In one week, I will end my 50th year practicing law in Illinois. Sure, I graduated in 1967 and passed the bar, but my swearing in was put on hold as I was in Washington, D.C. working for the CIA and awaiting my entry into the military service. After all, it was the middle of the Vietnam War.
A rather funny story accompanied my swearing in itself. As I got back to Illinois for Christmas, I took a chance and called the Supreme Court office two days after the holiday. I asked the nice woman on the phone if there was any chance I could get sworn in while I was home. I was to report to Lackland Air Force Base on Jan. 3 in San Antonio, Texas, for my Officer’s Training School. The woman said for me to wait a moment, and put me on hold. The phone was then answered and the voice said, “This is Justice Walter Schaefer? With whom am I speaking?”
There I was, a young unsworn lawyer talking to a very senior justice of the Illinois Supreme Court! I blurted out my name and that I had passed the Illinois Bar Exam that summer, but had not been able to attend the swearing-in ceremony that fall and was headed into military service. “Are you in the service now?” he asked. I explained that I was almost there.
“So are you in Chicago?” he asked. I responded that I was in Clifton at the moment, but I could be. “You be in my office at 3 o’clock New Year’s Eve, and I will swear you in.” I was given the address and an officer number when I was returned to his clerk.
Three days later I was in the justice’s office being sworn in. I had a friend with me. With Justice Schaefer, his clerk, my friend, and I, we were a total of four people in attendance at that ceremony that would be the source of my career for half a century.
The second humorous part of it all was that it was December of 1967. For at least the next 25 years I would say that I became a licensed lawyer in 1967. Well, I was a bit wrong. It seems that the clerk decided that it was New Year’s Eve and she had more important things to do later that day. She apparently typed up my admission to the bar when she got back to work on January 3, 1968, and that date is on my certificate of admission to the bar.
Many years later, my niece had taken the Illinois Bar herself and was being sworn in. The ceremony was a bit different. There were four Supreme justices present along with over a thousand candidates and another 2,000-3,000 guests present. The ceremony was in McCormick Place in downtown Chicago, and it filled the largest hall there. My niece’s husband seemed to notice that I was in awe and asked me what my concern was. I replied that I could hardly believe the number of people in attendance or the number of young lawyers being sworn in. He then asked me how many were at my swearing-in. When I told him that there were four, he became the one in awe. Certainly in these modern times, such a special exception would probably not have happened. But then, it was a different times.
The next unusual occurrence happened two years ago in 2018. I was invited to attend a ceremony given by the Illinois Bar Association as one of 60 or so lawyers who had completed 50 years in the practice of law in Illinois. We were to be honored for such a completion. Now I was in a double lie. First, I truly had been sworn in in 1967, so I was an Illinois lawyer with 50 years the year before. The second untruth was that with my time in the military, I hadn’t returned to practice law until June of 1970, so I only had 48 years as a practicing lawyer. I went anyway!
A lot of people, including my wife, wondered why it was important to make my retirement wait until June of this year. Simple. I wanted to make sure I was honest in accepting an award for practicing for a full 50 years. Plus, I love my profession.
So I will get that job done June 1, 2020. Many of my clients have complained that I cannot abandon them after being their lawyer for 30, 40, or even almost 50 years. And I do find it hard. I have always relished being a lawyer in a smaller community, helping people that I knew, merely knew of, or would come to know. I will always remember those older lawyers who mentored me, either directly or by kicking my butt in a trial. I will remember being asked to be the lawyer and the executor of the estate of a senior lawyer who had once been my parents’ lawyer. What an honor.
Last week in the middle of the pandemic, I needed to pick up a signed order at the Kankakee County Courthouse. The courts were closed but open for paper transactions. I had been in the office that morning finishing up a few files and returning phone calls. Without a second thought, I made my zillionth walk to the courthouse, had my temperature taken by the deputy at the door, and went up to retrieve the signed order. As I left the Circuit Clerk’s office, I looked down and realized I had my Levis on! In 50 years, I had never been in that building wearing jeans!
As I wrap up this career, I will always remember it as an opportunity to serve my community and its residents as a lawyer and having had the opportunity to meet some truly interesting and honest men and women. How could one ever forget lawyers like Vernon Butz, Paul Davidson, Gov. Sam Shapiro, Eva Minor, Robert Dannehl, Lenny Sacks, or my senior partner and real mentor, Richard Ackman? I came to this town when it was booming, and its lawyers were the best.