1974 MCBA President: Robert Praetzel
Apr 01, 2015
I started my practice in March 1954 in San Anselmo with Wallace Myers and George Meehan. Most attorneys at that time had a broad practice. Our practice ranged from bankruptcy to Workman’s Comp, nearly every branch of law except patent law. I was given a desk, but no salary. It took several years to built up a practice and my principal income the first several years was from reading and grading bar exams.
Fees were determined by a “Minimum Fee Schedule”, for example: wills were $25 and I believe divorces were $100. The schedule was later declared illegal. Around that time, there were fewer than sixty lawyers in Marin including lady lawyers Natalie Holly and Ann Diamond in San Rafael, Betty Callahan in Mill Valley, and, if I am not mistaken, a Bella Aaron also practiced in Marin. All of the lawyers knew each other as well because practically everyone worked in the old courthouse in downtown San Rafael. Now there are around 750 Marin County Bar Association members, and also many Marin lawyers who are not bar members. Interestingly, around 1,150 people took the fall bar exam in 1953, and 8,900 took it in July 2013.
There were two other lawyers in San Anselmo: Larry Wright, whose practice I attended to several times when he was on vacation, and Mort Colvin, who later became a Superior Court Judge in San Francisco. Mort confided in me that after several years practice, I might be able to clear $10,000 a year. Sadly, in 1957 my partner George Meehan died unexpectedly at age 37 of an aneurism while playing basketball with several other attorneys, including one of his best friends, Warren McGuire. A year later Charles Pierce joined our firm. Around 1967, we moved our office to the Bank of Marin building in San Rafael. Our San Anselmo office was taken over by Marin’s own Clarence Darrow— the venerable Carl Shapiro, who is still practicing at age 97 or thereabouts. Either Carl or his daughter Sylvia are probably still getting occasional midnight calls from the San Anselmo Fire Department telling them to come down and put sandbags in front of their office before it floods.
Around 1980, Wallace Myers and I relocated to Fifth and F Street in San Rafael, joining former District Attorney Roger Garety. From time to time, other attorneys were associated with us, including Len Bjorlkland, Marty Malkin, Faye Taylor and Peter Muzio. I started to devote most of my practice to Estate Planning and Administration. In the early 1990s, after Myers and Garety retired, I was fortunate to join Ken McDonald’s office and it subsequently became McDonald, Praetzel, Mitchell, Hedin and Breiner, from which I retired in 2006. I continue to act as Trustee on several trusts and at least once a month, I get calls from former clients. I also go to weekly lunches attended by the attorneys from my old office and several retired judges—the regulars being Gary Thomas, Vern Smith and Dick Breiner, all of whom keep the lunch lively with wit, humor and reminiscence of their days on the bench.
Bar Association Activity
In 1954, the Bar met at various locations including the Elks Club, (also the watering hole for lawyers), Bermuda Palms and the old Travelers Inn (later Café Pranzo then Salute, which burned down several years ago). I served as Bar Treasurer under Herb Walton and had to collect for lunch after each meeting. Several times the amount collected was not enough and I had to pony up the difference. Bar officers were nominated by a committee and I was surprised when Harold Truett called to say I had been nominated as Vice President. I then served under the excellent administration and tutorage of President Len Shaw.
In 1974, I was elected Bar President at age 48. The installation dinner was at Marin Country Club. The other officers included Ann Diamond as Vice President and Dick Breiner as Secretary. Most of the directors meetings were held at Dominican College and the Bar luncheons were held at the Elks Club and the old Edgewater Inn in Corte Madera.
Frankly, I can’t recall everything that happened forty years ago, but I do recall that the office of President was practically a full time job. There were some specific issues we had to deal with, one of which involved the attorney’s work room. The County was continuously trying to take over that space and the incoming Bar President practically had to take an oath to see that it didn’t happen—and it didn’t. The second matter involved the Legal Aid office. The County threatened to reduce its funding, and we helped convince the County otherwise.
I had the privilege of hiring Jeanette Stewart as Secretary of the Bar Association. She was the first person I interviewed, and I hired her on the spot. Jeanette claimed I hired her so fast because I wanted to get out of the office pronto to go duck hunting. Jeanette turned out to be a gem. I was also on a panel that interviewed applicants for the new position of Probate Referee (later called Court Commissioner). The panel recommended Noel Martin; he was appointed and served many years.
As Bar President I tried to have interesting programs for the Bar luncheons, and they were well attended. Our speakers included the local head of the FBI, California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk, and the inventor of the lie detector. One program was a spirited debate among those running for district attorney against Bruce Bales. We also had a special lunch honoring Judge Carl Freitas, attended by both the Bar and Judge Freitas’s many friends. Ann Diamond was helpful as Vice President, and the next year Ann became MCBA’s first woman President.
Remembrance of Things Past
When I first started practice on the Superior Court, the Judges were Tom Keating and Jordan Martinelli. Charles Brusatori and Richard Sims were the Municipal Court Judges. There was also a Justice of the Peace in Pt. Reyes and, as I recall, there were Justices of the Peace in Novato (JP Faulkner) and San Anselmo (JP Crisp).
