Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly LLP History
45 S. 7th Street
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402
Telephone: (612) 607-7000
Fax: (612) 607-7100
Founded: 1886 as Lawler and Durment
Operating Revenues: $102.0 million (2004 est.)
NAIC: 541110 Law Offices
Our Values: All across our firm, Oppenheimer attorneys and staff subscribe to the same set of core values: Relationship-based Client Service; Talent-based Quality; Innovation; Respect: Entrepreneurial Spirit; Team Mindset; Diversity.
- Daniel W. Lawler and Edmund S. Durment found a law firm in St. Paul, Minnesota.
- William H. Oppenheimer joins the firm.
- The firm is renamed Oppenheimer Dickson Hodgson Brown and Donnelly.
- The firm takes on start-up company Control Data Corporation (CDC) as a client.
- The CDC antitrust lawsuit against IBM is initiated.
- Oppenheimer is nationally known for work with technology companies.
- The firm relocates to Minneapolis.
- Oppenheimer opens a Washington, D.C. office, beginning a geographical expansion drive.
- Another expansion drive begins, with growth on both the East and West Coasts.
- The technology industry meltdown devastates the firm's intellectual property practice.
- The firm's offices outside of Minneapolis are closed.
Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly LLP offers its legal expertise to businesses operating everything from manufacturing to food to nanotechnology and ranging in size from start-up to global giant. While its scope of services is broad, Oppenheimer has special expertise in the area of technology, a practice that has brought the firm both good times and bad.
River City Roots: 1880s-1950s
The roots of Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly LLP were sown in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the late 19th century. Daniel W. Lawler and Edmund S. Durment established a law practice in the river town in 1886. The railroad industry provided business opportunities in those early days. William H. Oppenheimer joined the firm in 1913. Virginia L. Martin wrote in Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly and Its 111-Year History, "Will Oppenheimer put his imprimatur on the little firm so indelibly that not even its incredible growth, major changes in the law, in the firm itself, and in technology have entirely erased it more than eighty years later." Moreover, Oppenheimer and various firm partners would play important roles in the development of the upper Mississippi River town during the early years of the 20th century.
By 1925, with its early partners gone, the firm became Oppenheimer Dickson Hodgson Brown and Donnelly, the second largest law practice in St. Paul. While individual practice brought in much of the firm's revenues well into the mid-20th century, Will Oppenheimer built a cache of corporate clients from the 1920s through the 1950s, including The St. Paul Companies, Economics Laboratories (Ecolab), and Brown and Bigelow. But work for a start-up computer company proved to be pivotal.
According to Martin, "Control Data Company (CDC) played two important roles in Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly's growth: First it retained the firm as general counsel, initiating a major hiring frenzy; twenty years later, it began hiring its own in-house legal staff, drastically reducing the amount of work the company gave the firm and forcing it to undergo a major reassessment of its path."
The Oppenheimer firm first defended CDC (now Ceridian Corporation) when it faced litigation during the late 1950s into the early 1960s, directed at it from Sperry Rand Corporation (Unisys), the former employer of many CDC executives. But a much larger CDC case followed.
CDC brought an antitrust lawsuit against IBM in 1976. A total of 30 full- and part-time attorneys plus 125 paralegals were engaged in the research and discovery phase of the case. Settled in CDC's favor in 1972, the case drew considerable press coverage and gave the firm national attention.
Oppenheimer's work with CDC on the IBM suit led to the establishment of an office in Brussels in 1969. The city was the home of CDC's European headquarters and became the site of the firm's first expansion outside St. Paul. In 1973, Oppenheimer crossed the river into Minneapolis, opening an office in the new IDS Tower downtown.
Time of Transformation: 1980s
By 1979, Oppenheimer's work with CDC had tapered off. The early 1980s marked a period of change for the company and the legal profession. Oppenheimer began its "transformation from a small law firm to a large international firm," observed Martin. In terms of the legal profession, the number of women practicing law began to grow rapidly, and new types of practices, such as environmental law, were being initiated.
