Sherwin Abrams: Abrams & Chapman

Sherwin AbramsWhen I graduated from law school, I became an associate at a four man law firm.  I worked with each partner: one doing business litigation; one corporate; one estate planning and probate; and one real estate.  I learned a good deal about each of those areas of the practice, and I continued to practice in each of those areas for most of my career.

While I drafted many wills and trusts, my partner, Terry Chapman, is now responsible for our estate planning and probate practice.

My practice today is primarily transactional law.  That includes entity formation, mergers and acquisitions, real estate, financing transactions, all informed by federal income tax considerations.  I still do some commercial litigation, but I have been associating with co-counsel as I phase out that part of my practice.

How has your practice evolved in the last few years?

In 2005 I became an adjunct professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.  I teach contract drafting and complex business transactions as part of Kent’s legal writing program.  I spend a good deal of time organizing each course and preparing materials that I find interesting, that I hope the students will find interesting, and that I think will help them learn.  I assign cases, statutes, law journal articles, and articles that I have written specifically for the class.  Occasionally I will redact a case for the students, but usually I ask them to read the entire case.  One cannot understand fully the substantive law discussed in a case without understanding its procedural context.

As Terry and I have gained years of experience (or, put another way, as we have aged), we have been able to limit our practice.  We represent people with whom we have a personal rapport.  For the most part, our clients are our friends.  Either they were friends first and became clients, or they were clients first and became friends.

We moved to our current offices in the Chicago Bar Association Building in 1992 because it gave us access to the John Marshall Law School library.  I used to spend much time there.  Now, of course, I spend most of my time staring at a computer screen.  I do almost all of my research online.  The legal services and the Internet have made it possible to obtain almost any information while being almost anywhere in the world.  Yet I do not think that the actual practice of law has changed.  Technology has made us more efficient and communications virtually instantaneous, but we still advise and counsel; we still draft contracts and estate plans; we still negotiate and advocate.

As for the future, I will let my imagination run wild.  I predict that multi-jurisdictional practice of law will grow, including internationally, as universal translators remove barriers to communications.  Limited practice of law will develop.  For example, well trained real estate brokers will be allowed to draft leases, contracts, and closing documents. Robots, using artificial intelligence, will draft bench memoranda to aid judges.  Robots will even replace judges in some cases, hearing testimony and judging credibility of witnesses (the ultimate lie detector).   Paradoxically, such developments will create greater need for full-fledged lawyers, not less.

If you could offer one piece of advice for young lawyers, what would it be?

Be curious.  Have a desire to know and the willingness to make the effort to learn.  The Internet has made it easy to obtain information, but a lawyer must still initiate the search.  When you come across a concept with which you are unfamiliar, look it up.  Often the information can be obtained using a search engine such as Google.  Five steps: highlight, copy, paste into search engine, press enter, read.  That last step takes effort.  Read not just one entry but several.  Repetition helps assure that the information is likely correct and aids understanding and retention.

How has civility made a difference in your practice?

It is much easier to cite instances of incivility because civility is simply common courtesy.  It is what is expected and is therefore unremarkable.  I can think of three instances though that made a special impression on me.

I recently had occasion to be in the courtroom of Judge Joan Lefkow of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.  She had appointed a lawyer to represent a prisoner who had filed a pro se civil rights suit.  Counsel for the prisoner and the defendant reported on the status of the case.  Judge Lefkow entered appropriate orders and then said to the prisoner’s lawyer, “Thank you for looking into this for me.”  The judge did not have to say thank you; but because that thoughtful gesture was not required, it was all the more appreciated.  The judge demonstrated civility and professionalism.

Some four years ago I was involved in a hotly contested case before Judge Thomas E. Mueller in Kane County.  Two multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporations were going toe to toe in very high stakes litigation.  Judge Mueller was hearing evidence on a petition for rule to show cause.  The judge was courteous, well prepared, and as attentive as one might expect in such a case.  We recessed for lunch.  The judge came back to court early to hold a short bench trial in a case that involved two individuals and less than five hundred dollars.  Judge Mueller was as well prepared for that case and as attentive as he was for the other.  He showed as much respect for each set of litigants as for the other.  That is civility.  That is professionalism.

I am a member of the Institute for Illinois Business Laws.  The entire membership meets six times per year, two hours per meeting.  We get MCLE credit for attending such meetings, but no more than one hour per meeting.   Committees and sub-committees hold additional meetings.  We monitor developments of business entity law and propose legislation.  Several years ago the Institute embarked on a project of rewriting the Illinois Limited Liability Company Act.  In addition to our regular meetings, we held a special four hour meeting on a Saturday.  (One wag suggested that we should have held four one hour meetings that day instead of the one four hour meeting.)  Participation in such endeavors is an example of selfless professionalism.  As changes to the law were debated, the discussion became heated but always remained civil.  While the entire membership contributed to the rewrite, special mention must be made of Robin Heiss, John McCabe, and John Eisel, who did the bulk of the work over a five year period.

Why did you become a lawyer?

In preparation for my Bar Mitzvah and afterwards I studied Talmud, I enjoyed the dialectic, the process of legal reasoning.  I enjoyed discussing fine points of law, each side citing a different sage and specific language to support his position.  In college I majored in mathematics and had a minor in physics.  While I loved math and science, I knew that I did not want to make them my life’s work.

I have a cousin, Norman Abrams, ten years older than I, whom I always admired.  Norm went to the University of Chicago.  After two years as an undergraduate he entered law school there, was editor in chief of the law review, and finished at the top of his class.  It was my study of Talmudic law and my cousin’s example that most influenced my decision to attend law school.

While I was in law school I became a licensed insurance broker and worked for my father’s firm.  My dad died just prior to graduation, and I could have taken over his business.  I never regretted my decision not to do so.  Nor did I find any other discipline that interested me more than law.

Nevertheless, even after I became a lawyer, I considered what else I might prefer to do.  I used to say, only half jestingly, “I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.”  Finally, about fifteen years ago, I decided.  I wanted to be a lawyer.  And I was a lawyer!  How lucky can one be?

Aside: Norm went on to do graduate work at Columbia, became a special consultant to the Department of Justice, helped draft the Israeli constitution, became a professor of law at UCLA, dean of the law school, and chancellor of the university.  He has published extensively and is highly respected.  Just think what he could have accomplished if only he had finished college.

What do you do for fun?

My number one hobby is law.  I practice, teach, study, discuss, mentor.  Next is a toss-up between bicycling and music.  I ride a high end road bike; pedaled more than 2600 miles last year along the quiet country roads of McHenry County.  I subscribe to Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony and attend performances at lesser known venues as well.  I am not a musician, just a devout listener.  I have maintained my interest in physics generally.  I read books and journals and listen to lectures on You Tube and The Great Courses, materials directed to the informed layperson, not to specialists.

It is fun to learn.  One of the aspects of the practice of law that I enjoy is that seldom does a day go by that I do not learn something new.  I try to instill that love for attaining knowledge in my students.  I teasingly tell the class that I envy them because they have so much more to learn than I do.  The truth, of course, is just the opposite.  The more one knows the more one realizes that he does not know.

 

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