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In With the Old

By Dave Kenney

Determining which law firms are Minnesota's oldest is an inexact science. Law firm genealogies tend to be a bit fuzzy. Attorneys come and go. Practices merge. Names change. Some firms trumpet their past while others prefer to focus on the present and future. It is quite possible that there are firms in Minnesota that don't even realize how old they are. With those caveats in mind, here is our list of the state's 13 most venerable law firms, all of which date back to the 19th century.

Moore, Costello & Hart
Established 1855, St. Paul
Original Name: George L. Otis, Attorney

Moore, Costello & Hart is the only law firm in Minnesota that can trace its roots back to the state's territorial period. George Otis, a native New Yorker, arrived in St. Paul in 1855 and quickly established himself as one of the top attorneys in Minnesota Territory. His contemporaries described him as "a man of pleasant but quiet and unpretending demeanor." In 1857, the year before statehood, Otis convinced the Minnesota Supreme Court to reverse a trespassing judgment against one of his first corporate clients. North-Western Railroad Company v. Edmund Rice is the only case with direct links to a current Minnesota firm that you will find mentioned in the first volume of Minnesota Reports.

Most notable alumnus: U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger.

 

Gray Plant Mooty
Established 1866, Minneapolis
Original Name: Charles Woods, Attorney

Gray Plant Mooty easily qualifies as the oldest continually operating law firm in Minneapolis. Charles Woods, whose one-man practice evolved into one of the city's largest and most prestigious law firms, was also Minneapolis' first elected judge. Gray Plant and its predecessor firms have tried many high-profile cases over the years, but few of those actions generated as much public interest as the string of 1960s product liability cases involving General Motors' much-maligned Chevrolet Corvair. The firm's Franklin Gray tried numerous Corvair cases for GM-more than any other attorney in the country-and he won them all. Among the firm's distinguished alumni: U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.

 

Lampe, Swanson, Morisette, Heisler & Arnold
Established 1878, Northfield
Original Name: William S. Pattee, Attorney

Few of Minnesota's existing law firms can claim a founder with more long-lasting influence than William Pattee. Pattee came to Northfield in 1874 to become the town's school superintendent. Four years later, he was admitted to the bar and began practicing law in his adopted hometown. Pattee provided legal advice to some of Northfield's most prominent families, but he never shook his passion for education. In 1888 he moved to the Twin Cities to become the first dean of the University of Minnesota's new College of Law. He remained there for 23 years. The law office that Pattee established in Northfield eventually became known for its work on behalf of insurance company clients. Its current namesake, Bob Lampe, joined the firm in 1951.

 

Bassford Remele
Established 1882, Minneapolis
Original Name: Snyder and Jamison

University of Minnesota graduates Frederick Snyder and Robert Jamison launched their legal careers in a small office in Minneapolis' Bridge Square district, near the intersection of Hennepin and Nicollet. During the last two decades of the 19th century they built a practice around a stable of prominent clients including former governor John Pillsbury. In what was considered an extremely significant case at the time, Fred Snyder-representing Pillsbury-convinced the courts to overturn the city's sewer construction financing system. (Pillsbury thought it unfair that he and his well-to-do neighbors were assessed at higher rates than other residents.) The firm that began as Snyder and Jamison merged with a much younger firm-Hoke, Cobb & Janes-in 1943 to become what is now known as Bassford Remele.

 

Briggs and Morgan
Established 1882, Hudson, Wis.
Original Name: Clapp and Macartney

Clapp and Macartney was the oldest of two firms (the other was originally known as Davis, Kellogg and Severance) that combined in 1960 to become Briggs and Morgan. The firm's roster of distinguished alumni includes one U.S. secretary of state (Frank B. Kellogg), three U.S. senators (Kellogg, Cushman Davis and Moses Clapp), one governor (Davis) and four Minnesota Supreme Court justices (Chief Justice Peter Popovich, Edward Stringer, Sam Hanson and Chief Justice Eric Magnuson). Although Briggs and Morgan is best-known for representing corporate clients, it has occasionally waded into the realm of politics. The firm represented Gov. Elmer L. Andersen in Minnesota's historic 1962 gubernatorial recount. Republican Andersen ultimately lost to Democrat Karl Rolvaag by 91 votes.

 

Moore & Hansen
Established 1885, Minneapolis
Original Name: James F. Williamson, Attorney

James Williamson had worked for two years in the U.S. patent office before opening his Minneapolis law office in 1885. Unlike many attorneys at the time, he was best-known for his work in a specific field: patent and trademark law. Over the years the firm he established continued to concentrate on what is now called intellectual property law. Early clients included the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company, Washburn-Crosby (later General Mills), Underwood Typewriter, Grain Belt Beer and the makers of the Minnesota-born Tilt-A-Whirl carnival ride. More recently, the firm has done patent work on a host of well-known brands, including Rollerblade. In 1900, James Williamson took on a partner, Frank Merchant, who went on to establish the intellectual property firm now known as Merchant & Gould.

 

Faegre & Benson
Established 1886, Minneapolis
Original Name: Cobb & Wheelwright

Faegre & Benson and its predecessor firms have twice demonstrated a phoenix-like ability to avoid and survive devastating fires. In 1887, partners John Wheelwright and Albert Cobb moved to a new office in Minneapolis shortly before fire destroyed the building from which they had first hung their shingle. Nearly a century later, in 1982, Faegre & Benson successfully regrouped after a Thanksgiving Day fire destroyed its offices in the Northwestern Bank Building. The firm has been involved in countless major cases and transactions over the years, but few were bigger than the litigation stemming from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. A Faegre team led by Brian O'Neill represented thousands of Alaskan fishermen and business owners in the case. In 2008 the case finally came to an end when the U.S. Supreme Court slashed from $2.5 billion to $500 million the punitive damages that Exxon Mobil would have to pay. Little-known fact: Former Faegre attorney Greg Howard is the creator of the syndicated comic strip "Sally Forth."

