Holme Roberts & Owen LLP
Holme Roberts & Owen LLP
Incorporated : 1950 as Holme, Roberts, More, Owen & Keegan
Employees : 463
Sales : $60 million (1998 est.)
NAIC : 54111 Offices of Lawyers
Holme Roberts & Owen LLP has grown from a small partnership into one of the largest law firms in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain area. From its main Denver office, the company operates branch offices in Boulder, Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City, and, internationally, in London. Holme Roberts & Owen (HRO) provides legal counsel in a wide variety of areas, from mining, energy, and banking, three traditional practice areas, to more recent fields such as environmental and intellectual property law that have expanded due to more government regulations and innovative technology. HRO’s largest practice concentration is in litigation.
Origins and Early Practice
HRO can trace its earliest history to 1898, when William McKinley was in the White House and two Denver attorneys began a partnership in Colorado. At that time, Tyson Dines, Sr., a prominent trial lawyer who had come from St. Louis teamed up with Elmer F. Whitted, the lawyer for Colorado and Southern Railroad, to form Dines and Whitted. After Dines’s cousin Orville Dines and Peter Hagner Holme joined, in 1906 and 1908, respectively, the firm became known as Dines, Dines, and Holme, remaining under that name until 1950.
In the early years, the partnership concentrated much of its practice in mining, oil, and railroad issues. For example, Dines, Sr., represented Verner Reed, a prominent Denver citizen, in his oil claims in the Salt Creek fields of Wyoming. The law firm was also involved in mining litigation in Cripple Creek, a mining community west of Colorado Springs, as well as in railroad litigation in the early 1900s.
In 1919 Harold D. Roberts joined the firm and one year later became the main draftsman of the Mineral Leasing Act that guided the ways in which the federal government leased oil, gas, and other mineral rights to companies. This Act would remain in effect in 1999.
Dines, Sr., died in 1928, but his son, Tyson Dines, Jr., remained a partner for many years. J. Churchill Owen, Sr., also integral to the firm’s early growth, joined the law firm in 1926. Owen, Sr., was born in Cripple Creek, where his father practiced law in the mining boom times from 1894 to 1906. Attorneys Robert E. More and Milton J. Keegan also started working for the firm in 1926.
In the 1920s the firm became more involved in banking issues and in representing Denver’s stock brokerage firms. For example, Holme and Dines, Jr., helped found the U.S. National Bank of Denver in 1921 and served on that entity’s board of directors. The stock market crash of 1929 did not hurt Denver as much as it affected other areas of the nation, and the law firm, comprised of about ten lawyers, stayed active with oil and banking issues throughout the 1930s. During World War II, Owen, Sr., left the firm to serve on the federal government’s War Production Board, while a staff of eight attorneys kept the firm running.
In 1950 the firm’s name was changed to Holme, Roberts, More, Owen & Keegan. Keegan died in 1954, and More retired in the late 1950s, so the firm then became Holme Roberts & Owen. Two sons of name partners joined the firm after World War II. Peter Holme, Jr., had come onboard by 1955, about the same time his father died. In 1957 James C Owen, Jr., joined the firm. The son of name partner J. Churchill Owen, Sr., James Owen was born in 1926, graduated from Yale with a B.S. degree in 1954, and two years later received an LL.B. degree cum laude from the University of Denver. Partner Ted Stockmar also joined the growing firm in the mid-1950s. With a degree in petroleum engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, as well as a law degree, Stockmar proved integral to the law firm’s oil practice.
James E. Bye joined HRO in 1957 and went on to become one of the firm’s top attorneys dealing with tax issues, natural resources, and international law. Bye would push for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s and worked with other HRO attorneys to aid clients doing business in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
With about 17 lawyers and six partners by 1955, the firm was ready for a new office, moving from its original offices in the old First National Bank Building to become the first tenant in a new building on the corner of 17th and Broadway. Denver was booming and so was HRO.
Harold Roberts and other HRO attorneys played a major role in Denver’s struggle for adequate water supplies in the 1950s. In 1952 The Denver Water Board retained Roberts in the fight to gain water from the Blue River on the Western Slope of Colorado and bring it over the mountains to Denver on the Eastern Slope. After several years in court, Denver won this struggle against Western Slope interests and also the federal government that claimed prior rights to the supply in question. The city honored Roberts by naming the diversion tunnel that brought water to Denver “The Harold D. Roberts Tunnel.” Unfortunately, Roberts died soon thereafter of a heart attack in 1956.
