Never too old to practice, bar veterans keep going

50 years and counting, the oldest attorneys in California refuse to kick back, relax and close up shop

by Kathleen O. Beitiks
Staff Writer

It stands to reason if a lawyer has been in practice for 50 years or more, he or she is entitled to close up shop, kick back and smell the roses.

Telephone some of the 437, active, 50-year members of the State Bar, however, and be prepared to be put on hold.

*"I'm sorry, Mr. Magarian (96-years-old) is with clients right now, may I take a message?"

*"Ms. Shostak (81) is in the middle of a big project. Can she call you back?"

*From 90-year-old attorney Louise A. Steele: "This isn't a good time for me to talk and I'll be busy with clients tomorrow. Can you call back Monday?"

While the majority of the state's lawyers admitted to the bar 50 or more years ago are on inactive status, a hardcore group continues to practice, convinced that even one day a week in the office does wonders to keep them mentally sharp and up-to-date with their profession.

Gasper H. Magarian of Fresno, the oldest active member of the bar at the age of 96 (see related story) makes weekly visits to the law offices of Dowling Magarian Aaron & Heyman to help with the firm's probate work.

And Louise A. Steele, 90, the oldest active female member of the bar is still working daily, although she plans to fold up her practice at the end of this year because of back problems and difficulty climbing stairs.

In her earlier years, Steele worked as a secretary to the city attorney of Butte, Mont., who encouraged her to study law. She never attended college, but studied law under a former New York attorney and passed the Montana Bar in 1926.

In 1931, she moved to California, passed the bar and spent many decades working for a small Los Angeles firm, handling probate, workers' compensation and admiralty law cases.

Today she is working on several different cases dealing with fraud, divorce, probate and trusts. Maybe the years are catching up with her, she admits, because some days she thinks "it would be nice just to sleep in."

A native of Santa Ana, Joseph Choate is six months younger than Magarian, celebrating his 96th birthday this month. After graduating from law school at the University of Southern California in 1925, he headed east to obtain a masters degree in law from Harvard University, then spent six years in the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office where he was one of the first prosecutors to use fingerprints in evidence.

He's written two books, one about his friend Gen. Douglas MacArthur and "Death Valley Scotty (My Colorful Client), chronicling his adventures as the legendary Walter Scott's lawyer.

In private practice since the late 1930s, today he works with his son, Joseph Jr., coming into the office about twice a week to sign checks and other "odds and ends."

Choate had a small stoke last year, resulting in a speech impairment that has frustrated him to no end. He calls himself an idealist and perfectionist. "I try to live up to my expectations," he says, but it has been difficult to slow down after such an active career.

At the age of 86, Max Esterman of Montebello still handles a few cases, but significantly fewer than he did more than 60 years ago as a young attorney in Massachusetts. In 1945 he was admitted to the California bar and spent the next 46 years as a sole practitioner in downtown Los Angeles.

He's not quite ready to kick back and smell the roses. "I've been going to a lot of funerals," he says, "so I already smell plenty of roses."

Marjorie Shostak turned 81 a few months ago, but she has the energy of someone 30 years younger. A specialist in customs and international law with the Los Angeles firm of Stein Shostak Shostak & O'Hara, she is at the office everyday and recently participated in a State Bar panel in San Diego, discussing current trends in her field of expertise.

After obtaining a bachelor's degree in law at the University of Nebraska, Shostak came to California, attended business college and worked as a law clerk, eventually studying law through a State Bar apprenticeship program.

She was admitted to the bar in 1945 and now two of her nephews practice with her in the 10-member firm.

Shostak can't imagine cutting back on her hours. "My field is so demanding," she says. "I have to work everyday just to keep up with the changes. Just when you think you know everything, they pull the rug out from under you and you have a new law."

Virginia Pyne Briggs, 76, of Palo Alto was on her honeymoon in 1944 when she received a telegram from her family telling her that she passed the bar exam. She did some teaching, but didn't practice law for many years while she and her airline pilot husband raised five children. Today she devotes her professional skills to the emeritus attorney pro bono program of the Santa Clara County Bar Association.

After her husband passed away a few years ago, Briggs says, "I wasn't ready to withdraw and retire." She contacted her alma mater, Boalt Hall, and obtained permission to audit classes to brush up on her legal skills.

Now you can find her working on family law matters, interviewing clients, guiding them through the system and making court appearances.

In Palm Desert, Ralph F. Dixon, 89-years-old at the end of the month, squeezes in some legal work between golf games. He is currently expanding his business by working as a real estate broker and setting up a consumer finance company.

Dixon was admitted to the Ohio State Bar in 1932 and became a member of the California Bar when he moved here in 1944. He worked for a financial company for 33 years and in 1965 put out his shingle as a sole practitioner in Santa Ana, eventually concentrating in bankruptcy matters.

"In those days it was pleasant to practice," he says. Judges, lawyers and everyone in the legal community knew each other, "but that changed when the number of lawyers increased."

Many changes have occurred in the legal field through the years, both positive and negative. Those most often cited by some of the bar's 50-year-plus members are the growing complexity of the law, attorney advertising, the influx of women lawyers and the overall increase in the number of practicing lawyers.

"Advertising---I'm strongly against it," said Dixon. "I suppose it could be regulated to be more respectable.

"But it's a combination of unlimited advertisement and the proliferation of lawyers that puts an economic pressure on lawyers and results in frivolous lawsuits."

Shostak feels the increase in the number of women practicing law has been one of the most significant occurances since her early days.

"There were only 12 of us who passed the bar in 1945," she says. "And it was so unusual that the L.A. Times took our picture."

Steele agrees with those who say that the legal field has become vast and complex. "There have been a lot of changes in probate," she says. "There are more demands, the work is heavy and more detailed."

And when Briggs went back to Boalt to brush-up on her legal skills after an extended absence from the profession, she was astounded at the mounds of material students are expected to absorb today. It was at least "triple" what students were expected to learn in her younger days, she says.

As far as giving advice to recent admittees to the bar, most would agree that it makes economic sense to specialize and join a small or large firm.

"The practice of law is much more complicated nowadays," says Dixon, and it's tough to make it as a sole practitioner.

"Don't give up, do the best you can and keep your nose out of bad things," says Esterman.

Briggs, however, wouldn't dream of passing on advice. "I've been well-trained by my children."