On Why Law Firm History is Worth Remembering (Perspective)

June 20, 2017, 6:36 PM

Editor’s Note: The author has written several recent “biographies” of law firms and below makes a case for the value of such writing.

On the last night of 1929, George Allen and Thomas Overy put all the files on which they were working into a London taxi and headed for an office they were about to open the next day in the heart of the City of London. There were so many files in the taxi they had their faithful clerk stand on the running board of the taxi to stop the files from spilling out into the street. Nearly 100 years before, in 1838, John Linklater qualified as a solicitor, having joined a small firm that had carved out a name for itself advising banks that had become insolvent (sound familiar?). He and his brother, James, quickly became the leading lights in a rapidly growing firm, adding to their client base merchants and businessmen trading with the British empire. And it was at a Sunday afternoon party in 1897 held in the garden of wealthy banker Dumont Clarke’s house in New Jersey that aspiring lawyers DuPratt White and George Case first met, sowing the seeds of opening a new firm four years later. (It was also at that party, incidentally, that George Case met his future wife, Mary, Dumont’s daughter.)

Such were the low-key beginnings of what became three of the world’s largest and best known law firms and which still bear the names of their founders: Allen & Overy; Linklaters; and White & Case. You can find these stories in the firms’ corporate histories. The White & Case history – White & Case: One Hundred Years & Beyond – is the hottest off the press, having been launched on May 1 2017 (the 116th anniversary of the firm’s founding).

So why have these law firms produced their own histories? And, just as importantly, why should law firms record their histories? Skeptics will say that these exercises are little more than vanity exercises but, having now written or co-written five law firm histories, I can offer at least four good reasons why they serve worthier purposes.

First, the telling of the development of the business — and the personalities who shaped and directed it — helps clarify that all-important but sometimes vague concept: culture. What sort of firm is it? What were the values of the people who have passed through its doors? As law firms have grown into multinational, multi-office businesses, how do you ensure that people work well, and get along with, each other?

Second, and related to the explanation of culture, is the potential for recruitment. Law firms all compete for the best and brightest coming out of law schools. Ever more demanding youngsters want to know everything about the firms that are lining up with the best offers. Offering your history not only shows them the roots of the firm but also that your organisation is one they can be proud to join.

Third, law firm histories can have significant marketing potential. Having long, well established histories makes for a good impact with potential clients, especially (so I am told) in the markets of the Middle East and Asia, where longevity counts for a great deal. A well written and presented history is a marvellous marketing tool, demonstrating credibility and authority.

Finally, histories assemble in one place the tales, the triumphs, the challenges and — if they are being honest — the arguments and the fallings-out that every law firm goes through. The trick is to tell those stories in such a way that they are of interest to a wider readership — not just for an internal audience. Most people will not know that George Allen was one of King Edward’s close advisers in December 1936, and it was Allen himself who wrote the words for the abdicating King to relay by phone to Wallis Simpson in Paris (“The only conditions on which I can stay here are if I renounce you for all time.”).

Or the extraordinary story of how two Linklaters’ lawyers arranged for an oil tanker to be spirited out of a Newfoundland harbour at the dead of night and under the noses of Canadian Mounties in order to exercise their rights over the vessel in a different jurisdiction. (In that case, Linklaters was acting for Bankers Trust, as it happens the bank for which George Case had drafted all the legal documentation when it was created in 1903.)

The stories aren’t all just for lawyers: baseball fans will be amused to learn that it was George Case who invented the squeeze play, first put into operation during a game between Yale and Princeton on June 16, 1894. There are many, many more stories that lie within the pages of the firm’s history books (most of which can be viewed online).

One firm is now to have its story (or at least one famous episode) told on the silver screen. Paul Cravath, probably the most celebrated lawyer in the firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, will be played by English actor Eddie Redmayne in a new film that tells the story of the electric lightbulb patent litigation of the 19th century, when Cravath represented George Westinghouse in his battle with Thomas Edison.

Back to White & Case: why has the firm chosen to publish exactly 116 years after it was founded in 1901? Truth be told, the firm had originally intended to mark its first hundred years in 2001, but the date passed without it being ready and the project lay dormant for a few years before Duane Wall, the former managing partner and editor-in-chief of the book, picked it up and saw the project through. As it happens, the delay worked to the firm’s advantage as the book was launched in the firm’s spectacular new offices on Sixth Avenue.

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