HRO expanded from 17 to 26 attorneys between 1955 and 1965, and its staff increased from 23 to 32. More companies moved to Denver; new buildings were constructed; and the oil and mining industries remained vital. By 1965 HRO was among Denver’s top three largest law firms.
Denver’s and HRO’s growth continued in the decade from 1965 to 1975. New mining and oil discoveries and a booming real estate market kept HRO busy. The firm increased to 61 lawyers and 79 staff members, and it opened its Colorado Springs branch office during those ten years. The firm recruited female partner Pat Clark to gain her expertise in the real estate field, but she soon accepted an appointment as a federal bankruptcy judge. Another partner, Dick Matsch, left to join the federal district court.
Meanwhile, HRO helped the United States National Bank merge with the Denver National Bank to create the Denver U.S. National Bank and later helped it to organize a bank holding company. Soon the names became the United Bank of Denver and the United Bank of Colorado.
Rapid Growth in the 1970s and 1980s
From 1975 to 1985, HRO saw tremendous growth, from 61 to 170 attorneys. By 1985 the firm also employed 44 paralegals. This expansion occurred as the nation suffered extreme inflation from the Arab oil embargo and the energy crisis of the 1970s. Such events increased the need for U.S. oil firms to search for new oil deposits; major oil firms, who were potential clients, started regional offices in Denver during those years. New high-tech firms in Denver also needed legal services, and HRO grew accordingly. During this time, HRO opened an office in Boulder.
In 1980 HRO opened its Salt Lake City office, the first out-of-state firm to do so. Since it was larger than any of the historic Utah law firms, which had at most about 100 attorneys, HRO offered higher salaries; the lateral hires began.
HRO’s expansion from 1975 to 1985 coincided with the nationwide growth and transformation of many firms. Previously most partners came up through the ranks and were paid on a seniority “lockstep” method. However, after U.S. Supreme Court rulings opened the way for professional advertising, American Lawyer magazine began in 1979 to feature information about partner salaries in different firms. Lateral hires, or raiding other firms for experienced partners who usually specialized in one area of the law, became standard practice at HRO and other large firms.
Still, some older generation HRO attorneys bemoaned the resulting loss of collegiality and tradition that lateral hires engendered. For example, in the January 17, 1999 Denver Rocky Mountain News James C. Owen, Jr., after 42 years at HRO, remarked: “We had great camaraderie. We’sve grown so large now that it’s much less so.... Many young lawyers here know nothing about our history, or they don’st care.”
As the decade began, HRO continued to grow. In 1991 the firm opened a new office in London. Senior partner Bruce R. Kohler, a Harvard Law School graduate with 18 years of experience at HRO in international business transactions, headed the new office. In an interview published in the July 31, 1991 Deseret News, Kohler explained that “It’s a general phenomenon of the Rocky Mountain region.... Companies in our area are now becoming active internationally and this move (to open a London office) is our response to that.” Kohler also pointed out that both small and large firms, such as U.S. West, were taking advantage of these new business opportunities, but in any case they usually needed outside advice from consultants, trade experts, and of course attorneys. Previously, only large law firms in the East or West could afford such overseas offices, added Kohler.
HRO’s London office maintained strong ties to affiliated law firms in France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Spain. HRO attorneys helped its corporate clients deal with changing European laws and trends. New business was generated, for example, in the early 1990s, when the treaty for European unity was signed and ratified by 12 nations, leading to the European Union introducing a common currency called “the euro” by the end of the decade.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, several U.S. law firms started offices in Moscow, as did HRO in 1993, to help businesses take advantage of new opportunities. For example, HRO represented Interfax, the former Soviet Union’s largest independent business and news agency, as it increased operations in Western Europe and North America.
However, Moscow office rentals in the 1990s ran four times the rates as those in downtown Manhattan. In the November 1998 issue of American Lawyer, HRO partner David Goldberg said the firm’s Russian practice was profitable. However, in February 1997 the firm closed its Moscow office due to high business expenses and political dangers. In addition, competition from huge law firms, some with 1,000 lawyers or more, prompted HRO to exit Moscow. The erratic Russian economy, where government employees sometimes went months without being paid and even food was hard to buy, caused other law firms to reduce their staffs and pare down for long-term survival.
