The great myth about the good old days – of law practice and in general – is that there were good old days at all. 

The media has of late been declaring Biglaw dead.  Downward pressure on the hourly rate is encouraging partners to depart for smaller firms.  Even white shoe firms are talking about alternative fee arrangements.  The notion that clients should not be billed for the time of inexperienced associates is understandably gaining some traction.  Firms have laid off and deferred associates, slashed summer programs, and cut back on hiring.  A vocal if disorganized bunch of law students and never-associates are grumbling online about the law school “scam.”    

But realistically nothing has changed.  That’s what I think when I read Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology

Masters was a prolific writer with novels, biographies, and plays under his belt, but he is best known for his collection of poems memorializing the residents of a fictional town.  Spoon River was set in Fulton County, Illinois, not far from where Masters spent most of his life practicing law.  For about five years – well before the Scopes or the Leopold and Loeb trials – Masters partnered with Clarence Darrow.  (Darrow himself, despite his reputation today as a hero of labor and the underdog, once represented a Chicago landlord in his effort to have a tenant committed to an insane asylum because she had not paid her rent.  Not really relevant, but an interesting fact.)  During this time, most biographies of Masters report simply that he “defended the poor.”

But as lawyers we know this means he probably collected very little money.  The two quarrelled; Darrow’s indictment for perjury and jury tampering didn’t help things (although Masters conducted depositions in Darrow’s defense.  See the transcript here: http://darrow.law.umn.edu/trials.php?tid=17 .)

Masters and Darrow parted ways and Masters formed his own firm.  During this time Masters began writing the poems that would become Spoon River Anthology

The poems were serialized before they were collected and published.  It’s not the sort of thing you read in a single sitting.  Although Masters befriended the likes of Carl Sandburg and Theodore Dreiser, his own poems, I think, reflect a wry lawyer’s pragmatism about the people he represented.  No modernism here.  The voices of Spoon River sound like the voices of the people who flow in and out of any law office, as clients or otherwise. 

Keep in mind that while Masters was practicing law and writing his poems, the Bolsheviks were seizing control of Russia, the Boer Wars were being fought in South Africa, Standard Oil was under antitrust scrutiny and unionized labor was transforming the American economy.  Women in the United States and Britain were demanding the right to vote.  The Constitution was amended to permit a federal income tax.  The Federal Reserve was created.  The Lusitania was sunk.

It was a time of unprecedented change.  But what concerned Masters in his poetry were people like “Jack McGuire”, who would have been lynched if his lawyer hadn’t struck a back room deal with a judge – http://spoonriveranthology.net/spoon/river/view/Jack_McGuire.  Or Lydia Puckett, whose spurned lover “stole the hogs and went to war” – http://spoonriveranthology.net/spoon/river/view/Lydia_Puckett.  Or Doctor Meyers, who went to prison for performing an illegal abortion –http://spoonriveranthology.net/spoon/river/view/Doctor_Meyers.  Personally, I imagine each of these characters sitting in a chair on the other side of Masters’ desk, although that probably isn’t fair to him as a writer. 

There are plenty of parallels in our modern world to the early twentieth century.  I like to think that Masters’ focus in the midst of all this social and economic turmoil was in the right place.  Lawyers have seen change before.  It comes in cycles.  We call it outsourcing or contract lawyering or what have you, but what matters now is what mattered to Masters: the relationship between lawyer and client, lawyer and lawyer, lawyer and community.  We bring boats to the sea change, we adapt, and we go on.