By Michael Pierson
|When Clifford Powers started law school,
" About the first thing they told us was,
'You'll never get rich practicing law,
but you'll make a good living and
you'll be respected in your community
and by your clients. You'll be part of their
family and they'll trust you.
Never violate that trust.'"
Cliff Powers did not feel the urge to retire at 65. He was still driving to work from Lake Oswego to Portland each day at age 98. It was only as he was approaching the age of 99, and after 73 years as an active, practicing member of the Oregon bar, that he finally bowed to age and hung up his hat at his Portland law firm of Powers, McCulloch & Bennett. When interviewed at his home in August, two months after turning 100, he looked and sounded as clear-headed as any lawyer half his age. His legal career was a source of pride — a path that earned him respect and made him feel useful to others. He doesn’t live in the past, however, even though he has a lot of past to recall.
The Depression shaped Powers’ early years as a lawyer. He graduated from the University of Oregon Law School eight months after the stock market crash, and jobs were scarce. He found office space with a two-lawyer firm — free in exchange for his work. He earned his first fee in 1930, helping his grandmother collect her Civil War widow’s pension. She paid him $5. (The firm also gave him $25 at Christmas. With his grandmother’s $5, that was his income for the year.)
In 1931, he got married. His wife, Kay, a teacher, was immediately told to resign because the school district didn’t hire married women. Kay, who died in 1997 after a "wonderful" 65-year marriage, refused. The school district relented, but later refused to renew her contract.
In 1933, one of the lawyers Powers worked for informed him that the two partners were splitting up and neither could take Cliff along. "I waited until everybody left, and then I sat down at the desk and thought ‘I’m 28 years old, I’m married… what do I do? Where do I turn next?’ My emotions overwhelmed me and I put my head down on my arms and I cried. Then after a while I thought, ‘This isn’t going to get me anyplace.’" The next morning, Powers told the building manager his predicament. The manager rented Powers an office for $10 a month and another tenant rented him office furniture, equipment and a telephone line for $10 a month. The secretary at the old firm, leaving with one of the partners, told him that if he put work out for her each night, she would come in early the next morning to type it up — for $10 a month. For $30 a month, he was in business. The Depression years were still a struggle — he earned 50 cents the month his daughter was born in 1935 — but over the years he developed a solid and satisfying practice.
Only at the age of 60 did Powers first take on a partner. In 1972, after he and his first partner had gone their separate ways, he tried a case against a young lawyer named Mark McCulloch. The day after the trial ended, they had a three-hour lunch, shook hands and became partners. Their partnership continued until Powers retired.
Among his many cases, Powers remembers representing a number of Japanese-Americans during and after World War II. He looked after the affairs of one man who was unfairly denounced as a spy and sent off to an internment camp. "They said he was a member of the Japanese Navy. Well, he had come to America when he was 11 years old. Pretty young officer!" Another client was a man who, returning from an internment camp, had been unable to recover his farm from the man to whom he had leased it during the war. Powers tried the case in Oregon City, and the jury came back with a verdict for his client. Afterwards, the foreman led the jurors over to Powers’ client and each juror shook the man’s hand. It is a sweet memory for Powers. "That was kind of emotional. I was awfully proud of that jury."
Powers stresses the reward of an honorable career. When he started law school, "About the first thing they told us was, ‘You’ll never get rich practicing law, but you’ll make a good living and you’ll be respected in your community and by your clients. You’ll be part of their family and they’ll trust you. Never violate that trust.’" For him, being a lawyer provided those satisfactions. He valued his relationships with his clients and with other lawyers.
Retiring was not easy: "My entire life from the time I was 12 I had worked. I loved practicing law…I loved being my own boss." But Powers is grateful for his close and loving family and that he continues to live in the home he shared with Kay. He is an active reader of historical and military biographies, keeps up on current events, does crossword puzzles and catches every Ducks football game on TV.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike Pierson is a member of the Oregon State Bar who lives in Seattle. He got to know Cliff Powers through his grandfather, who was one of Cliff’s close friends from their days together at Jefferson High School until his death.
© 2005 Mike Pierson