At the same time, back in Salt Lake City, HRO’s Mark Buchi, the branch office’s managing partner, played a key role in what became known as the landmark “AMAX case” that impacted all Utah property owners. It started in 1986 when several Utah companies, including AMAX Magnesium, later renamed MagCorp, represented by Buchi, asked the State Tax Commission for a 20 percent property tax discount. Buchi argued that state-assessed properties of AMAX should receive the same rate as county-assessed properties. The commission refused, so the case went to the Utah Supreme Court, which in 1990 ruled that the discount should apply to AMAX. After more disputes on this issue, in 1993 Utah’s Court of Appeals ordered the State Tax Commission to strictly follow the 1990 ruling by the Utah Supreme Court.
In 1997, HRO’s Salt Lake City office merged with the firm of Haley & Stolebarger, a commercial litigation firm. Five attorneys joined HRO as a result of the merger, including partners George M. Haley and Robert L. Stolebarger, and also Frank E. Moss, Utah’s U.S. Democratic senator from 1959 to 1977, who was “of counsel” to HRO. Moss, aged 88, still spent a couple of hours a day in 1998 at the firm’s downtown office. He also served as the senior counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based humanitarian group called The Caring Institute.
Two HRO attorneys made significant contributions as Utah tax lawyers. Mark Buchi, who had served as chair of the Utah State Tax Commission, was honored by the Utah State Bar’s Tax Section as the outstanding tax attorney of 1997. Buchi spent three years developing a new state tax court system that was implemented on May 1, 1997, only to be rejected by the Utah Supreme Court. However, an amendment to the Utah Constitution allowed the new tax court to finally be implemented.
In 1998 Utah Governor Mike Leavitt appointed HRO’s R. Bruce Johnson to the tax commission. Johnson had worked as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Tax Division before joining HRO.
HRO employed about 25 attorneys in its Salt Lake City office. Its lawyers authored Utah’s Limited Liability Company Act and represented major clients such as U.S. West Communications, Intermountain Health Care, Flying J, The Williams Companies, Amalgamated Sugar Company, Brigham Young University, Chase Manhattan Bank, Morris Travel, and the Northwest Pipeline Company.
Diversity issues influenced HRO in the 1990s. Not only did the firm represent clients hit with discrimination issues, the firm itself tried to hire as many lawyers with different backgrounds as it could. By 1999, the firm employed 19 women partners and 40 women associates. However, few minorities joined HRO.
HRO attorneys demonstrated a wide diversity of political views. Some in the firm backed Republican partner Don Bain when he ran for Denver mayor in 1987, while others backed the successful candidate, Federico Pena. Some HRO attorneys represented lesbian and ACLU clients.
In contrast, partner John R. Wylie in the Colorado Springs branch office headed a conservative Christian lawyers association. Wylie oversaw HRO’s representation of some major religious organizations based in Colorado Springs, including The Navigators, a nondenominational organization that by 1990 had 3,000 staff members in over 70 nations working to build lay discipleship. HRO’s religious clients also included the Promise Keepers, World Vision, Young Life, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
In the late 1990s, HRO employed about 50 attorneys involved in some form of litigation practice, the firm’s largest concentration of legal expertise. The following cases were notable.
In 1997, HRO represented plaintiffs in the two largest jury verdicts in Colorado’s history. First, HRO helped Arapahoe County cable TV company United International Holdings Inc. win a $153.5 million civil lawsuit against Wharf Holdings Inc., a Hong Kong firm. Wharf was convicted of breaking an oral agreement to United International that the latter would have a ten percent share in creating Hong Kong’s first cable television system.
In the second case, HRO represented Boulder-based Storage Technology Corporation that won a $67.8 million award from Array Technology Corporation and its parent, Tandem Computers Inc., for selling flawed computer devices and not delivering the equipment on time.
In 1997 Tele-Communications Inc.’s founder Bob J. Magness died and left a $1 billion estate, the largest in Colorado history. HRO represented the estate’s two executors, Director Donne Fisher and University of Denver Chancellor Dan Ritchie, in a complicated court battle that finally was settled in April 1998.
HRO attorneys also represented defendant Martin Marietta Corporation (MMC) in one of the nation’s major age discrimination lawsuits. In the early 1990s, MMC’s Astronautics Group laid off approximately 5,000 workers at its Denver facilities. Almost 200 of those workers alleged that the firm discriminated against them because they were over 40 years old. In Marvin D. Wilkerson et al v. Martin Marietta Corporation, Judge Wiley Daniel in 1997 decided that the consent decree agreed to by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and MMC was “fair, adequate and reasonable.”
