Kirkland & Ellis LLP History
Chicago, Illinois 60601
Telephone: (312) 861-2000
Fax: (312) 861-2200
Sales: $611 million (2003 est.)
NAIC: 541110 Offices of Lawyers
The Firm's goal is to be an instrumental part of each client's success.
- The firm is founded by Stewart Shepard and Robert McCormick.
- Weymouth Kirkland and Howard Ellis join the firm.
- The Washington office opens.
- Hammond Chaffetz joins the firm.
- Kirkland dies.
- The New York office opens.
- The San Francisco office opens.
Based on gross revenue of $611 million, Kirkland & Ellis LLP is the largest law firm in Chicago and the 12th largest in the United States, according to American Lawyer magazine, using 2002 financial results. It is also the fifth most profitable law firm in the country. In addition to its home office in Chicago, Kirkland maintains offices in Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, London, and San Francisco. All told, the firm employs more than 1,000 attorneys, serving major national and international clients. The firm has ranked consistently within the top five most frequently used firms by Fortune 250 corporations. Practice areas are divided into six groups: bankruptcy, intellectual property, interdisciplinary, litigation, tax and planning, and transaction. The firm has a reputation in the legal community for being extremely aggressive litigators. With the general public, however, Kirkland is best known for the notoriety generated by some of its attorneys: Robert Bork, whose failed nomination to the Supreme Court contributed to a widening gap between conservatives and liberals, and Kenneth Starr, the controversial special prosecutor whose investigations of President Clinton led to his impeachment.
Founding the Firm in 1908
Kirkland was established in 1908 by Chicago attorneys Stewart G. Shepard and Robert R. McCormick. Born to wealth, McCormick was by far the better known of the partners. His father's family made a fortune from manufacturing the McCormick reaper, and his mother was the daughter of the founder and longtime publisher and editor of the Chicago Tribune, Joseph Medill. After attending English boarding schools, McCormick enrolled at Yale University, where he was no more than a mediocre student, graduating in 1903. Uncertain about career plans, he moved to Chicago at the behest of his father and enrolled in Northwestern University Law School. Although he never completed his studies, he was admitted to the bar in 1908. The law practice he formed with Shepard and another partner was originally housed in the Tribune Company building. McCormick's work with the firm was minimal because of his increasing interest in the Tribune. When his uncle, the managing editor of the newspaper, died in 1910, McCormick and his cousin, Joe Patterson, became joint publishers. By 1920 McCormick had severed his ties to the law firm he cofounded and would instead become an important client.
Kirkland's name partners--Weymouth Kirkland and Howard Ellis--both joined the firm in 1915. Kirkland, who was in his late 30s at the time and 15 years older than Ellis, would become the most significant attorney in the first half-century of the firm's history, especially well regarded for his work as a trial lawyer. Ellis, for his part, would assist Kirkland in some of his most celebrated cases. Together, Kirkland and Ellis were a formidable team.
Kirkland became chief counsel to the Tribune, which under McCormick's leadership adopted an aggressive outspoken attitude. The newspaper, which had been in decline when McCormick and Patterson took charge, having fallen to third place in Chicago's circulation wars, became a world famous publication--dubbed "The World's Greatest Newspaper" by the cousins--but the Tribune also became the object of defamation suits, which Kirkland and Ellis would litigate on McCormick's behalf. Henry Ford, for instance, sued the Tribune for $1 million for libel concerning a 1915 editorial. Although Ford actually won the case, Ford was only awarded six cents from the jury. The newspaper also was sued by a Chicago mayor who claimed that the Tribune's campaign against him was in effect a libel against the city, a position the court rejected. The Tribune, represented by Kirkland & Ellis, also took the side of a small Minnesota newspaper that challenged a state "gag" law, which limited the press's ability to criticize public officials. The case, Near v. Minnesota, was perhaps Weymouth Kirkland's greatest legal victory, and was without doubt one of the most important First Amendment cases in history. In 1931 the matter came before the United States Supreme Court, which ruled the Minnesota law unconstitutional. It was Ellis who was credited with developing the concept of "fair comment," which is today taken for granted as a fundamental right of free speech in the United States.
