At 90, this lawyer is too busy to retire Oldest in state: Nathan Patz is believed to be Maryland's oldest practicing lawyer. But he does have some competition for the title.

November 17, 1995|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

In 1936, Nathan Patz split with a partner and opened a law office in a high-rise building at 10 Light St.

Sixty years later, he's still there.

Mr. Patz has no plans to leave his wood-paneled office, as much legal museum as place of business. He's too busy.

Over the decades, he has been counselor to the city's business elite and a developer of major real estate projects.

He has been a major donor to the University of Maryland School of Law, his alma mater, and an adviser to college presidents.

Mr. Patz was president of the city bar association at a time when he could have been retired on Social Security.

What sets Mr. Patz apart these days is his age: At 90, he is believed to be the state's oldest practicing lawyer. The title is informal, but based on membership rolls of the Maryland State Bar Association and interviews with local lawyers.

Sitting at a big wooden desk, his walking cane lying across it, Mr. Patz scoffs at retirement.

"Maybe I'll contemplate that when I'm 99," Mr. Patz said recently.

"I relish my law practice. I enjoy it. That's the best way to put it. So long as I'm able to go on, I think I ought to."

Mr. Patz has competition for the title of Maryland's oldest attorney. Philip H. Sachs, also 90, goes to his Charles Street law office three days a week.

Mr. Sachs, who handled trusts and estates, hasn't actively practiced for several years. He refers work to others in his law firm, Hooper, Kiefer & Cornell.

That said, Mr. Sachs does not consider himself retired. He is a co-trustee on three or four estates, he said. Those matters require his attention and, occasionally, his signature. In the office, most of his day is spent chatting with other lawyers and reminiscing about a career of public service.

In the 1960s, his friend, Gov. J. Millard Tawes, appointed Mr. Sachs chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Mr. Sachs also was chairman of Baltimore's Zoning Appeals Board.

"I'd be bored to tears just staying home, reading and looking at the walls," he said. "I don't know how this sounds, but I like to work."

Mr. Patz isn't ready for retirement, either.

"I'll always have something to do. It's part of my makeup," he said.

Mr. Patz has a full head of thinning, white hair, and speaks in even, measured tones. His posture is the envy of every chiropractor.

Mr. Patz carries on work by telephone almost every day, he said. When a client needs to see him, his wife of 63 years, Doris, chauffeurs him downtown.

Arthritic knees, souvenirs of an auto accident in the 1930s, are Mr. Patz's most aggravating infirmity. He suffered two broken knee caps in the accident and spent several weeks in a hospital bed.

Lately, Mr. Patz has begun using a cane. But he shuns it as he travels around the office, and questions about his health are politely dismissed.

"I feel fine and robust," he said cheerfully.

Since starting his practice in 1926, Mr. Patz has been a lawyer to generations within families. He drafted their wills and handled their estates. He advised them on business matters, ministering as companies passed from fathers and mothers to sons and daughters.

As birthdays have marched on, some clients have drifted away. Now, with his associate, Alan Abramowitz, Mr. Patz holds onto "a small, tight group" of clients, according to Jay Katz, a client of more than 40 years.

They stay, in part, because Mr. Patz gives sage advice and can keep a secret.

"He has an ability to see into the future, and to make predictions. He always had a pretty good read on people," said Mr. Katz, for whom Mr. Patz has handled personal and business matters.

Whatever Mr. Patz and clients discuss, conversations do not leave his office. Either do the names of those he counsels.

For years, Mr. Patz's own children did not know for whom their father worked.

"We were always raised, 'Don't ask anything about clients,' " said Tucky Ramsey, one of Mr. Patz's three daughters.

"It reached a point where friends would say, 'I saw your father today in his office.' My father wouldn't like it. He'd say, 'They shouldn't have mentioned that.' "

"I like to think my clients regard me as a father confessor," Mr. Patz said. "I treat what they tell me in the strictest of confidence. I reveal it only with their permission."

When necessary, he also can be a dogged advocate. Lawyers who have handled matters with Mr. Patz describe him as tough and unyielding. At his age, he still throws a scare into adversaries.

Mr. Patz's brother-in-law, Willard Hackerman, recalled hiring him to sit with him during a tense negotiation. Just having the stony countenance of Mr. Patz at the table changed the tenor, Mr. Hackerman recalled.

"I think his presence scared the other people into a reasonable settlement," Mr. Hackerman said.

At the time, Mr. Patz was 80.

"I don't think I am cruel. I like to think I am pretty firm," Mr. Patz said.

Mr. Patz can be equally firm when dealing with his own clients. They are expected to accept his advice. If they don't, "they have another lawyer," Mr. Patz said.

"If they are not prepared to take my advice, then they don't require my services. It's more than simply self-pride. I don't want to be paid for something that is of no consequence or value to my client."

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