By Christopher Wilson
"Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood." Daniel H. Burnham
Burnham understood something fundamental about Chicago and the people of this city. We are a city of builders. We are, in the words of Carl Sandburg, the "stormy, husky, brawling city of the big shoulders." We are a city that built the world's tallest buildings and created the world's greatest lakefront and we are home to the world's great commercial exchanges and headquarters to many great companies and universities. Most importantly for those of us who practice law, Chicago has built a proud tradition of great lawyers.
From Clarence Darrow to Justice John Paul Stevens, Chicago's history is rich with men and women who have made extraordinary contributions to the bar. As my law firm, Perkins Coie, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, I have been thinking about Chicago's legal traditions. Our firm began not in Chicago, but in Seattle in 1912, at roughly the same time as when Sandburg immortalized Chicago as the "hog butcher to the world, stacker of wheat, player with railroads." It was at this time when two attorneys, one a former federal judge and the other a former U.S. attorney, first opened a small law office in Seattle. Shortly thereafter, a local entrepreneur, William E. Boeing Sr., approached the fledgling firm for advice on his new business: building airplanes. Over the next century, both enterprises grew in ways none of the founders could have imagined. Clearly, they did not make small plans.
One of those plans was the expansion of the firm into Chicago's legal market. In June 2002, that plan became a reality when I joined two attorneys to open Perkins Coie's new Chicago office. Unlike our founders on the frontier, we immediately had a host of support from our headquarters. By the end of our first year, at least a dozen attorneys joined us. This week marks our 10th year in Chicago with an office of close to 100 attorneys.
I joined my firm not as a transplant from Seattle, but as a Chicagoan. Most of the lawyers who joined us here have done the same. The members of my office, along with thousands of attorneys across this city, are part of a profound change that has occurred in the legal profession over the past 25 years — we have left a Chicago-based firm to become members of a national one. The challenge I faced along with my partners 10 years ago has been faced by hundreds of lawyers across Chicago: How do we blend our Chicago roots with a national law firm?
When I began practicing law, there were already dozens of firms in Chicago. Some were giant enterprises; others were midsize firms or boutiques. With a few tiny exceptions, all of them were rooted in Chicago and its traditions. Many of those firms are now gone or have merged into firms with national identities. Even firms still bearing famous Chicago names have become part of national or international firms. Most critically, over the past 25 years, dozens of new firms have shouldered their way into the Chicago market. In just the past 10 years alone, about 30 firms headquartered outside of Chicago have opened offices in the city. This influx has had a profound impact, as clients now have more options for their legal work than ever before.
Significantly, lawyers have more options as well. Talented associates who want to work in Chicago can interview with dozens of firms with offices and attorneys across the country. Attorneys who developed their own independent practices are free to move to the firms that provide the best fit.
Law firms, therefore, now must compete for talented partners and associates as well as clients. As a result, it is a must for firms to develop attractive cultures and create more flexible and entrepreneurial compensation systems. Lawyers, to a greater extent than ever before, are free agents. This does not mean that lawyers will simply move to the firm that offers the highest pay, but it does mean that all firms must be aware of each lawyer's needs and must work harder to create a place that provides great service to its clients and is a great place to work for attorneys and staff.
This has created new challenges for law firms. The legal market has always been competitive. But today, law firms must compete at every level to survive and prosper. We must satisfy the needs of the attorneys we have and constantly seek out energetic and dynamic new partners. Above all, we must knit the veterans and the newcomers together to create a culture that binds us all into a common firm. The firms that meet this challenge will be the ones that survive the next 100 years.
I am thrilled to be a part of Perkins Coie. I hope we created something unique here in our great city. As we celebrate milestones in the history of Perkins Coie, I hope we have added in some way to Chicago's legal tradition.
Every Chicago lawyer is part of a great tradition. Chicago's legal market has been strengthened by the opportunities and challenges that new firms entering our market have brought with them. These firms have certainly provided an atmosphere of competition that has made all of our firms stronger and more modern. At a minimum, the presence of national firms has reminded us all that Burnham was right: Law firms certainly cannot afford to make little plans.