The Legal Profession: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

The largest, most ornate framed document on my office wall does not even bear my name. It is a law license from the Supreme Court of the State of Kansas dated June 20, 1929. The recipient was my grand-
father, Harold Lee (“Hal”) Sheppeard.

After my family moved to Tennessee when I was age six, we would visit my grandparents for a week every summer in the teeming metropolis of Clay Center, Kansas, a town of about 5,000 people. My earliest recollections of Hal the attorney involved trips to his office on the town square, where he practiced for decades with his best friend.  I knew he went to the office every weekday, just as my non-attorney father did in Knoxville. I had no idea what either of them did at “the office.”

One day, when I was about seven, I was at Hal’s office when a farmer stopped by. He profusely thanked my grandfather, reached into the bib pocket of his overalls, retrieved the largest roll of cash my little girl eyes had ever seen, and peeled off some bills for Hal. After he left, I asked why he had given Hal money. He replied, “Because I solved a big problem for him. That’s my job, to try to solve people’s problems.” I didn’t fully comprehend the concept at the time, but that phrase has stayed with me all of these years.

A year or two later on another annual pilgrimage to Kansas, Hal took me to the Clay County Courthouse. Court was not in session, and I was allowed to explore the courtroom for a few minutes. I am reminded of that day every time I enter an elegant courtroom in an historic courthouse. I was old enough by this time to comprehend a little bit about trials, and as a young girl alone in the quiet of that large, majestic room, I sensed it was a special place where important things happened. “This is where we come to help people solve their problems,” Hal told me. And then he took me into chambers to meet the big problem solver, the judge, who was quite gracious to share some time with a wide-eyed kid.

As I grew older, I came to understand more about the judicial process, although I pictured every trial being just like the Perry Mason show on television, but with Hal as the star. Reflecting back on the man I knew, he was kind and hardworking, a caring family man and a fun grandfather. Practicing law seemed like a pretty good way to make a living.

Then I learned more of his story. Hal was the first in his family to attend college and law school. He planned to return to his home county and hang out a shingle. But the Great Depression began in 1929, just about the time he was licensed. He took the best job he could find, selling tractors in Sweetwater Texas, for several years until it became financially feasible to return home to Clay County and establish a law practice. At times, the practice was challenging, both emotionally and financially.

My grandfather died nine years after my law school graduation. We had some wonderful conversations about the practice of law, including his advice on how to try a law suit and how to cope with the stress of our profession. At the time, I thought the practice of law had changed dramatically since his day. After all, we had copiers instead of carbon paper, fax machines and computers, and online legal research. Through the magic of the latter, I was recently able to review some opinions of the Kansas Supreme Court in which Hal was an attorney, cases like you or I might handle today.

And then it hit me. Our profession has evolved in those 90 years since Hal was licensed, but our core purpose remains the same. We help people solve problems. And in the process, our jobs can be difficult, both emotionally and financially. From his experience I also learned that a rough start to a career is only the beginning. Work-life balance is important. It’s a profession, but only a job, all at the same time. Practice law with people you like and respect.

So why did I hang his license on my wall after his death 30 years ago? Well, it is more detailed than a Tennessee license, reading in part as follows:

[W]hereupon in open Court he took an oath that he will support and bear true allegiance to the constitution of the United States and the  constitution of the State . . . , that he will neither delay nor deny any man his right through malice for lucre, or from any unworthy desire; that he will not knowingly foster or promote, or give his assent to any fraudulent, groundless or unjust suit; that he will neither do, nor consent to the doing of, any falsehood in court; and that he will discharge his duties as an attorney and counsellor of the Supreme Court of the State . . .  with fidelity both to the court and to his cause, and to the best of his knowledge and ability.

In 1929, those were good words for a lawyer to live by. In 2019, they still are.

SARAH Y. SHEPPEARD  is a shareholder in the Knoxville office of Lewis Thomason and a Rule 31 Listed Mediator. You can reach her at SSheppeard@LewisThomason.com.

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