Listserv Mentoring

by Tom Noble
YLS Futures Committee

What if you have a legal question and don't know the answer? For most younger attorneys, you probably look in Bar Books. Its general overview will typically point you towards relevant statutes or case law. But what if the answer is still unclear or the issue is a bit too nuanced for Bar Books? If you work with other attorneys, you might seek out the experienced attorney down the hall. But what if the attorney down the hall doesn't know the answer, or if, like many practitioners today, you work alone? Most attorneys have encountered this dead-end at some point in their career.

Fortunately, the bar section listservs and other various organizational listservs exist. Despite the occasional off-color diatribe, they serve as a digital arena where an experienced attorney can provide an answer to a difficult question.

Who are the attorneys responding to the listserv queries? There are two general categories: attorneys who offer helpful personal anecdotes and attorneys who draw from a vast general knowledge base. Consequently, everyone, especially less-experienced attorneys, benefits from access to a forum comprised of the finest legal minds in Oregon. Whatever the area of law, there is likely a cadre of attorneys who serve as collective "listserv mentors."

Currently, I subscribe to the solo and small firm practitioners, the estate planning section, the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, and the Oregon Women Lawyers listservs. Although numerous attorneys respond to law-related queries, there are a dozen or so attorneys who consistently respond and whose responses are widely respected among their colleagues. An individual who embodies the worthiest aspects of this select group on the estate planning section listserv is Warren Deras.

I met with Warren for lunch near his home in Southwest Portland. We discussed his career and the growth of listservs. Warren is a tall, spry man in his 60s. He is a friendly, animated individual with a strong and immediate grasp of the law.

Although Warren is now officially retired, he practiced law in Oregon for over 40 years. He moved out to Oregon after serving in Vietnam and attending Yale Law School. Warren began his career at the firm that is now Miller Nash. After several years, he broke out on his own and began renting space in Portland with two other attorneys. He had a civil practice and was widely regarded as an expert in state election law, serving as legal counsel to the Oregon Republican party. Warren also worked as a Special Assistant Attorney General, representing the Oregon Department of State Lands in escheat estates.

While Warren no longer practices law, he continues to share his wealth of knowledge and experience with younger and older attorneys alike. In the past month, Warren responded to over 50 queries on the estate planning listserv alone. His responses are always thoughtful, detailed, and incredibly helpful. The respect other attorneys have for Warren is obvious in the deference given to his responses when an issue is unclear and is being debated among several attorneys on the listserv.

Over lunch, we discussed the relevance of listservs to young attorneys. Warren enjoys being a resource to less experienced attorneys, acting as the proverbial "attorney down the hall" for young attorneys or solo practitioners without the access to the abundant resources available to attorneys at large firms.

I turned the conversation to the issues attorneys face at the beginning of their careers. I asked Warren if he could relate to the plight of many recent law school graduates and new attorneys faced with a sagging economy and large amounts of student debt. Warren was refreshingly honest; he couldn't relate. In his day, higher education was simply more affordable. That's not to say he didn't work long hours at a job while attending school. He did, yet it was possible to work a part-time job to pay tuition, and graduate with little to no student debt. As we all know, that experience has become less common for today's graduates.

Warren felt newer attorneys faced another disadvantage. In a nutshell, Warren felt that the law had become so increasingly complex that with each passing year, the amount of knowledge required for minimal, if not sufficient, competency in a given area forces new attorneys to specialize. Warren thought the growing complexity made it difficult for a new attorney to do as he had done, work as a sole practitioner, and take anything that walked through the door until you had narrowed down your areas of interest.

I really enjoyed meeting with Warren. The lunch ran long, but went by quickly. His life story is fascinating and could easily fill many more pages than this column allows. I'm still amazed that with all his brilliance and donative sensibilities, Warren is but one of the many experienced attorneys who share their valuable time and experience enriching the various listserv communities. As a seldom poster, but frequent reader, I would like to thank all the attorneys who contribute to the discussion.