Dorsey turns 100 in turbulent times

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 6, 2012 - 8:01 PM

Like most law firms, Dorsey & Whitney has struggled through the downturn, but it says it's in a strong financial position.

This weekend marked the 100th anniversary of Dorsey & Whitney, one of Minnesota's most successful law firms with a blue-chip client list and a roster of who's who attorneys in public and private service.

Past and present Dorsey lawyers include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, former Vice President Walter Mondale, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and in-house counselors for most of the state's Fortune 500 companies.

It's been a heady weekend of activities for the 570-member firm that brought in lawyers from all 19 of its worldwide offices for meetings, receptions and fun highlighted by a walleye-and-steak dinner for 1,000 Saturday night at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

But the firm must hope that its 100th year in business is better than its 97th, 98th and 99th years of operation. Like nearly all law firms, Dorsey struggled through the Great Recession. But, because of Dorsey's size the downturn was more noticeable.

Firm revenue dropped a combined 12 percent in 2009 and 2010 before flattening in 2011 at $323.5 million. But even then, its workforce of lawyers declined last year by slightly more than 6 percent, according to the American Lawyer, a trade journal. And while its revenue level ranked 88th among the largest 100 U.S. law firms, its profits per partner, a key economic indicator, ranked 99th.

Indeed, Dorsey is testing the waters for new office space for its Minneapolis office to accommodate its more modest office space needs.

"There have been dramatic changes in the law firm model," said Dorsey's managing partner, Marianne Short. "You can't just raise your rates every year and become more profitable. You have to struggle to reinvent yourself. But we're in a strong financial position. We have no debt. We're paying our bills on time. Could we be more profitable? Yes, we could be more profitable."

The financial health of big law firms is headline news these days. The Wall Street firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf seems on an inexorable march to implosion. The firm is dying under the weight of a debt load it incurred with compensation guarantees to existing and new partners to bring in business.

"The Dewey story is a cautionary tale," said law Prof. Herbert Kritzer of the University of Minnesota Law School. "You've got to wonder how many marriages between law firms got put on hold because of that one."

'You never say no'

Which raises the question whether Dorsey is a merger candidate. Crosstown rival Faegre & Benson in January merged with Indianapolis-based Baker & Daniels to form Faegre Baker Daniels. That deal made Faegre Minnesota's largest law firm, a title Dorsey had held for decades.

"You never say no to anything," said Short. "You look at client needs. Some practice groups could be more robust. You can do it in onesies and twosies or you can also look at smaller firms and peer firms. But you don't want to grow just for growth's sake."

But for the past weekend, the focus was on Dorsey's historic presence in Minneapolis and Minnesota. It began as a two-person law firm consisting of William Lancaster and David Simpson, who were called into service by First National Bank of Minneapolis. A century later, First National Bank's successor, U.S. Bank, remains a Dorsey client.

"We partner with our clients and we know their business and we know their needs," Short said.

First known as Lancaster & Simpson, the firm didn't settle on the Dorsey & Whitney name until 1982 amid 17 iterations in the intervening years.

The first office was at 5th Street and 2nd Avenue in a building long gone. Subsequent addresses for the firm included the Soo Line Building, the First National Bank building, the Pillsbury Center and its current location at 6th Street and Nicollet Mall -- also the address of seafood restaurant Oceanaire.

Branching out

Dorsey opened an office in New York in 1984, followed by a London office in 1986 and established a Washington, D.C., presence in 1988. Today the firm's 19 locations include Hong Kong, Shanghai and Sydney, Australia.

Along the way, Dorsey served the likes of the Mayo Clinic -- Harry Blackmun's client -- and the Minnesota Twins under the ownership of Calvin Griffith when he brought the Twins to town in 1961. Dorsey lawyers laid the legal groundwork for the downtown Minneapolis skyway system, sorting through sticky easement and property rights issues.

"Dorsey is as establishment as you can be," said Dan Kleinberger, a William Mitchell College of Law professor. "They have a wide range of clients including a lot of national clients. In some business circles there is a bias against everything but East Coast law firms. Dorsey rises above that as well as any Minnesota firm can."

Dorsey is the 14th existing law firm in Minnesota to reach the century mark. Others include the former Faegre and Benson firm, which celebrated its 125th anniversary last year; the Mankato firm of Farrish Johnson, and Johnson Killen and Seiler of Duluth.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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