Hammond Chaffetz Joining the Firm in 1938
Ironically, the attorney that would have the greatest impact on the growth of Kirkland & Ellis into a top national law firm came to the attention of Weymouth Kirkland and Howard Ellis when he bested the seemingly unbeatable team--supplemented with legal all-stars--in the courtroom. The attorney was Hammond E. Chaffetz and the case in question was United States v. Socony Vacuum, et. al. Chaffetz graduated from Harvard Law School in 1930, a time when the country had descended into the Great Depression and jobs were difficult to find. Through the recommendation of a professor--Felix Frankfurter, who later became a Supreme Court Justice--Chaffetz was able to secure a position in the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, where over the next several years he became involved in trying a number of antitrust cases. In one, the Justice Department took on International Business Machines, challenging IBM's practice of "tying" the purchase of business machines with punch cards. Decades later, the underlying theories of this case would be used against Microsoft. But Chaffetz was a free-market Republican working in the Democratic administration of Frank Roosevelt. Because he felt his chances of advancement in the Justice Department were limited he decided to resign, but he agreed to take on one final case. In 1938 the 31-year-old Chaffetz headed a small team of Justice Department lawyers that took on 16 major oil companies and 30 executives, charging them with a price-fixing conspiracy in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Chaffetz faced off against some of the country's leading corporate lawyers, including Weymouth Kirkland. Chaffetz won the case, and the ruling was upheld in a landmark Supreme Court ruling. Chaffetz's abilities were not lost on Weymouth Kirkland, who offered him a partnership in Kirkland & Ellis's Washington office, which had opened in 1930 and was little more than an outpost.
Chaffetz went to work in the Washington office, but his career soon was interrupted by World War II. He joined the Navy, served in the Pacific on the aircraft carrier Essex, and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Following the war, he continued to practice for Kirkland for several years in Washington, then in 1951 he moved to Chicago where most of the firm's major clients were located, and where he had recently met his future wife. After years of fighting against major corporations, Chaffetz now defended many of them, including oil companies accused of price fixing. He even defended a mobster, Lucky Luciano of Murder Inc. fame, who along with publisher Moses Annenberg was accused of providing instant horse race results by telegraph to bookies. He argued a number of cases before the Supreme Court, including one that upheld the right of the Standard Oil Company to engage in competitive pricing. In the 1960s he represented General Motors, which faced charges of fixing the price of pollution control valves. He urged GM not to settle the matter out of court, then won the cases at trial. Moreover, when the plaintiffs promised not to appeal if they were paid $50,000 to cover legal costs, Chaffetz convinced GM to refuse, thus sending the message that litigation was not free. A lasting contribution Chaffetz made to the legal profession was his leadership in the development of the procedures and forms encompassed in the Manual for Complex Litigation. This effort grew out of an electrical equipment price-fixing case of the 1960s, when it was discovered that some equipment manufacturers had developed a scheme to allocate bidding rights to each other based on the phases of the moon. Utility companies around the country filed lawsuits against some 20 defendants, resulting in a tangled web of litigation unparalleled in the annals of the federal court system. Chaffetz was instrumental in determining a way to coordinate the handling of multiple lawsuits filed in different courts but involving related parties and issues. The guidelines that resulted from this effort would be relied on by federal judges in more recent cases involving asbestos, breast implants, and tobacco.
When Chaffetz moved to Chicago, he became a driving force in transforming Kirkland into a major law firm. He was a tireless recruiter of young legal talent, targeting the top students at the best law schools. He was known to take job candidates to dinner, capped off with a long walk and a sales pitch. Chaffetz convinced many of them to join Kirkland in Chicago, where he promised they would soon have a chance to work directly with clients, rather than becoming, in effect, the research assistant for a senior partner in a Manhattan law firm with a bigger name. After Weymouth Kirkland died in 1965, followed by Ellis in 1968, most of the firm's top lawyers had been brought in by Chaffetz. In addition to expanding the firm's roster of attorneys, he was also influential in setting the tone of Kirkland's culture. He was a major contributor, of time and money, to many of Chicago's most important civic, charitable, and educational institutions, including the Chicago Symphony, the Steppenwolf theater, United Way, The University of Chicago, and Northwestern Law Schools. In the early 1980s when he was in his 70s, Chaffetz began to cut back on his law practice but he never officially retired. In fact, he would come into the office for another 20 years, the last time the day before he died in January 2001 at the age of 93.
