It seems hard to believe that it’s been 34 years since Jim Koch and I tried our first case together. At that time–1983, to be specific–we were both young men. We were Assistant State’s Attorneys in the Public Integrity Unit. Almost all of our cases were covered by the press–bribery, corruption, official misconduct, solicitation to commit murder, and the like. (Jim even was named a special United States Attorney to handle a case involving a Chicago alderman.)
I became the head of that Public Integrity Unit, but Jim left the State’s Attorney’s Office to work at the National Futures Association, enforcing member regulations involving traders. He then went into private practice representing companies involving commodities and securities trading. After a while, I too left the SAO. I joined McBride Baker & Coles (which later became Holland & Knight’s Chicago office).
In 1992, Jim had been crisscrossing the country for a couple years handling litigation for one of the big FCMs in Chicago–sometimes taking his sons along, just to see how much responsibility he could juggle at one time. Jim and I talked about combining forces–along with John Hines–to start a new firm. Jim had too much work for one man to do. My practice had expanded, too, but I was worried about providing economical service for clients at a larger firm. John Hines, our prospective third, was a brilliant writer and possessed a great analytical mind.
Before making the new firm a “go,” however, Jim had one more thing that he wanted to do: to try to become a Cook County judge. Jim hadn’t gone to a single Cook County political event. He hadn’t passed out a single political leaflet. He didn’t know his committeeman. But he did have great credentials: a case before the United State’s Supreme Court (his first of three), and a list of cases longer than 90 percent of sitting judges.
The next day, he called me. He said, “I’ve got bad news for Cook County justice system, but good news for a new law firm.” We were on our way.
We set up in the Monadnock Building, where Jim had been officing. We had three offices and a cubby where our part-time secretary sat. We took the shortest lease the building would give us: one year. After six months, we bought a tall file cabinet–a used one.
After a year, we hired Lynn Weisberg. The interview took a whopping five minutes. She claimed to like the Minnesota Gophers and, when quizzed by Jim, she could name the players. Lynn had the same birthday as mine. We immediately cannibalized the entryway into an office for her.
Since that time, the firm has grown and prospered. John Wrona joined the firm 19 years ago and promptly turned a case that had been allowed to be dismissed by another lawyer into a seven-figure settlement–the first of many. Jenni Airato proved to be Lynn’s alter ego. She became a partner in the Family Law Department. Barry Owen won case after difficult case in municipal law and was named partner. Michelle Lagrotta handled complex, technical municipal cases while also acting as Jim’s sidekick in commodities litigation (even including spoofing cases). In 2017, she was named partner. Kellie Sellman became a partner after Vince Lavieri taught her the condominium practice; soon, she proved to every property manager in the region that she’s the best condominium lawyer in Chicago. (The condo practice has tripled since she came aboard.)
Over the years, we have gone from one of the smaller firms in the Monadnock Building to its largest tenant. For perspective: the building takes up a full block in length and a half a block in width, and it’s 18 stories tall. We added a Naperville office when Susan Rogers merged her estate planning and real estate firm into ours. Kathi Orr took an office across from ours and added her high-octane personality to the mix. Last year, we opened an office to serve our clients who live or summer in Lake Geneva. (That office may have some gaps in its hours when the sun is out and the water is calm.)
As we have grown, we have been able to attract terrific lawyers. Being talented, however, isn’t enough to work at our place. We have a history of rejecting good lawyers with big practices and bad personalities. The key has always been to hire good people who are great lawyers. The same rule applies to our skilled and experienced staff. As a result, unlike many law firms where internal drama flourishes, our people actually get along with each other and work together to get results. (Of course, with Jim Koch around there is no lack of humor or impertinence.)
The most important trait of our firm is dedication to our clients. We started with only a handful of clients, and–a quarter-century later–we still do the things that allowed us to grow strong in those early days. We work hard and late. We communicate with clients 24/7. We satisfy client deadlines over our personal schedules. We commit to client goals when approaching problems. We value long-term relationships and never think shortsightedly. We want our clients to say that we got the job done and to tell others. Throughout our firm’s existence, they have.
June 2017 marks are firm’s 25th year. When we signed that first one-year lease, we weren’t sure how this thing would turn out. All in all, we couldn’t be happier about these past 25 years. And we couldn’t be more thankful to those clients, spouses, friends, referring lawyers and relatives who helped so much to make it happen.