By Robert Loerzel
If you're 80 years old or older and still practicing law, it's probably because you love what you're doing.
Asked why they still go into the office at an age when many people long since retired, six of Chicago's octogenarian attorneys all answered with words similar to: "Why not?"
It's not only that they love practicing law — they love their particular niches of the law. Early in their careers, they found a subject that fascinated them and they've stuck with it ever since. They may face trouble imagining themselves working in any other sort of legal practice.
For instance, Harry Rosenberg has spent six decades writing wills, setting up family trusts and handling estates. It's an area of law that almost demands a personal connection with clients.
And that's what motivates Rosenberg, 83, a partner at Reed Smith, who said he aims to give his clients comfort and peace of mind.
"I like the idea that I'm 75 percent a lawyer and 25 percent a psychologist, priest, rabbi or minister," he said. "I would be very, very uncomfortable working on SEC regulations, commercial code or big corporate work. It's just never attracted me. I've always been attracted to dealing with people and their families."
Rosenberg owned a small law firm for almost three decades, until 1980, when he joined Sachnoff & Weaver, which later merged and became Reed Smith. He still gives his clients the sort of personal touch a person would expect from a solo practitioner. He insists on meeting with clients inside his personal office rather than a more impersonal conference room.
"I think this office tells something about me the conference (room) never would," Rosenberg said, sitting at his desk in front of an autographed-festooned Chicago White Sox quilt. "First of all, you can see I'm a Sox fan and I have masses of family pictures. They learn something about me by observing the office. I've never had a will or trust signing in a conference room. … This is my home. I want people to come to my home."
A man with a mission
Connecting with people remains crucial to Gilbert Feldman, whose niche involves representing labor unions.
Feldman, 81, has been a partner at Cornfield and Feldman ever since he co-founded the firm in 1958. Asked why he still practices, Feldman shrugged and said, "No reason to change."
When Feldman attended Northwestern University School of Law, he sensed pressure for young lawyers to choose more lucrative practice areas.
"They wanted everybody to be a tax lawyer or a real estate lawyer in those days," he said. "Most people did that. And most of those people are no longer practicing at my age, because they got sick of it. But I went into the right field, and it's still wonderful."
From the beginning, Feldman said he felt a sense of a mission.
"We were motivated in the post-war period to accomplish something," he said.
Feldman said he still believes in the same cause — helping working people get fair wages and treatment from their employers — but he isn't happy with the decline of union power during his lifetime.
"Private-sector unions are in deep trouble and now they're going after public-sector unions. Look what you have in Wisconsin," he said, alluding to the controversial labor laws passed in that state.
Despite a seemingly discouraging outlook for unions, Feldman said he keeps working — and enjoying his work.
"One of the advantages of being 81 years old is that you've lived a long time," he said. "And you see things very differently than you did when you were younger. There are ups and downs in a free country. And it still basically is a free country. You have a pendulum. Change takes place very quickly in this country."
Feldman's long-term relationships with his clients offer another reason why he likes working. His firm has represented the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Illinois Federation of Teachers since 1963. He also spent many years working for the United Steelworkers.
"The steelworkers were unique blue-collar people," Feldman said. "People who came from a white-collar background had no idea of what these people were like."
After getting to know many of these workers, Feldman said he felt like he understood more about humanity. "You're more open about people," he said. "All people have their own needs and their own views and their own feelings. You become more understanding of why people do what they do."
Fascinated by the field
Jack M. Siegel found his niche in municipal law.
For five decades, he has worked as a legal adviser sitting at suburban village board and city council meetings, advising politicians and bureaucrats on what they can or cannot do under state and federal law.
"I'm lucky to be in a field I was fascinated with 50 years ago, and I'm still fascinated with it," said Siegel, 85, who is of counsel at Holland & Knight. "If I wasn't doing that, I'm not sure I'd want to be a lawyer, when I see what (other lawyers) do — mergers, acquisitions, corporate stuff. It's obviously terribly important for our society; on the other hand, it doesn't fascinate me. I would have long since retired."
Siegel has worked as the village attorney for both Arlington Heights and Schaumburg since 1961 and as the village attorney for Riverwoods since 1985. He also spent 47 years as Evanston's part-time corporation counsel.
That work led Siegel to make arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court twice. Day in and day out, however, his typical work involves advising suburban government officials.
He said he avoids stepping into the middle of policy debates.
"I am maybe the backstop if they're going to do anything which is legally unacceptable," he said. "Then it's my job to pull them back. But I try to stay out of policy unless they ask me for legal opinions."
That could explain how Siegel managed to survive political changes in the suburbs he serves.
"There are two reasons for that," he said. "First, I work cheap. And secondly, I stay out of politics."
