John R.F. Baer of Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, P.C. answered a few of our questions.
Why did you become a lawyer?
I was the first person from my family to attend college and when I was a senior at University of Illinois, I still was not sure what I wanted to do with my life. I took an exam for and interviewed with a federal government agency in Washington and also took the Foreign Service and LSAT exams. I remember returning home from Washington after two grueling days of interviewing with the federal agency and finding a law school scholarship offer in my mailbox. That night I decided to go to law school because I felt that a kid from a very poor family in Illinois would have a hard time competing for a job in Washington with kids from the established Eastern schools. That was really true in those days.
But I always had a fascination with Washington and government agencies. Eventually my law practice started focusing on a lot of administrative work with the CPSC, the FTC and other state agencies that regulate franchising. So to some extent I was able to combine my passion for the government and administrative agencies with a job as a lawyer that would pay me a living wage.
What advice do you have for law students?
Unfortunately, lawyers are generally not well respected by the public. This is, in part, because so many supposedly well-educated persons are considered to be sharp operators and fixers. The most important advice I can give to law students is this: Your most important asset is your integrity. Never compromise it. A second piece of practical advice is this: Get as broad a background in the various areas of law as you can because as you develop as a lawyer, clients will come to you for advice on a wide range of legal issues. If you can spot the issues, even if they are not in your area of expertise, you can serve your client’s best interests and find someone else with the expertise to resolve the issue. Eventually you will still need practice area-specific expertise, but that is not inconsistent with getting broad training in your younger years. And sometimes that comes about by never saying “no” to any project offered to you by a senior lawyer.
What is the biggest way that your practice has changed since you first started working in that area?
The practice of law has changed dramatically since I started practicing. I spent my first two years in the library researching and the writing analytical memos. Today, starting first with the fax machine and now with e-mail (and even social media), clients demand and expect instantaneous responses to their inquiries. There often isn’t a lot of time to think through issues before you have to respond. This means that the quality of the practice of law has declined over the years, in my opinion. Clients are more interested in a prompt response than a careful analysis. Maybe they are right because that works in 98 percent of the cases and saves them legal fees. However, it also means younger lawyers do not have the opportunity to be trained in the nuances of the law like we were when I started because clients will not pay for young lawyers to be paid on their nickel. One of the big challenges for all law firms these days, in my opinion, is training their young lawyers – because it often cannot be done with billable work.