Volume IV, No. 2, Winter 1976
A VISIT WITH SPENCER LEGAN
Compiled and edited by Jim Baldwin and Cindy Honssinger
Photography by Stephen Ludwig, Drawings by Jeff Jaynes
I started practicing in 1923. Back then we had justice of the peace court. In the summer, we'd try the cases out under a shade tree. They'd bring chairs out there--I've tried many a case right out there. And in the wintertime, when it is cold, we'd try them in the justice of the peace's home. We'd just go in the kitchen there--sometimes in the living room.
One time I was out--I'd gone quail hunting with a fellow. We were way out in the country. Pretty soon we heard a fellow hollering. He was down on the hill there someplace. He came up all out of breath and he said, "I filed a suit and they're down there now--he's got a lawyer with him. I got to have a lawyer there. They're calling for a jury. The constable's out getting a jury!"
"Well, all right." I hopped in the car with him. I had on my boots...I'd torn a great big hole in my pants going through a wire fence. I remember arguing to the jury--several women were in it--
I was arguing and I'd stand kind of sideways. With my boots on--a regular old Western scene, I guess. But we won the lawsuit.
The caption under his picture in his Conway High School yearbook reads, "A Disciple of Demosthenes." And as this example shows, Spencer Legan truly was a disciple of the great Greek orator. By involving himself in debate and speech in high school, he was laying an excellent foundation on which to build his career as a lawyer.
Both of us plan to follow our fathers' footsteps and become lawyers. Spencer Legan reached a goal most aspiring attorneys may try for, but few ever achieve--graduating in the top three in his class, Order of the Coif. He also reached other goals--returning to his tiny hometown to establish a successful practice, eventually becoming a judge. To follow in his footsteps, we'll have our work cut out for us.
Sometimes I got cases I didn't want. I don't know how many cases I've tried when I didn't get anything. You're there in the courtroom and a case comes up and the judge asks him, "Have you got a lawyer?'' "No, I haven't got a lawyer." "Well, can you hire one? .... No, I haven't got any money to hire one." He'll look around the courtroom--"Well, Legan, you can represent Mr. Jones here."
Got my case. Go back home, work till midnight on it, maybe try the case the next day. I've worked a lot of times up there till midnight, come back and try it the next morning.
We did that all the time. You had to have a lawyer, and if you didn't have any, the court just appointed one. You're in the courtroom, the judge'd just point his finger at you and you're it.
When did you decide to become a lawyer?
I more or less had in mind to be a lawyer quite a while ago, back in high school. My teacher wanted me to be a lawyer. He'd bring up law books and I'd read them. We also had moot court cases in school. I was the class orator and debater. Lon Haymes from over at Buffalo, over in Dallas County, was my teacher. He finally went to work in Washington, D. C., for Tom Ruby, the Congressman from this ditrict, and went to law school there.
What did you do after high school?
I went to--they call it Southwest Missouri State University now--they called it Teacher's College back at that time.
Then I taught school. I was the principal at the high school at Conway and the superintendent, and I taught in the grades.
In 1918 I joined the Navy and went overseas to France. The armistice was in November--the 11th. I was on about the second boatload that came back across. I got back to Conway about three days before Christmas.
What did you do when you got back?
They hired me to teach school. But in 1920 I went to Washington University in St. Louis--law school. I didn't have to take an entrance test like they do now.
They didn't give you much choice of courses. Ordinarily it was already outlined for you for the whole three years. The basic courses have all remained about the same. Of course, you always take contracts, and pleading and practice, and torts--any wrong, a negligence case, they call them torts. And constitutional law, and general courses that involve marriage and divorce and matters like that.
Real property, you had to take three years of that, 'cause we're all based on real property here. The whole world's real estate. And you have to have real estate laws, too.
When I went to Washington University it's changed now--you took a test after every semester over the courses you'd been in. Then after that you took a three-day test over the whole three years. You couldn't get a law degree there unless you could pass that. They quit that now. At that time some of them could maybe be admitted to the bar by passing the Missouri bar test.
I took the bar in December of '22. There was a whole semester before I was out of school at age thirty but I took and passed the bar examination. I was a lawyer before I ever got my degree. All I had to do was come back to Conway and start practicing law. I was already admitted to the bar.
What degree did you receive?
Bachelor of Laws and Doctor of Jurisprudence. I got both of them.
Were there any women or blacks in law school when you were going?
They had a woman in every class. One graduated every year. Now there's several. But they always had one.
