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In 1912, the law firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, then three years old, built the first solid concrete building in Columbus, Ohio. Three years later, on a speculative whim, the firm bought and rebuilt the adjacent building, a livery stable that had burned down, and leased the renovated office space to such businesses as Columbus Hardware and the New York Central Railroad Company. “Perhaps no improvement in Columbus is more welcome than this one,” trumpeted the Columbus Evening Dispatch on news of the purchase, “as it practically ensures the development of Gay Street into a business street of great importance.” Gay Street did grow into a healthy, if understated, commercial thoroughfare. And today the 347-lawyer Vorys Sater, long the largest firm in Columbus, still operates from its original headquarters there. But Vorys Sater’s history is much more than a lesson in real estate development. Just one storefront among the many lining the block, the firm’s office demonstrates the symbiosis between Vorys Sater and Columbus’s business community. “As the city grows, and our clients grow, we grow,” says Robert Werth, the longtime commercial and real estate lawyer who is the fourth managing partner in the firm’s 91-year history. “Dave Thomas started with one hamburger shop on Broad Street, and it became Wendy’s; Les Wexner had one clothing store in Kingsville Shopping Center, and that’s now become The Limited. There are a number of big stories like that.” Litigators make up a full third of Vorys Sater’s ranks, and the firm has roots in insurance work, once a boom industry in Columbus. But today Vorys Sater bills itself as a full-service firm for homegrown clients. Werth notes with pride that longtime client Worthington Industries, Inc., an international conglomerate with a market cap of about $1 billion, started with Vorys Sater when it was a humble operation selling steel from a garage. Other household names among the more than 4,000 clients on Vorys Sater’s roster are Wendy’s International, Inc.; Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc.; The Limited, Inc.; and Abercrombie & Fitch Co. “Our practice is distinguished from the money-center firms by the range of our clients and by the fact that we do many things for many clients,” says corporate partner Russell Gertmenian. “We’re very integrally involved in the whole spectrum of our clients’ work.” As a result, Werth says, the firm has developed practices in “every area except domestic relations.” Some of the firm’s newer departments — such as the immigration and international law departments the firm built primarily to service Honda — directly reflect the growth of Columbus. The Ohio capital is the nation’s eighth-fastest-growing metropolitan area and one of its most active commercial distribution centers. Columbus may be growing fast — but Vorys Sater’s partners profess little interest in keeping up with the Skaddens and Wilson Sonsinis of the world. Asked about pressure to grow, Gertmenian responds slightly defensively. “What you’re really asking is, ‘Is our institution viable on a going-forward basis?’” he says. “We’re comfortable that we’ll continue to flourish, be flexible in the marketplace, and meet clients’ needs. None of us are smart enough to know what it’s going to be ten years from now. Here, the glue is being part of the success of the firm we inherited. I really do think that makes us different.” Maybe because times have been so good in Columbus for so long, and because the future is expected to be so bright, managing partners there de-emphasize natural rivalries. There’s plenty of business to go around, Werth says, so competition is muted among Columbus firms and some major Cleveland firms whose Columbus offices are steadily growing. Says Robert “Buzz” Trafford, managing partner at Columbus’s second-largest firm, 270-lawyer Porter Wright Morris & Arthur: “Competition is not the largest issue. We’re looking at issues like how firms will evolve, and at globalization and industry consolidation. There are bigger things to worry about.” That collegiality applies within firms too. At Vorys Sater, records of billable hours are not distributed among partners; only Werth knows exactly how many hours each lawyer puts in day to day. Werth speaks disdainfully of the practice of “hoarding clients” and de-emphasizes the importance of rainmaking. Money is important, he says, “but we rely on individuals to do what’s right. We don’t want the wrong lawyer handling work for the sake of compensation.” Every two years, each Vorys Sater partner evaluates every other partner on six criteria — legal ability, work effort, client service, client attraction, community service, and teamwork — and tells a three-member compensation committee how much each partner should earn. The committee then builds a consensus based on those evaluations, and the results are distributed among the partnership. Says Gertmenian: “Our partnership is something other than just an economic arrangement.” Public service is an important element of the partnership at Vorys Sater, and at other Columbus firms as well. “Lawyers in Columbus have always been very community-oriented,” explains one veteran legal recruiter there. “They were the group that had the money to do it first.” The business community has been generous to the firm, goes the