When James Hoffman III and Elwood Walker announced this summer that they were closing their law practice, they asked clients to pick up their files or let them know if there is a new lawyer the clients wished to have the files sent to.
As people came in to pick up their files, it reminded Hoffman and Walker of just how satisfying their career choices have been.
“Mixed feelings about retirement, because I love the interaction with the clients,” said Hoffman, 71. “I’ll miss that a lot.”
“It’s been an honor working for the people in this community,” said Walker, 78.
The duo opened their law firm in 1990 in what was Hoffman’s parents’ home in Brookfield. They decided to retire and close the firm when they realized they didn’t have an “end plan” for the firm, and didn’t want to burden the other partner with having to close things down in the event that one of them died while they were still practicing, Hoffman said.
Hoffman and Walker’s professional lives have been intertwined for decades, even though they pretty much practiced on their own.
Hoffman’s father, James Hoffman II, opened a law firm with Leo Luchette in 1947.
“Ever since I was a child, I’d gone into the office, the old office down on Brookfield Avenue, where it originally was, and then they moved up to the corner of Valley View Drive and Warren Sharon Road,” Hoffman said.
His father did not talk much about his work, but Hoffman got a feel for being a lawyer from observing his father.
“It was always something in the back of my mind that I might fall back into,” Hoffman said.
Walker, who was inspired to become a lawyer by his admiration for former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, worked for the elder Hoffman while still in college. His sister, Naomi Manion, who worked in the office, introduced him to her co-worker, Kathy Ryhal, while he was home on leave from the Marines.
“She had him walk in and I just said, ‘Can I help you,’ and he just kept staring at me. One thing after another, I went out with him and here we are,” said Kathy, who eventually married Walker.
Kathy had been with the firm since graduating high school in 1964.
“My mother pushed me out the door to get a job,” she said. “She heard a rumor from the neighbor, they needed a secretary. I thought I was gonna fill out an application, and Leo Luchette grabbed me and put me in his office and dictated a letter with me behind a typewriter.”
She’s worked for the firm ever since.
James O’Brien eventually joined the firm but, after Hoffman’s father died in 1988, “philosophical differences” prompted Hoffman and Walker to start their own firm.
Hoffman and Walker had general practices, taking whatever work was available. For Hoffman, that has meant mostly estate planning and probate, with some real estate and criminal. Walker has done mostly real estate, probate, wills and estates and some criminal.
Business has been cyclical. There have been times when they have been “really, really busy” with real estate, Hoffman said, and then times like during the recession of 2008, when the “bottom dropped out.”
“There have been times where we didn’t get a full pay,” he said.
They did not want to take out loans just to meet payroll.
“We just kind of went with the flow of the work, and we were willing to take a little less when things were worse,” Hoffman said.
The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a busy time for updating wills.
“People worried about their health, and a lot of estate planning then, also,” Hoffman said.
The rates they have charged likely have been below market value, Walker said, and that reflects the spirit of community service that goes back to Hoffman’s father. Walker has done pro bono work for veterans in need of civil representation, and Hoffman has helped out those faced with foreclosure.
Both men plan to keep their law licenses current, but restrict their legal work to cases they want to take.
Walker said he plans to stay active with the Brookfield Rotary Club, the Shenango Valley Ski Club, the Marine Corps League and Fairhaven Industries, while Hoffman, a former Brookfield Board of Education member and a member of the Brookfield Optimist Club, said he wants to spend more time with his wife, Becky, and other family members, and travel.
“It’s a good time, while I’m still healthy, to hang it up,” Hoffman said.