Getting to Know J. Wilmar Jensen
Every issue, the California Lawyers Association is spotlighting one of its members. Please consider nominating someone to feature in future issues by emailing email@example.com. J. Wilmar Jensen, a member of CLA’s Trusts and Estates Section and a Certified Specialist in Estate, Trust and Probate Law, was admitted to the State Bar of California on January 17, 1952, making him one of the state’s longest practicing attorneys. He recently shared the secrets of his staying power and other lessons learned over seven decades as a lawyer.
1. What led you to become a lawyer? I wanted to be a farmer. But my father pointed out to me that we didn't have enough land so that I could farm with him. It was suggested that maybe a law practice would be the best thing to do. It wasn't something I had wanted to do from the very beginning. It was sort of a substitute.
2. You were drafted into the Army and got your law degree from Stanford University Law School by the time you were 23. How did you do all that in such a short time? World War II intervened when I was a freshman in high school. It was apparent that eventually, I would have to go into the Army, so I rushed through high school. I was ready to go to college when I was 16. My mother was a strong proponent of education and handled most of the application. I wound up going to the University of Chicago and got a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at age 17. I finished that and came home and signed up for the draft and was drafted into the Army when I turned 18. Just before I got out of the Army, I applied to go to Stanford Law School. I’ve been practicing ever since I was 24. Our main office is in Modesto and we have satellite offices in Newman and Oakdale.
3. What do you enjoy most about your practice?
Oh, I enjoy the people. I like my clients. And I can tell right off whether I'm going to get along with them or not. I have never asked for a retainer. I made my judgment and then just did the work and enjoyed it.
4. In doing trusts and estates, you have probably counseled generations of families at this point, right?
I'm on my third and fourth generation. Clients come in and say, I think your father did the estate for my grandfather or whatever. And that was me. Some people come in and are just shocked I'm still alive (laughs).
5. Do you also do trial work?
When I started, I took anything that came along. At that time, we didn't have public defenders. All lawyers had to take their turn in defending criminals. I always felt so sorry for the criminals. And I was always convinced they were innocent, which was a big mistake. I also did some civil trials, but I never enjoyed it. And to be truthful, I was not too successful. I didn't win very many cases. But I won all my appeals. I was better suited for that.
6. What was your first trial?
My first week of practice, I thought I would walk down to the courthouse and look around. I was wandering around the courthouse, and I met this young fella. He was a little older than I was, but he was a deputy district attorney. He said, do you want to be appointed to defend a criminal matter? I said, ‘Whoa, no, no, no, I'm not ready for that.’ And he dragged me into the courtroom. Well, before I knew what had happened, I had been appointed to defend this fellow accused of stealing two automobile batteries, which I thought was petty theft. But apparently, it was a felony because he had been convicted of a felony and had just gotten out of prison. I was convinced he was innocent, but the jury went out and convicted him in 20 minutes. And of course, I was crushed. But the worst was that the bailiff and the other people in the courtroom got a big kick out of it. They just roared about what a joke it had been because obviously, he had taken the batteries. Even the criminal thought it was funny that I thought he was innocent. After that, I stayed as far away from the courtroom as I possibly could. And that worked out alright.
7. What is one of the biggest changes you've seen in the practice of law over the last 70 years?
When I started out, I knew all the lawyers in Stanislaus County. We were friendly. Nobody would get too sore about things. Nowadays, holy cow! You don’t have as much collegiality with other lawyers. And I kind of miss that.
8. Eventually, you were able to buy your own farm, right?
It took me at least 15 years to make enough to have a down payment on a farm. And I wanted to establish the law practice before I did anything else, because that was going to be the method to finance things.
9. Did you ever consider giving up the law practice and becoming a full-time farmer?
Well, no. I had to keep practicing law to farm because farms are expensive. It started out as more of a hobby that my law practice funded. I always tried to give my best hours to the law practice. And on the weekends, I would do the farming. Over the years, the farming operation has grown to nearly 2,000 acres.
10. What kind of farm do you have? Walnuts and almonds. And when we take out an orchard or something and have a bit of open land, we farm row crops. We are lucky we have one farmer in our family. My son Kirk manages the farming now.
11. How many children do you have?
My wife, Judy, and I have four children. All the kids worked on the farm and at the office growing up. One of my sons is a farmer (Kirk Jensen), one of my sons is a lawyer (Mark Jensen), and we practice together. One of my girls is a teacher (Kristine Jensen), and the other is a lawyer (Karen Petrulakis).
12. In all these years of practice, why not consider retiring?
Well, it’s easier to be a lawyer when you're my age than it is to be a farmer. And I liked it. I liked all of my clients. And then Mark came in with me, my son. I couldn’t have done it without him. I'll just keep practicing as long as I can.
13. What is your secret to being able to be practicing so long? You have to like it. And you have to be willing to get up every morning, put on your pants and go to work. And I was lucky to have the support of my wife, Judy, for the past 64 years.
14. This pandemic has been challenging for everyone. How have you gotten through? And what's it been like for you? Well, the judges found out it was much simpler to have everybody either be on Zoom or the telephone. So we hardly ever go to court anymore. They’re building a new courthouse here in Modesto, but I think you're going to find out they have little use for the large courtrooms. This pandemic has shown that it works pretty well to use Zoom and the telephone. 15. Tell us about your outside professional activities. I belonged to Rotary for 65 years, with perfect attendance. I've been secretary or president of organizations like Community Hospice, the Modesto Symphony Orchestra, and Opera Modesto. And I was involved in all kinds of bar activities when I was young. I've always been interested in politics. I’d support other people. I didn't ever want to be a politician, just like I never wanted to be a judge. There's one good thing about an attorney. He always knows what side he's on. 16. How do you build trust with your clients? Well, I try to give them good advice so I don't steer them in the wrong direction. And usually, we establish a friendship. We like to see them; we like to help them. When you’ve been in the community for a long time, they trust you. When they come to us for their estate plans, they’ve got to tell us a lot of different things. We have to find out how the family gets along; we have to know all of their assets; we have to know what aspirations they might have. Those are all personal questions. And you want your client to feel comfortable in divulging those things and knowing full well that you’re not going to tell anybody else. It’s kind of like a doctor in that respect.
17. What advice would you have for young lawyers just starting their careers?
The worst thing that can happen to a young lawyer is to make a lot of money off the first case. That’s bad news because you’re always looking for that from then on. Those lawyers don’t like the grind. They like the glory, but not the blood, sweat, and tears that go into it. Be prepared to work. If you don’t have a work ethic, you’re not going to make it in law practice. You’ve got to grind it out. The law’s a jealous mistress. Keep your own life simple and honorable. Everybody has to plow their own fields and make their own decisions.
18. What kind of support staff do you have? We have a great and loyal staff. In some cases, we have had the children of our staff work for us, which is great. We like all of our team. Most of them have been with us for a long, long time. I remember one of my secretaries said, ‘Mr. Jensen, I’m going to retire.’ And I said, ‘My God, why?’ She said, ‘Well, Mr. Jensen. I’m 70 years old.’ I could see her point.