We didn't have any blacks. There was some in the University there but I don't think there was in law school. I didn't know of any black lawyers. I guess though they surely had some around. I know there's some since, a lot of them.
Did you go straight back to Conway. after graduating?
Well, a law firm there in St. Louis asked the dean down at law school for a graduate to come down there. They wanted to hire somebody. So he called me in one day and talked to me and said, "I'll give you the first chance." Course I didn't want to stay. I'd already decided I was going home. Mom was there by herself. I figured that was the place for me to be. I don't think I'd have stayed in St. Louis anyway. I'd rather practice out in the country.
When you set up your practice, did you have a partner?
No. By myself. I was the only lawyer in Conway. In fact, I'm the last lawyer that was there. I had all the business I could handle.
There'd been one lawyer there before that could practice in circuit court and another one that could practice around justice of the peace court. He'd taken a correspondence course in law. But he couldn't practice in circuit court.
Was it expensive to get started?
Yes, it was rather expensive. It wasn't easy by any means. I had to rent my office space. But I didn't have to pay a secretary 'cause I didn't have one. Well, I had one part-time, depending on whether we were doing anything. Just in general, though, I didn't. I'd learned to type when I was going to school. But I can't type like the girls down at these offices here. I got a real full-time secretary in 1936, after I moved to Lebanon.
Did your clients call in and make appointments?
Some of them called in and wanted to know if I'd be in. Others, most of them, just came in.
Did you have your own law library?
Yes. I've still got it. It's down at the courthouse now. I put it up there with the county library.
I had a full library. A lawyer at Crocker'd died. A friend told me about the library and I went down and bought it. It goes from Volume I, first decisions ever rendered. I've kept it up to date to the present time, on up to the last one that came out just the other day. Mine's all in good condition. They're all in bookcases. I bought the bookcases when I bought the library. It'd be hard to find those Volume I's in any good condition. Not the early ones.
I hauled the library up here in a truck. That was before they ever paved Highway 66. We were coming up over a hill--it was just a gravel road, and it'd rained--and we got stalled.
We couldn't remember seeing a light in a long time, so we started toward Lebanon. Right down at the bend of the road, there was a light. We went in there and saw a fellow and told him what the trouble was. He was in a bad mood. He said he was over there the day before and pulled a couple of women up the hill, then he got up, and unhooked his chain, and they just drove on, never said thank you.
I said, "Boy, don't you worry about me. I'll give you the money right now." He said, "Yeah, I'll help you out. I'd just got mad there that anyone'd do that way." He brought it on up to the top and we came right on down.
This was just an open pickup truck, and it looked like it was clouding up, like it was going to rain. That wasn't going to do the cases or the books either one any good. So he gave me a tarpaulin to put over the books.
Down at court here one time later I was walking around and this fellow was on the jury. He came up to me and shook hands with me and said, "Do you remember me?" When he told me who he was I said, "I'll never forget you."
I used to have a lot of criminal cases. Back in Prohibition days, the bar docket, the first seven pages was all hooch, moonshine, and corn whiskey cases. They were full of them, all the time.
Were you mostly on defense?
Yes. Once in a while they'd hire me on the side to help prosecute a case. I can remember they robbed a store up at Conway and hired me to help on the prosecution.
Did they have a prosecuting attorney then?
Yeah. Everything has to go through the prosecuting attorney. Can't get a criminal case in court except through the prosecuting attorney. If one side wants to hire a lawyer to help the prosecutor they can. But that's just on the side. The prosecuting attorney, it's his case. Course a lot of time he's glad for someone to come in and help him. Just like most of us are, you got a hard case you're glad to have some help.
The justice of the peace courts you mentioned earlier--what were they like?
Kind of like magistrate court. It seems tome like $500 was the limit of their jurisdiction. What we call small claims now. If you took an appeal it went to circuit court.
Every township would have a justice of the peace. And the big townships, like Lebanon here, they'd have two. You could file it in either court you wanted to. Now your magistrate's got the whole county.
The justice of the peace wasn't a lawyer. He didn't have to be. They were just elected...and they always had some other job. One ran the mill there at Conway. Lots of times at Conway they used to come up and there was a big hall there in my office. We got out there in that hall and then tried a case.
The justice of the peace courts were all gone before your dads started.
Do you remember what some of your fees were for different cases?
Back then, I think about $25 for a divorce. Divorces or something like that were the only ones that had any standard fee. Unless on contingent fee, you'd take about a third. Some of them a half. Most of the time, about a third.
I never did figure my fees on an hourly basis like they do now. 'Cause I'd never know. I'd be working on two or three cases and I wouldn't know how to separate them. I don't know how you would now either but they do.
