Ogletree Deakins Hits 40-Year Mark, Looks to the Future
May 01, 2017 07:55PM
By Makayla Gay
By Emily Stevenson
Photography by Amy Randall Photography
On Valentine’s Day in 1977, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak, and Stewart, P.C., hung out its shingle. At the time, the firm had 16 attorneys based in Greenville and Atlanta, many with the goal to simply make it through the first year.
This February, the firm celebrated its ruby anniversary. Greenville Business Magazine spoke with several attorneys, including founding members of the firm, to take a look at the past, the temperature of the present, and their projections for the future.
When asked how it felt to be hitting the 40-year mark, L. Gray Geddie, chairman emeritus, summed it up pretty succinctly.
“Old,” he laughed.
Geddie, along with Fred Suggs, Lewis T. Smoak, and M. Baker Wyche, are four attorneys of the original 16 who are still heavily involved in client development and service. When Ogletree Deakins was founded, most were fresh out of law school, with only a year or two of practice – if that – under their belts. With new houses and wives and young children at home, thoughts of 2017 didn’t cross their mind; simply getting through 1977 was hurdle enough.
“Our goal was to make it through the first year,” said Smoak.
Although their immediate focus was to survive and garner an income, the original Ogletree Deakins team was devoted to providing top-notch legal services, an ambition that hasn’t faded over the years.
“Our objective was to be the best lawyers we could be without having anyone impede that ability,” said Wyche. “At the time, employment and labor law was a very special area in the practice of law. Very few people practiced in that area. We had something that was pretty special.”
Eric C. Schweitzer, managing shareholder for the Columbia office for nine years, as well as managing shareholder of the Charleston office until he
retired in 2014, was another of the original 16 members of the firm. At the time Ogletree Deakins was founded and he was invited to join the new firm, he was searching for another job. His goal, upon joining the firm, was a little more prosaic.
Said Schweitzer, “My goal, back then, was to try to work as hard as I could and be the best labor and employment lawyer I could to show my thanks to this group for bringing me along.”
The dedication to unity and to fostering a collegiate, collaborative environment helped the company weather the ups and downs of business. Greenville particularly saw a drastic change in its economic landscape. The firm had to recalibrate its focus to stay afloat.
“One of the things to think about is, when we started the firm in 1977, 80 percent of our clients were textile,” said Suggs. “During the 80s, particularly when China was admitted to the [World Trade Organization], the textile industry precipitously declined.”
That would have been the end for many law firms, but, like Greenville itself, Ogletree Deakins adapted. Soon, their business became substantially automotive-based with the arrival of Michelin NA and BMW.
Charleston experienced a similar metamorphosis. At the time Ogletree Deakins decided to open its Lowcountry branch, the economy had taken a nose-dive, thanks to the decision to close the naval base, putting tens of thousands of people out of work.
“They announced the closure of the Navy base, and we saw that as creating a big vacuum that we predicted would be filled over the next decade or so, hopefully with new industry,” says Schweitzer. “Rather than running away from the blow Charleston had taken, we decided to go down and show support for Charleston and hopefully make it attractive to new industry, in addition to serving the clients we already had down there.”
The firm’s Charleston office will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2018. Benjamin P. Glass, current office managing shareholder in Charleston, is looking forward to celebrating his office’s progress.
“When I began with Ogletree in Greenville, S.C., the firm had 118 lawyers in eight offices across the Southeast,” Glass says. “Now, we have more than 50 offices across the world and more than 800 lawyers advising the world’s largest employers and handling some of the most complex and significant labor and employment law matters that have been decided in the last several years.”
In the time since its founding, Ogletree Deakins has grown substantially, including international offices in Toronto, Mexico City, London, and Berlin. In March, the firm opened a Paris office, as well as its sixth California office in Sacramento, and an office in Oklahoma City, Okla. Even over a 40-year span, the firm has seen a significant increase in footprint and personnel, and they expect the growth to continue.
“I think that will expand as our clients ask us to handle matters for them in countries all over the world,” said Smoak. “At the same time, we’re filling in the U.S.”
Michael M. Shetterly, Greenville’s current office managing shareholder, has been with the firm for 17 years. He’s witnessed firsthand the growth and admits it’s even more impressive from his perspective.
“When outsiders see the firm’s trajectory, the results look amazing,” says Shetterly. “When you experience the trajectory from the inside, the reason for it is obvious. Attorneys and staff alike, those who have made Ogletree into an international success share a relentless pursuit of excellence and a commitment to solving our clients’ problems – exceptional minds committed to the single purpose of serving our clients’ needs.”