Washington Office Suffering Defections in 1983
Chaffetz was also influential in Kirkland's geographic expansion, as the firm moved into Denver, Los Angeles, New York, and London. Growth did not come without a few stumbles along the way, however. In 1983 the Washington office, which had a major communications law practice, underwent a significant change when the Chicago office landed a new client in Ameritech, the interests of which conflicted with many of the high-tech clients of the Washington office. As a result, partner Richard Wiley felt compelled to split off from Kirkland, forming his own law firm and taking with him about half of Kirkland's 80 Washington attorneys. Ten years later Kirkland lost five key Chicago and Denver attorneys in its lucrative litigation department. They formed their own law firm with offices in Chicago and Denver. A year later, Kirkland slashed its Denver operation, transferring most of the staff to the Los Angeles operation. The firm denied that the financial impact of losing its rainmakers played any role in the decision.
While Kirkland made its early reputation as a champion of the first amendment, over the years the firm became more associated with the protection of corporate interests. In fact, during the 1990s the managing partner of the Washington office, Tom Yannucci, became the scourge of news organizations, engendering both fear and respect for his success in defamation cases. His media law practice began in 1993 when he represented General Motors in its suit against "Dateline NBC," which was found to have used hidden explosives to spice up a crash test demonstration. Over the next several years he would take on the ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, Consumer Reports, and Reuters. His clients would include tobacco company Brown & Williamson and Chiquita Brands International.
In a 2002 profile of Kirkland, American Lawyer wrote, "Trial lawyers are, by nature, alpha dogs. But no big firm embraces that culture so jubilantly as Kirkland & Ellis. 'We love to try cases,' brags litigation partner Thomas Yannucci. 'The internal culture is that you're a wimp if your case is not tried.'" The firm was reluctant to work as a co-counsel, preferring a dominant role. According to one lawyer interviewed by the magazine, Kirkland was "unnecessarily aggressive." American Lawyer went on to say, "The firm is proud of its hard-nosed reputation, but Yannucci insists they don't go over the line. He suggests that any criticism leveled against the firm smacks of sour grapes. 'People will resent you if you make them look bad.'"
Kirkland also drew scrutiny during the 1990s because one of the firm's partners, Kenneth Starr, was named the Whitewater Independent Counsel to investigate past financial dealings of President Clinton, an office that took on a number of other cases, including the Paula Jones civil suit and the Monica Lewinsky investigation that eventually led to the President's impeachment. For a time, Starr continued to serve as a Kirkland attorney while pursuing his independent counsel duties, but under pressure eventually took an unpaid leave of absence. The firm was further entangled in the President's legal problems when a Kirkland attorney, Richard Porter, was found to have faxed an affidavit in the Jones case to the Tribune before it was officially filed in court. Porter was a former aide to President George H. Bush and Vice-President Quayle, overseeing opposition research on Vice-Presidential candidate Al Gore. Porter also was involved in directing Linda Tripp, who had secretly tape recorded conversations with Monica Lewinsky regarding her relationship with the President, to Starr's office. Kirkland maintained that Porter's activities were on his own time and did not represent a conflict.
Kirkland continued its growth into the new century. In 2001 it expanded its Los Angeles office by acquiring the small bankruptcy firm Wynee Spiegel Itkin. In January 2003 Kirkland established its second California location, and sixth worldwide, when it opened an office in San Francisco, a move that according to the firm was "driven by client demand."
Principal Competitors: Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Jones Day; Sidney Austin Brown & Wood LLP.
- Beck, Susan, "Concert Masters: Litigators at Kirkland Always Expect to Call the Tune, Set the Beat, and Finish First," American Lawyer, January 2002, p. 76.
- Johnston, David Cay, "H. E. Chaffetz, 93, Lawyer on Antitrust and Price Fixing," New York Times, January 17, 2001, p. A2.
- Lennon, Robert, "Pushing the Envelope," American Lawyer, January 1, 2004.
- Rosenberg, Geanne, "Tom Yannucci: On the Attack," Columbia Journalism Review, September/October, 2000.
- Warren, James, "Law Firm Where Starr Was a Partner Says It Helped Group Backing Paula Jones, Court Papers Show," Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1998.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 65. St. James Press, 2004.