59 years at the same firm: some things should never change.


DLC photos 1A lawyer at a large Australian law firm retired yesterday. No big fan fare, no big deal. Lawyers retire all the time. This lawyer is 85 years of age, his whole working life having been at the one firm.

The law firm is Maddocks. The lawyer is my father Don Chisholm OAM (“DL” as he is known to many in the firm, or “Pups” to his grandkids).

Articled to my grandfather L A Chisholm, Dad was admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor to the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1954 (the same year I came along). The firm was then known as Maddock, Lonie & Chisholm. The firm was what we might term today a generalist practice with a strong reputation in local government and insurance (the former speciality still applies today). The rest of the practice was essentially what we call today "private client services”. It was a solid firm, with good loyal clients a small stable partnership. Many “later to be notable” lawyers passed through its doors on their way to careers in other firms, on the bench, in academia or in industry.

These were the days before the internet, email, social media, mobile phones and there was a total ban on advertising by solicitors (we weren’t even called “lawyers” in those days). There was no place for 10 redrafts of something, you had to get your letters right the first time as paper was money and there were no photocopiers or printers.

The bar was our outsourcing.

In those days the telephone was the link to the outside world and most deals were done via the phone if not in person. You took your fellow practitioners and peers at their word and cemented undertakings with a handshake.

There was no written partnership agreement. You trusted your partners and they trusted you. After all why have them as partners in the first place?

There was no overdraft. You only got paid after all the staff and the rent was paid and clients paid the firm. Cash was king.

The receptionist was the most knowledgeable person in the firm-the secretary or stenographer to the senior partner the most feared.

My father opened the mail every morning and signed the mail that went out at night. It was called quality control.

He got to practice law with his father, a son, a brother, and a grand daughter.

Articles of clerkship were spent in the room with your principal so you could watch, observe and learn-mostly in silence.

You didn’t charge out your articled clerks to clients-they were indentured to learn not to make money from.

Young solicitors were taught legal skills but also skills called common sense and common courtesy.

There was no formal mentoring program. Work was shared around the firm. That was just expected.

You didn't work on weekends. Weekends were sacrosanct for family or home time.

The words “lateral hiring” had not been invented. Rarely did partners change firms and if they did it was more to set up their own practice and they were warmly farewelled and remained friends.

The trip to and from town was on a red rattler train. At home dinner was on the table at 6:30pm so Dad could retire to his study at 7:30pm 4 nights per week to see clients that wanted to see him at home instead of coming into the city. This continued for over 40 years.

Clients in the main came from word of mouth recommendations and referrals, networks, local community involvement, clubs and associations, and just making sure you were in the right place at the right time.

No one had heard of the term “pro bono” but most lawyers looked after the needy who really couldn’t afford to pay much for legal services-certainly my father did.

Most of your clients either became your friends or most of your friends became your clients.

You rang your clients before you sent out a bill to get a "feeling" of what they thought of the work you did for them. The bill reflected accordingly. You charged your clients basically whatever they could afford.

A timesheet was something factory workers at Ford clocked into. Hourly rates were for shift workers.

Thank goodness the profession has changed. Thank goodness my Dad did not.