Alumni Spotlight: Stanley Sacks ’44, ’48L Virginia’s, and perhaps the nation’s, oldest practicing lawyer.
You’d think that after 75 years as a practicing attorney, Stanley Sacks ’44, ’48L, would be ready to put up his feet and enjoy a well-earned retirement.
You’d be wrong.
Sacks celebrated his 101st birthday in May, and he’s still working with no intention of stopping yet. The work keeps him going — along with his daily bowl of oatmeal plus the longevity genes passed down from his father, Herman, a 1911 W&L Law graduate who lived to be 97.
Sacks doesn’t go to court these days and hasn’t been to the Sacks & Sacks office in downtown Norfolk since the pandemic began. He has been managing his caseload from the kitchen table of his home.
“I have files piled on both sides of the table and a nearby chair with another stack about a foot and a half high,” Sacks said. “It keeps me challenged. I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”
Last year Dee Norman, editor of Virginia Lawyer, the Virginia State Bar Association’s publication, asked other state bar associations if anyone could identify a 100-year-old attorney practicing in their states.
“The only other bar that we heard from was Florida,” Norman said. “But the attorney they identified was younger than Mr. Sacks and had been practicing for a shorter amount of time. Until someone comes forward, Mr. Sacks holds the title!”
Sacks entered W&L as an undergraduate in the fall of 1940 planning to follow his father into the law. As a sophomore, he was living at the ZBT house in December 1941 when news of Pearl Harbor broke. Neither he nor his frat brothers knew where Pearl Harbor was, but they knew their college careers would soon be interrupted.
Sacks enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943. He trained as a radio aerial gunner but failed an eye exam just before deploying to Europe. After two years shuttling between 13 U.S. bases, he was shipped to the Pacific where he served until the war’s end.
Once he was back home, Sacks took advantage of a W&L program that permitted returning students to apply their undergraduate electives to law school and to finish in two years. Because W&L’s semester had started by the time Sacks got out of the service, he worked in his father’s law office for several months before starting classes.
“Seeing an actual law practice underway was a big advantage for me and contributed so much to my success in law school,” he said. “I think students who don’t have that practical experience may not fully understand what it means to be a lawyer. I’ve read memoirs from people who have recalled their first year of law school as a terrible experience, but it wasn’t hard for me because of those months with my father.”
W&L had slightly more than 200 law students in those immediate post-war years, including 66 in Sacks’ class. He appreciated the advantage of the small classes and remembers how three or four students would crowd around a professor’s desk for additional conversation at the end of every period. He also credits the Honor System and the atmosphere of civility for instilling an ethical foundation, which has been central to his career.
“I never thought, even for one minute, of doing anything unethical,” Sacks said. “If I told the other side I had a witness, then I had a witness. I never exaggerated. To do that, to cut a corner, would have taken away the joy. It’d be like cheating at golf — you might get a good result, but I’d never want to win that way.”
After W&L, Sacks immediately joined his father’s practice where they handled every type of case that came their way. Then, in the early 1950s, he began specializing in personal injury law and found it was a natural fit because he enjoyed “the dignified scrapping” of outwitting an opposing attorney.
The number and types of cases Sacks handled over three-quarters of a century are vast and varied. They range from a groundbreaking string of suits against major film distributors to representing heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
The cases against motion picture distributors in the 1970s broke new legal ground. Mom-and-pop movie theaters in the Tidewater area were being denied access to Hollywood blockbusters in favor of big theater chains. Sacks sued the distributors and eventually eliminated the discrimination.
In 1983, a lawyer friend in California recommended the Sacks firm to Ali who was suing the government and the World Boxing Association to recover $50 million in damages he allegedly suffered when he was denied conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. That case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out.
Sacks discovered that politics offered the same “dignified scrapping” he liked about trial law. In 1966, he won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, campaigning to “Get Virginia Out of the Byrd Cage” in opposition to the Harry Byrd machine. After two successful terms, Sacks chose not to run again because his father asked him to return to the firm.
In 1980, Sacks’ son, Andrew, joined the family practice, which meant three generations practiced together for three years until Herman’s death in 1983.
“I can hardly believe how fortunate I’ve been to have my father as a mentor,” Andrew said. “I just followed him around during my first six months. It was like a living law school. He taught me everything.”
That included a refusal to take shortcuts.
“He is by far the most ethical lawyer I’ve ever seen. That is his paramount driving force,” said Andrew. “It’s a difficult profession, especially the criminal defense cases we have. But he’s skilled at being able to push to the limit without going over the line. He’s taught me how to navigate these difficult shoals we come upon.”
Andrew marvels at the fact that his father has been an eyewitness to history on so many levels. For example, he was stationed on le Shima, a small island in the Pacific, when the Japanese surrender delegation, wearing tuxes and top hats, arrived to refuel on their way to meet General Douglas MacArthur in 1945. Then, in 1968 as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, he had a ringside seat to the craziness in Chicago where delegates fought in the convention hall while protesters and police brawled in the streets.
And when it comes to changes in the way the law is practiced, he’s witnessed dramatic changes, too — from carbon paper to copy machines, from messenger services to faxes. But nothing has had a greater impact than the way legal research is conducted. Where Sacks once spent hours combing through the law books that lined his office walls, today he can find the answers he needs from his kitchen table by using his cell phone to search Google and other databases.
“That’s made it so much easier from a practical standpoint,” he said.
What hasn’t changed, and shouldn’t, Sacks said, are the fundamentals he preaches: hard work and solid preparation.
“Preparation is the watchword for me,” Sacks said. “You must work hard. There’s no easy way to do the job, and I wouldn’t want one. I enjoy the job as much now as when I started, and I’ll keep going as long as I can.”
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