Did lots of people ask you for free advice?
Oh yes. That runs all the time.
When did you come to Lebanon from Conway?
Moved down here on Labor Day of 1936. I was with the Federal Land Bank then. And practiced law, too.
How did you become associated with the Federal Land Bank?
They came up one day and they wanted me to take over the job. I said, "Oh, I don't want it." Wasn't but a few days after that, I was away and I came back and there was all the stuff out by the door of my office. Course I moved it inside 'cause I knew all the fellows--the board of directors--and I wouldn't turn them down, so I just took it finally. I had Laclede County and parts of Webster County and Wright County. Finally they said, "I want you to take Camden County." And I took that. They wanted me to take Dallas County and I finally took that. They just kind of pushed it off on me.
Where was your office in Lebanon?
The first place was up the stairway the other side of Joe Knight's drugstore, over Casey's clothing store. The second place was up over the dime store in the next block.
You don't remember when Joe Knight's building burned, do you? That was before your time. When that burned, oh boy, I thought my office was gone. You went up the steps and went right out in the hall and a beauty shop was in the front and mine was all the way back. I was down on the street and I saw flames shooting out that window up there where the beauty shop was. I said, "Boy, I know she's all going now."
After it was all over, I went up there and unlocked the door--oh boy, all there was was water. I mean water all over the floor, and smoke. And I guess all that medicine in the drUgstore came up there and made a glaze over everything. Where something was lying partially covered, out here that'd be glazed and where it was covered it'd be just the original. And everything was that-a-way. It took about three weeks to get it cleaned out.
Were you ever a judge?
I was probate judge about eleven years. The judge got in pretty bad shape. As soon as he died, I was appointed the next day. And then I ran for office two terms. I was getting too old then to run again. I'd be up in the 80's by the time that term would be over and that's a hard job up there.
Before the judge died, I did all the work. He just paid me out of his own salary. Course I wasn't the judge, but I acted as magistrate judge because you can transfer on a magistrate case, like you take a change of venue. The governor, he'll appoint you magistrate.
I had lots of appointments. If the judge in Marshfield was taking his vacation, I got an appointment for two weeks or ten days or whatever it was. I was the magistrate judge in Webster County for that ten days, but not the probate. You'd get a regular appointment from the governor.
After you were appointed, were you still doing the magistrate too?
Yes. They run right together, you see. You're elected to one, the other one goes right with it, in these size counties. Sometimes you have a separate probate and a separate magistrate, if you have a county population of 30,000. We weren't up to that.
After I retired as probate judge, one of the banks called up and said, "You can examine abstracts now, can't you? We want you to examine all of ours." You see, every time they make a loan on real estate they have to have an attorney's opinion, a title opinion. It wasn't very long till another bank wanted me to examine all theirs. After while, I'd get loaded down so burdensome that I couldn't do it. Sometimes you have to back off. Especially when you're getting older.
I'm still practicing, just not as much. We closed a deal up there the other day, a land sale. And people always call me up, asking me to write them a will.
Did you ever become involved in politics besides running for judge?
Most all lawyers are in politics in a way. Well, everybody to some extent. Oh, some people don't care. Though I think in general they are involved in a way. But now just trying to take that as an occupation--some of them just use politics as a life-time occupation, that's all they do.
You don't think that's good?
No. But I think everybody ought to have some interest in politics. If they're just a pure politician, though, some of them, they don't care what happens, just so they get in on it. They're not interested in the results, but just whatever they can make of it. A lot of them go out there .and buy votes. You get enough bought, you can get the worst guy in the country into office.
How do you feel about some of the things that are happening in the legal field, like lawyers being allowed to advertise?
Well, a lawyer's not supposed to do much advertising. I didn't need to advertise. You get enough advertisement around just by word of mouth. That's the best advertisement you have. I could run a full page in the paper. They don't know whether I'm a good lawyer on that, so they ask, "What do you think about that fellow?"
|FEDERAL COURTS||MISSOURI STATE COURTS|
|U.S. Supreme Court
Appeals from state Supreme Courts
Appeals from Circuit Courts of Appeal
Cases involving ambassadors
|<<<||Missouri Supreme Court
Appeals from Courts of Appeal
Appeals in cases involving construction of state and federal constitutions, state revenue laws, and titles to state offices
Appeals in criminal cases punishable by life Imprisonment or death
|Circuit Court of Appeals
Appeals from District Courts
|Court of Appeals
All appeals from Circuit Court except those in which state Supreme Court has exclusive Jurisdiction
Cases involving violations of federal statutes
Can hear cases In equity
Appeals from probate, magistrate and municipal courts
Juvenile and domestic matters (divorces, adoptions, etc.)