common logic, so the firm gives back to the community. “As I sit and look outside my window, I can see a lot of big office buildings, none of which would have been financed if not for the lawyers occupying them,” says Columbus Bar Association (CBA) executive director Alexander Lagusch. These days, lawyers are so heavily involved in the community that it’s hard to name just a few who stand out as community leaders, Lagousch says: “Fifteen years ago, I probably would have been able to identify five to ten legal titans in Columbus.” John Elam, who retired in 1994 after 30 years as Vorys Sater’s presiding partner, is undeniably one of those titans. A litigator who practiced in the era when lawyers could be good friends with the judges before whom they argued, Elam is as close to a Columbus lawyer-politico as it gets. From the office he still occupies at Vorys Sater, he serves as a touchstone for the firm’s involvement in public affairs. Among other things, he has been the president of the CBA and a trustee of the Columbus College of Art & Design. For eight years he has been a board member of the Wexner Center Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization that supports the arts in Columbus. Elam has led by example. “Virtually every charitable organization in Columbus has some Vorys lawyer supporting it, either with money or work,” says Vorys Sater litigation partner Gail Ford. Ten CBA presidents have come from Vorys Sater, and lawyers from the firm developed and helped implement the Capital South Community Urban Redevelopment Corp., the project responsible for updating a big part of downtown Columbus. “Columbus is an open community without a ruling class,” Gertmenian says. “There’s not a generation of people and families who run the town and control the town, and control the arts and control what interests people,” he says. “Growth here is accelerating, so there are big opportunities for people coming in to get involved. Anyone can have an impact, professionally and personally.” Vorys Sater is an old-fashioned firm, steeped in its own tradition, and it is considered conservative and staid even by Columbus’s standards. Thus, it is surprising to hear of Vorys Sater’s notable line of firsts: In 1971 it was the first firm in Columbus to hire a woman attorney, and in 1978 it was the first to make a woman partner. Vorys Sater partner Carl Smallwood is the first African American to head the CBA. And it may well be that the firm can claim the first associate perk. In 1969 James Seymour, the quirky son of a Vorys Sater founder, created a firm-funded trust to finance spontaneous trips for a handful of associates each year. “Seymour’s view was that lawyers become too narrowly focused, and that there is much more to life and to the practice that they should be aware of,” says Smallwood. The trust has grown, and today, under the so-called Seymour Plan, the firm pays round-trip airfare every year for six associates and six staff members to go abroad, to do whatever they’d like, for as long as they want. “Seymour was a man who began an ascent of Mount Everest after his seventieth birthday,” Smallwood says. “Many people would say that Seymour is the conscience of the law firm, and that this is part of his legacy.” Tradition resonates throughout Vorys Sater. The firm “was built on a handshake,” Werth says, and to this day, there is no written partnership agreement. Vorys Sater has never merged with another firm, and it keeps lateral hiring to a minimum. Only one partner, a trial attorney, has ever left the Columbus office for another law firm; he departed just last year to join a smaller firm where he focuses on plaintiffs’ work. Even Vorys Sater’s offices in the concrete edifice built in 1912 are a bit of a throwback to a bygone era. Despite having annexed three adjacent buildings to accommodate its growth, Vorys Sater is bursting at the seams. Associates complain that few of their offices have windows. The firm’s library is where Columbus Hardware used to stand. The original gas lamps still adorn the wall, though they’ve been modernized to work electrically. And some offices look out on a beautiful garden atrium that has been planted to cover the rooftop where the firm’s original building was made to connect with its immediate neighbor. The firm once considered moving to a new high-rise in Columbus’s glistening, glass-and-steel business district, but the financing for the project fell through, and the firm stayed put. As a result, it pays no rent. Any tour of Vorys Sater ends at the firm’s “nerve center.” It’s a kitchen, actually — a real one with cookie jars and a rack of pots and pans hanging from the ceiling over the stove. A small pantry with painted wooden shelves is stocked with sundries such as extra cans of Bumble Bee tuna. The firm’s chef has catered lawyers’ lunches for 15 years and knows the culinary preferences of nearly everyone at the firm. Lawyers sneak down periodically for a late-afternoon snack. If Werth has his way, Vorys Sater will keep its kitchen for as long as it can. “This firm is like a house,” he says. “From the moment you walk in each morning, to the time you leave, the only people you see are the people you work with. It makes us much closer.” And in Columbus, that’s a real advantage — at least for as long as the cookie jar remains stocked. Am Law 200 Index

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