King & Spalding
King & Spalding
Revenues: $165 million (1996)
SICs: 8111 Legal Services
King & Spalding is the largest law firm in Atlanta and one of the largest in the Southeast. The firm is engaged in the general practice of law, and its 420 lawyers practice in 23 specific areas. Among the latter are antitrust, banking and finance, bankruptcy and commercial litigation, corporate, environmental, governmental, health care, intellectual property and technology, commercial litigation, product liability, public finance, real estate, tax, and trusts and estates. In addition to its Atlanta location in the 191 Peachtree tower, King & Spalding has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Houston.
1880s Founding: Spalding, King, and a Famous Contemporary
In 1883, a young lawyer leaving Atlanta offered this appraisal of the city: “Here the chief end of man,” he wrote, “is certainly to make money, and money cannot be made except by the most vulgar methods. The studious man is pronounced impractical and is suspected as a visionary. All students of specialties—except such practical specialties as carpentering, for instance—are classed together as mere ornamental furniture in the intellectual world—curious, perhaps, and pretty enough, but of very little use and no mercantile value.” The young lawyer was Woodrow Wilson, future President of the United States. More than a century later, many Atlantans would say that his words were bitingly accurate, but one contemporary judged Wilson’s assessment “too scathing,” perhaps the result of the fact that his own firm, Renick & Wilson, had failed.
Wilson married a Rome, Georgia, girl in 1885, the year his fellow attorneys Alexander Campbell King and Jack Johnson Spalding founded the law firm that would bear their names. Like Wilson, Spalding came to Atlanta at the age of 25 and entered the law practice there. He and his wife left Morganfield, Kentucky, and by means of horse and buggy and railroads, arrived in the city on January 4, 1882.
Spalding’s law offices were not impressive, consisting of a shared room in the old James Building for which he and his office-mates shared janitorial duties. During that first year, according to Franklin Garrett’s massive history of the city, Atlanta and Environs, Spalding earned $626. The next year he gained an important account as assignee for a wholesale house, and he paid off the firm’s debts. The fact that he had done so, in part through the knowledge he had gained by studying bookkeeping and business, greatly impressed the influential newspaperman Henry Grady. The latter wrote in the Atlanta Constitution, in Garrett’s words, “that it was the only instance he ever heard of where an assignee paid a firm’s debts in full and turned back money.” In part because of the publicity generated by the story, Spalding enjoyed greater success during the next year, when he made $2,600.
Alexander Campbell King was born the same year as his future partner. Like Spalding—and like most of the city’s residents a century later—he was not a native Atlanta. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, he was admitted to the bar in 1875. Then on January 1, 1885, King and Spalding formed a law firm. During the next decades, the firm would have a variety of names; but once it grew so large that it had too many partners to name, it would revert to the title it had taken on in its humble beginnings—King & Spalding.
In his short biographical portrait of Spalding, Garrett observed that during the more than 50 years of his career, the attorney would have a variety of “distinguished partners,” starting with King and including Patrick Calhoun, John D. Little, E. Marvin Underwood, Daniel MacDougald, John A. Sibley, Robert B. Troutman, Pope F. Brock, and his own son Hughes Spalding. Each man’s name would wind up as part of the firm’s.
When Calhoun joined in 1887, he was apparently such a significant figure that his new partners added his name first, to become Calhoun, King & Spalding. In 1894, he left and was replaced by John D. Little, and King, Spalding & Little continued as an entity until 1908. When Little departed, Marvin Underwood joined, and in 1909 the firm became King, Spalding & Underwood.
As for their business, it seems to have focused on the chief enterprise of the day, which was railroads. Before the Civil War, Atlanta had been a great rail center, and for that reason General Sherman’s troops had burned the city in order to cripple Confederate transport lines. After the war, the railroads returned, and rail transport became a leading factor in the city’s growth. During the 1880s and 1890s, Alexander King worked as general counsel, or assistant general counsel, for the Atlanta & West Point Railroad, the East & West Railroad of Alabama, and a number of other lines.
