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Looking Back with Sherman C. Wilke

Accumulated wisdom is perhaps our greatest but least used treasure. We can find it in the senior members of our profession, who posses a wealth of knowledge. In a fast-paced, present-oriented society, the profession as a whole loses when we fail to take advantage of their insight and guidance. This lesson takes on added meaning when one sits down to talk to Sherman C. Wilke, one this area’s most seasoned veterans.

Wilke began practice in Sacramento in 1937 after graduating from Hastings. He was one of five attorneys admitted to practice in Sacramento that year. Others included Frank Bottaro, Albert Mundt and William White. Bottaro is still in Sacramento and both Mundt and White later served with distinction as Superior Court judges. Wilke was one of several Sacramentan’s who were beneficiaries of a scholarship fund administered by Judge Shields. After graduation he returned to Sacramento and worked for Judge Shields as an unpaid law clerk while looking for a job.

Finding a job was difficult at that time. The Depression was still on and, recalls Wilke, “there were no relatives in my family who were lawyers…I didn’t even know any lawyers and I was concerned about how I could get a job.” Upon Judge Shields’ recommendation, he entered into an association with Sacramento attorney Ralph Lewis, father of noted family lawyer, Jerome Lewis of Lewis & Zilaff. His salary was $75 per month plus whatever he earned from his own business, which was nothing. Lewis was an excellent teacher. “He was a sharp lawyer and I think that I was very, very lucky to have him hire me,” Wilke said.

Lewis was a meticulous pleader and insisted that Wilke also become one as well. At the end of the first year, Lewis gave him a raise to $100 per month. Their relationship continued until World War II when Wilke “saw the handwriting on the wall” and was drafted under the Volunteer Officers Candidate Program.

After the completion of the training he was sent to Noumea, New Caledonia, a French colony, in the South Pacific. One or two months later, at the tail end of the Munda campaign in the central Solomon Islands he was stationed in the G-2 unit of the Headquarters Company on the Munda Island. After 18 months in the South Pacific, Wilke entered a JAG officer-training program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. During his four months there he was only able to see his wife, Betty, for two weekends. He still found it to be marked improvement upon the Solomons.

Graduating first in his class, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant and was assigned to Ft. Douglas in Utah, where he remained until the end of the war. Upon the arrival, he was delighted to learn that the commanding officer was Sacramento attorney Albert Sheets, whom he had known well in Sacramento. While at Ft. Douglas, Wilke was joined by his wife and son, Jim. Upon his return to Sacramento, Wilke resumed his association with Ralph Lewis. After several years Grover Bedeau, a frequent opponent, offered him an association with the firm of Henry & Bedeau.

Wilke began with Henry & Bedeau by occupying a chair in the library at their office in the Capitol National Bank building at 7th & J streets. He received one-third of the fees collected from any of the cases in which he worked and could keep all the fees from any of his own clients. Unfortunately, few of Wilke’s clients paid. He recalls that both Henry or Bedeau would call him into their offices and tell him that they were giving him one of their clients, whom he could count as his own. Wilke also was told not to tell the other partner that the client had come from the referring partner. This largess allowed Wilke to survive financially in the early years. In the late 1940’s, Bedeau was appointed as a judge and Henry bought out his practice. Soon after, Henry was also appointed to the bench and offered to sell his practice to Wilke if he could find a suitable partner. Henry told him that he needed a personable partner who would balance the personalities and abilities of the two members of the new partnership. Upon Henry’s recommendation, Wilke approached Gordon A. Fleury, who was two years younger and who had worked in the District Attorney’s office and in Nelson French’s law office. They then founded the law firm Wilke & Fleury.

Although Wilke is now 79, he keeps a busy schedule. He still sees clients and works almost every day on a reduced schedule. He remains a zealous golfer and fisherman. Wilke also continues a routine of two annual month long vacations and annual fishing trips to Sierra City and the Klamath River. He also enjoys activities with the families of his son, Jim, and daughters Chris and Jean. Over the course of his career, Wilke has known many well-known Sacramento attorneys. He was a childhood friend of Jack Downey and they learned to play tennis together from their fifth grade teacher at David Lubin School. Judge William White was the best man in his wedding. Grover Bedeau and Wilke occasionally fished with Otto Rohwer at South Lake Tahoe for Mackinaw trout. Wilke met Paul Peek, former Speaker of the Assembly, Secretary of State, Justice of the Third District Court of Appeal and Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court, when both had sons in the Boy Scouts. Upon Peek’s retirement from the court, he practiced with Wilke at Wilke & Fleury. In the later years Wilke did battle with legendary Sacramento trial attorney, David Rust.

