7th Floor Reflections: Life at Lane & Waterman Through the Years

David DettmannDave Dettmann started his Lane & Waterman journey in a snowstorm. It was January 1974, and he was scheduled to travel to Davenport for an interview with the firm. A 3L law student at Drake University in Des Moines, he’d received the recommendation to try out Lane & Waterman from his friend Tom Shields, who’d recently accepted an associate position there.

Despite the wintry conditions, Dave made that trek from Des Moines to Davenport, and hasn’t looked back since. Although he’s now retired and says he’s “really done now,” he was willing to meet to talk about his memories at the firm and his observations on its long-standing success.

What made you want to become a lawyer?

In undergraduate school at Luther College, I actually planned to be a Lutheran pastor, but when my dad died during my junior year, I witnessed the attorney taking care of the probate matters and I thought – I could do that.

I loved practicing law, because of the people I had the opportunity to help. One of the things I miss in retirement is the clients. I had the chance to work with multiple generations of families. It’s really cool to see something you proposed come to fruition to help a family/business.

When you started here, what was the firm like?

When I started in July 1974, I was attorney number 13 at the firm (Tom Shields was number 12). My monthly salary at the time was $1000. We only occupied part of the seventh floor – when I came in July, the firm was renovating the southeast wing of the seventh floor to make room for more attorneys. Other tenants in the building at the time included an insurance agency, a few medical offices and of course, the Davenport Bank.

At that time, the firm was pretty well split between 50% litigation and 50% business law. As an associate, you were expected to do both initially and then figure out which you enjoyed more or excelled at. For me, it was clear I was cut out for business law (or maybe just not cut out for litigation!). My fellow associate Tom Shields was drawn to litigation. He did a lot of work for Bob Van Vooren –I can remember Bob yelling across the hall to Tom to assign him tasks during a big airplane crash case Bob was handling.

Of course, we didn’t have computers when I started. We stored wills, trusts, and other important documents in a vault on the north end of the 7th floor. Legal assistants typed up our timesheets on tear-off sheets that were then filed in the bookkeeper’s office.

We used to congregate outside of our offices on 7th floor around 5 pm and the associates would ask the partners questions about certain cases/matters they were handling. It was and still is a culture of learning from each other.

What major changes have you seen?

Technology has certainly changed things! In 1984, I was the first attorney at Lane & Waterman to purchase a computer. I bought it for $2,300, and it had 10 megabytes of storage and 64 kilobytes of RAM. I immediately started using it to keep my time electronically, which my assistant appreciated versus having to read my handwriting! I also shared my database program with Chuck Miller, who was able to get approval to buy another computer for the litigation area to store case data for a big fire case he was working on in Dubuque.

We had an IBM mag card machine that we would use to transfer information to Pioneer Hybrid (they had extra computer space) for our work-in-progress (WIPs). Monthly they would then send them back to us by Greyhound bus for the lawyers to mark for billing. We’ve come a long way since those days, and I’m told we’re implementing a new practice management software that will help the firm run better than ever before.

Who were your mentors at the firm?  

Don Sitz was a mentor to me. He was well-known for representing the Davenport Bridge Commission in a case that went to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals–he was successful and the second span of what we know as the 74 Bridge was allowed to be constructed. Don also won the case for Alcoa at the Iowa Supreme Court that allowed for the establishment of the town of Riverdale, Iowa, rather than the area being annexed by Bettendorf.  As a result, Riverdale became the taxing authority for Alcoa benefiting both Riverdale and Pleasant Valley School District.

I also learned a lot from Jim Kelley. Jim would feed me two to three real estate closings a day during my first year of practice – I would read abstracts and write opinions at night to prepare for each.

What makes Lane & Waterman stand the test of time?

I think our commitment to hiring the best talent ensures we can serve our clients well for generations. This commitment started in the 1950s when Larned Waterman (Current Managing Partner Bob Waterman’s uncle) convinced his partners to amend the partnership agreement to include a more egalitarian compensation structure. Compared to other law firms at the time (and still today), Lane & Waterman’s partner track and compensation incentivizes young attorneys to buy into Lane & Waterman as a top place to practice.

I also think we’ve stood the test of time because of our clients and the relationships we’ve built with them. I believe the practice of law is incredibly rewarding, and the reason for that will always be the people.




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