In 1913, Underwood became Assistant Attorney General of the United States, so the firm reverted to its original name. Underwood was not to be the only member of the firm with ties to Washington. In 1918, the presidential administration of King’s and Spalding’s former Atlanta law colleague Wilson appointed King Solicitor General of the United States. Two years later, he received an appointment as U.S. Circuit Judge of the Fifth Circuit, a position he held until 1925. Because of his former partner’s departure for Washington, Spalding had to reorganize the firm, taking on Daniel MacDougald and John A. Sibley as partners under the name Spalding, MacDougald & Sibley in 1920. Apparently for a brief time after leaving his federal position in 1925, King rejoined the firm, which became King, Spalding, MacDougald & Sibley; but he died the next year, and his name was removed again. In 1935, MacDougald left and Pope Brock and Robert B. Troutman became partners, so that the firm became Spalding, Sibley, Troutman & Brock.
Spalding remained active in political affairs, and served a four-year term as county commissioner for Fulton County. In 1888, just three years after he founded his law firm, he was a delegate at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis; again in 1900, he was a delegate-at-large to the 1900 Convention in Kansas City; and yet again as a delegate-at-large in 1932, he supported the candidacy of New York’s Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Spalding died in 1938, leaving three children, the eldest of whom would become a partner in the law firm.
The Hughes Spalding Era: 1920s-1960s
Born in 1888, Hughes Spalding became a junior member of his father’s firm in 1910. By 1920, the “Spalding” in the name no longer referred to Jack, but to son Hughes, who would continue in a leadership role there for half a century. In 1938 the name changed yet again, to Spalding, Sibley, Troutman & Kelley, and the permutations would continue for the next few decades. In the 1987 obituary for the firm’s oldest attorney, 95-year-old William K. Meadow, the Journal and Constitution noted that he, too, had been a name partner during the years 1956 to 1962, when the firm was called Spalding, Sibley, Troutman, Meadow & Smith.
Eventually these changes would cease, not so much because of the confusion they created as because the firm had taken on too many partners to include them all. Therefore at some point in the early 1960s, the firm returned to its original name: King & Spalding.
An associate in 1935, Meadow became a partner in 1945. His was the era of Hughes Spalding, and in fact his 52-year-career at the firm was second only to the record established by Spalding, who served for 57 years. Under Hughes Spalding, important business links were forged, and others strengthened. Among the boards on which he sat were those of Coca-Cola and Trust Company Bank, both significant clients of the law firm, and both closely tied to one another as well.
Like his father, Hughes became involved in county politics, serving as Fulton County attorney during the 1940s. Meadow assisted Spalding with managing legal matters involving the county on a daily basis, and built his practice around defending insurance companies against lawsuits by policyholders.
At his death, Meadow represented a last remaining link between the past of King & Spalding and its late 20th-century present. In his latter years, he would compose poetic resolutions to honor deceased colleagues, and often quoted Shakespeare in these eulogies. A veteran of World War I, to his dying day he carried in his thigh a German shell fragment from a battlefield in France, a wound for which he had earned a Purple Heart. His career, too, belonged to a romantic, uncomplicated past. As the Journal and Constitution reported, he had no formal partnership agreement with Spalding: “An accountant preparing an audit asked Mr. Meadow how he knew his rights as a partner. ‘I just walk across the hall and ask Hughes Spalding,’ Mr. Meadow replied.”
The Old Ways and the New
Ironically, litigators themselves would be the very people who would strike the death blow against the simple, trusting world that Meadow represented. But not every aspect of that world was positive. Up until the time of Hughes Spalding’s retirement in the mid-1960s, Atlanta was a city run almost exclusively by white males. In a 1985 article about increasing competition for legal positions in Atlanta, the Journal and Constitution noted that the city’s work environment was becoming more like that of New York. This “melancholy transition from polite Southern ways to a ruder and brisker pace,” however, was not entirely to be lamented: “in the old days, nobody who was female or black stood much of a chance of getting into an exclusively white male club. That’s changed too. Women are winning the battle for acceptance, and black graduates of the best law schools find themselves in huge demand.”
Despite the fact that Atlanta was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the principal challenge to the old ways at King & Spalding came in the area of gender, not race. In 1980, associate Elizabeth Hishon was denied a partnership, and filed a sex discrimination suit against the firm. The case went to the Supreme Court, which in 1985 ruled in her favor. Although law firms were private and partnership votes secret, the High Court ruled, those votes are still protected under federal civil rights laws.
