Musings on the Law

Musings on the Law

BillKeefeThere’s an empty storefront on Wilton’s Main Street that once housed the law practice of Bill Keefe and his father, John.   When you strolled towards the Post Office and passed Keefe and Keefe Law’s brick building, you were reassured that honorable men sat behind its green door.  Men you could trust to give you honest answers to thorny questions and set you on the path to finding the best possible solution.   These thoughts led me to musing about what it means to be a lawyer in Wilton.  What roles does a small-town lawyer fulfill?

I’m going to try to answer that question, in part, with a brief story.

Wilton’s small enough to remind me of another village in which I once lived in the African country of Chad. That village, Bougoumene, was much smaller than Wilton, but like Wilton, it was situated on the banks of a river, the Chari. It only had a population of few hundred people, but the sense I have of being part of the Wilton community is not unlike the sense I had of being part of Bougoumene for the year we lived there.  It felt like being a member of a large, extended family.  I have much the same feeling about living in Wilton, just that you know some of your relatives here better than you may know others.

Bougoumene had fewer and less complex legal issues than Wilton. The few there were usually came during the time of year when other people flowed in and out of the village with their cattle while following the rain, seeking better pasturelands. The reason for such cultural equanimity was because people knew and respected each other and no one wanted to make an enemy or be shamed by stepping outside of normal cultural bounds. If an issue arose, it was easily resolved using common sense or traditional law imposed either by the chief or by the local Imam.

And this is what brings me back to Bill.  He used common sense to solve community or personal issues by knowing so many of the Wilton townspeople, their history and town history and understanding the culture of the Wilton community.

Bill’s been a fixture on Main Street for forty-four years, handling everything from criminal to basic civil cases.  Ten years of those he shared with his father.  Clearing out his office meant going through all 5,400 files that had accumulated. When we spoke, he exclaimed, “I was amazed at all the issues that could come up in a small town.”  

Many of the cases were single issues or simple wills and trusts, but others were part of long-term legal relationships with people he’s worked with for thirty or forty years. He added, “That’s the hard part.” He’ll miss these interactions and worries about where his clients will find help with their legal needs since his office was the last remaining legal firm in Wilton; down from the five that served the community when he first began practicing.

The fact that he could find no one to take over a thriving legal office that serves people from several towns, is not unique to Wilton, but symptomatic of the state of the legal profession across the country.  Bill continued to explain, “This means there’s no one to call with a quick legal question.  Without a lawyer near-by, it’s hard to find someone to deal with issues that are not huge.”   He added, “One of the reasons is that new lawyers often need to pay back college and law school loans, meaning they need to find high-end, high-paying jobs with larger firms.”

Bill went on to explain that there can also be a lack of respect for small-town lawyers, but this smugness is often a downfall when in court.  He added, “It’s satisfying to win a case where I was initially treated with contempt by the opposing lawyer merely for being a lawyer from a small town. Then I won.”

One other way Bill served Wilton was as a Justice of the Peace who performed civil marriages. Bill took it one step beyond that.  Before he performed our wedding ceremony at the Unitarian Red House in Wilton Center thirty-eight years ago, he made us promise never to divorce.  He said he wanted to continue his perfect record of lasting marriages.  This is one way that set Bill aside from how those in the legal profession are often viewed.  He wanted lasting results that required no further legal action.

 When I commented on this, he explained, “I tried to keep people out of court as much as possible to save them both aggravation and money.”  Then he quoted advice from Abraham Lincoln that had stuck with him, “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can.“  Bill added, “That was good advice in the 1850’s and it’s good advice now.”

Bill may best be known in Wilton as Town Meeting Moderator and as the person who stands behind the ballot box in Town Hall during elections. He’s promised that won’t change. One other way he’s served Wilton, that will be remembered for posterity, was he shared honors with Randy Dunn as “Mr. August” in the 2004 Men of Wilton calendar.  In that photo, with a sailboat as a prop, Bill was doing what he loves best, sailing.  Many days of sailing the New England coast will now be in his future.

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