For 67 years, Milton Hirsch has practiced law in Columbus.
By the end of the year, he will be fully retired at the age of 90. A lifelong Columbus resident, Hirsch still calls downtown’s main drag Broad Street, not Broadway. He remembers a time when he knew every lawyer in Columbus.
He has seen Columbus change, and change again.
Recently, he sat down with Ledger-Enquirer senior reporter Chuck Williams and chief photographer Mike Haskey to talk about his hometown, those changes and the legal profession.
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Here are excerpts of that interview edited for length and clarity.
Q: When you started practicing law in Columbus in 1949 what was the legal profession like here?
A: We had a wonderful bar. We had a very friendly, cordial bar. We had a cooperative bar. It was just a whole different atmosphere than what you have today.
Q: In what way?
A: Well, it’s no longer that cooperative. It’s no longer that friendly. You don’t know everybody anymore. I don’t know half the lawyers anymore.
Q: Did you know every lawyer in town?
A: Every one of them.
Q: How did you start practicing?
A: Well, there was nobody in my family who had been in law. There was a small office, one room, about the size of this area that I’m sitting in, in the First National Bank Building, the old iron bank (now Iron Bank Coffee at the corner of 11th Street and Broadway), on the second floor right at the head of the steps. When I opened my office, I rented that one room, and that’s where I was for about four or five years.
Q: Did you take all sorts of cases?
A: I did what I got. Whatever somebody came along and wanted me to do and I could do it, I did it. It wasn’t much. When you got out of law school back in those days you were not prepared like you are today.
Q: In what way?
A: In the quality of the education, in the preparation to go in and practice and actually compete in the law. The University of Georgia Law School back in those days was you go to class three hours in the morning, three days a week, and the rest of the time you didn’t have anything to do. It was just a lark. It wasn’t anything to it. As a result, the quality of the education was not there. Later it changed — it changed an awful lot, as you probably know. The University of Georgia Law School now is one of the top law schools in the country, I believe.
Q: What made you go into law?
A: Well, to be quite honest with you, I had three years under the GI Bill. Law school was three years. I was going to take advantage of all three years. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to be a merchant like my father was.
Q: What did your father do?
A: He had a dress shop downtown.
Q: What was the name of it?
A: The Ladies Shop.
Q: Where was it?
A: It was on the 1200 block — 1218 Broadway I think.
Q: Oh, wow. That block is changing right now.
A: It is changing tremendously. I’ve seen so many changes on Broad Street that I think it’s unimaginable and it’s wonderful. I come home and I tell my wife I can’t believe I’m in Columbus. It is the most amazing thing that I have ever seen. All of a sudden we’re in a college town, and we’re just an amazing downtown. When I was downtown, that was the only shopping area in Columbus. There was Broad Street and it was only two and a half blocks long. Then we had First Avenue. Of course, everything was segregated. It was just terrible. Then it went worse and got so bad. Especially on the First Avenue side. Now everything has just totally changed. It’s amazing. Absolutely amazing.
Q: Why didn’t you want to be a merchant like your dad?
A: I had all I wanted to be a merchant. I grew up in the business.
Q: Did you work in the dress shop?
A: Oh, yeah. I worked in my dad’s store. I had two uncles back in those days by the name of Gerson. They had two stores on the 1000 block. I worked in those stores too.
Q: What were they?
A: Department stores like general merchandise.
Q: OK. You grew up in the retail business. Back in that day there was a pretty large Jewish population in Columbus, right?
A: No, it wasn’t very large. ... We had a synagogue on the corner of 7th Street and First Avenue. We had maybe 60 members. Then there was the temple on the corner of Fourth Avenue and 10th Street. They probably had an equal number of members. That’s about all you had. Maybe 150 to 200 families.
Q: What do you remember about the Columbus you grew up in?
A: Well, my recollection of Columbus was that it was not a very cohesive town. We had society, which was people who had money, and then you had the next crowd, which was people who did not have money. You had Bibb City, where people had nothing — they were just living off what people could get. That was during the Depression because that was in the ’30s. I can remember how the black folks were treated and it was pretty bad. I can remember most all of that.
Q: What do you remember about the Depression?
A: My folks were lucky. They had a business even back in the ’30s. That’s when my father started his dress shop — late ’20s, early ’30s. Of course, that was right when the Depression came. We managed to have a pretty decent lifestyle the whole time. I was born on 1030 Third Avenue. That’s where I grew up. Eleventh Street School was right around the corner. I had all the conveniences. We never really wanted for anything. We were just very fortunate, I think.
Q: Why did you come back to Columbus after you graduated law school?
A: I really had nowhere else to go. My folks were here. They were out of the business but they were here. They were prepared to help me to get started. That was the only start I had. It was either that or try to get a job in Atlanta and I really didn’t want to go to Atlanta.
Q: When did you become primarily a divorce lawyer? When did your practice shift?
