Oregon State Bar Bulletin — OCTOBER 2011
Parting Thoughts
My First Client
By Ronald Talney

It was my first day in private law practice: August 1969. I had entered into an arrangement with Gordon Mac-Laren, a former prosecutor in the D.A.’s office, now in private practice, to share office space with him in East Multnomah County. I had gone to a local office furniture store and purchased, on credit, a desk, an executive chair, two side chairs and a file cabinet. My certificates of admission to the bar and the Oregon Supreme Court were beautifully framed and hung on my new office wall in such a way as to be easily seen and, hopefully, admired by clients sitting in one of the side chairs.

Our offices were located in what was then the Gateway Shopping Center, and, fortuitously, next to the liquor store, which generated lots of foot traffic past our door. Gordon had the front office, with the view of the street. His wife, Jan, was our secretary and receptionist. My office was the interior one, with no window. There was a combination conference room/library/kitchen in the back and a restroom.

Gordon had been very generous in the arrangements and I was to pay a percentage of my monthly gross, the percentage going down as the gross increments went up. Hopefully, up. As a result, if I took in nothing in a month, which I feared might happen, I would owe nothing. He had an empty office and I needed one, so it worked to our mutual advantage. I decided to go into practice in the Gateway area because I had once lived there and my parents still lived there. I felt I would have some name recognition, for good or bad. If I were downtown, I feared I would be lost in its concrete canyons.

I had left a position with Multnomah County, where I was head of the Civil Service System. Married, with three young children, it was a leap of faith to leave a secure salary, with benefits, to hang out my shingle and start with nothing and no guarantee of clients. I had sold my cherished sports car and cashed in my retirement account, so that gave me a small cushion. In addition, the commission asked me to continue part-time until my successor could be hired, which turned out to be five months. All things considered, it was an ideal arrangement. But scary nonetheless.

Still, it was with some fear and trepidation that I sat at my desk that first morning, wondering what I was doing there. My desk was devoid of paperwork. The file cabinet contained no files. The certificates on the wall looked impressive, but my empty side chairs just sat there mocking me. The room was deathly quiet. I could faintly hear Jan out in the reception area typing. I could hear Gordon on the phone talking to a client. But I was doing nothing. Just the morning crossword puzzle.

But then, suddenly, my telephone buzzed. There was a call for me. Who could it be? That prospective client who had slipped and fallen in the Fred Meyer store across from our office and sustained, alas, serious and permanent injuries? …No, it was my mother. She informed me, in her gentle Scottish brogue, that she wished an appointment. She wanted her will done. I scanned my new desk calendar to see if I had an opening and could squeeze her in. Fortunately, I did. In fact, I told her, I had had a cancellation and I could see her that very morning.

A short time later my father delivered her to our door. She was dressed like she was going to church, right down to the tiny pillbox hat she always wore, the one with the dotted veil and the pheasant feather sticking straight out from one side. She looked around and nodded with approval. I questioned her closely about her estate plans and took extensive notes. After she left I dictated a will and it was back on my desk by mid-afternoon. The next day she returned to our office, again dressed as if she was going to meet the queen, and the will was reviewed and signed with all the necessary formalities. I had serviced my first client. She paid me $125, considerably more than simple wills were going for at that time. But she insisted. As it happened, it was my gross income for that month.

Years later, after my mother had passed on, I learned the truth. She had no need for a will. She and my father had wills that had been prepared by my brother-in-law, who was in private practice too. The will I had prepared was simply a duplicate of what he had already done.

Yes, when it comes to your very first client, I can tell you this: if it’s an elderly Scottish lady dressed to the nines, bless her heart, you can truly say you’ve struck the mother lode.


Ronald Talney, a retired public interest lawyer who lives in Lake Oswego, is the author of the recently released satiric novel, Nockers Up!, from Inkwater Press, and a memoir, The Archives of Silence, from West Virginia University.

© 2011 Ronald Talney

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