‘I want to keep going’: 100-year-old lawyer has practiced law for 74 years

NORFOLK, Va. — Some people live for 74 years.

Others practice law for that long — and counting.

Meet Stanley Sacks, a 100-year-old Norfolk attorney who has practiced since 1948. That makes him the longest-serving attorney in the state at any point since the Virginia State Bar began keeping records in 1938.

That’s a lot of cases — a lot of phone calls with clients and a lot of legal briefs — in a century of life. Sacks’ son, also an attorney, estimates his father has represented upward of 25,000 clients in his life.

Sacks doesn’t get around as easily as he once did. He uses a wheelchair, no longer goes to court and hasn’t been to his firm’s office, Sacks & Sacks, since before the pandemic.

But Sacks, the firm’s senior partner, works regularly from home, making phone calls with a robust voice and polished demeanor. He typically works 11 am to 3 pm Monday through Friday. The challenges of the job, he said, help keep his mind young.

“It’s a wonderful profession,” Sacks said.

Most of his work involves personal injury cases — talking to his clients and pushing insurance companies to settle. He said he’s good at that “because of the experience that I’ve had — you know, 70-something years practicing.”

He reads the medical charts, sometimes involving several doctors, “to acquaint myself with all the injuries my client has had,” Sacks said. “The more knowledgeable I am, the more I can discover in those medical records and put that together with what (the client) tells me.”

Sacks then calls the insurance company and knows how to push them to settle. He knows exactly which parts of his client’s case to emphasize, such as that his client will come across well to a jury, and which ones to downplay — all while being a straight shooter.

“That’s the fun of it, too,” he said. “You don’t shortcut it, but you’re trying to win with your skill.”

Sacks has an assigned investigator on his cases. He doesn’t have a home computer but accesses Google on his phone for research. He also has paralegals downtown who can get him whatever files he needs.

“Just making it 100 and being able to breathe is a remarkable milestone,” said his son Andrew Sacks, a law partner with his father. “But here’s somebody who’s actually not only there, he’s productive. He’s sharp, mentally. He’s motivated. He’s still curious. it’s just wonderful.”

A few months ago, an employee of the Virginia State Bar’s membership department recently noticed that Sacks was born in 1922 — and still regularly submitting his annual continuing legal education hours, a crucial part of keeping an attorney licensed.

Dee Norman, editor of Virginia Lawyer, a publication of the Virginia State Bar, said the agency “threw down the gauntlet” in October, saying he may be the nation’s oldest active attorney.

“We put on social media that he’s perhaps the oldest practicing attorney in the United States,” Norman said. “We were waiting to see if Texas or Florida or California would say, ‘We’ve got an active attorney who’s 101.’ But I haven’t heard of it.”

Legal work is in Sacks’ blood.

His late father, Herman Sacks, the son of a Lithuanian Jewish rabbi, began practicing law in downtown Norfolk in 1911, and he began his own firm there a few years later. Like his son, Herman also had longevity, living until 97 and working until the week before he died in 1983.

“He was talking law to us and reading the newspaper in the last hours,” Andrew Sacks said of his grandfather, saying the three generations practiced together for three years.

Stanley Sacks grew up in Norfolk with two sisters, one still living at 96. He served in the US Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II, then graduated from the Washington & Lee law school in 1948. He immediately went to work with his father.

Sacks said there are lots of differences between how law is practiced now versus how it was practiced when he was cutting his teeth as a new lawyer. For one thing, he said, lawyers were not as specialized back then, taking on criminal law, civil law, divorce and lots more.

“A lot of people were solo practitioners,” he said. “And they did a little bit of everything. You had to have the knowledge.”

Moreover, Sacks said, the law was decidedly a white male club. He said out of “a couple hundred” lawyers in Norfolk at the time, there were only a couple of Black law firms in the entire city, with a few lawyers apiece.

Sacks said the city’s law firms were centralized near the downtown courthouses, and offline conversations between lawyers and judges were more frequent. “Things were a bit more informal,” he said.

Without Google and legal research websites, lawyers would actually have to read all those law books lining their shelves. “You can get in five minutes on Google what would take me a day to get out those books before,” Sacks said. “No more than that burning the midnight oil poring through those books.”

Sacks hit a turning point in his career in the early 1950s.

He said though he began as a generalist, he happened to be in New York City on vacation with his wife when they came across a lawyers’ convention focused on an up-and-coming legal field: personal injury law.

Soon, personal injury cases — from car accidents to medical malpractice to slip and fall cases — would become Sacks’ career focus. He bought a lot of books on personal injury law, learning all he could about the field, he said.

But that experience led him to become a voracious reader on a host of topics, including astronomy, travel, history and biographies. At one point, his collection reached upwards of 5,000 books.

“I realized that there’s so much that I didn’t know, and it opened up just a desire to know about other things,” Sacks said. “I wanted to know everything, and reading became a great part of my life.”

He said all that reading has kept him mentally sharp even after a century of life.

Between the reading and legal work, Sacks had time to have a family, too. His wife of 68 years, Carole, died last year, and he has two children — Andrew and Bette Ann — and seven grandchildren.

Sacks was one of nine lawyers who founded the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association in 1960, the only one of the founders who’s still alive. That organization now has several thousand members statewide.

Sacks also served two terms on the House of Delegates in the Virginia General Assembly. He represented Norfolk as a Democrat from 1966 to 1970 and helped lead the revolt against a political machine of powerful conservative Democrats once led by Harry Byrd.

“It opened up a whole new phase in Virginia politics,” Andrew Sacks said.

Aside from the fortunate genes, what else has Stanley Sacks done physically to stay so active at 100 years old?

For one thing, Sacks said he has always gotten a good amount of sleep. He currently sleeps about 10 hours a night, going to bed about 9:30 pm and waking up at 7:30. He said even in his prime years at the law firm, he was typically sleeping at least nine hours a night.

He also credits his daily breakfast of oatmeal as giving him health benefits. “Oatmeal is it,” he said, adding he ate it “with milk and a slab of butter.” But in more recent years, he eats dry cereal and fruit. He said he always skipped lunch and typically avoided fast food.

Sacks used to be an avid smoker, from college through his 40s, saying he was addicted and even had a nightly cigarette before bed. But when Sacks was 50, his brother-in-law went to Boston for a physical, and the doctors told him “his lungs were black,” severely damaged from smoking.

“That was enough for me,” Sacks said. “I threw it away when I heard that, and I haven’t smoked since … It’s a good thing that I did stop. I wouldn’t have made it all this way if I was smoking.”

As far as other vices, Sacks has never been a coffee drinker, but he drank alcohol in moderation for years — a beer at night before dinner or the occasional scotch and water.

He also credits the club sports he played in high school — and all the running he did when he was a younger man — for “helping my circulation” and keeping him spry. He even started skiing at age 53 and did that for years.

Asked if he ever plans to retire, Sacks responded, “Not at all.”

“I want to keep going,” he said. “I don’t know how long, but obviously, I think that’s what enables me to do it at 100 years old. I like it. I enjoy it. You got to have the genes to be able to do it. And I’m lucky with that. But I still have my judgment, and I’m as sharp as I ever was, maybe more.”

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