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Neil Falconer knew he’d be with The Law Offices of Jesse Steinhart for the long haul when he joined the firm more than a half-century ago. “If they hired you,” he says, “if you did your part, you expected to be there indefinitely.” As outlandish as that mindset might sound in the legal world of today, which is ruled by quarter-to-quarter profits and losses, when Falconer started to practice in 1949 that sense of duty and loyalty characterized the legal community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now 78 years old and still of counsel at the firm that carries his name — Steinhart & Falconer — Falconer believes that working in that smaller, tightly knit legal community created a friendlier, more stable legal world. And while he might miss those days past, practicing in the 1950s wasn’t all sunshine. One downside Falconer remembers well was that while the members of a firm were practically family, lawyers who were already practicing there were loath to take on someone new. “You were taking on a commitment,” he says. “I think it was considered bad form — and bad in a lot of ways — to lay off an associate because you didn’t have enough work.” And back in those days, firm founder Jesse Steinhart didn’t measure an associate’s worth in hours billed. “I would say that nobody gave a figure — they just gave you assignments,” Falconer says. “The old man was famous for at 5 o’clock giving you something to look over and saying, ‘You know, let’s talk about it tomorrow morning.’ “ But it’s hard to compare the pressures of doing business in the ’50s with the practice of law in 2001. Back then, Falconer says, mergers and acquisitions barely existed. The same rang true for startups. “I would say we worked hard, but I don’t think we worked as frantically as you see some people working now,” he says. “In other words, the idea that this has got to be done today no matter what, in general, did not exist.” Partly because law was practiced at a slower pace, attorneys in San Francisco got to know one another. Falconer says it also helped that approximately 2,000 lawyers called San Francisco home then, compared with the 10,000 he’s told are here today. In his early years with the firm, he says, every week his office sent two of its bridge players to the Bar Association of San Francisco’s luncheon lounge to face off against a team from the Orrick office. There were other little things that helped bind the community. For example, the Steinhart partners typically ate lunch with their associates, which built camaraderie and gave partners the opportunity to give associates more informal instruction. “When you joined a firm, in a sense, you married the firm and the firm married you,” he says. “For a partner to leave a firm was kind of like getting a divorce. And getting a divorce in those days was not unheard of, but it was not remotely as common as it is today. “I remember one of our associates wanted to get his best friend, his roommate, into our firm. And he was working for another downtown firm; I won’t use the names. He talked to the old man, who said, ‘I can’t do that to Tom Jones. Hire away one of his people?’ “ The smaller community, Falconer says, also helped lawyers stay civil. He compares San Francisco’s legal community with New York’s, where “they’ll cut your throat just for 5 cents because they don’t stand to ever see you again, and they won’t.” In San Francisco, he says, “if you tried to double-cross somebody or do something funny, the word would get out very quickly. My guess is there’s a lot less civility now than there used to be — not because we were nicer — but it was just good business to do so, and bad business not to.” He also speculates that while lawyers today are making comparatively more money than they did in his heyday, they’re enjoying it less. “Probably every lawyer of my generation feels that way,” he adds. In part, he says, the problem may be today’s more uncertain world and its fragmented community. And part of the problem may simply be that the motives for going into law have changed over the years. When Falconer became an attorney, he says, most people went into law because they wanted to be lawyers. “Whereas in the late ’70s and ’80s, an awful lot of people went into it because they wanted to reform the world or change society, and I think a legal background may be helpful if that’s your ambition, but most lawyers don’t change society. And in the ’90s, an awful lot went into it because they wanted to become rich,” he says. “One result of that is I think there are a lot more lawyers who are unhappy in the profession than there used to be. “Because,” he says, “they ended up doing what lawyers normally do.”

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