Oldest Lawyer in CO?
by Tom McGhee
The documents smothering Joe Berenbaum’s desk testify to the hours of legal work he clocks despite his 87 years.
In a career spanning six decades, he has made some history, working on everything from the state’s first wage-and-hour dispute to development cases that increased Denver’s size through annexation.
He may be the oldest practicing lawyer in Colorado (see the editor’s note on page 13), but he doesn’t intend to stop anytime soon.
"When you work because you want to, not because you have to, it’s a lot more fun," he said.
In a summer-weight suit, he looks more like a retired family physician on his way to synagogue than a hard-nosed corporate lawyer. But among longtime clients, Berenbaum has earned a reputation for cool-headed legal sense, said Leonard Perlmutter, a client for more than 50 years.
"When something has to be said and confusion has to be penetrated, he listens for a long time, and then in a few words he takes care of it," Perlmutter said.
Berenbaum spends his working hours at Berenbaum, Weinshienk & Eason in a corner office with a sweeping view of Denver.
He works about 35 hours a week now, a substantial reduction from the 65 or so hours he once regularly clocked.
Younger lawyers do most of the heavy lifting, concentrating on cases that range from bankruptcies to mergers and acquisitions. But Berenbaum continues to work for clients he has served for years.
The carpeted halls and wood paneled walls of the firm’s suite at the top of Republic Plaza are light years from the west Denver neighborhood where he grew up during the Depression.
He started working at 12 in a service station. He still remembers the number of grease nozzles tucked under the hood of 1930s Buicks—six.
And the cost of a grease job: 60 cents. If he was lucky, the customer would throw in a 10-cent tip, a nice bonus for one hour’s work. "You were tickled pink when you had a grease job."
He was luckier than many at a time when soup kitchens were crowded with jobless and hungry people. His father, a businessman who sold coal, wood, gas and oil, saw his business evaporate during the Depression.
But he managed to make enough to keep a roof over his family.
Berenbaum earned bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Denver and began a legal career in 1940.
He entered the profession at a time when the ink was still drying on the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, a law that requires firms involved in interstate commerce to pay overtime.
The young lawyer filed a suit for employees of an insurance company who said the firm was violating the new law.
He said the case was the first tried under the law in Colorado, and he won it. But he didn’t take up the fight out of any desire to specialize in labor law.
"When you first started to practice, you want to earn a buck, so you would do anything," he said.
His victory earned him a reputation and attracted some new clients.
When the Army discharged his brother after World War II, the two joined forces in a two-lawyer firm. Real estate cases became a staple of the practice, and Berenbaum became a valuable ally for developers who wanted their projects annexed. He fought for annexations that brought thousands of acres in Aurora, Westminster and other communities into Denver’s city limits.
The annexations were not universally loved, he said, and neither was he. "They either curse me or not because I expanded a lot of this area."
As Denver changed and grew, so did Berenbaum’s firm, he said. The practice now extends far beyond the state’s borders.
While the firm’s original niche was general business and real estate, Berenbaum and his partners branched out over the years.
Some of the changes he has witnessed in the legal business haven’t been for the best, he said.
When he first hung out a shingle, he said, attorneys didn’t bill by the hour. The bill they submitted to clients was for work accomplished. "I don’t think it’s a better profession today," he said.
Perlmutter, who owned a prestressed concrete firm, has relied on Berenbaum’s counsel since the late 1940s.
"He didn’t spend a lot of time in a courtroom. He always settled things out and advised people on how to handle disputes and keep them to a minimum," Perlmutter said.
Berenbaum attributes some of his success to an attitude that puts the client first. He said he still tells the lawyers in his firm to take an interest in the success of their clients.
And he chalks up his longevity to staying active and involved.
But his continued presence in the workforce can make it difficult for him to communicate with others his age who have retired, he said.
"I am used to being around younger people all the time, so when I am around older people, we aren’t on the same page."