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Longest-practicing female attorney in Indiana has no plans to retire

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Phyllis Gratz Poff built a law practice by doing the little things that clients never forget.

She would give her home phone number to clients going through a particularly agonizing time and tell them to call her if they just needed to talk.

She stayed late and came into the office on Saturdays to accommodate clients who couldn’t meet her during regular business hours. And when clients called with a question or popped into her office, she did not count the time spent with them as billable hours.

lioness-15col.jpg After nearly 60 years in practice, Phyllis Gratz Poff works at the same desk her parents gave her when she graduated from law school in 1953.(IL Photo/Steve Linsenmayer)

Reflecting on her legal career, Poff said she probably would not have been successful working at a big law firm. Yet she has done well as a solo practitioner in Auburn, not only building and sustaining a law office but also being a quiet influence on the other attorneys in DeKalb County.

She has enjoyed being a lawyer so much so that at 82 years old, she is still working. In fact, having been admitted to the Indiana Bar in 1953, she has been practicing law longer than any other woman in Indiana, according to the Roll of Attorneys.

Upon learning that she is the longest-practicing female attorney in the state, she first exclaimed, “I am!” before insisting that she has done nothing noteworthy.

“I haven’t done anything outstanding,” Poff said. “I have not done anything remarkable.”

Her significance comes not from being in practice for nearly 60 years but from her diligence to the law and her compassion for clients.

Building a career

Poff has an office in Auburn, about two blocks north of the county courthouse. She puts her name in the phone book and has a small website but, otherwise, she does not advertise.

That stance mirrors her upbringing in DeKalb County where everyone knows their neighbors and word-of-mouth is better than a commercial.

Her father owned a feed and mill business, and she and her sister spent many hours bagging the flour. Her brother also worked there, introducing a lot of innovation by designing different types of bags and milling various kinds of flour.

She might have stayed a miller’s daughter if not for that terrible day at the close of World War II. The same June day her parents received a telegram from her brother, who had enlisted in the military, saying he would be returning from overseas, a government car pulled up in front of their house. Military officers told the family their son and brother had been killed in Germany.

Poff enrolled at Indiana University to study pre-law, then she headed to the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. Even though she was living with relatives, being in the Windy City brought a spell of homesickness that caused her to return to DeKalb County for an entire week.

She did go back to law school (she was the only female in her class) and completed her studies before settling in her hometown. Poff was admitted to the Indiana bar Dec. 2, 1953, and opened her office on her mother’s birthday, Feb. 1, 1954.

DeKalb Circuit Judge Monte Brown joined Poff as a young lawyer fresh from law school in 1978. He remembers her as being a popular divorce attorney. Women going through a divorce hired Poff because they saw her as someone who would understand them. Men also enlisted Poff to handle their divorces because they believed she would be very effective in countering their wives’ demands.

At all times, Brown said, Poff was compassionate. She supported her clients, she listened to them, and she was always very kind.

The way Poff has treated other people has rippled through the DeKalb County bar. The attorneys in that community work well together and do not cause a lot of problems for each other, which Brown attributes to the example of professional and personal demeanor set by attorneys such as his former boss.

Hanging out a shingle

lioness-yearbook-15col.jpg Phyllis Poff (front row, center) was the only female in her law school class. Upon opening her practice in Auburn, she said she was never discriminated against or treated badly because of her gender.(IL Photo/Steve Linsenmayer)

Poff’s choice to practice law was not totally surprising. Sitting around the kitchen table as a youngster, she and her family talked about politics and world events. Her parents, immigrants from Austria-Hungary, often got locked in arguments over who was worse: Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

“We were encouraged to be interested in the government,” Poff said, adding she and her siblings learned a great deal from those conversations, including being proud of their country.

Deciding to study law was not difficult, but establishing a practice took a lot of hard work. When she started, Poff made $1,500 a year and lived at home, depending on her parents for room and board, meals, a car and gasoline.

Also, as was typical, while she knew a great deal about legal theory, she had few practical skills when she graduated from law school. She turned to the other attorneys in town, who had been in practice several years, to ask for their help and advice.

Never did these male attorneys discriminate or mistreat her, she said. Being a female in the male-dominated bar did not bring a lot of problems.

“I can honestly say, I didn’t find a lot of prejudice,” Poff said. “If I lost a case it was because I wasn’t prepared or I didn’t have the facts straight or the client wasn’t cooperative.”

In addition to her private practice, Poff served as the Auburn City Court judge from 1967 to 1979. Also, she served as the attorney for both the city of Waterloo and DeKalb County, and held a seat on the Auburn City Council for one term.

She carries a reputation of being a very skilled lawyer as well as being a very generous person. Poff served on the boards of the Habitat for Humanity of DeKalb County and for Youth for Christ in Auburn. Also, when her father’s mill business was bulldozed, she donated half of the land to Habitat for new homes.

Marriage in 1962 opened another career for Poff. She and her husband owned five Hickory Farms stores throughout northern Indiana. When she was not at her law office, Poff was running the warehouse operations and occasionally making deliveries until 2 or 3 a.m.

Together, she and her husband shared child care duties. If she had to be in court early or meet with a client late, her husband made sure their son and daughter were fed, got their homework done, got ready for school or whatever else they needed to do.

Because she wanted to be with her family as much as she could, Poff never participated in a jury trial. Such trials would have kept her away from home too much.

She also found ways to be with her children even when working. Her son Randy remembered going to her office each day after elementary school and being allowed to sit in her office, pretending to take dictation, just so she could be near him.

Still practicing

Today, Poff concentrates her practice on family law and some estate work. She does all the legal work and, since her secretary died, she runs her office: answering phones, greeting clients and doing the cleaning.

In the courtroom, the time she spends with each case is still evident. Brown noted Poff really gets to know the details, and sometimes her thoroughness frustrates opposing counsel.

Even after 60 years, Poff still loves the law. She cares for her clients and she enjoys being an attorney. That devotion is on display as she regularly power walks in high heels with an armload of files to the county courthouse.

“God willing,” she said, “I can continue.”•

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  • Very Refreshing!!
    Hi, I hope you don't mind, but my son Corey was given your name by Patty Koepe. And as his mom, I told him I thought I would look you up and try and see how you handle things with her clients and courtroom and what your specialty is. I'm so glad I did because you just warmed my heart with your story and the way you treat people. I'm retired Navy, and my father was also retired Navy. The way we were brought up was to Be as honest and fair to people and live by the Golden Rule. That being I know my son will be giving you a call because it involves his little boy Ian. And I applaud you on such a successful career. Thank you for reading this. Pamela Secrist

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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