Some people live 74 years.
Others practice as a lawyer for so long – and the trend is rising.
Meet Stanley Sacks, a 100-year-old Norfolk attorney who has practiced since 1948. This makes him the longest-serving attorney in the state since the Virginia State Bar began keeping records in 1938.
That’s a lot of cases – a lot of customer calls and a lot of legal briefs – in a century of life. Sacks’ son, also a lawyer, estimates that his father has represented more than 25,000 clients in his lifetime.
Sacks don’t get around as easily as they used to. He is in a wheelchair, no longer goes to court and has not been in the office of his law firm Sacks & Sacks since the pandemic.
But Sacks, the firm’s senior partner, regularly works from home and makes phone calls with a strong voice and a well-groomed demeanor. He usually works from Monday to Friday from 11am to 3pm. The challenges of the job, he said, help keep his spirit young.
“It’s a wonderful job,” Sacks said.
Most of his work involves personal injury cases – speaking to his clients and pushing insurance companies to come to terms. He said he’s good at it “because of the experience I’ve had — you know, 70 years of practice.”
He reads medical records, sometimes involving multiple doctors, “to familiarize myself with all of my client’s injuries,” Sacks said. “The more knowledgeable I am, the more I can discover in those medical records and combine that with what (the client) is telling me.”
Sacks then calls the insurance companies and knows how to urge them to settle. He knows exactly which parts of his client’s case to emphasize, such as that his client will do well with a jury, and which to downplay – all while being an honest shooter.
“That’s the fun part, too,” he said. “You’re not cutting it short, but you’re trying to win with your skill.”
Sacks has an assigned investigator on his cases. He doesn’t have a computer at home but accesses Google on his phone for research. He also has paralegals downtown who can get him any files he needs.
“It’s quite a remarkable milestone to make it to 100 and be able to breathe,” said his son, Andrew Sacks, a partner in law with his father. “But here’s someone who’s actually not just there, he’s productive. He’s sharp. He’s motivated. He’s still curious. It’s just wonderful.”
A few months ago, an employee of the Virginia Bar Association’s membership division noted that Sacks was born in 1922 — and still regularly submits his annual continuing education hours, a crucial part of an attorney’s license.
Dee Norman, editor of Virginia Lawyer, a Virginia State Bar publication, said the agency “threw down the gauntlet” in October and said he may be the oldest serving attorney in the country.
“We’ve circulated on social media that he may be the oldest practicing attorney in the United States,” Norman said. “We waited to see if Texas, Florida, or California would say, ‘We have an active attorney who’s 101.’ But I haven’t heard of that yet.”
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 established his own practice there a few years later. Like his son, Herman also had a long life, living to 97 and working until a week before his death in 1983.
“He’s been talking law with us and reading the paper for the last few 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 of whom was alive at 96. He served in the US Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II and graduated from Washington & Lee Law School in 1948. He immediately went to work with his father.
Sacks said there are many differences between legal practice today and the practice when he was breaking his teeth as a new attorney. On the one hand, lawyers were not so specialized back then that they would have taken over Criminal Law, Civil Law, Divorces and much more.
“Many people were solitary practitioners,” he said. “And they did a little bit of everything. You had to have the knowledge.”
Also, Sacks said, the law is a decidedly white boys’ club. He said out of “a few hundred” lawyers in Norfolk at the time, there were only a few black law firms in the city with a few lawyers each.
Sacks said the city’s law offices are centralized near downtown courthouses and offline calls between attorneys and judges are more common. “Things were a bit more informal,” he said.
Indeed, without Google and legal research websites, lawyers would have to read all the law books that fill their shelves. “You can get in five minutes on Google what used to take me a day to get these books out,” Sacks said. “No more the burning of the midnight oil brooding through these books.”
Sacks reached a turning point in his career in the early 1950s.
He said that although he started out as a generalist, he happened to be on vacation in New York City with his wife when they stumbled upon a lawyers’ conference focused on an emerging area of law: personal injury law.
Personal injury cases – from car accidents to medical malpractice to slip and fall cases – would soon become a career focus for Sack. He bought many books on personal injury law and learned as much as he could about the field, he said.
But this experience led him to become a voracious reader of a wide variety of subjects, including astronomy, travel, history, and biographies. At one point his collection reached more than 5,000 books.
“I realized there was so much I didn’t know, and it just made me want to know about other things,” Sacks said. “I wanted to know everything and reading became a big part of my life.”
He said all that reading kept him mentally sharp even after a century of life.
Between reading and legal work, Sacks also had time to raise a family. His 68-year-old wife Carole died last year and he has two children – Andrew and Bette Ann – and seven grandchildren.
Sacks was one of nine attorneys who founded the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association in 1960, the only one of the founders who is still alive. This organization now has several thousand members nationwide.
Sacks also served two terms in 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,” said Andrew Sacks.
Lucky genes aside, what else has Stanley Sacks done physically to stay active at 100 years old?
For one, Sacks said he’s always slept well. He currently sleeps about 10 hours a night, going to bed around 9:30 p.m. and waking up at 7:30 a.m. He said even in his prime at the law firm, he typically slept at least nine hours a night.
He also credits his daily breakfast of oatmeal for bringing him health benefits. “It’s oatmeal,” he said, adding that he ate it “with milk and a stick of butter.” But in recent years he eats dry cereal and fruit. He said he always skipped lunch and usually avoided fast food.
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Sacks was an avid smoker from college into his 40s, and said he was addicted, even having a late-night cigarette before bed. But when Sacks was 50, his brother-in-law went to Boston for a check-up, and doctors told him “his lungs were black, badly damaged from smoking.”
“That was enough for me,” Sacks said. “I threw it away when I heard that and haven’t smoked since… It’s good that I quit. If I had smoked, I would not have made it this far.”
As for other vices, Sacks was never a coffee drinker, but for years he did drink in moderation — 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 — to “help my circulation” and keep him fit. He even started skiing at the age of 53 and did so for years.
When asked if he ever plans to retire, Sacks replied, “Not at all.”
“I want to keep going,” he said. “I don’t know how long, but obviously I think that allows me to do it at 100 years old. I like that. I enjoy it. You have to have the genes to be able to do that. And I’m lucky with that. But I still have my judgment and I’m as perceptive as ever, maybe more.”
Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, [email protected]