A: Well, when I first started I had a few collection cases and that’s what I did for several years. I was doing some other work but not a whole lot. Funeral, real estate, stuff like that. Then I got married and had a child and I was doing fairly well. I had joined up with Aaron Cohn. He and I were partners back in about 1960 or ’62. If you remember, there was a fire and the First National Bank Building burned up. Aaron had to move. I had already moved to a building over on Second Avenue. I was doing some title work for a company he had called The Southland Mortgage Company.
I decided it was time to go to work and make a living because I had a family to support. One of my good friends, Stanley Hirsch, was a CPA here in town. He worked in Joe Ray’s work. I asked him to get me a meeting with Joe to see if Joe would give me a job.
Q: Joe Ray?
A: Joe Ray. Joe was probably the dominant trial lawyer in Columbus in those days. The best criminal lawyer we had. He did most of the divorces, and he was just a real busy guy. ... I interviewed with him and he said, “OK, I’ll give you a trial.” He put me to work, and the first thing he did was hand me a file and say, “Go to court. You’ve got to represent this client today.” No preparation, no nothing. I went and he taught me how to be a divorce lawyer.
Q: How many divorce cases have you handled over the last 60 years?
A: Must be thousands. I don’t know. I never kept count.
Q: It’s got to be difficult work because you’re dealing with people when they’re at their lowest, at their most vulnerable.
A: Well, it is difficult work. Back then there was an opening for a divorce lawyer. Joe was really the only one who acknowledged and recognized it. His specialty was divorce work. We would have court every other month — every two, three months. He would come to court with a stack of divorces to take because that was when you took uncontested divorces. He just did it, most all of it.
Then when I took over, he was already not well, he was sick then, but I took over and I started doing the work and I found out that it was wide open because nobody else thought of it as being a profession. Divorce law — you know, he’s a divorce lawyer — that wasn’t a very nice thing to say. It made me a good living. That’s what I did.
Q: How does being a divorce lawyer over all those years impact you in your personal life and your own marriage?
A: Back then, I think I need to tell you, we tried divorce cases with a jury. We’d have 12 jurors. Every time you had a trial in a divorce case, you had a jury trial. Things got so that at one time we would have one week of court for divorce court. It was one time when I had every case on the docket for that whole week. I tried Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday ... I tried a case every day.
You’ll find out what the real cause of divorces is. Back then, you had to explain all that to a jury. You couldn’t write it off with just a bunch of numbers. It was gut stuff. I soon learned that the cause of divorces was one simple thing: selfishness. If people are selfish marriage ain’t going to work. If people are unselfish, marriage will work.
Q: Over 60 years you can boil it down to one word?
A: I think it’s a safe thing. If people are not selfish, they won’t get divorces. When you’ve got one party that thinks of himself before anybody else, whether he’s running around or whether he’s drinking or whether he’s gambling, whatever he’s doing or she’s doing, then that destroys a marriage. When I used to try cases in front of a jury, that was the one word that I looked for because if you can pinpoint who was the selfish partner then you know who was at fault and then you can pretty well try your case and let a jury know what was really going on.
That’s changed now. It’s just all different. It’s all numbers now. It’s all hours. It’s all writing it down. When we got somebody a divorce back in the ’60s or ’70s, it was $100. Now divorces eat people alive because there’s what we call discovery, there’s all kind of technical things that go on. It’s all changed. It’s no fun anymore.
Q: When did you and John Partin become partners?
A: Oh, it’s been over 40 years. About 1970, ’71.
Q: Y’all not only became partners, you became best friends, right?
A: Very good friends. Right.
Q: How are y’all different and how are you and John alike?
A: Well, of course, John is very active in his church, and I was usually pretty active in my synagogue or temple. We sort of had separate lives. We really didn’t interlock our lives that much. He had his social life, he had his family, and I had mine. We never really got that close together. I feel like we have a friendship that has been pretty strong over the years — especially lately, as we’re closing out. I’ve been sick, he’s taken over ... and he’s taken care of everything. He’s been really wonderful.
Q: How close were you to Judge Cohn?
A: Judge Cohn and I were partners at one time. When I first came to practice law, quite frankly, I didn’t know where the courthouse was. I certainly didn’t know what the clerk’s office was or who was the clerk or who was the judge. He took me by the hand and he hand-delivered me to a gentleman named Clark Layfield, who was the clerk of the municipal court. He was a tobacco-chewer, he would spit. He ran his little courtroom and that was the municipal court.
Aaron took me down there and showed me how to file a case, how to get Mr. Clark — that’s what we called him — to help you. He said, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” Sure enough, that’s the way I started. I didn’t know anything. I asked the clerk what to do, I asked this one what to do. The marshal’s office was there. They all just were wonderful. They just took me in like I was one of the kids. Of course, I grew up here. They knew who I was. Still, in all, it was just great. He mentored me until we split up. I went with Joe Ray back sometime in the ’60s.
Q: What advice would you give somebody who is about to start practice, as you’re leaving your practice?
