King Lehr caps off 63-year career

One of the city’s most prolific trial lawyers, Louis Lehr, is calling it quits after 63 years in the field. He spent 59 of them at the firm at which he is now a name partner, Arnstein & Lehr. - Ralph Greenslade
One of the city’s most prolific trial lawyers, Louis Lehr, is calling it quits after 63 years in the field. He spent 59 of them at the firm at which he is now a name partner, Arnstein & Lehr. —Photo by Ralph Greenslade
April 2014

When Louis Lehr Jr. tells stories of cases he tried as a young attorney, it sounds less like the musings of a litigator reflecting on the last decades of his career and more like a grammar school student’s 20th-century history lesson.

It’s a natural byproduct of the fact that Lehr has practiced law longer than most attorneys have been alive. As he knocks on the door of 86, he’s winding down a career as a name partner of Arnstein & Lehr — which has eight offices nationwide, including four in Florida — and one of the most prolific trial lawyers in Chicago.

Many of Lehr’s successes in the courtroom, as well as his contributions to the firm’s progress over the past several decades, have been documented in the book he penned, “Arnstein & Lehr LLP: The First 120 Years.”

Though he tried his final case in the fall, Lehr plans to keep one foot in the firm, mentoring younger attorneys and conferring with them on legal matters, among other things. He will continue spending winters working from Arnstein & Lehr’s West Palm Beach, Fla., office.

His days as a rough-and-tumble trial attorney may be in the sunset, but Lehr is still as sharp as ever, with a clear mind on years past and the cases that helped him build his name and practice.

Many of his colleagues and peers hope that he keeps that sharpness and willingness to contribute to the legal community for as long as he can.

Way back when

Though Lehr was born in Birmingham, Ala., he considers himself a lifelong Chicagoan since he moved to the city in 1932 at age 4. The oldest of three children to Louis Sr., a fire engine salesman, and Sylvia, a homemaker who served as a military nurse during World War II, his upbringing was decidedly middle-class.

Lehr worked his way through college and law school including jobs as a Good Humor man selling ice cream out of a truck before eventually becoming a company manager. He also booked bands and orchestras for proms and college dances.

“I was always a salesman,” he said. “I think that background helped me when it came to law and trying cases.”

Arnstein & Lehr partner Mark Enright, who’s worked with Lehr for 27 years, said Lehr used that working-class background as a means to relate to a jury, leading to his frequent courtroom successes.

“He had a way of connecting with jurors, paying very close attention to what was going on in a trial and making great closing arguments accordingly,” Enright said. “He understands people, and they appreciate him because he can speak to them like a regular person.”

Lehr admits that he didn’t actually know he wanted to be a lawyer until after he graduated from Loyola University Chicago School of Law. Though he just missed having to serve in World War II, he knew he would likely end up serving in the Korean War, so he enrolled in a five-year program at Loyola that allowed him to finish undergrad and law school within five years.

Louis Lehr in 1952 near the start of his legal career when he was teaching military law at the Provost Marshal General School at Camp Gordon, Ga., and was on leave in Orlando, Fla.

After getting his law degree, Lehr went straight into the Army and started work as a military police officer. He fast-tracked to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) because of a dearth of attorneys in that department.

As the CID lawyer, he taught military law for the provost marshal general school “until they shoved us out to Korea,” he said. The military experience overall, he said, was favorable.

“I learned a lot; I liked being a cop and teaching law,” he said. “Korea was Korea, but I got to see the whole country.”

When he returned to Chicago, Lehr got his first non-military legal job with a small general law firm Hertz Lamm & Cook, where he worked for nearly two years before going to his future namesake firm in 1955, which was then called Lederer Livingston Kahn & Adsit. The firm was 52 years old; he was its 16th lawyer hire.

His interest in gaining trial experience led him to The Chicago Bar Association’s Defense of Prisoners Committee, which existed as a means for defendants who didn’t want to utilize a public defender to request representation from the association. Through this, he spent a lot of at the Cook County Criminal Court Building.

He started his civil law career with the firm primarily focused on Chicago area work, doing about 10 to 15 trial cases a year. He said that level of civil work has died down for many attorneys since the time he did it.

“People tried cases over several thousand dollars, which they don’t do anymore,” he said. “It’s a lot less expensive to settle.”

In his prime, Lehr was often involved in high-stakes litigation in which he worked cases that “involved lots of money and took months to try.” In his hundreds of cases over the better part of 60 years, Lehr’s practice has taken him all over the country, from South Florida to Alaska, where he represented the city of Juneau because of a political situation in which his clients didn’t want to hire local counsel.

Some of his notable cases include representing Johnson Controls Inc. in the 1990 DuPont Plaza hotel fire case in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that claimed nearly 100 lives and a massive antitrust and dumping suit against Sears in the 1970s in which Lehr defended the company against a potential $1 billion in damages in the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

In the years winding down to semi-retirement, he tried no more than a half-dozen complex cases every year.

