawyers would talk. Most attorneys left their offices for coffee or lunch, if for no other reason than to catch up with colleagues and stay abreast of the gossip.

To get a sense of whether the dispersion of lawyers has changed our sense of community, I polled a cross-section of attorneys, some of whom practice downtown and some who practice further out. The responses came from large firm lawyers, small firm lawyers, sole practitioners and one judge, all of whom shall remain nameless for purposes of this article. (PS-If you promised me a response, but never sent it, it’s too late.) Their answers predictably lamented the loss of face time with other lawyers, but they also showed that some practitioners have adapted to the change. The answers were varied, and sometimes surprising, but the differences likely reflect the personalities of the responders. Lawyers who actively seek a community seem to find some form of it, while the more passive lament the chance social opportunities of a former time.

Both lawyers who moved from downtown and lawyers who stayed feel that the practice changed for them when they no longer had as much regular, informal contact with other lawyers. This was so with lawyers in large firms and smaller firms, as well as sole practitioners. The attorneys whose offices are clustered in the Meadowbrook Road area or Highland Colony Parkway say that nearby restaurants offer some opportunities for interaction; however, that interaction is pretty much limited to other lawyers in that area. One lawyer noted that, because these restaurants are so geographically scattered, none becomes, reliably, “the” spot for running into other attorneys. In contrast, she said, downtown restaurants and bars were clustered in a relatively small area, and the places that stayed open after office hours were few. As a result, it was common to find lawyers from all practice backgrounds, as well as judges from all courts, seated at the same table or bar.

"The interactions led to friendships, and the friendships led to advice — priceless advice."

According to the responders, the benefits of informal contact went well beyond the opportunity to say hello, or even to exchange juicy gossip or war stories. As one noted, “The interaction led to friendships, and the friendships led to advice — priceless advice.” Another observed that, while many lawyers still have close friendships with other lawyers they met in years past, the geographical isolation prevents them from interacting with younger attorneys, which is sad for both groups. One lawyer remembered the impact that the informal discussions had on him as a young lawyer, in that “just listening to the banter, rumors, gossip, and recent cases was tremendous.” He lamented the lack of another way “to keep the ‘pulse’ on what’s going on.”

Litigation itself has changed in the last thirty years, with the emphasis shifting from personal appearances in court to paper motion practice and telephonic hearings. Several lawyers mentioned how much they learned — legal and otherwise — from sitting in a courtroom full of attorneys, waiting their turn to argue a motion. An attorney remembered, “I fondly recall that there always seemed to be a place in a courthouse to drink coffee, and the interaction over coffee was constant.” Isolation also affects the manner in which cases are settled. A Brandon attorney who used to practice in Jackson gave her view:

Before computers took over our lives, we settled cases by taking files to the respective courtroom and met face to face with the lawyers and entered into an agreement. Today, I send emails to anyone that has a hearing with me and settle prior to Court. Of course, this is much more efficient for the Court, but I do miss ‘knowing’ whom I am talking to, either by phone or email. It’s like the lost art of writing letters — just quick emails. I would wish that we could slow down a little and enjoy each other more!

Additionally, as one attorney noted, a disadvantage to the loss of personal contact is that it hinders opportunities for case referrals and employment. Finally, some pointed out that a move out of downtown has a disparate impact on employees, based on where they live. Downtown is a hub of activity because it’s, well, a hub. As in the center. One downside to moving out of the city center is that, while it shortens the commute for some, it lengthens it significantly for others.

It’s not just the geographical dispersion and changes in litigation practice, but also the reliance on electronic communication, that have changed the ways in which lawyers interact. Email conversations lack the depth of a face to face encounter. “Lawyers simply click the mouse and say what they have to say and get back to business.” One lawyer gave this thoughtful assessment of how his sense of community has been affected by technology:

Technology is a double edged sword in that it greatly enhances our ability to quickly communicate with one another and process and file documents much quicker, etc.; however, much can be lost in email communication that otherwise would be more effective with a telephone conversation or a face to face conversation. As with most other advancements, we must strike the proper balance so that we do not lose our sense of community with one another.

