Harold Walerun hopped out of his cart and stepped onto the grassy field. Nodding at a few of the witnesses who were friends, he waited on William Overton. Harold was nervous. A small farmer, he wasn’t used to such proceedings. But he had been waiting on this moment for years.
Eventually Overton rode up on a huge war horse and slid off his fine leather saddle. He had with him the High Steward. Striding confidently onto the field he stopped and faced Harold. A faint sneer and an arched eyebrow.
Slightly shaking, Harold dropped a bag with his life savings into the shallow hole before him. Overton waved a servant over to grab the bag. His sneer widened into a grin. Leaning over he grabbed the piece of sod next to the hole and plopped it into Harold’s cupped hands. A tear formed in Harold’s eye as Overton and the High Steward swaggered away.
Harold’s witness friends slapped him on the back and pulled out the food and ale. Quite literally, Harold had bought the farm.
The year was around 1300. It was called “livery of seisin.” Today, we call it a “real estate closing.”
They didn’t have HUD-1 forms then, nor did they have conference rooms, title insurance or land registries. But they had ceremony.
Obviously, the practice of law has changed. We no longer wear wigs (at least in the USA) and robes (in fact many of us are ditching our suits). In my 30 years of practice, I have seen many changes as we modernize and use technology.
About once a year a client asks, “Will we have a reading of the will?”
He imagines the deceased’s heirs filing into the lawyer’s office. A dozen chairs face the large oak desk. On either side of the chairs heavy sofas covered with tufted leather line the paneled walls. A terrified fox scurries from the hounds and red-clad horsemen in a nineteenth-century English print hanging over one sofa. And books. Row upon row of leather bound volumes with gilt lettering.
The heirs sneak sly glances at each other. Baxter looks bored. Betty, her face still veiled from the funeral, is quietly sniffling into an embroidered handkerchief. Nervous Junior’s right leg furiously pistons up and down on his right toes.
Finally, the lawyer files in. A look of self-importance as he clears his throat and announces in stentorian tones that he was about to read the dearly departed’s last will and testament. A scream shatters the air!
No, no, no.
I answer my client, “No. Sorry. No reading of the will. If anyone has difficulty understanding it, have them call me.” The “reading of the will” is the stuff of bad movies and old novels.
So what does happen? Have the clerk approve the final account and ask the beneficiaries of the estate if they want to swing by and pick up the check and sign a receipt.
If you want more ceremony, however, I can fix you right up. I did some acting in school and I have a flair for drama. Just let me know.
Books? I have a law library consisting of about a dozen books. Three of them are 32-year-old keepsakes from law school.
When I started practicing law in downtown Atlanta (Reagan was prez), the big law firm (no hunting scenes, but lots of very expensive art) had a two floor library with about five million volumes. I’d spend all day researching the correct way to write a single paragraph in a trust.
Now I grab it online. When I recall that there was a revenue ruling about 10 years ago I don’t need to spend hours trying to find it. I can grab it in 10 minutes. One thing hasn’t changed: I still have to know the revenue ruling existed in order to look for it. Machines won’t replace experience.
The trick is knowing where to look, what to look for, and what to grab. Of course, I pay through the nose for the online law libraries and commentary. But they give me much more time to think about a client’s problem and come up with a creative solution.
Finally, I want my clients relaxed and informed. So I skip the gray suits and silk ties and I avoid stuffy law office furnishings. I do, however, have a rolltop desk. It was Dad’s.
Bob Mason is owner of Mason Law, PC, Asheboro, and a partner in MasonFrankLaw, Charlotte. Both firms are devoted exclusively to solving problems for elders, the disabled and their families. A Board Certified Specialist in Elder Law, he is a two-term past chair of the Elder Law Section of the North Carolina Bar Association and current Chair of the N.C. Board of Legal Specialization. Follow Mason Law, PC on Facebook at facebook.com/masonlawpc or at masonlawpc.com.