Oppenheimer opened its third office in 1983, in Washington, D.C. Offices in New York and Chicago followed three years later, expanding practice areas and diversifying the firm's clientele. Also in 1986, Oppenheimer grew its Minneapolis operation, merging with another of that city's firms. A second international office opened in 1988, in Paris.
In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that attorneys could advertise, subject to state bar association rules. Many law firms were slow to jump on the bandwagon, concerned about the reaction of potential and current clients. But as the number of lawyers grew--725,000 in the U.S. by 1990--so did the need to compete for business. Oppenheimer hired its first marketing director in 1987.
In 1989, as part of an effort to raise the firm's profile and client numbers, Oppenheimer sponsored a dinner with Boris Yeltsin, then deputy to the Supreme Soviet. The following year Polish Solidarity labor union leader Lech Walesa met exclusively with Oppenheimer clients interested in doing business with Poland. "Both are part of the firm's Eastern European strategy that includes seminars, newsletters and client briefing," wrote Carol Kleiman of the Chicago Tribune. Oppenheimer Marketing Director James C. Bilwas was quick to point out that high-visibility visits were part of an overall marketing plan. Other activities ranged from producing videos to educating the company's lawyers in marketing techniques. During 1991 the firm ran ads in the Wall Street Journal, a move to mitigate the confusion on the part of the public over the two Oppenheimer entities: the law firm and the financial company.
From 1985 to 1991, led by Thomas Kane as managing partner, the number of Oppenheimer attorneys nearly doubled. After six years of aggressive expansion, Kane was voted out of the position. Kane, a 25-year veteran of the firm, planned to stay on as a practicing attorney. But the marketing director who had helped raise the firm's local profile during the period departed.
The shift in leadership had been preceded by the exodus of more than two dozen attorneys. The attrition rate of 12 percent in the course of the year exceeded that of the city's other large law firms. According to Minneapolis-St. Paul CityBusiness, the culture of the firm had changed during the period of rapid growth. The influx of new attorneys drove up the level of competition for a coveted role as firm partner.
In the industry at large, growth had been flat. Business declines on the coasts had resulted in layoffs and the culling of attorneys failing to generate business. As for Oppenheimer, its real estate and merger and acquisition work had fallen off, but the firm was elevating its intellectual property and employment law efforts.
Donald Engle, the new managing partner, who had served for 35 years as corporate lawyer for Burlington Northern Inc., looked for a 20 percent increase in revenues by 1993. He envisioned Oppenheimer--the Twin Cities' number three law firm--among the top 75 law firms in the nation.
Technology Driven: The 1990s
An expansion drive begun in 1996 was driven in large part by the technology boom. Oppenheimer entered California in early 1997 via merger with intellectual property firm Poms, Smith, Lande & Rose. Another group of intellectual property attorneys came over from Bronson, Bronson & McKinnon, joining the Oppenheimer Silicon Valley office. Oppenheimer further grew its corporate practice in California during 1998, to keep pace with the rapidly expanding tech industry. The firm merged with Newport Beach-based Bruck & Perry but retained the Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly name. The Asian market also became more viable with a significant West Coast location.
On the opposite coast, Oppenheimer merged its Washington, D.C. office with Bayh, Connaughton & Steward, P.C. in 1998, creating Oppenheimer Wolff Donnelly & Bayh LLP. Former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh continued his practice within the combined entity. "The merger strengthens Oppenheimer's established practice areas and greatly expands the government relations capability of the firm's international network," a PR Newswire article of April 1998 reported. The D.C. and California mergers were part of an expansion drive begun in 1996.
The 1998 version of the 100-year-old-plus firm consisted of 300 attorneys with offices in Amsterdam, Brussels, Chicago, Geneva, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Orange County, Paris, St. Paul, Silicon Valley, and Washington, D.C. Strategic alliances were set up in Milan and Rome.
Oppenheimer's expansion of its intellectual law practice garnered the company some of its own legal problems in 1999. Graham & James claimed that Oppenheimer had lured attorneys away from its firm. Oppenheimer closed its two-year-old San Jose office and moved to Palo Alto. Twenty Oppenheimer attorneys were practicing intellectual property law in the Silicon Valley. In 1998, more than one-quarter of the firm's $88 million in revenue had come from intellectual property practice, according to the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).