So, what’s the verdict? Most lawyers feel some sense of loss. One described feeling disconnected, and she said that she has lost track of friends and colleagues. Another opined that she felt completely out of touch. She eats lunch in the office and goes directly home after work, although she did offer that it could be a function of age. Many have found alternative ways of staying in touch, primarily through social media. Some belong to organizations catering to their particular practice and stay in touch, at least with like-minded lawyers, that way. When asked whether bar association meetings were helpful, the responses were mixed. Some lawyers said that lunch meetings and the Bar Convention were some of the most important ways they kept in touch; others reported that they were no help at all. The judge who responded came from a different perspective, in that judges are governed by the judicial canons that are designed to isolate them from the Bar. Even so, that judge has seen the legal community come together in a time of crisis, like Hurricane Katrina. So it may be that we are more connected than we believe.

Ironically, in some larger legal markets, there is a growing trend to move out of the suburbs and back downtown. News stories report this trend in Boston, Chicago, Washington, Denver, and Minneapolis, just to name a few. The trend is driven by several factors, one of which is the desire to attract employees from the millennial generation. Young professionals want to be close to the “action.” They want restaurants, music venues, a vibrant night life. In Jackson, as in other urban areas throughout the country, they are heeding the clarion call to move into town. In a perfect world, they would live, work, and play in the same urban area.

Those young professionals are not just lawyers; corporate employers are making the move to entice this new generation of employees. An example is McDonald’s, which recently announced plans to move from Oak Brook, Illinois, to Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. Law firms correspondingly move back to town to be closer to their major clients. Of course, the move is more palatable in cities that have made large investments to create mixed-use, walkable downtowns; although Jackson’s downtown has seen a surge in redevelopment, we may not be quite there yet.

So, is there a problem? If so, is there a solution? Most of the attorneys who responded are older. As they have already had the benefits of an interactive legal community, they feel the loss as regretful, but not something that impacts their careers at this juncture. The lawyers who should be most concerned are the younger attorneys, who don’t have the opportunity to mix and mingle with their older counterparts. I see my son and his friends attending a myriad of events designed to promote fellowship among his peers, but younger lawyers may need to be proactive to connect with the older legal community.

This should not be just their responsibility, but all of ours. We know we stand on the shoulders of legal giants: Lucy Somerville Howorth, William Keady, Charles Clark, Evelyn Gandy, Earl Thomas, Soggy Sweat, and R. Jess Brown, to name a few. We also know that we have rubbed shoulders with the Bar’s curmudgeons, rascals, misogynists, misanthropes, and true eccentrics (some of whom became judges). One of the best stories related to me in researching this article was from a female lawyer, who found herself sitting at a lunch counter with an attorney (who shall also remain nameless) who embodied traits from each of those categories. He introduced himself as a lawyer, and he asked what she did. She replied that she was a lawyer, too. He responded, “ I don’t approve of that.” She replied, “I don’t approve of the fact that you don’t approve of that.” And that was it. No lengthy argument, no shouting match, no Bar complaint — just two lawyers who staked out their positions and moved on.

These lawyers, good and bad, are our heritage, and young lawyers need to hear the stories about them. They need to know that you can lose a case — sometimes through spectacular stupidity — and life will go on. In fact, if they can stand to talk about it, the loss will become one of their favorite stories. They need to know that most of us have tried a case before a cantankerous judge by gritting our teeth and repeating to ourselves, over and over, the mantra, “Wait for the appeal.” They need to know that your most obstreperous adversary in a case can become one of your best friends over drinks a few months later. How can this wisdom be passed on?

To young lawyers, I’d say take a partner to lunch. You can even buy if you take them somewhere cheap. To older lawyers, I’d say take an associate or a law clerk to lunch. Surprise them by being human. A lawyer who started at my old firm still talks about our mentoring partner lunch, where we picked up barbecue and a six-pack of beer and drove around rural Hinds County. (These days, though, you should probably leave out the driving part.) We all know some war stories that are just too good to die with us; they cry out to be passed on. What we have lost, it seems, is the opportunity for accidental gatherings with other attorneys to tell those stories and pass on advice. We can still make purposeful efforts to do that, and we should. We must.