The Hishon case assumed tremendous importance in the legal community, both as a matter of law—it received dozens of write-ups in legal journals—and as a matter of hiring practice at firms. Due largely to Hishon v. King & Spalding, a female lawyer in Atlanta told the Journal and Constitution, “Atlanta firms are moving away from ‘good-old-boy’ evaluations.& [F]irms are telling people earlier, in a more straightforward fashion, whether they’re moving toward partnership.”
Changes in society might have opened up more opportunities for minority and female lawyers, but other changes—many of them economic in origin—reduced opportunities for the population as a whole. The 1985 Journal and Constitution story on competition for jobs at Atlanta law firms seemed to recall the tone of Woodrow Wilson’s observations from 102 years before. For those fortunate enough to find jobs with prestigious law firms such as King & Spalding, the pace of work was anything but sleepy. “Along with a package explaining insurance benefits and the like,” Tracy Thompson reported, “first-year associates are handed a key to get into the office on weekends and at night. They are expected to use it.” One young associate with hopes of a partnership told Thompson that a junior attorney is “clearly a machine. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope. You cannot have an off day.”
The same article reported that in spite of its reputation as “Atlanta’s most ‘old-line’ law firm, King & Spalding led the pack in lateral hiring and raiding the partnership ranks of other firms to expand its fields of expertise.” For instance, in 1984 Bob Miller, a partner at a prominent Atlanta firm, accepted an attractive partnership deal at King & Spalding; as a result, he brought with him his old firm’s entire health-care litigation department, consisting of two partners and three associates.
Little Sympathy for Lawyers in the 1980s
Along with other law firms, King & Spalding experienced the effects of what became, by the last two decades of the 20th century, a widespread distrust for lawyers in American society. In a September, 1988 Journal and Constitution article, Thompson cited this attitude as a possible explanation for a Cobb County jury’s decision in a suit involving King & Spalding. The firm had taken a former employee, Clint M. Holcomb, to court for an office-supply overtoiling scheme that it claimed had cost $350,000 during a five-year period from 1975 to 1980. King & Spalding demanded repayment of the amount lost, plus interest and punitive damages totalling $1.1 million, but the jury awarded the firm only $200,000.
State Senator Roy Barnes, who acted as the firm’s representative, told Thompson, “People do not like lawyers,” admitting, “I don’t like lawyers, generally.” His co-counsel, Baxter Davis, said that he and Barnes had “represented one of the most prestigious law firms in this country. That’s not the kind of party that a jury is going to have a great deal of sympathy for.” The demand for damages, Thompson reported, did not include the law firm’s court costs: “We didn’t think that would sit well” with the jury, Davis said.
In a 1989 article entitled “Lawyers Eager to Defend White-Collar Crime Cases,” Robert Luke of the Journal and Constitution suggested that white-collar crime would overtake drug-related crime as a lucrative new market for prestigious law firms. He noted that King & Spalding had organized a six-partner white-collar crime group under the direction of former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell. The firm was at that time representing an aerospace contracting company in Illinois which had agreed to pay the federal government the largest military fraud settlement in American history, $116 million.
In addition, King & Spalding was assisting Exxon Corporation in an internal investigation of its spring 1989 oil spill off the coast of Alaska—an investigation designed to uncover facts which would protect the oil company from the many lawsuits being filed against it. The firm also operated as bond counsel for Georgia counties raising money through the sale of certificates of participation, or COPs. The Atlanta paper, in a 1992 article, indicated that King & Spalding was “profiting from public debt.”
In the 1990s, King & Spalding’s clientele continued to consist of large corporations, enormous non-profit organizations such as hospitals and government entities. Among its most well-known clients—albeit one that ceased to exist—was the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), which staged the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Toward a New Century: Growing in Size and Prestige
As a hallmark of its growth and reputation, King & Spalding announced in the fall of 1987 that it would relocate to what would become one of Atlanta’s most prestigious corporate addresses. Theretofore housed in the Trust Company Tower and the Hurt Building, King & Spalding would lease 250,000 square feet in the 191 Peachtree Tower, to be designed by celebrated architect Philip Johnson. In what would be the largest lease for a building in which the tenant controlled no equity interest, the firm would occupy the top twelve of the building’s 50 stories. King & Spalding moved into the offices, which included a dining room on the top floor, in 1990.
