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Los Angeles lawyers bring longevity to the law

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

More than seven decades after Victor Kaplan started his career as a labor union lawyer, he’s still fighting for workers’ rights.

Kaplan, who celebrates his 98th birthday this month, is the oldest practicing lawyer in the state. His specialty is helping injured railroad workers get federal pensions, although retirement isn’t in his own vocabulary. He plans to stay at it “as long as I’m having fun.”

Just three miles away from Kaplan Law Group in Century City, another nonagenarian lawyer, David S. Smith, reports to Smith & Smith in Beverly Hills five days a week.

David Smith and Victor Kaplan
From left, David S. Smith and son Lee Smith chat with Jay Kaplan and his father Victor Kaplan at La Gondola in Beverly Hills

In a profession notoriously racked by burnout, Kaplan and Smith said they continue to enjoy their work, granted the pace is slower now that each of their sons has taken the reins at their respective firms. The two men recently spoke with the California Bar Journal about some of the vast changes they have witnessed in the legal profession.

The sheer number of lawyers has multiplied by a factor of 16 since Kaplan was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1938. Back then there were about 14,500 lawyers in California. As of July there were more than 238,000 — an explosion even factoring in the state’s population growth in that time.

Kaplan said the surge in attorneys has made the practice of law more impersonal.

“In those early days you could do a lot of stuff on a handshake,” he said.

Victor Kaplan
Victor Kaplan in 1955

One example Kaplan recalled was in representing a seaman suing his employer over an injury. The ship where the incident took place only came into port for a few days at a time. With one day’s notice, Kaplan was able to call the defense lawyer and arrange for them both to meet the ship at the dock at 9 p.m. to take witness depositions.

“It’s not so easy to do that now,” he said. “Now you have to go through channels. You don’t have that same relationship with the defense firms.”

Kaplan and Smith both eschewed big-firm culture, preferring to strike out on their own or team up with small groups of lawyers.

Kaplan for a time worked with well-known plaintiffs’ lawyer Raoul Magaña, who was the 1963 California Trial Lawyer of the Year. Smith, who was admitted to the bar in January 1943, was active in the Lawyers Club of Los Angeles early in his career and said he was courted by several big L.A. firms.

David S. Smith
David S. Smith, circa 1950

Smith was a partner in Richards, Watson, Smith & Hemmerling, but left the firm when it began to grow too large, determined to make a name for himself.
“I just didn’t want to be part of a big machine,” he said.

David Smith’s son, Lee Smith, said the modern Los Angeles legal community has grown so large it has affected civility. When lawyers know they might not ever have a case together again, there’s less incentive to be respectful.

“It was sort of a golden era back then,” Lee Smith said. “Everybody knew everybody. Your reputation was very important. If you were not a good guy everybody would know about it.”

David Smith pointed out another big change in the profession that bothers him to this day - attorney advertising.

Smith said he remembers when a lawyer could be disbarred for advertising for clients. Although the U.S. Supreme Court protected lawyer advertising as a form of free speech in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977), Smith to this day views it as distasteful.

“We have never spent as much as a nickel on advertising,” Smith said. “The best advertising is a happy client.”

That meant there were some lean years as Smith built up his clientele doing general business litigation, estate planning and family law. It wasn’t until he was 36 that he felt financially stable enough to marry. Harriet Smith is ten years younger than her husband. The couple has three children, Lee, Joy and Nina.

Kaplan has a son and a daughter, both of whom are lawyers. Jay Kaplan practices labor law like his father, mainly handling railroad personal injury cases brought under the Federal Employers Liability Act. Laura Kaplan works in the tobacco litigation section of the California Attorney General’s Office.

Laura Kaplan said the practice of law has been an anchor in her father’s life and he’s been generous over the years in dispensing advice to family members free of charge.

“He’s very interested in social justice issues and how the law can help in that regard,” she said. “He’s always been very inspiring to me.”

Joy Smith arranged for the two long-time lawyers to meet for lunch in May when she learned that both were being interviewed by the Bar Journal. The two men agreed that not all the changes to the legal profession have been bad.

Kaplan said the ease of electronic information has allowed smaller firms to conduct research and cut office expenses.

Smith said email has become an indispensable tool for him.

“If I didn’t do email, I would be the victim,” he said.