Can hear cases In equity
Administers estates of deceased Individuals
Guardianships of minors and Incompetents
Preliminary hearings in felony cases
Civil suits up to $2000.00
|Municipal (Police) Court
Violations of city ordinances
This chart shows the various federal and Missouri state courts. The only overlapping occurs when a case is appealed from the state Supreme Court to the
U. S. Supreme Court. Due to a recent court reform on the state level, magistrate and probate courts are now combined with circuit
How about specialization in law?
I think most all lawyers more or less specialize in something. I believe they do. Course in a general practice like I had you take all kinds of cases but more or less you'll lean one way, you know. I dealt more in real property than anything else.
What do you think about working as a corporation lawyer?
I remember a lot of our graduates went down in Oklahoma and got in the oil corporations. They have lots of litigation in those oil fields, so they have to have some lawyers in that. And a lot of the time they'd go down and some of them would stay with it for years and years.
Would you have been happy doing that?
What about all the liability cases today? People are afraid to get involved in anything for fear of being sued.
Well, that's always been in existence. They just figure they'll file it and see what they can get. If they can't get anything, all right. Just take the chance and see if they can get it done.
Since you were a probate judge, how do you feel about the bill that combined probate and magistrate courts with the circuit courts?
That's a good thing. I'm in favor of it. Because the law did say a probate judge couldn't handle a case in equity. All the law's divided into law and equity. Law's just your regular case, and then equity, that's according to conscience. Really. If it's equity, You don't follow any rule of law. It's just whatever's the right thing to do.
Like you and I have a contract. I'm going to sell you my house, but I back out. Under law you can sue for damages for breach of contract. But you say, "I don't want money for damages, I want the house." That's equity. If the judge rules your way, he'll just transfer the title to you.
Now a circuit judge, he can act in equity. In St. Louis they used to have probably seven or eight circuit judges. They had one called the equity court. If you had a case in equity, it was always transferred to this one court. There was enough for him to handle that only. Now a probate judge couldn't. But when you get right down to it, you can't hardly distinguish on some whether it's a law case or equity. They'd say the probate judge couldn't rule on it--he didn't have jurisdiction--he couldn't try any case in equity. It had to go to the circuit judge. Well, a lot of probate judges were more intelligent than some of the circuit judges. So you were liable to transfer it from a good judge to one that didn't know so much about it, just because he's a probate judge and you said he couldn't handle a case in equity. Now they're all circuit judges. You can't bring up that point any more.
You have the same rules, the law didn't change any. You just changed the judgeships. The statutory law's the same, the probate law's the same as it was. Except now you can't bring up some idea like that. Like construction of a will--''That's really a case in equity on the construction of that will." And the probate judge didn't have jurisdiction. That was a poor rule of law.
If they go to no-fault insurance, will it cut out a lot of court work?
I still believe that there'd be some litigation over the thing, even with the no-fault insurance. I believe they'd bring up some kind of a legal proposition on it anyway. Just like they do on contracts. You can write out a contract, but is everyone going to perform just like the contract said? You're writing a contract today, and a full five months hence you've still got the contract but you don't remember all the particulars. That's the reason we have laws, see? If we didn't have any law, we wouldn't have anything but confusion. And we have enough confusion with the law and all of it together anyway.
(from page 9)COMPARING LAW OFFICES OF THE 70'S AND 20'S Equipment of the 70's--
2 IBM Mag-Card typewriters
2 IBM Correcting Selectric typewriters
1 Xerox photocopier
3 Dictaphone recorders
5 Dictaphone transcribers
1 portable Dictaphone
1 adding machine
1 postage meter
|1. reception room
5. deposition room
6. conference room
7. closed files
1'16" = 1'
These diagrams show the differences in law offices in Laclede County. Above is the floor plan of Jim's father's law firm, while below, is the plan of Spencer Legan's first law office in Conway in the 1920's. As you can see, the one-man practice has given way to firms employing several attorneys and secretaries. The equipment at each lawyer's disposal has also grown and been modernized. The first photo above shows only a part of an extensive modern-day law library, while the second photo compares Vols. 1 and 2 of the FEDERAL REPORTER (published in 1880) to Vol. 526 of the FEDERAL REPORTER, Second Series (published 1976).
Equipment of the 20's--
1 adding machine
1 secretary (part-time)
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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