A: Well, I’d like to give them advice before they start practice. I like to give them advice when they decide to go to law school. There ain’t no halfway to being a lawyer anymore. That’s the best advice I can give you. Excuse my French: there just ain’t no halfway. You either got to be good at it or you just better not even start at it. The competition out there is very, very tough. Women are just coming in and taking over, really. It’s 50/50 pretty much.
If you’re going to be a lawyer today and you’re going to go to law school, you’d better work as hard as you know how and learn as much as you can before you get out of law school because there’s not much learning on the job anymore.
Q: You had some health issues over the last six months, right?
A: Right. Just the last four months, really.
Q: How are you doing now?
A: I wound up with a staph infection in my clavicle. They discovered it at St. Francis when I went in the emergency room and stayed there for a while. Then for about a month I didn’t know where I was. I was just out of it. I have two rotator cuffs in both my shoulders and I had the staph infection. I was just sick as a dog. They were putting me on some very strong antibiotics and trying to bring me around. Well, I went to Atlanta, to the Emory Surgical Center ... They sent me back here and I was in the hospital for another three months just about. Finally, they got it under control.
Q: How do you feel now?
A: Feel good. I’m coming back. I’m doing some rehab here at home. I’ve got home healthcare now covering me here. They say that I’m just about ready to be allowed to be by myself.
Q: Elsa’s been taking care of you?
A: She’s been marvelous. She’s been right there for me from Day 1. Times where I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing, she did and she just kept me going. She really did. I was ready to give up, I know, at least once or twice.
Q: Let’s talk a little politics. You were you in the General Assembly, right?
A: I was there one term, about ’82, ’83.
Q: You were in the House?
Q: What is it about lawyers and politics?
A: Well, I think every lawyer wants to see how the laws are put together, just how they’re made. I was curious. I really didn’t know. I had served on the city council in 1972 to 1978.
Q: You were on the first consolidated council?
A: Not the first. There was a gentleman named Jesse Binns. I think we had a great big snow in 1972 or ’73. Mr. Binns went out to shovel the snow off the driveway and had a heart attack and passed away. I ran for his unexpired term, got elected, and then ran again when that term expired. That’s how I served a term and roughly two-thirds. That was a great experience. I wouldn’t take anything for having done it. If I had to tell anybody that could have the opportunity, do it. It’s just great.
I learned a lot about Columbus and the city and how the laws were made and about how politics operate. Then I ran for the House and I got elected for one term. Then I lost when I ran for reelection.
Q: Did you like council or the state general assembly better?
A: Oh, the General Assembly is much more fascinating. When you get up there, you really get a taste of how they put things together. You realize how very insignificant the individual is and how the committees — and whoever is in control — was in control. That’s all there is to it. The budget, which is always a major item, you hardly ever even see the budget because they give you something. When the committee gets through with it, you either vote on it or you don’t. They say that when you watch laws being made you know how sausage is being made. That’s an old expression. It’s not really great, but it’s certainly interesting and fascinating to watch people operate.
Q: What do you think the highlight of your legal career is? If you had to put it into one thing.
A: It’s hard to say because I tell people you remember the cases you lost more than you remember the cases you won. To talk about a highlight, I’d have to talk about cases I didn’t have too good a success with. I’d rather not talk about those. I suspect it’s working in custody fights that really involved children whose welfare was really at stake, is probably the most significant thing that I recall.
Q: Are kids the collateral damage of divorce?
A: Well, I would say the answer to that question, of course, is yes. They do suffer, there’s no question about it. It’s bad. Then again — you get back to what I said earlier — when one of the parties is selfish and only thinks of themselves, they don’t even think about their children. They’re not too worried about how they’re going to come out. They just figure the children are going to survive, they’re going to make it. The parents are the ones that have got to find their own happiness or whatever it is they’re looking for. It’s more important than keeping the family together. It’s gotten pretty bad.
Q: Do you have any advice for a young couple preparing to get married?
A: Well, my wife’s aunt in Jacksonville gave us some advice and I think it sticks: you just break your neck to be good to the other spouse and think about that spouse and not yourself, and you won’t have any problems. If you put the other person first then that person is going to be the key and everything else will fit. If you don’t, if you put yourself first, it’s not going to work.
Q: Did all the divorces you handled make you thankful for what you had at home?
A: Oh, yeah. Of course it did. I knew that I could trust my wife. I knew that we loved each other and that we had a great marriage. We didn’t have any secrets from each other as far as I know. I’m sure it made a difference.
Q: What are you going to do in retirement?
A: Well, we don’t really have any until we see how I’m going to make out. I hope that we’re able to maybe get around a little bit. I’m not much for traveling anymore. We have a duplicate bridge club here in Columbus. I play two or three days a week. I’ve really enjoyed it. I played too much golf when I was younger and tennis and wasted a lot of years on both places. Now, I can’t do any of that, so I play bridge.
Age: Turned 90 on Nov. 20
Job: Practicing attorney in Columbus since 1949
Education: Columbus High School, 1943; attended Georgia Tech for two and a half years after graduating from high school; University of Georgia School of Law, 1949.
Family: Elsa, wife of 61 years; four children, five grandchildren