Technology Making a U-Turn: 2000s
During 2000, Oppenheimer earned the distinction as the first Minnesota firm to enter the realm of fee-based online services. Targeting the Internet industry--those clients who were already at home on the Web--the firm offered an "opinion of patentability" for a flat fee of $500. An Internet patent infringement assessment for $1,000 was also ready to fly. Oppenheimer employed more than 35 intellectual property attorneys nationally. Requests for computer-related patents had climbed in the United States, rising from 1,300 to 2,600 from 1998 to 1999, according to the Star Tribune.
Concurrently, tech-related business failures were on the upswing. On the one hand, the situation increased business opportunities for Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly. During the 1990s the firm had developed business in the area of restructuring public companies, preparing them for the escalation of bankruptcies on both coasts. But dot-com failures had a withering effect on NASDAQ and the flow of private capital into the high-tech industry.
Michael Bleck, who had led Oppenheimer's drive to the technology track, retired from his position as CEO in 2001. One hundred attorneys practiced in California. Technology clients were bringing in more than half of the firm's revenue. Under Bleck's six years of leadership, Oppenheimer's revenue had grown from $60 million to $120 million, according to the Star Tribune.
The technology meltdown devastated Oppenheimer's intellectual property practice. The firm closed its Palo Alto office at the end of May 2003 and concurrently shut the doors in New York. Amid rumors about the firm's demise, Oppenheimer determined that it would downsize, leaving only its Minneapolis office open. "Its offices in Paris, Brussels and Geneva are for sale, office furniture included," reported David Phelps for the Star Tribune in June 2003. The Orange County office was scheduled to close in mid-July.
While Oppenheimer ranked fifth among Twin Cities law firms in 2002, the reorganization dropped the firm to about tenth in size, with about 120 attorneys in Minneapolis. The firm had left the city of its birth, St. Paul, entirely during 2000. Since Oppenheimer's Minneapolis office had continued to pull in profits even as the satellite offices struggled, the partners believed the firm could continue on successfully as a local firm.
The new and much smaller Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly achieved its revenue goals during the year following the reorganization, according to a September 2004 ABA article. Continued stability, not a return to growth, was in its immediate future.
Principal Competitors: Cooley Godward; Howrey Simon Arnold & White.
- Beal, Dave, "Dave Beal Column," Saint Paul Pioneer Press, August 31, 2003.
- Chanen, Jill Schachner, "Back from the Brink," ABA Journal, September 2004, pp. 34+.
- Hoogesteger, John, "Bankruptcy Wave May Follow Tech Cash Trouble," CityBusiness (Minneapolis), June 30, 2000, p. 1.
- Jean, Sheryl, "Need E-Commerce Advice? Oppenheimer Goes Online," CityBusiness (Minneapolis), February 18, 2000, p. 1.
- Kleiman, Carol, "Marketing Becomes More in Evidence at Law Firms," Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1990, p. 1.
- Martin, Virginia L., "Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly and Its 111-Year History," Ramsey County History, Spring 1997, pp. 4-21.
- Nissen, Todd, "Oppenheimer Wolff Feels Growing Pains," Minneapols-St. Paul CityBusiness, November 25, 1991, pp. 1+.
- "Oppenheimer Expands in California; Grows Silicon Valley Office & Merges with Newport Beach Firm," PR Newswire, June 29, 1998.
- "Oppenheimer Expands in Washington, D.C.," PR Newswire, April 1, 1998, p. 1.
- Phelps, David, "Oppenheimer Downsizes, Will Stay in Minneapolis," Star Tribune (Minneapolis), June 10, 2003, p. 1D.
- ------, "Oppenheimer Firm in Legal Dispute Over Expansion," Star Tribune (Minneapolis), August 21, 1999, p. 2D.
- St. Anthony, Neal, "Tech Slump to Last a While, Execs Say," Star Tribune (Minneapolis), March 3, 2001, p. 1D.
- Smith, Martin J., "Law Firms' New Tack PR Campaigns Become Necessary in a Competitive Market," Orange County Register, August 21, 1991, p. C01.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 71. St. James Press, 2005.