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Q&A: Reflections on a changing industry after 50 years in law

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John Hoffman, left, and Richard Lert, of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer.
John Hoffman, left, and Richard Lert, of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer. - (COURTESY WILENTZ, GOLDMAN & SPITZER)

John Hoffman and Richard Lert began their legal careers on the same day — Nov. 4, 1963 — when Robert Wilentz hired them to work at Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer.

Hoffman, who is the father of acting New Jersey Attorney General John Jay Hoffman, focuses his practice on utilities, energy and redevelopment. Lert practices tax and trust and estate law.

This year marks their 50th anniversary at the firm. And while both are 75, neither plans on retiring any time soon.

“We're still kicking and still enjoying it,” Lert said.

NJBIZ asked the two Wilentz partners to reflect on their half-century in the legal profession.

What was it like to be a new lawyer starting out in 1963?

Lert: It was a very big firm. It had 18 lawyers, including us, and we were about the fourth- or fifth-largest firm in the state. It was a very exciting experience.

Hoffman: Now we all specialize, but back then, you did everything. You did a real estate closing, you did research, you went to municipal court. You had great individuals who really mentored you and taught you how to practice law.

I'm sure you had opportunities to leave the firm — did you ever come close?

Hoffman: I did have some opportunities. I was under consideration to be deputy counsel to Governor (Brendan) Byrne. I learned later that Robert Wilentz apparently advised the individual who was going to make me the offer not to make it. After that, I really never seriously thought about leaving.

Lert: I developed an interest in trust and estate work, and the firm told me: 'OK, you want to head up a trust and estate department, you can build it.' When it was time to get a master's degree in taxes, they said, 'Go to NYU; we'll pay for it.' This was a wonderful place to get started and develop as a lawyer.

Looking back over 50 years, what was your single best day?

Hoffman: Back in the 1970s, there was a famous rate case where New Jersey Bell asked for $160 million. We (the rate counsel) recommended zero, and the (Board of Public Utilities) gave them zero. They appealed to the appellate division, and I argued the case. The appellate division affirmed, so it was a landmark case.

Lert: Getting a win in the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1972 on a major case that had to do with the ownership of joint bank accounts. (Before this case), if you created a joint bank account, then on the death of one party, (the account) would belong to the survivor. We tried a case that made new law. Now if you can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the joint account was just created for convenience, then the surviving account holder is not entitled to keep that account, and the money belongs to the person who put the money in. What you are dealing with is cases of abuse, where a relative says, 'Put my name on the account, and I'll take care of your bills.'

How has the profession changed over 50 years?

Hoffman: It's much more of a business now. It was much more of a profession when we first started. People were really concerned with the law and not as concerned with the economics.

Lert: There is much more aggression between lawyers in different firms on behalf of their clients. If they could get along, the clients might be better off. There is a tendency to bang heads. What has been beneficial is automation. Legal research is much quicker and much more effective when you can get all the information online, and that efficiency lowers the total cost of providing the service.

What is your advice to law school students and young lawyers facing an uncertain future?

Lert: You have to find a specialty, and then you have to work at it to develop some background in the area that you choose. And it is competitive. You have to know more and learn more than the competition, and become valuable.

Hoffman: You cannot just become a great lawyer — you have to get out into the community, you've got to get known. Because although people don't want to admit it, originating business is a very important part of practicing law.

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @bethfitzgerald8

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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