by Karen S. Beck. Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2008. 267pp. Cloth. $64.95. ISBN: 9781584779223. Paper. $39.95. ISBN: 9781584779292.

Reviewed by Jill Norgren, Department of Government, John Jay College and the Graduate Center, The City University of New York (Emerita). Email: jnorgren[at] gc.cuny.edu.


Our knowledge of the everyday work, achievements, and problems of nineteenth century lawyers is constantly expanding. Much, however, remains to be learned. Karen Beck, Curator of Rare Books, Boston College Law Library, helps in this enterprise with this valuable contribution to the literature on legal practitioners. The volume combines commentary by Beck with her transcriptions of several hundred letters written by Vermont lawyer John Senter during the first five years of his law career.

John Henry Senter (1848-1916) was a self-made man. In the mid-1870s, while teaching school in his home state of Vermont, he read law in the Montpelier offices of attorney Clarence Pitkin. In 1879, at the age of thirty, Senter was admitted to the bar. By his own account, he was happy to leave the classroom and to establish a solo law practice in Warren, Vermont. It is our good fortune that, in April of 1879, Senter purchased a Japanese Letter Copying Book. For the next five years, using letter press technology, he copied 326 of his letters, preserving them in this copy book. The (one-way) correspondence constitutes a record –“first-hand evidence [of] what one nineteenth century lawyer did on a daily basis”(p.xii). Beck makes no claim that Senter was a typical lawyer of the time, “if indeed a ‘typical’ lawyer ever existed” (p.xii). Rather, she argues that the letters contribute to our understanding of Senter’s early career as well as the lives of many other lawyers working in small New England towns during this period, professional lives sometimes overlooked in our tendency to write about judges. A WORKING LAWYER’S LIFE takes its place alongside other studies of nineteenth century legal practitioners who did not join a court, including the work of Barbara Babcock (2006), Gordon Bakken (1991), Virginia Drachman (1993), Michael Grossberg (1996), Morton Horwitz (1977), Jill Norgren (2007), and, of course, American novelist Winston Churchill (1908).

John Senter’s letter book affirms that the first years of a nineteenth century law practice required an optimistic outlook combined with an instinct for business opportunity. Senter made the transition from the field of education slowly, resigning his teaching position while maintaining an administrative position that gave him significant say over the textbooks adopted for use in his county. In his first year of law practice, 86 of 136 letters pertained to education issues, while only 35 pieces of correspondence dealt with legal matters. Reminding us that lobbying over book selection is [*352] nothing new, in one letter Senter defends his choice of the APPLETON READER against a temperance advocate who has objected to a paragraph describing the mores associated with neighbors sharing a sip of wine (pp.52-3).

By 1882, three years into the practice of law, Senter is finished with school policy matters, fully engaged as an attorney, and increasingly involved in Vermont politics. In his letters he shows himself to have a “fair and forthright nature,” as refusing to recoil from a fight, and as willing “to go to bat for those he deemed of deserving character” (pp.63-4). Later, Senter will be portrayed as a “striking and original personality,” a well-read man with a quick mind (p.85).

How, then, did this smart, community-minded lawyer spend his days? By the evidence of his correspondence in the years 1879 to 1884, he chased down people who did not pay their bills. Seventy-one of 204 “law” letters reveal that Senter had been hired to carry out some form of collection suit or was, himself, trying to collect fees owed for legal services. The letters show his understanding of the need for strategy, as in this caution to a collaborating attorney: “Do no let Williams know that you have the claim untill (sic) you can secure it. He does not mean to pay and would be on his guard if he knew that you had the claim” (p.59). The letters also reflect his maturation as an attorney. In early letters he politely cautions deadbeats and miscreants: “An early settlement will save you costs” (p.109). His words turn sharp, however, with the passage of time: “I said you would pay it and stop his howling” (p.81); “If I do not hear from you soon . . . you will hear from me by the way of a writ” (p.197); “I am desirous of cleaning you out” (p.212); or, “Now my dear sir do not waste more valuable time or stationery writing [more] letters about this, but if you have a good case go ahead and we will endeavor to meet [you.] But look before you leap . . .” (p.253).