Bernard J. "Bud" Nussbaum, 81, a partner at SNR Denton, said he enjoys the intellectual challenge of litigation.
Bernard J. "Bud" Nussbaum
That's been his focus since he joined the firm in 1959. And Nussbaum doesn't see any reason to stop.
"Why should I stop what I'm doing at the age of 80 or 81, any more than I should have stopped when I was 50?" he said. "Some people should. Other people don't have to. I've had a remarkably fortunate career. I've got partners who still want me around."
Although much of Nussbaum's litigation work involved antitrust and trade regulation, securities and contracts, one of his most memorable trials was a libel case — which included a rare chance to cross-examine former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Nussbaum talks about that 1989 trial to illustrate key lessons he learned in his decades as a litigator, such as being willing to change course.
"I remember instances when, shortly before a trial or a meeting, I suddenly said, 'You know, I've been wrong about this.' Or I discovered a better way and changed my mind dramatically," Nussbaum said.
"As you get older — at least in my case — you're more willing to question your own view. It's strange because you'd think that when you were young, you would be more flexible than when you're older. That has not been my personal experience. I think I'm less subject now to mythology — preconceived ideas."
In the libel case, Nussbaum defended reporter Seymour Hersh in Chicago federal court against a lawsuit filed by former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai after Hersh called Desai a CIA-paid spy. As he got ready for the trial, Nussbaum planned to proclaim the importance of the First Amendment in his argument to the jury. But then he brought in a focus group to test his strategy.
"I discovered to my absolute amazement that the mock jurors reacted to arguments based on the First Amendment as a dodge," Nussbaum said.
All of those high-minded words about freedom of the press didn't carry as much weight as Nussbaum assumed. So, instead, he ended up telling the actual jury that Hersh was just doing his job as a reporter.
"That argument has some persuasive sway to it and is by no means a dodge," Nussbaum said.
And he said he sees another lesson in the case. He dug through voluminous research to find information that raised doubts on whether Kissinger really knew who was or wasn't on the CIA's payroll. The jury acquitted Hersh.
Nussbaum said that acts as an example of how trial lawyers need to sift through a lot of information but narrow it down to a few key points.
"Keep it simple, stupid. No matter how many computers you may have sitting at the counsel's table, you have to have an understanding of the case. Sometimes a mass of information can overtake understanding. It's a forest-for-the-trees kind of thing. I love to look at documents. I loveit. But not too many," he said with a laugh.
Belief in serving others
Litigation became a lifelong focus for Thomas P. Sullivan, 82, a Jenner & Block partner who's been with the firm since 1954 — except for a stint from 1977 to 1981, when he worked as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.
Sullivan said a courtroom trial may not always be the best way to resolve a dispute. But when the opposing parties can't reach a settlement, He always relishes the challenge of trying a case in front of a judge or jury.
"When I was younger, I loved the courtroom scene," he said. "I did it for 50 years. When I was U.S. attorney, I tried six cases over there. I just like trying cases. That's about the size of it."
He said he once turned down an opportunity to become a federal judge.
"I decided I did not want to call balls and strikes rather than be a player," he said.
Sullivan said he feels reluctant to take on any lengthy litigation now, but he remains driven by a desire to serve the public good. That's been his other niche: pro bono work and public service.
Not long after he started at Jenner, he began representing indigent clients — partly to do good and partly to get courtroom experience.
"It was a marvelous introduction to that aspect of litigation," he said. "For years, I was out there at 26th and California defending any kind of case you could think of."
In recent years, Sullivan has represented prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who get accused of being enemy combatants.
"It's very difficult to say that we're doing any good down there, but we try like hell, I'll tell you," he said. "It's a national disgrace."
In 2009, Sullivan defended Juan Rivera, who was on trial in Lake Country for the third time on charges of murdering Holly Staker in 1992. Despite evidence showing that crime-scene DNA came from someone else, the jury convicted Rivera.
But Sullivan said he felt vindicated when Rivera got set free this January.
"Thankfully, someone up at the appellate court took a very close look at this record and determined there was no basis for a conviction or even charging," he said.
Sullivan also co-chaired two Illinois panels on the death penalty, influencing then Gov. George Ryan's decision to clear death row in 2003 and the state's abolition of the death penalty in 2011.
And he lobbies for laws requiring police to videotape interrogations. He said he and other lawyers improve the justice system through these efforts, making wrongful convictions less likely. But the work is far from complete, which motivates him to stay active.
"We've come a long way, and we've got a long way to go," he said.
Public service remains a driving force in the career of Newton Minow, 86, a senior counsel at Sidley Austin, who most famously called television a "vast wasteland" in 1961 as the Federal Communications Commission chairman.
