As a result of receiving the Roanoke Bar Association's Frank W. "Bo" Rogers Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award, attorney Bill Rakes was interviewed by Michelle Skeen of the Blue Ridge Business Journal. The article appeared in the August 9, 2010 issue of the Journal. Following are excerpts. To read the full article, click here or on the "Outside Link" below.
45 Years of Law, and Counting
What changes have you seen since you first started practicing?When I started practice, lawyers could not advertise, and lawyers could not solicit business. It was unethical to do so. So lawyers got their business based on word-of-mouth referrals and the reputation they established. With advertising coming in, back in the '70s, it really changed a lot of things. I think on balance it was bad for the profession, but it's a fact of life. Now not only the personal injury lawyers but corporate law firms as well do image advertising and marketing. A lot of firms have marketing committees. So I think that has caused a significant change in the practice of law.
I think a second thing that has made a big difference is the introduction of technology -- the sophistication of e-mails and filing pleadings with the clerk's office electronically. In the olden days, when you had an appellate brief, for example, you would type it up and send it to the printer and the printer would set the type and send you a copy to proofread. It was a laborious, time-consuming process. Today it's all done electronically. We can finish a brief at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and have it filed in Richmond or D.C. within an hour. So the speed of things.
Correspondence. There was a time when in the morning I would come to the office and I would have 25 or more first-class letters. Now getting a first-class letter in the mail is a rarity, because 98 percent of correspondence is done electronically. So instead of filing correspondence in files and putting them on a shelf, now you file the bulk of your correspondence electronically and retrieve it from your computer.
Another big change, and this is still technology-oriented, is the way we do legal research. In the first half of my practice, you'd go to the library with a legal pad and a pen and you pulled the books off the shelf and you'd take notes. Or you'd take a book out to the copy machine and you'd made a copy of the case, that sort of thing. Now the lawyers sit at their desks and pull up the statutes and the cases on their computer. Those are things that have changed the profession a great deal.
Recently hundreds of law school graduates took the bar exam in Roanoke. Do you have any advice for them? Anything you wish you had known at that age? These youngsters that are graduating from law school have good legal educations. They are smart. But I think there are a number of things they don't teach you in law school. They teach you the law. But law schools don't prepare you for dealing with clients, dealing with the courts or with other lawyers.
A second thing they don't teach you, is they don't teach you about time management and setting priorities. Now the reason that's important is because the number one ethical complaint against lawyers is that they won't return phone calls and keep their clients advised. And there's an ethical requirement that you do so. Lawyers tend to get busy, and if it's a case they don't particularly enjoy working on, they just ignore the clients' calls and that gets them in hot water. So setting priorities and time management really affects your reputation.
I think a third thing that they don't teach you in law school ... is how important facts are. To the practitioner, the facts are far more important than the law. So a lawyer who can develop a skill for gathering facts and organizing them and analyzing them, determining what's relevant and what's irrelevant -- that's what we do most of the time, frankly.
What I tell young lawyers here -- and I was managing partner here for 20 years and I work with a lot of young lawyers -- I tell them there is nothing more important than your reputation. And that generally speaking, lawyers establish their reputation in the first five years of practice. If you develop a reputation for integrity, for competence, for professionalism, it will carry you a long way. The judges will respect you, your clients will respect you and other lawyers will respect you. There's nothing more important to a lawyer than his or her reputation, and that's something you really need to focus on.