After litigation, HRO’s second largest practice area was its corporate and securities practice, which involved about 20 percent of its business. Representative clients included ACX Technologies, the Adolph Coors Company, and the Anschutz Corporation. In the 1990s, HRO’s corporate attorneys played key roles in the merger of Southern Pacific with Union Pacific to create the nation’s largest railroad firm.
HRO’s third major practice area in the late 1990s was environmental law. HRO helped its clients comply with numerous federal and state environmental laws that began to be passed around 1970. HRO’s attorneys wrote the Colorado Environmental Law Handbook, published by Government Institutes, Inc., and represented such clients as Shell Oil Company, Southern Pacific, Sundstrand Corporation, Cotter Corporation, and Meridian Oil in complex environmental cleanup and personal-injury cases.
With so many new lawyers graduating from law schools, the 1990s saw even more aggressive rivalries in the legal services industry. Just as HRO moved to Salt Lake City to challenge smaller firms, large national firms came to Denver to compete with HRO and other local firms. At the same time, big accounting firms hired hundreds of attorneys. Many corporations beefed up their own internal law departments to avoid paying the high costs of outside counsel. In addition, independent paralegals provided some limited services and computer software programs allowed consumers to help themselves using standardized legal forms in simple transactions. The self-help movement impacted most professionals, not just lawyers.
In the January 17, 1999 Denver Rocky Mountain News, HRO’s Executive Committee Chairman Dean Salter described HROs future plans. Despite the consolidation of small firms into huge firms, he observed, “we are not looking for a merger partner.” He added, “There will be a place for us—a good strong regional firm—for a long time.” Other than increasing the firm’s intellectual property practice and adding more attorneys to its London office, HRO said it had no other expansion plans.
On January 2, 1999, the death of HRO partner James C. Owen, Jr., marked the end of an era at the law firm. Owen was the last partner whose surname was part of the firm’s identity. For over four decades he had worked as an HRO attorney representing key clients, including the United Bank and the Gates Rubber Company, which was acquired by the British firm Tompkins plc for $1.6 billion.
Beyond his legal work, Owen set a great example of community service for his HRO colleagues. For years he served the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver, which his father had founded in 1961. Owen also sat on the boards of the Denver Zoo, the Botanical Gardens, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Denver Public Library. Owen conceded that such civic activities gained HRO contacts, and thus clients, but he maintained that they were still important and worthy causes in their own right.
Chairman Dean Salter in the January 17,1999 Denver Rocky Mountain News recognized Owen as “a repository of so many traditions of the firm,” and HRO attorneys strove to continue Owen’s heritage of community service. For example, in 1999 HRO announced that attorneys Manuel L. Martinez, Matt A. Mayor, and Nancy J. Gegenheimer had been elected, respectively, to The Children’s Hospital Foundation Board of Trustees, the Opera Colorado Board of Directors, and the board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver.
HRO attorneys thus tried to balance their legacy of serving local and regional organizations with their firm’s more recent focus on international clients and issues in an era of rapid change for both society and the legal profession.
Funk, Marianne, “Local Opportunities Blossom As National Law Firms Branch Out,” Deseret News, April 3, 1994, pp. Ml, M2.
Hansen, Susan, “Lost in the Ruble,” American Lawyer, November 1998, pp. 80-85.
Hoback, Jane, “Hallowed Halls,” Denver Rocky Mountain News, January 17, 1999, pp. G1, G8-G10.
Knudson, Max B., “New Law Office in London Offers Utah Firms a Gateway to Europe,” Deseret News, July 31, 1991.
Owen, J. Churchill, Sr., “History of Holme Roberts & Owen,” Denver: Holme Roberts & Owen LLP, 1985.
Rayburn, Jim, “Suit Could Jeopardize AM AX Pact,” Deseret News, May 23, 1992.
Roberts, Harold D., History of the Salt Creek Oil Fields, Denver: Holme Roberts & Owen, n.d.
Walden, David M., “Holme Roberts & Owen LLC,” in Centennial Utah, edited by G. Wesley Johnson and Marian Ashby Johnson, pp. 70-71, Encino, Calif.: Cherbo Publishing Group, 1995.
—David M. Walden