Minow has been a key player in presidential debates, starting with those between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. As a member of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Minow now discusses the arrangements for three debates between President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
"I'm very active," Minow said. "We're trying to figure out how to use all the new media effectively. The biggest thing we're wrestling with is how we can get the voters, the public, more involved in asking the questions."
Minow said he felt the urge to devote his time to efforts such as these after he served as an Army sergeant in Asia during World War II.
"When I came back, I went to college and law school," he said. "I felt it was a great obligation of all of us to spend some time in public service. I came from a totally nonpolitical family without anybody involved in that sort of thing, but I'm part of that generation that believed — and I think the war had a lot to do with it."
Minow said most of his work at Sidley Austin these days involves advising longtime clients who come to depend on him.
"When it gets to the hard stuff, I turn it over to other people," he said.
He also enjoys serving as a mentor to young lawyers at Sidley Austin.
"Very often, they come to me with a problem, and I try to advise them," he said.
One of the youths Minow got to know at Sidley Austin was Harvard law student Barack Obama — who met his future wife, a Sidley lawyer named Michelle Robinson, when he spent the summer of 1989 at the firm.
Years later, at the end of 2006, Obama made a return visit to Minow's office. He considered running for president and wanted to know what Minow and another highly respected octogenarian and Chicago lawyer, Abner Mikva, thought about the idea.
Minow recalled telling Obama: "If I were you, I'd go for it. It's a very long shot. It's probably 50-1. But two things will happen. First of all, you will learn the country. And the country will learn about you. And that'll lead somewhere at some point to a bigger thing. So go for it."
A photo of Obama with Minow and Mikva is one of many filling Minow's modest office — ranging from autographed images of luminaries such as JFK to pictures of Minow's three daughters, all of them lawyers.
Not surprisingly, family photos become a common decoration in the offices of older lawyers. They put a high priority on spending time with their wives, children and grandchildren.
"Family's first," Rosenberg said. "The law practice is second. Being with friends is probably third."
Several of these lawyers said they feel blessed that they've stayed healthy beyond their 80th birthdays.
Sullivan works out every morning and enjoys hiking when he's on vacation. Feldman used to play tennis, but he's switched lately to playing chess with his 5-year-old grandson. Siegel enjoys seeing plays and White Sox games.
Talking with these attorneys leaves little doubt that their minds remain sharp. Minow said working as a lawyer is a "splendid way" to exercise the intellect as one gets older.
Asked how the legal profession changed in the 60 or so years they've been practicing, all six talked about the growing dominance of large law firms.
When they got out of law school in the 1950s, few firms employed more than 30 lawyers. Today, many firms employ hundreds.
Rosenberg sees advantages to working at a big firm. At Reed Smith, he said he gets more support from fellow lawyers as well as paralegals than he did at a small firm.
He said, "It gave me the opportunity of having clients with much more substantial wealth with many more complicated problems. ... A lot of it is a matter of how people perceive you. I don't think I was any smarter when I came here than I was before, but when you join a larger organization, people look at you differently."
But it becomes harder to know all of your peers inside a big firm.
"When I was first here, for the first 10 or 15 years, you'd have a going-away party and it was like losing a brother," said Sullivan of Jenner & Block. "Now, people come and go. I get these messages about once every 10 days: 'Gee, it's been great being here, I'm leaving.' And I don't know most of the people."
Siegel said he feels nostalgic for his earlier days at a solo law firm.
"When you're a solo practitioner, you're dealing many times with other solo practitioners," he said. "If you couldn't make a court date or you needed a continuance, you could rely on your opponent not to screw you. … That personal relationship isn't quite as common as it was then."
Another change all of these lawyers mentioned is technology. They began in an era of carbon copies. Today, "cc" means sending someone a copy of an e-mail.
"When we started, we used seven sheets of carbon paper," Siegel said. "And God forbid your secretary made a mistake when she typed up a brief."
After a lifetime of practicing law, these attorneys offer advice for younger lawyers.
"Don't think that you're as smart as you think you are," Nussbaum said. "Be willing to learn from people, including people who are a good deal younger and less experienced. Be willing to change your mind, no matter how sure you were."
"Sometimes your hardest problem is getting your client — yourclient — to see the problem differently," Minow said. "The client thinks he's right. The hardest problem is getting your client to compromise, to be willing to settle something instead of fighting to the last soldier."
"Litigation is not the practice of law," Sullivan said. "It's the practice of facts. It's like writing stories for newspapers. You don't go by hearsay. You've got to drive down to the facts. … Write clearly in simple sentences. Get rid of the adjectives and all of the bulls---."
And despite the huge changes Sullivan has witnessed during his lifetime, he said the legal profession's core principles stay constant.
"The notion of what it is that makes a good lawyer hasn't changed," he said.