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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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  1. Am I the only one who sees that the City is essentially giving away the MSA site AND giving millions to build new buildings on the site when this site would be the perfect place for the Justice Complex? Across from City-County, check; keeping it centrally located, check, etc. It's my understanding that the GM site must be purchased by the City from Motors Liquidation Company. STOP WASTING WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE AND OUR TAX DOLLARS! The Ballard Administration has not been known for it's common sense...never voted for him and never will!

  2. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  3. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  4. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  5. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

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