Wilke has seen many significant changes in the practice of law in Sacramento since he started in 1937. The experience of starting as a new attorney is much different now. Not only are there many more attorneys in town, but employment arrangements have changed dramatically. The size of the firms was much smaller. “Downey, Brand & Seymour was probably the biggest law firm, along with Deipenbrock. Those were the two big firms that were here when I started practicing.” “They each had about five lawyers,” Wilke recalls. Salaried associates were not common. Most attorneys started practice with office-sharing arrangements with one or two more experienced attorneys. The nature of the practice was also quite different, Wilke said. Offices were routinely open to the public and fully staffed from 8 a.m. to 6:30 or 7 p.m., and were fully staffed on Saturdays until 3 or 4 p.m. There was also no established public defender program. Instead, all of the new attorneys served on a panel for two or three years and handled indigent criminal defense cases. Payments were to be obtained by taking promissory notes from the clients, but few ever collected on them.

The system did have some benefit for new lawyers. According to Wilke, “You learned how to try a jury case. I would be assigned four or five of these a month. I would probably try a half dozen cases a year. It was good experience, but you didn’t make any money.”

Relations between attorneys have also changed, according to Wilke, He does not pretend that personal relationships among attorneys were always idyllic, but believes that there has been an erosion of trust. Until the last 20 or 30 years there was very little formal discovery in most cases. Instead attorneys would call or visit each other about a week or so before trial to discuss the insurance limit and the nature of each other’s cases. Most attorneys were candid in this exchange and, until about 20 years ago, most attorneys concluded their agreements by handshake rather than by confirming letter, said Wilke.

Wilke notes that he has also seen a significant change in client relations. Clients were generally much less adapt to switch attorneys until the mid-to-late 1960’s. Wilke observes: “I don’t feel that it is not as much fun to be a lawyer as it was 25 years ago. Today you have to watch over your shoulder because some of your clients think, in the back of their minds, about the possibility of suing you for malpractice if you don’t please them. We don’t worry about people that we have known for 25 or 30 years-it’s the new ones. You don’t have to treat them differently than you used to. You have to think about your own rear end. That makes lawyering today not as satisfying as it used to be. I’m sure the doctors feel the same way.”

The attorney-client trust was also reflected in billing practices. The common format was a simple statement with the notation “For Services Rendered” and a dollar amount. Hourly billings were the exception. Lawyers billed most files by reference to the value of the result to the client. In short, if you don’t do much to help the client, you didn’t bill very much. If your result was very beneficial you would build in a bonus.

Wilke believes that the change in billing practices has further eroded attorney-client relations. “I think the clients now feel, and I think with some justice, that all lawyers care about is to keep track of their hours and they don’t give a damn whether they win or lose,” Wilke said.

Wilke is pleased to see a trend beginning towards a return to the value-based system. “I feel that the clients don’t like the time billing anymore. I think there is a trend in the other direction. (S)ome of the insurance companies who thought that system of time slips was great have learned that it is not all that great,” Wilke said.

Despite these changes, Wilke still sees many universals that apply as well today as they did 56 years ago when he began practice. Mr. Lewis’ lesson of precision in pleading, and consequently knowing your case well when you begin, still applies. Wilke also believes that when you get a new case, you should generate client confidence by doing something tangible right away. “Don’t sit around and do nothing,” Wilke said. “Do something even if it’s wrong.” That’s a little bit of philosophy I learned from Ralph Lewis.”

Finally, Wilke believes that you should nurture that confidence by regularly communicating with the client. “Keep them aware by copying them with letters and things that you send out,” suggests Wilke. “It keeps them abreast and they can see exactly what you are doing. Don’t wait for six months to tell your client the status.”

These lessons are timeless. Many more are available to us if we only take advantage of our resources and continue to learn from the senior members of our profession.