“The big thing about trying lawsuits is preparation and understanding the facts and being able to present them in such a way to the court that the jurors can understand them,” Lehr said. “I never was one of these lawyers who yelled a lot. … I spoke to jurors and the court how I would to friends.”

Man of the people

Those who have worked with Lehr for decades say his status as a fearsome, master litigator belies a general affability and an everyman sensibility.

San Antonio attorney Les Katona was hired as local counsel to represent Sears in a 2006 Texas state court case involving a fatal vehicle rollover that killed four people. Following their success in that case, they both continue to call each other for advice on legal issues.

“He is absolutely comfortable with the court, the courtroom, juries, judges, opposing counsel and co-counsel,” Katona said. “He is in his element when he’s in the courtroom. Some lawyers are afraid to try cases, some are unnecessarily deferential. And Lou’s none of those things.”

Though Lehr was in his late 70s during their case, Katona said, he had loads of energy to work tirelessly to close the case.

“He was up until 2 a.m. editing video presentations and reordering exhibits,” he said. “He didn’t shy away from anything given his age. He was moving.”

Peter Brennan was associate general counsel for Sears and worked several cases with Lehr until leaving in 2004 for Jenner & Block, where he’s currently a partner.

“He was always very creative. He would always think things through extremely well. He always worked with very good people around the country and had a tremendous network of people around the country,” Brennan said. “Plus, he’s a lot of fun to work with because he’s humorous and had a lot of interesting stories from throughout the years.”

Lehr’s career, Enright said, has been dictated by an innate ability to understand all the angles of a given case.

“Lawyers often have a preconceived notion of what the evidence is going to show, but it never goes down exactly how you think it will and people don’t testify like you expect,” he said. “Lehr always had a great way of keeping his eye on the big picture.”

Perhaps a large part of Lehr’s courtroom success can be attributed to his career-long ritual of getting a bite to eat and some drinks with his co-counsel after each day of court. He became well-known for the ritual, which started early in his career as a rookie lawyer assisting his older counterparts.

“The lawyer I was learning from would always get out of court and work and work some more,” Lehr said. “I said to myself, ‘This is nuts,’ and I told him I think we’d do better if we took a supper break before going back to work.

“I’ve made it a practice ever since. I won’t come back from a day of trial and immediately start working. We always sit down and have a couple drinks and have dinner. Maybe we’ll work until 2 in the morning, but I always insist we have a break.”

120 years and counting

Lehr started writing “Arnstein & Lehr LLP: The First 120 Years” in March 2013, and the book was published that October in conjunction with the firm’s 120th anniversary party at the Shedd Aquarium. He penned the entire book, save the 10th chapter, written by firm partner Mark Miller. The book spends more than 170 pages detailing the evolution of the firm — including its expansions, relocations and name changes — as well as some of the more memorable cases in its history.

An oil painting of Leo Arnstein and Louis Lehr that hangs in the law firm.

He was motivated to write it primarily because the firm has history going back to the late 19th century that was never cohesively compiled in one place. Lehr’s tenure with the firm first becomes a factor on Page 42 of Chapter 5, “A New Era 1954-1963.”

“Thank God the Chicago Tribune was online when we started researching last winter. Much of the stuff we needed was there,” he said. “Back in 1893, Chicago was a small town, so (the Tribune) was like a small-town newspaper; they had something about everybody. Our guys were in the newspaper all the time.”

The book describes how the firm was connected to now-historical events in Chicago’s past, including the Leopold and Loeb case, in which original partner Albert H. Loeb’s son, Richard Loeb, was one of the two University of Chicago Law School students convicted of killing a 14-year-old in an attempt to create the “perfect crime.”

“The early part of the book is really also the history of Chicago because our guys were part of Chicago’s history,” Lehr said. “When I started writing, I got into it and I really liked it. … I felt like I was living with these people.”

There’s no discussing the history of Arnstein & Lehr — and Lehr’s career as a whole — without mentioning Sears, Roebuck and Co., which has been a client of the firm for all but the first of its nearly 121 years. Lehr believes it might be the longest attorney-client relationship in the country.

In his Chicago corner office at 120 S. Riverside Plaza sits a replica of Sears and Roebucks’ early watch and a letter from the presiding judge of the aforementioned $1 billion Philadelphia case.

The firm also helped Sears build its famed, but since renamed, Chicago tower. Lehr successfully defended the company against the Lake County state’s attorney and several suburban villages who sought to halt its construction in the early 1970s. The firm’s Chicago office was in the tower for 10 years.

“I suppose I’m just like a lot of other Chicagoans — I’ll always think of it as the Sears Tower,” he said.

Enduring practice

Attorneys decades younger than Lehr can attest to how dramatically the business of practicing law has changed throughout the years since they graduated law school, so he’s probably seen more changes than most living attorneys.

He said the most profound one in his nearly 60 years of practice is the transformation of law firms into business entities.