Collections were important but procedural matters also figured strongly in Senter’s business. This included filing papers and setting dates for depositions and trials. The correspondence documents his fees: three dollars a day in 1882 to represent a client at trial, increasing to five dollars a day two years later. Ten letters show Senter engaged as an agent, securing and canceling insurance policies, or writing strongly worded notes to insurance agencies on behalf of a policy-holding client. Another fifteen involve issues of real or personal property, while four present the problem of a mentally incompetent individual. Curiously, little of Senter’s work involved wills, trusts and estates – at least, as represented by his correspondence.

Senter’s maturation also reveals itself in letters which, initially, seek legal advice from Clarence Pitkin, with whom he read law: “Friend Pitkin, A. sells B. a house, in the house is a sink the frame of which is fastened to the house. . . . Does the sink pass as part of the realty, and a fixture, or is it a chattel?” (p.65). Later, he poses fewer questions and offers more of his own opinions whose content and style, Beck argues, show his increasing confidence and expertise. He also refers more frequently to his personal law library, eventually one of the best in the area: “Since my return from County Court I have been mousing around my library hunting for law to fit [*353] my views and wishes in divers and sundry cases in which I am anxious to thrash the other party. . . I have found the case of . . . and if that case is not a clinker in the case of which you have heard . . . then I am at sea . . .” (p.67).

Although the area in which Senter lived was strongly Republican, he was a Democrat. After five years in Warren, Senter pulled up stakes and moved his family to Montpelier where he practiced as a partner. Life in Montpelier provided him with the opportunity to act on his civic and political ambitions. He held many municipal offices in Montpelier including justice of the peace and mayor. In 1906 he represented the city in the state legislature. For several decades he held leadership positions in the Vermont Democratic State Committee and, as a delegate, frequently attended the Democratic Party’s national conventions. When Democrats took the White House, Senter was favored with appointment as National Bank Examiner (1885 to 1889) and U.S. Attorney for Vermont (1893-1897).

Senter’s life nicely demonstrates the arc of opportunity available to striving white males in the nineteenth century. In contrast, most men of color who were attorneys, as well as the early women lawyers who won admission to various local bars beginning in 1868-1870 (and the U.S. Supreme Court bar in 1879), could not attain Senter’s level of success. Attorneys Clara Foltz, Marilla Ricker, and Belva Lockwood, among others, struggled to maintain sustaining legal practices. Ricker had independent wealth but Foltz and Lockwood worked hard through their long lives to bring in clients and to maintain a middle class standard of living. Equally critical, in the measurement of a democratic society, women attorneys, and most non-Caucasian male attorneys, were not considered for the kind of elective and appointive positions won by men like Senter. Their training and experience were trumped by race and gender discrimination. A WORKING LAWYER’S LIFE, therefore, augments our knowledge of nineteenth century legal professionalism by showing the road Senter was able to travel, a career path not fully open, until much later, to members of these other groups. The book is a strong addition to the literature and, implicitly, a cautionary tale.

Babcock, Barbara Allen. 2006. “Inventing the Public Defender.” AMERICAN CRIMINAL REVIEW 1267-1315.

Gorden Morris Bakken. 1991. PRACTICING LAW IN FRONTIER CALIFORNIA. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Winston Churchill. 1908. MR. CREW’S CAREER. New York: Macmillan.


Michael Grossberg. 1996. A JUDGMENT FOR SOLOMON. New York: Cambridge University Press. [*354]

Morton J. Horwitz. 1977. THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN LAW, 1780-1860. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. In particular, chapter 5.

Jill Norgren. 2007. BELVA LOCKWOOD: THE WOMAN WHO WOULD BE PRESIDENT. New York: New York University Press.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Jill Norgren.