What was practicing law in Chicago 150 years ago like? The answer might surprise you.
In 1940, 88-year-old Frank J. Loesch published a series of articles reminiscing about his early years. Loesch, who attended the predecessor of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, began his legal studies in 1871.
Loesch went on to an extremely successful career, which he gave up in 1928 to lead the Chicago Crime Commission. There, he gained national recognition as a relentless pursuer of corrupt politicians and organized crime figures.
During law school, Loesch heard lectures from some of the city’s ablest lawyers. Leonard Swett, a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s in the later years of Lincoln’s practice, talked about “mistakes in cross-examining and the futility of much of it.” Swett gave an example that Loesch never forgot. He told of a criminal case in which several men were charged with rioting. A witness testified that one of the defendants was “slorching around.”
The defense lawyer asked on cross, “What do you mean by ‘slorching around?’”
“He had a big club and was hitting a head wherever he saw one.” Swett said that the foolish question cost the defendant an acquittal.
Lecturer Emery A. Storrs appeared before the class inebriated (apparently, his normal state). Loesch never forgot what Storrs told the class.
“I am a living example that eloquence alone does not make a lawyer,” he said.
A reason Loesch noted the comment stuck was Storrs’ quick wit and eloquence … and untrustworthiness. Storrs said his partner had “a mind like one of those Wabash Avenue houses — when you go in the front door, you are in the backyard.”
Loesch graduated in 1874, during a gripping recession from which the nation emerged at the end of the decade. “After several efforts,” Loesch landed a job as an associate with Frederick H. Winston, whose firm continues today.
Winston represented a major railroad company. He couldn’t always afford the weekly salary of $5. So, to make ends meet, Loesch spent evenings as a bookkeeper at a telegraph company.
For several years, Loesch earned “next to nothing.” Nevertheless, the opportunity “brought me almost immediately into contact with a wide circle of leading lawyers.”
Lawyers practiced in small groups or on their own. “Many lawyers had no clerks and did their own work. The lawyers all worked hard.” Lawyers would leave their offices unlocked and post a hand-written note on the door letting callers know when he (they were all “he”) would return. Loesch remembered a law clerk who went duck hunting while his employer was on vacation. The sign on the door read, “Back in 3 days.”
Loesch recalled being asked if he had ever received a large fee without working for it. “I answered that I did not, nor did I receive such when I did work.” The best lawyers made less than $10,000; a lucky law clerk as much as $1,200.
“The practice of law was more leisurely,” Loesch wrote.
A good number of lawyers would go home for lunch. The bar lived up to its name; lawyers regularly consumed large amounts of alcoholic beverages at meals and in the evening. Adversaries often went out for a drink after a meeting or hearing. According to Loesch, only hard drinkers were called “brilliant young lawyers.”
As for dress, lawyers wore the Prince Albert coat, silk socks, silk hat “in various stages of decomposition” and boots. In courtrooms, a table was set aside for the hats, which also served as storage containers for their owners.
With the exception of real estate practitioners, “(t)he legal business centered on trials.” Litigation “offered a wide field for the display of forensic talents.” In-house lawyers did not yet exist, though they caught on by the 1880s. Loesch noted that nontrial work became a major income-producing business after 1902.
Lawyers used pencils and wrote everything in longhand. A copy of a notice did not have to be served; lawyers relied on oral stipulations. There were just a handful of stenographers. Overhead was low. No typewriters, no telephones (“until well after 1880”), no adding machines, no printed forms, no electricity, and no janitors. Some offices were “a sight to behold.”
Past as prologue
While Frank Loesch’s memories and anecdotes speak of a time that seems ancient; in other ways it seems like our own. Sure, our society, our institutions, our culture and our quality of life have changed drastically. The study and practice of law, the character of firms, the role of law and the faces in and before the law have changed as well.
What remains after all these years, what has stayed immutable, is human nature and the human spirit. Nothing in 150 years, 1,150 years or 5,000 years changes that.