John A. Hoffman
Richard F. Lert
On Nov. 4, 1963
John A. Hoffman and
Richard F. Lert joined Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer in Perth Amboy as associates, after working there as clerks. In 1971, they made partner, also on the same day. Fifty years later the two men, both 75-years-old and
emeritus members of the New Jersey State Bar Association, are still with the firm.
Hoffman, a Perth Amboy native who graduated from Seattle University and Georgetown Law, established a foothold in utility and municipal law. Lert, who grew up in Newark and attended the Rutgers School of Business Administration and Harvard Law School, became a tax and trusts and estates expert. Last month, they celebrated their half-century together as practicing attorneys with a party at the Woodbridge-based firm.
Q. What attracted you to the firm in the first place?
A: Hoffman: I was brought up in Perth Amboy, where (founder) David Wilentz was almost a god.
Lert: It was a prestigious firm with a great reputation. I interviewed at a number of places, but it was attractive and I got the offer. We were hired at $100 a week, with no commitments, but our fingers were crossed.
Q. David T. Wilentz had successfully prosecuted the Lindbergh kidnapping case as New Jersey’s attorney general. He was also the boss of the Middlesex County democratic organization. Do you recall first meeting this formidable figure?
A: Hoffman: It was when I got hired as a clerk. After about a 25-minute interview, they said they would get back to me. Mr. Wilentz walked in, and (his son) Robert Wilentz introduced me. My grandfather had come over from Hungary and was a ward leader for a section of Perth Amboy known as Budapest. Mr. Wilentz said, ‘Is your grandfather Vendall?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Then it would be very nice having you work for us.’
Lert: I don’t recall the first meeting, but it must have been frightening. I’m sure I was nervous about meeting him. He was walking history. And I was very aware of how important a political figure he was.
Q. How did your legal specialties develop at the firm?
A: Hoffman: At first we did whatever the Wilentzes wanted. A lot of it was research. In 1969, I believe it was, on a Labor Day weekend, Mr. Wilentz came in and said to me, ‘John, you will be appointed as rate counsel.’ I thought he said ‘rape counsel,’ and I said, ‘I don’t do criminal law.’ Then I found out it was a rate case (before the former New Jersey Public Utilities Commission).
Lert: At that time, with only 18 lawyers in the firm, if you were interested in an area of law, you could develop yourself and the practice area. If you were good at it, they would be supportive. I had some good results, apparently, and the clients were happy. Eventually we developed a trust and estates department with several lawyers.
Today your firm has 120 lawyers. How has that changed things?
A: Hoffman: In the beginning you really knew everybody. For example, if someone got a $50,000 fee, everybody was happy and you went out and celebrated with a drink. It’s become much more of a business. There’s not the same camaraderie. You also don’t get to associate with all 120 lawyers — you associate more with the people on your team.
Lert: Also, when we started we did everything. I remember, Johnny and I were out at the Federers plant in Edison serving applications of notice for a zoning change. It was enjoyable. Now we’re concentrated in our respective areas and don’t have that much contact with others in the firm.
Q. Did you encourage your children to follow you into the law?
A: Hoffman: My son (acting Attorney General John Jay Hoffman) didn’t go directly into the law. When he graduated from college, against my advice, he went to Japan for two years to teach English. Then he went to law school. I don’t think I talked it up, as much as he saw what I was doing. My daughter is a teacher.
Lert: Neither of my children are lawyers. My one daughter is a certified public accountant, the other one is a dog groomer. I was encouraging my older daughter to go into law, but she chose not to.
Q. You two came in together, and progressed at the same rate. Are you planning to go out together?
A: Hoffman: I’m not planning of retiring, as of now. I enjoy giving clients advice, and they seem to like me to hang around.
Lert: I do, too. When I got married, my wife said ‘For better or for worse, but not for lunch.’ I have no particular incentive to retire.