 

Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly
Established 1886, St. Paul
Original Name: Lawler and Durment

Namesakes William Oppenheimer (who joined Lawler and Durment in 1913) and Stan Donnelly (grandson of Minnesota legal and political giant Ignatius Donnelly) first met in 1924 while representing separate clients in United States v. Bigelow-a celebrated case in which the federal government established its power to prosecute federal income tax evaders. The two men developed a high regard for each other, and a few years later Donnelly joined the firm as a full partner. The firm's third namesake, Benno Wolff, came aboard as an associate in 1927 and steadily worked his way through the ranks. After his first jury trial during the Great Depression, Wolff received in lieu of cash $7,000 in stock in a little-known company called Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. (His client urged him to sell it.) The firm's lawyers have taken on many significant cases over the years, including a five-year legal battle in which they helped Control Data Company win a major antitrust lawsuit against IBM.

 

Johnson Killen & Seiler
Established 1888, Duluth
Original Name: Charles Baldwin, Attorney

Johnson Killen & Seiler holds the distinction of being the oldest law firm in northern Minnesota. Its founder, Charles Baldwin, was a state legislator and litigator known for his outspoken opposition to alcohol. He and his brother, Albert, steadily built a formidable client list that included several prominent madams from Duluth's red-light district as well as the Duluth Community of Benedictine Sisters, which the firm continues to represent today. The firm established itself as a major legal player when it represented James J. Hill's Great Northern Railway in a series of lawsuits stemming from the devastating Cloquet fire of 1918, which allegedly began with a spark from a Great Northern locomotive. Among the firm's best-known later cases is a civil action involving the sensational 1977 murder of Duluth heiress Elisabeth Congdon. In that case the firm's Joseph Johnson successfully fended off the efforts of Congdon's adopted daughter, Marjorie Congdon Caldwell, to contest the family will.

 

Farrish Johnson
Established 1893, Mankato
Original Name: Harrison L. Schmitt, Attorney

Southern Minnesota's oldest law firm is also one of the few firms in the state with a female namesake. Charlotte Farrish joined the firm known as Schmitt and Schmitt in 1926 after graduating from the University of Minnesota law school. She was one of only five women in her class and the only one to practice law after graduation. Farrish was the only female attorney in Mankato, and during World War II she took over the practices of many Mankato-area attorneys who went off to fight. When those attorneys returned from the war, she returned their clients to them, insisting that she was glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to the war effort. In the past 100 years Farrish Johnson and its predecessor firms have brought more than 230 cases to the appellate courts-a number that many larger big-city firms could never match. The firm also has produced a disproportionate number of distinguished jurists over the years, including two Minnesota Supreme Court chief justices: Henry Gallagher (1937-1944) and Robert Sheran (1963-1970).

 

Fryberger, Buchanan, Smith & Frederick
Established 1893, Duluth
Original Name: Herschel B. Fryberger, Attorney

Herschel B. Fryberger Sr., like his Duluth colleague Charles Baldwin (of the firm that became Johnson Killen & Seiler), made a name for himself by representing clients in the region's dominant industries-timber, mining, shipping and railroads. He was a tenacious litigator who won 83 percent of the cases he tried. In one of those cases, he went before the U.S. Supreme Court to represent the state of Minnesota in a border dispute with Wisconsin (Minnesota v. Wisconsin, 1920). As usual, he won. Fryberger, Buchanan, Smith & Frederick is the result of a 1971 merger of the Fryberger firm and a younger Duluth firm founded by Amasa Wheeler. Fryberger has operated out of the same location-Duluth's Lonsdale Building-since 1906.

 

Costello, Carlson & Butzon
Established 1896, Lakefield
Original Name: E.T. Smith, Attorney

E.T. Smith and his successor, E.H. Nicholas, were ambitious prairie lawyers who each served as Jackson County Attorney around the turn of the century. Nicholas made a name for himself during World War I and its aftermath when he led a high-profile prosecution of Arthur C. Townley, leader of the rural populist Nonpartisan League. Nicholas charged Townley with conspiring to discourage enlistments and damage the nation's war effort. Townley was convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed and the U.S. Supreme Court denied review. The Jackson Republic called Nicholas' successful prosecution "a wonderful victory for the state of Minnesota and every loyal citizen of the United States." The Nonpartisan League Leader countered that Nicholas' efforts "brought him only the reproaches of all lovers of justice in Minnesota."

 

Moss & Barnett
Established 1896, Minneapolis
Original Name: Jesse Van Valkenburg, Attorney

Moss & Barnett is the result of two 1980s mergers, both involving the firm founded at the turn of the century by Jesse Van Valkenburg. In 1976, Ralph Comaford, of what was then known as Van Valkenburg, Comaford, Moss, Fassett, Flaherty & Clarkson, wrote an evocative history of his firm. Among the many anecdotes he included was the story of how Van Valkenburg won a lawsuit for a client defrauded by a Wisconsin land swindler. During the trial, an expert witness for the defense testified that the land purchased by Van Valkenburg's client was worth its hefty $5-an-acre price tag. In his cross-examination, Van Valkenburg got the witness to acknowledge that the land actually consisted of sand, rock and bog that was "totally unfit for cultivation." When he asked how such property could possibly be worth $5 an acre, the witness responded without hesitation. "Well," he said, "it ought to be worth that much just to hold the rest of the world together." Among the firm's famous alumni: Gustaf Aaron Youngquist, the former Minnesota attorney general who successfully prosecuted Al Capone on tax evasion charges.

 

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