Oregon State Bar Bulletin — AUGUST 2012
Parting Thoughts
The Practice of Law, Then and Now
By Ronald Talney

While there have no doubt been tremendous changes in the practice of law since I first hung out my shingle in the late ’60s, I suspect some aspects of the work remain as they were. I was drawn to the practice of law largely from an overwhelming desire to exercise some freedom over my working life. I realized early on that I did not want to punch someone else’s time card for the 40-plus years that lay ahead of me as a career. This may have been somewhat naïve on my part, but that was the underlying motivation for going to law school in the first place. That, and the fact that Northwestern College of Law offered a night program that would allow me to continue to work full time and support my family. By then I was married with one child. It was four years of divine drudgery and effort, as those who have also done it will attest.

But by the late spring of 1966 I was a shiny new law school graduate, preparing for the bar exam in July. By the next October I was being sworn in as an attorney licensed to practice before the courts of Oregon. It would be another three years before I would be in a position to strike out on my own and make good on my promise to myself to pursue the freedom that the law allowed a young practitioner: The freedom to starve. To go into greater debt. To dig for new clients. But also to live a life by one’s own definition of what that life should be. In short, a working life that instilled both fear and hope, expectation and reward. I was a practicing attorney. Free to fail or succeed on my own terms.

The ensuing years brought both moments of elation and moments of regret. To be free of the dictates of an employer meant, of course, as a practical matter, the freedom to work even harder and longer hours than one might otherwise have to do. No more expectations of weekends off. Nor evenings at home watching the Trail Blazers on TV. On the other hand, there might also be the pleasure of those occasional long Friday lunches, lingering over an end-of-the-week martini with my fellow office sharers, exchanging our war stories of the week. A trip to the coast or down the valley to try a case in an outlying county, hoping not to get “hometowned.” A sense that I was truly a legal warrior, on my own to succeed or fail, but always on my own terms. There was nothing like it.

Perhaps, had there been more employment opportunities for young lawyers, I might have been persuaded to accept a career position in government or as a house counsel, more out of fear of the unknown in private practice than from a desire to be so employed. But such opportunities were rare for new graduates at that time and we did not think much in those terms. Legal positions in government were largely jobs accepted for a few years to get some trial experience in the office of a county D.A. or the attorney general’s office. Or for the truly weak at heart, as house counsel for an insurance company or a bank. But generally speaking, lawyers struck out on their own if they did not have the opportunity to become an associate in a large law firm, as was often the case for Northwestern grads at that time, since the school lacked ABA accreditation. There was something to be said for that, however. It took a certain kind of courage and self-confidence. Which is not to say there is not a great deal demanded of new lawyers today starting out and finding their place on the ladder to successful practice. It may indeed be harder in many respects. We were not, for the most part, for example, saddled with oppressive student loan debt, which limits tremendously what a new grad can hope to do. (Northwestern tuition was $175.00 a semester when I was there.) Many of us, as in my case, had supportive spouses or partners who also shared to some extent in the dream of the personal freedoms possible in private practice, either as a sole practitioner or in a small firm, although we had our share of divorces and separations as well. The practice itself was simpler in so many ways too, the technology so much less refined and demanding, and our fellow attorneys were so ready and willing to informally mentor new lawyers.

But the bottom line is that clients then were as demanding as I’m certain clients are now, were often times as financially broke or nearly so, and cases remained just as frustrating and challenging. Accounts receivable are still accounts receivable, no matter the era. So to all those recent law school grads, however, who continue to long to be free to make it or not on their own terms, I salute you. There’s nothing quite like it. To all you new admittees to the Oregon State Bar I say: Have at it! Let your future begin.


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.

© 2012 Ronald Talney

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