Client need is at the heart of Ogletree Deakins’ growth and expansion. Nearly all of the firm’s offices were opened because of clients in a particular area who sought representation.
“We went where clients wanted,” said Suggs.
“A lot of this is client-driven,” added Wyche. “They’re asking us, ‘I’ve got something that’s happening in this particular geographic area.’ We represent a tremendous number of clients that are foreign companies but have offices in the U.S. They ask what we might be able to provide [in terms of legal representation] in a foreign country.”
The same sentiment applies for companies on the other side of the state. Schweitzer says the opening of the Charleston office was in direct response to client need.
“I had been working with different clients in the Charleston area for some time,” Schweitzer said. “I was very much in favor of opening an office there.”
With in-state offices in Columbia and Charleston and locations in neighboring Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh, it would be easy for the Greenville office to issue edicts from on high – except that’s not how it’s done at Ogletree Deakins. The firm strives to provide a framework for business operations, but gives each individual office the authority to make decisions that are best based on local need.
“One of the principles of the firm is local autonomy,” says Geddie. “They have a lot of control over staffing, etc. We don’t dictate what, say, Birmingham is going to do. We’ll tell them to have two client functions a year, but they pick out what they are.”
In addition, the firm shares business from office to office. The Greenville office might originate a case with a client, but if the work is in Texas or California or Illinois, the Greenville office will happily collaborate with that locational office. That boots-on-the-ground approach has given Ogletree a leg up over other large national firms doing business from afar.
However, Ogletree also boasts centers of competence in individual offices. If certain locations are particularly knowledgeable about a specific practice area, that practice from those few offices will support that legal area for clients across the country, in all the offices.
A good example of that is the Columbia office, which has the largest business immigration practice in South Carolina and is the national center for the firm’s federal contract compliance practice.
“Ogletree did not even exist in Columbia 40 years ago, but look at us today,” says Kathy Dudley Helms, Columbia office managing shareholder. “Just like Columbia and the Midlands, we are growing and advancing and great things are yet to come.”
Great things are already happening for the nationally renowned firm. The company has 51 fellows in the College of Labor and Employment Law, 79 attorneys in ranked in the 2016 Chambers U.S.A., and 190 named to the Best Lawyers in America list for 2017. In addition, U.S. News – Best Lawyers® has named Ogletree Deakins a “Law Firm of the Year” for six consecutive years. Still, the group doesn’t let praise go to its collective heads.
“These are markers that merely are indicative of what we’re doing,” says Wyche. “We’re not actively seeking them, but they’re coming because of the work that we do.”
The group’s decision to split from the original firm of Thompson, Ogletree and Haynsworth drove much of their ambition. After spending nearly half a decade recruiting new attorneys and grooming them into a culture, the founding shareholders are optimistic about the next 40 years.
“I hope they’ll maintain the culture,” said Suggs. “We’ve turned down people who had big books of business because we didn’t think they were a good cultural fit. We’ve parted ways with lawyers with a lot of business who turned out not to be good fits. I hope that the firm will continue to
maintain the collegiality, openness, and particularly the open governance that we have.”
Transparency is a key tenet at Ogletree Deakins, one that its attorneys and staff value highly.
“Throughout this time of rapid growth, I have witnessed our firm stay true to the core culture and values that attracted me to Ogletree Deakins in the first place: transparency, mutual respect, and premier client service,” says Glass.
When asked for the key to Ogletree’s success, the attorneys all quickly mentioned their clients. Looking forward, continued client service is a must if the firm is to enjoy the success it has in the past.
“My biggest hope is that the firm will continue to focus on quality of client service and not size,” said Schweitzer. “I know the firm has gotten large, but it was never a goal of ours to become big. The goal was always client service, and the growth was a result of that, not an individual goal.”
Adds Helms, “Our vision for the next 40 years is based on our vision today, to work with our clients and make them the best employers anywhere.”
Above all, they’re proud of the legacy they’ve created and are grateful to pass down the institution into eager, capable young hands.
“I’m proudest of the fact that we have a firm where the younger lawyers can grow up, become mature lawyers, continue their practice, and have the same kind of success that the four of us have had,” said Smoak. “That’s unique in today’s world of movement.”
He adds, “We’ve created something that is not just about us. It’s about the next generation, and hopefully the next generation behind them.”