That '70s Bar: Three past presidents of SBM step back in time

Thirty-five years ago, Tom Wolfe christened the 1970s the Me Decade. It was an era of cultural and political turmoil that kicked off with The Beatles breaking up, passed through the final days of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, an American presidents resignation, an oil crisis, disco, the death of Elvis, and concluded with an Islamic revolution in Iran.

In the legal sphere, the decade ushered in the reign of Chief Justice Warren Burger on the U.S. Supreme Court and was marked by the Courts controversial decision in Roe v. Wade. Another decision that had far reaching consequences was the unanimous ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which supported the use of busing to desegregate schools. Other hot legal topics of the decade included burgeoning environmental law, debate over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, challenges to the death penalty, difficult discussions about prison conditions and the push for stricter sentencing in light of rising crime rates.

It was a time of tremendous change for the legal profession. The number of lawyers nearly doubled, growing over the decade from 278,000 to 525,000. In 1970, the United States had one lawyer for every 572 people; by the end of the decade the ratio had fallen to one lawyer for every 418 people. Another significant trend was the decline in the number of lawyers who practiced by themselves (33.2 percent, down from 36.6 percent) or in private firms (68.3 percent, down from 72.7 percent) and the corresponding increase in the number of associates employed by law firms.

MOTION caught up with three of the four surviving State Bar of Michigan presidents from the Me Decade to hear their perspectives on the times and how the legal profession has changed since their one-year terms at the head of the State Bar.

Charles W. Joiner (1970-71)

Charles Joiner upset the order of things.

The way it was supposed to work was that the presidency of the State Bar of Michigan would alternate between representatives from Wayne County, where the majority of lawyers then practiced, and attorneys from anywhere else in the state. Joiner, who had spent some 20 years as a law professor at the University of Michigan, was supposed to be the president from out-of-county when he assumed the position in 1970. Instead, Joiner became dean of Wayne Law School in 1968 and eventually moved to Detroit, creating a lineage of three presidents in a row from Wayne County. The State Bar was never the same again.


Joiners tenure as SBM president was a transformative one for the association.

He led the movement to form the Representative Assembly, was an instrumental force behind the establishment of continuing legal education in the state, and hired as the associations executive secretary Michael Franck, who would hold the job for 25 years and for whom the SBM office building in Lansing is now named.

Prior to Joiners presidency, the Bar Associations leadership consisted of a 20- or 30-member Board of Commissioners and the officers of the bar were seen as, in Joiners words, a limited and closed society. There was some grumbling from the knife and fork membership, Joiner recalls, and in response he appointed a committee to look into how best to garner input from outside the small group governing the bar. Formation of the Representative Assembly was the result.

It provided a broad congress of the people who were practicing law to provide ideas, recalls Joiner, who now resides in Florida. I thought it was a good idea.

Joiner also turned his attention to what he saw as a growing trend in the legal profession toward specialization. His response was to encourage lawyers to receive continuing legal education.

It took a lot of doing to get the idea of continued education accepted, says Joiner. I really believe lawyers are much more knowledgeable of current legal events now
than they used to be.

Growing up in Iowa, Joiner initially thought he would be a chemical engineer, but he changed his mind after deciding he didnt want to take up a profession that was so
limited. After all, there were only 92 elements at the time. That just didnt present enough variety for Joiner.

So he became a trial lawyer in Des Moines, where he was active as a young lawyer in the American Bar Association. He has a wristwatch to prove it. The timepiece was given to him in 1947 at the first national meeting of the ABA after WWII for recruiting the most new lawyers to join the association. It was at that time he accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Michigan Law School, and over the next 20 years, he focused largely on civil procedure and trial practice, becoming a major legal figure in the state.

In 1968, Joiner was named dean of Wayne Law School, a position he filled for four years before a former student called him to see if he had ever thought about being a federal judge. It was the year after his term as SBM president.

I think (the SBM presidency) proved largely responsible for my being appointed a judge, says Joiner, who sat on the U. S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan from 1972 until 1984, when he assumed senior judge status.

Joiner sees the most significant change to the legal profession in the years since his time as SBM president as a shift of focus to the business side of law practice.

Practice has become more of a business, says Joiner. It contains all the elements of a profession but thats just not the case anymore.

Wallace D. Riley (1972-73)

On Wallace Riley's desk in his office in Grosse Pointe Farms is a name plaque that reads: Old lawyers never die they just lose their appeal.

Riley might be the exception that proves the adage because the 83-year-old attorney hasnt lost a drop of appeal.

In addition to the plaque on his desk, Riley has a dozen or so framed photographs on the wall depicting his decades of involvement in state and national politics. Among the photographs are ones of Riley shaking hands with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush when Riley was serving as president of the American Bar Association.

With an uncanny skill for recalling names, Riley recounts with fondness his days of politicking with his best friend, Fred Buesser, who happened to serve as SBM president the year preceding Rileys term and acted as Rileys campaign manager in his bid for the ABA presidency.

Rileys reign as SBM president stands as a watershed in the associations growth. It was during his tenure that the bar celebrated admitting its 10,000th lawyer. The association now boasts a membership of more than 41,000.

Ironically, growth is actually one of the changes that Riley believes has adversely impacted the legal profession over the past four decades.