“When I joined the firm, there was an office manager, someone answering the switchboard and a secretary,” he said. “Now you have marketing departments, accounting departments, IT departments. … It’s become a big business operation, for good or bad.”

He’s also found that, unlike his experience as a junior attorney in the 1950s, younger attorneys in the current zeitgeist are typically allowed fewer opportunities to practice and gain more trial experience right out of law school.

“There are a lot of litigators in the world but very few trial lawyers,” he said. “And there’s no easy solution to that problem.”

Katona was a recipient of Lehr’s willingness to stand aside and let younger attorneys have their moment in the spotlight, based on the former’s willingness to let Katona handle voir dire on their case.

“Most lawyers in his position keep things very close to the vest and are confident in themselves but believe they are better than everyone,” Katona said. “Lou may recognize he’s as good as or better than others, but he realizes there are people out there with talent, and he lets them exhibit it.”

Unlike many of its peers, Arnstein & Lehr weathered the storm of the floundering economy, which Lehr attributes to the wide variety of law practiced at the firm.

“Through all the ups and downs, we’ve been very fortunate because we don’t have all of our eggs in one basket,” he said. “We’ve never had to let lawyers go or reduce staff. One philosophy I really brought to the firm was slow but deliberate growth.”

He recalled a story from a couple decades ago in which a recruiter tried to convince him to merge Arnstein & Lehr, which currently has about 170 attorneys nationwide, with a larger firm.

“He told me there’s no place for a midsize firm and that if I didn’t merge, we would become a small boutique,” he said. “I disagreed, because we can do the same thing as a Kirkland & Ellis, but we can do it in a way that’s more affordable to a lot of people. That’s where we made our niche: in the middle-market.

“We found that firms who were going out of business overextended themselves. They rushed to bring laterals in their firm, didn’t integrate them properly and took on too much space because they thought the good days would never end. But they did.”

Winding down

Lehr handled his final case — a five-day bench trial in Cook County Circuit Court in which he represented a plaintiff in a breach of employment contract case — in October. In February, his client won a judgment of more than $988,000.

The case capped off a 63-year practice, with 59 of them at Arnstein & Lehr. In recent years, Lehr has tried only a few “largely complex” cases a year. Now in semi-retirement, he only goes into the office about three days a week.

“I enjoyed that last case, and I know I’m gonna miss trying cases, but there comes a time where you say to yourself, ‘enough is enough,’” he said. “I’ll still keep an office, but I’m not gonna work 200 hours anymore. I just gotta take life easy.”

Brennan said that Lehr kept practicing longer than anyone thought he would — including Lehr himself.

“I remember he was in his late 60s saying, ‘Well, I’m probably just gonna work a couple more years,’” he said. “And well, here he we are.”

That early insistence on hanging it up? Lehr said he never actually meant it seriously.

“Especially when you finish a long trial out of town, you say to yourself, ‘Why am I doing all of this?’” he said. “But then I think more about it and I wanted to keep doing it, because it’s something I love to do.”

For the past 32 years, Lehr has spent the winter months in West Palm Beach, working out of the firm’s office there — the first to open outside of Chicago, in 1982.

“Since the bulk of my work was trying cases around the country, the clients didn’t care where I started from, just so long as I got to the courthouse on time,” Lehr said.

Brennan said Lehr successfully managed working out of multiple offices earlier than when the prevalence of Internet and e-mail made it more common for lawyers to do so.

“Even though he was out of town, being out of touch was never an issue,” Brennan said. “He was innovative in pulling that off and still making the client feel like he was on top of things.”

Despite the allure of Florida, Lehr insists he’ll never stay away from Chicago for good.

“This is where all the action is,” he said. “Chicago is a great town, other than the weather.”

As Lehr slowly ramps down his work with the firm, he intends to spend more time engaging in some of his comforts — chess, golf, reading.

He also plans to write some fiction based on his experiences with the Korean War and updating an already published book, “Premises Liability 3d.”

His intention to continue his consultation work no doubt comes as good news to people like Katona, who still call on Lehr’s expertise when possible.

“I hope he’ll stay active in the practice of law, even if it’s just to consult with the rest of us who have to go to work every day,” Katona said. “He’s a very, very valuable asset.”

Edward Caulfield, president of Naperville-based Caulfield Engineering, worked as a forensic consultant and expert witness for Lehr for about three decades. He said Lehr is in rare air with the handful of Chicago attorneys who have practiced in the city for four decades or more.

“Everyone appreciates when people of that stature are sitting at the table,” Caulfield said. “The reason they’ve been around so long is that they’re fair and equitable, and when other attorneys see them, they expect that.”

The legacy that Lehr wants to be remembered for — when he finally does retire for good — is one that likely already exists.

“I was with the firm for a long time and was probably one of the most prolific lawyers we’ve had,” he said. “I’d like them to remember me as fairly decent trial lawyer with a lot of decent results in cases.”