By then the firm had expanded far outside of Atlanta. In 1979 it had opened an office in Washington, D.C. which by 1998 had 65 full-time lawyers specializing in a range of areas from tax to litigation to environmental law. The New York office opened in 1990, and eight years later it had 47 lawyers with a wide range of specialties. Finally, as the firm reported on its web page, “the needs of our existing clients,” coupled with “the recent growth and diversification of the economy in Houston,” motivated the opening of an office in the Texas city in 1995. Thirteen attorneys there practiced commercial litigation and corporate finance and acquisitions.
At one point it was expected that King & Spalding would open offices in Germany, particularly to work with Coca-Cola’s interests there. By the late 1990s, no such move had been made, but the firm did maintain an extensive international practice. Not only did Atlanta companies such as Coca-Cola use King & Spalding to deal with their international legal affairs, but the firm’s reputation was such that a company from outside the city, telephone service provider Sprint, used King & Spalding to negotiate its joint venture with Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom. King & Spalding was also heavily involved in Latin America, for instance representing the life insurance company Jefferson Pilot in Argentina and Home Depot in Chile. King & Spalding attorney Michael Horten, in China to develop joint venture contacts, said “We’ve made a particular effort to get to know every mayor” along the Yangtze River Delta between Shanghai and Nanjing.
King & Spalding had survived the tough times in Atlanta law during the mid-1980s, and in the mid-1990s the Journal and Constitution was proclaiming “Happy Days Are Here Again for Atlanta’s Big Law Firms.” In the recession of the early 1990s, three major Atlanta firms—Hansell & Post; Hurt, Richardson; and Trotter, Smith & Jacobs—had shut down. By 1994, King & Spalding was without a doubt the oldest, largest (284 lawyers), and fastest-growing law firm in Atlanta. And with the average cost of a lawyer’s services much lower in Atlanta—even at King & Spalding—than in New York City, business was only likely to grow.
Along with its size, the reputation of King & Spalding had grown with the passing of years. Though it had never included Woodrow Wilson among its partners or associates, a number of other prominent figures from the political world had passed through its doors. Among these was Charles Kirbo, a little-known but powerful associate of President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. In Kirbo’s September 3, 1996 obituary, Jack Warner of the Journal and Constitution wrote that “for the four years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Charles Hughes Kirbo may have been the most powerful private citizen in the United States.” Other important figures at King & Spalding in the 1990s included Griffin Bell, who had served in Carter’s administration; and former Governor George Busbee. On January 3, 1997, the Atlanta paper reported that an even bigger fish would soon be swimming in the King & Spalding pond. Sam Nunn was retiring from the U.S. Senate, where he had wielded enormously power as the head of the Armed Services Committee, and had accepted a partnership at the firm.
Bennett, Tom, “William K. Meadow, 95, Oldest Attorney at King & Spalding,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, November 29, 1987, p. E6.
Coleman, Zach, “Atlanta Law Firms Head into International Waters,” Atlanta Business Chronicle, May 19, 1997.
Curriden, Mark, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, January 23, 1994, p. H1.
Georgia Through Two Centuries: Family and Personal History, Volume II, New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1965.
Salter, Sallye, “King & Spalding Will Move to New Building,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 2, 1987, p. D1.
Seward, Christopher, “Top Billing: King & Spalding Reigns in State’s Legal World,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, June 5, 1997, p. E1.
Thompson, Tracy, “Competition Is Changing Tradition at City’s Most Prestigious Law Firms,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 25, 1985, p. A1.
——, “Lawyers Get No Respect, Firm Believes: Jury Seems to Uphold That in Lawsuit Award,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, September 10, 1988, p. A1.
Warner, Jack, “Obituaries: Charles H. Kirbo, Lawyer, Carter Ally,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, September 3, 1996, p. B6.
Wells, Delia Wager, The First Hundred Years: A Centennial History of King & Spalding, Atlanta: King & Spalding, 1985.
Whitt, Richard, “Merchants of Debt: Higher Costs in Legal Fees,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, September 20, 1992, p. A9.