I submit there arent too many lawyers, he says. There are too many people practicing law.

A Detroit native, Riley attended Southeastern High School where he recalls playing on the basketball team that won the city championship 29-28 at Olympia Stadium before a crowd that at the time was the largest ever to see a high school basketball game.

I was lean and fast in those days, Riley says.

Offered a basketball scholarship to the University of Michigan, Riley instead accepted a scholarship to the University of Chicago because it was 1945 and unlike the U-M, which was on a trimester, Chicago had four quarters and Riley figured he would be able to finish a quarter of schooling before he was drafted.

When it came to the draft, you did a lot of figuring, says Riley, who can still recite exactly how many of his high school classmates died in World War II: 113.

But Riley was not drafted. The war ended early that fall, and Riley was able to complete his philosophy degree at Chicago. He went on to earn an MBA and a J.D. from the University of Michigan before spending two years at the Pentagon as a JAG officer.

He was in the right place at an interesting time.

Working as the aide to Lt. Col. Jack Murray who was the military legal advisor to attorney Joseph Welch, Riley sat in on all the proceedings of the Army-McCarthy Hearings. It was during those hearings that Welch, as the Armys special counsel, famously asked McCarthy, Sir, have you no sense of decency? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

It was a case clbre, says Riley.

In 1968, Riley cofounded the Detroit law firm Riley & Roumell with his wife, Dorothy Comstock Riley, and George T. Roumell, Jr.

A legal pioneer in her own right, Rileys wife earned a law degree in 1949 and became a Wayne County Judge in 1972 before becoming the first woman to serve on the Michigan Court of Appeals four years later. In 1982, after having lost an election bid for the Supreme Court, she was at the center of a legal controversy when with a month to go in his gubernatorial term, an outgoing Gov. William Milliken appointed her to the Michigan Supreme Court. The newly elected Gov. James Blanchard, who was to take office in January, objected to the appointment and in February the justices voted 4-2 to oust her from the court. The following year, she ran again for the high court bench and won, eventually serving as chief justice from 1987 to 1991 before retiring in 1997.

Together, Riley and his wife Dorothy were a legal and political powerhouse in the state. Along with the burgeoning number of lawyers, Riley identifies the advent of advertising as a critical change in the legal profession since he was active in bar leadership.

Advertising has really changed the practice of law. You did not then, for lack of a better term, toot your own horn, he says. But lawyers, like most people, thought because they had the right, they ought to exercise it, forgetting that along with a right comes a duty.

Which only supports Rileys conclusion that the despite change, some things remain the same.

For every problem we solve, he says, there will be more problems to take their place.

Carl Smith Jr. (1973-74)

For Carl Smith Jr., the law is a bit of a family tradition and his term as president of the State Bar of Michigan is a reflection of that: he and Carl H. Smith Sr. are the only father-son combo in the line of 76 SBM presidents.

Carl Smith Sr., served as the associations 15th president from 1949 to 1950, soon after founding Smith & Brooker in Bay City in 1944. Carl H. Smith and James K. Brooker began the firm specializing in transportation, insurance, corporation law and trial practice. It was a natural conclusion that Carl Smith Jr. should pursue a legal career.

I grew up in a legal atmosphere. I never searched it out, says Smith, 84, who still lives in Bay City where he practiced law for more than 50 years. You think about being a lawyer because you grow up with them. I became a lawyer because before me my brother became a lawyer and before him my father became a lawyer.

Smith followed in his fathers footsteps in more ways than one.

Carl Smith Sr. served in World War I, losing his left arm in 1918 at Soissions Juvigney and earning the French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star and Purple Heart. He obtained his law degree from the University of Michigan.

Carl Smith Jr. and his brother Richard were both Marines during World War II. Smith, Jr. was stationed in Guam and Panama from 1944 until the end of the war. When they came home, the Smith brothers attended University of Michigan Law School and then returned to Bay City to practice in their fathers firm.

Smiths most enduring legal legacy most likely is his role at the forefront of advocating for bar associations to form political action committees. He was the organizer of the Michigan Lawyers Political Action Committee the year he served as SBM president. The PAC was the first of its kind in the country.

Heres a sign of changing times: In 1976, the PAC distributed about $12,000 to roughly 50 state legislative and congressional campaigns, mostly in donations of less than $100. That was nothing, Smith said, compared to the whopping $15,000 to $20,000 a campaign might cost.

Even so, the idea of bar associations reinforcing their lobbying efforts with campaign contributions to legislators was cutting edge and controversial. Traditionally, the profession viewed organized political contributions with disdain. But Smith saw it differently. He saw it in terms of the bars survival.

He argued for the establishment of PACs by law groups in the November 1979 issue of the American Bar Journal, saying, If lawyers want bar associations to represent their interests, they cannot, at the same time, stay out of the political process. He said the American Bar Association had dragged its feet by not sponsoring a political action committee. If the American Medical Association could have a PAC, why not the ABA?

Attorneys, he said, once had legislative influence by the sheer number of lawyers elected to office. But that, Smith said, was changing, and if the bar intended to defend itself against other interests it must employ the weapons its adversaries use.

The most significant change Smith has observed over the years is increased specialization in the field.

It used to be you were more of a general practitioner, he says, Its not that way anymore. You see the same history in medicine.

By Brian Cox

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