Aside from the former, other Judges that I appeared before included Carl Freitas, Joe Wilson, Warren McGuire, Gary Thomas, Dave Menary, Bev Savitt, Peter Allen Smith, Henry Broderick, Harold Haley, Dick Breiner, Bob Smallman, and Commissioners Noel Martin and Mary Grove. Although I sometimes disagreed with some of their decisions, Marin County always had an exceptional Bench and it was a pleasure to practice before them. The Judges and Commissioners were all dedicated, conscientious, considerate and hard working, which I cannot say for some of the Judges that I appeared before in some other Counties.
There were also some interesting elections for judgeships. Shortly before I started to practice, in a highly contested election, former State Senator Tom Keating defeated long time District Attorney Al Bagshaw, who, after the election, resigned from the MCBA because it had supported Keating. In another race, Municipal Judge Charles Brusatori defeated incumbent Superior Court Judge Carlos Freitas. Some years later Superior Court Judge Sam Gardiner was ousted by Charles Best, who in turn was defeated in the next election by Peter Allen Smith.
Then and Now: the Good the Bad and the Ugly
Some Interesting Occurrences
- A well known Marin attorney was sent to Federal Prison as a serial bank robber.
- A loud scene and yelling in the old courthouse bathroom when a prominent divorce attorney was trying to collect a fee by pulling a ring off her client’s finger.
- A sixty-year-old client of mine brought his much younger girlfriend to my office, asking me to prepare a will and making sure his young girlfriend knew that he was leaving the bulk of his fortune to her. He came in ten years later with another young girl and made a similar will and came in again with yet a much younger girl. When he died, and his latest girlfriend came in to collect her fortune, we found out that all he ever had was a small pension and his girlfriend fainted on the spot.
- On a call I made to the IRS on an estate tax issue, the agent asks, “Are you the decedent?”
- A hidden microphone (bug) found in the attorney’s interview room at the jail in the old courthouse.
- A Sonoma attorney who gave my female associate a very rough time at a deposition was later disbarred when it was discovered he had a mirror on his shoe any time he had a lady sitting in front of him at a desk in his office.
- And then there was Judge Sims’ famous wink. I had a criminal case before Judge Sims, and after my client testified, the Judge looked at me and winked. I thought an acquittal was in the bag, and was surprised when the Judge found my client guilty. I later found out that the wink was an uncontrollable tic.
- A Mafia member that I had done some legal work for turned out to be an FBI informant and was later machinegunned to death while making a call in a phone booth.
- George Hall, the County Assessor in the 1950’s, placed a TV in the hall of the old courthouse and turned on the World Series. Soon half of the courthouse staff would be watching the game. Things, including law practices, were more relaxed in those days.
- Wally Myers was representing a well-known California Supreme Court Justice in a dispute with Marin County over a dam located on the Justice’s San Anselmo residence. The County felt the dam was a hazard and wanted to remove it. I was at the Justice’s house with Wally when several Marin County officials arrived and were about to come onto the property. The irate Justice picked up a loaded rifle and threatened to shoot any of them who trespassed. Fortunately, none of them did.
Some of the Many Changes Since I Started Practice
- Hi-Tech: Most dictation was to your secretary who took shorthand. There was also dictation that went onto a wax cylinder that was shaved after each use. Dictaphones then took over. There was some sort of copier, which I recall had about 20 light bulbs in it. Then came 3M with a hit and miss copier and then an excellent Xerox. In the 1970’s there were two word processors available: NBI and Wang. I purchased one from NBI for about $17,000. I thought it was so good I bought some stock in the company. Things were moving so fast that within a few years my NBI was obsolete and stock in NBI (as well as Wang) was worthless. I then bought an IBM computer.
- Dress Code: For many years you didn’t dare appear in court without a suit. Some of the judges even frowned at a sport coat and tie. In one San Rafael office it was mandatory to wear a hat.
- The Public’s Opinion of Lawyers: When I first started to practice, clients came through referrals from accountants, bankers, friends, and other lawyers—but mainly from other satisfied clients. You could not advertise. At that time attorneys were held in high esteem. Lawyers do not have that respect today, as you can tell from looking on the Internet. I believe the change in the public’s opinion of lawyers came in large part from the 1977 ruling allowing lawyers to advertise. It is demeaning and, in the opinion of many, puts lawyers in the same category as used car salesmen.
Furthermore, lawyers now rank lowest among the professions for contributions to society. In the past, virtually all lawyers did a lot of pro bono work such as serving on boards of charitable organizations, schools, etc. or taking on pro-bono cases, all of which created more respect for lawyers. I don’t see much of that now, and I wish lawyers would do more pro-bono work.
- What a Little Pro-Bono Can Do: One of the most interesting cases—and certainly the most rewarding—in all my years of practice came through my participation as one of the attorneys handling two six-year pro bono lawsuits against the County of Marin, Gulf Oil and others. I, Marty Rosen, and Doug Ferguson, became involved after Dick Breiner and the late Bob Conn were forced out of these cases by the County. The end result was the appellate court reversed a judgment that had upheld the rezoning of land by the County. Had this not occurred and the rezoning had been upheld, there would have been a new city built in Marin called Marincello, with a population near 25,000.
The 2,300 acre property in question ended up being preserved and eventually became a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The lawsuits are included in the 2013 documentary film “Rebels with a Cause,” which is being shown not only in California, but throughout the U.S. and around the world. This year it will be shown nationally on Earth Day. It is generating a lot of goodwill for attorneys.
It is unfortunate that there are virtually no records of early Bar activity. I commend Randy Wallace for changing that and for inviting me to add something to the Bar’s history.