Friday, July 17, 2009

103 Year-Old Pittsburgh Lawyer Reflects on Career

[In the course of my research for my upcoming book, I get to interview some pretty interesting folks. Some notes from my interview of Reuben Fingold, a 103-year old retired lawyer living with his wife in Pittsburgh, were published in the July 17 edition of the "Lawyers Journal," a publication of the Allegheny County Bar Association.]

Reuben Fingold, a 103 year-old Shadyside resident who was admitted to the Allegheny County Bar in 1930 and joined the Allegheny County Bar Association in 1933, was honored by the Board of Governors of the ACBA on June 2 for achieving the status of the oldest member of our Bar, and for “his Seventy Six years of service to the Allegheny County Bar Association and the legal community.”

At his side for the occasion was Mr. Fingold’s wife Helen, who is only a few years his junior. “[The inscription on the plaque] is really lovely,” she says, beaming with pride. 

Mr. Fingold’s recollections from his youth and his early years as a practitioner in Pittsburgh are like a time capsule from a bygone era. When he began his law practice, Herbert Hoover was in the White House. Fingold was 22 years old before movies had sound, and his family’s first radio was one that he put together himself from spare parts that he bought at a plumber’s shop in East Liberty. 

His parents lived in McKeesport when they were first married, where his father made men’s suits, drawing patterns for them on large rolls of green paper. “My mother used to tell us how she’d put the two [oldest] babies in a carriage, wheel them down to the wharf in McKeesport, and push the carriage onto a boat” that would take them along the Monongahela River to Pittsburgh, where they would visit his mother’s sister. Eventually, the Fingolds moved to the Hill District, where Reuben Fingold spent his earliest years, and then to Shadyside. 

“One of the things I remember,” Mr. Fingold says, “was when the newspaper came in and it said ‘TITANIC SUNK!’” The year was 1912. “My mother sat down and cried. I was pretty young then, and I didn’t know what the Titanic was, but my mother had come over from Europe” aboard an ocean ship, Fingold explains, and she instantly knew what the passengers on the Titanic must have experienced.

Mr. Fingold’s older brother, A.S. “Abe” Fingold, entered the Bar in 1926; but even before then, Mr. Fingold was fairly certain that he, too, would become an attorney, since he always had a penchant for “asking people all kind of questions.” After undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Mr. Fingold enrolled in the Law School at Duquesne. In his first year, he had to take oral final exams, facing the entire Duquesne faculty – which consisted entirely of full-time practicing lawyers at the time – and fielding questions on each of the courses he had studied that year. His would be the last class of Duquesne law students to have to endure the oral exam gauntlet.

On the day Mr. Fingold found out he had passed the Bar, he and his brother Abe happened upon an Allegheny County judge while walking downtown. Abe Fingold greeted the judge and introduced him to his brother, announcing that Reuben had just passed the Bar. Mr. Fingold showed the judge his notification letter, whereupon the judge instructed Mr. Fingold to raise his right hand. “He swore me into the Bar, right then and there on the sidewalk,” Mr. Fingold explains, although he later formalized the event by signing the County registry.

Mr. Fingold set himself up as a sole practitioner in the Jones Law Building, sharing offices with his brother Abe and several more senior lawyers, including W.C. McClure and the John Metzes, father and son. The year 1930, amid the turmoil the Great Depression, was a difficult time to establish a new practice, but Mr. Fingold managed to earn a small living by doing title searches for other lawyers for $10 a search – sometimes accepting even less. “The [deed] books weighed almost as much as me,” he remembers. 

At the age of 36, Mr. Fingold left his Pittsburgh practice behind briefly and volunteered for World War II duty, attaining the rank of Major in the U.S. Army Air Corps and serving in the Judge Advocate General Department. He also designed a few inventions during this period, including some patented improvements to mason jar lids and electrical switches, and a bag holder for blood and plasma that he proposed to Army doctors during the War. 

Before his retirement from the law in the late 1970s, Mr. Fingold had built a comfortable general practice that included a few clients who paid him an annual retainer. Sometimes his job as a lawyer, however, would be merely to convince the right official to pay attention to a problem. One of his clients complained about garbage being thrown down a hillside owned by the client’s aunt; while it was fresh on his mind, Mr. Fingold happened to spot Mayor David L. Lawrence waiting for a streetcar, and he explained the situation to him. The Mayor made a note of the lawyer’s concerns, and the next morning, city maintenance men came and cleaned up the hillside. “Anybody could see David Lawrence,” Fingold remembers. “And he cleaned the city up.”

Reuben Fingold’s experiences recall a time when Pittsburgh was smaller, when streetcars could take you anywhere, and it only cost 15 cents a day if you wanted to park a car downtown. His unheralded career is another illustration of some of the simple virtues that were important to Pittsburgh’s lawyers during the first half of the 20th century, when both life and practice were filled with face-to-face, hands-on experiences – the arts of greeting, conversation, casual persuasion and straight-forward problem-solving, in broad daylight.

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