Perkins Coie LLP
Perkins Coie LLP
Gross Billings: $157 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 541110 Offices of Lawyers
Perkins Coie LLP is a law partnership whose clients are among the largest corporations in the world. Through 14 offices primarily located in the western United States, Perkins Coie’s more than 500 lawyers serve clients such as The Boeing Co., AT&T Wireless, and Nintendo of America. The law firm is based in Seattle and operates internationally through offices in Taipei, Taiwan, London, England, and in Hong Kong.
The largest law firm in the Pacific Northwest at the beginning of the 21st century was founded not long after the beginning of the 20th century. It was a law partnership founded with a handshake. In 1912, Perkins Coie’s two original partners first discussed forming their own firm while taking a walk along the streets of Seattle. The instigator of the discussion was George Donworth, Federal Judge of the Western District of Washington. To his side was Elmer Todd, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington. Both men wanted to return to private practice, and Todd appeared to be the first of the two to follow through with his desire. Todd had received a partnership offer from William H. Bogle, who led a well-known Seattle law firm, but during his walk with Judge Donworth an alternative career choice arose. Donworth revealed his intention to resign as a judge and invited Todd to join him in forming a law partnership. The two men shook hands, and on May 1, 1912 opened their business. The new law firm of Donworth & Todd—known as “the Donworth firm” during its formative years—began without any prospects. The law firm had no stenographer, no associates, and no clients.
Throughout Perkins Coie’s history, the law firm was known for its business ties with some of the largest coporations in the world, a legacy established by the fledgling Donworth firm. The leap from having no clients to forging relationships with companies set to become corporate giants was aided greatly by Donworth & Todd’s landlord. The firm rented three offices in the Hoge Building, owned by James D. Hoge, who introduced the law firm to several of its long-term, mainstay clients. Hoge’s contributions as a networker began not long after the Donworth firm landed its first client. Several weeks after opening their doors, the two partners were hired by the Seattle and Lake Washington Water Way Co., a company originally formed to dig a canal through one of the major hills in Seattle. The firm’s second client was provided by Hoge, who served as president of Union Savings and Trust Co.—a banking entity that evolved into Seattle First National Bank, or Seafirst—and hired Donworth & Todd as the chief counsel for his bank, providing a substantial and long-term source of revenue for the young firm.
Hoge’s greatest gift to the fortunes of the Donworth firm arrived in 1914, when he introduced the partners to another Hoge Building tenant. Donworth & Todd’s neighbor owned interests in real estate, timber, and a small airplane company located at the south end of Lake Union, several blocks away from downtown Seattle. The Hoge Building tenant was William E. Boeing. In 1916, Donworth, who controlled most partnership matters, drew up the articles of incorporation for Boeing’s company, the Boeing Airplane and Transport Corporation. As the company matured into the multi-billion-dollar aerospace giant The Boeing Co., the Donworth firm, and later Perkins Coie, assisted in and benefited from the explosive growth recorded by its client, serving as its principal outside counsel.
Donworth & Todd’s two-year anniversary also coincided with several other significant developments. The law firm hired its first associate in 1916, a lawyer name Nelson T. Hartson. That same year, Donworth & Todd gained another valuable client, providing ample work for Hartson and the firm’s second associate, Donworth’s son, Charles T. Donworth. The Donworth firm was hired to manage the personal legal business of Colonel Alden Blethen and his family, the owners and publishers of The Seattle Times. The Blethens remained important clients until 1942, when Elmer Todd retired from the firm to become publisher of the newspaper.
During the law firm’s formative years, a host of other companies—particularly lumber and pulp concerns—counted on the Donworth firm for their legal work. Among the list of early clients were Rainer Pulp and Paper, Grays Harbor Pulp and Paper, and Washington Pulp and Paper. Additional clients were gained in 1919 when Donworth & Todd merged with another law firm, Higgins and Hughes. Important clients obtained through the merger included the largest meat-packer in the western United States, Frye & Co., and pulp and paper manufacturer Zellerbach. The arrival of Higgins (Hughes was killed in World War I) necessitated the first of more than a dozen name changes for the Donworth firm, an ever-changing nomenclature determined by the departure and arrival of name partners. Following the 1919 merger, the firm became known as Donworth, Todd and Higgins.
The 1930s were years of symbolic change and gratifying stability for the law firm. Unlike the vast majority of companies of all types, the Seattle-based partnership escaped the ravages of the Great Depression, thriving while other commercial concerns floundered. Impressively, the law firm registered its success without its chief architect. In 1930, Donworth left the firm at age of 69, departing with his son to form another law firm, Donworth and Donworth. His departure created the need for a new name, Todd, Holman and Sprague, which paid homage to Hollister T. Sprague, who joined the firm in 1921, and a trial lawyer named Frank E. Holman, who was hired in 1928. In the severely harsh economic climate pervading the 1930s, Todd, Holman and Sprague expanded, more than doubling its personnel. The law firm added several important clients, including Puget Sound Power and Light Company, and managed to retain every one of its major clients.
As the law firm’s client roster expanded during the ensuing years, a number of name changes eventually gave way to the modern version of its name. DeForrest Perkins joined as an associate in 1931. J. Paul Coie joined the firm in 1942. Perkins and Coie eventually became the principal name partners, giving the law firm the name of Perkins, Coie, Stone, Olsen and Williams by 1969. In 1985, the law firm followed the trend toward abbreviation that swept throughout the legal profession and changed its name to Perkins Coie. By the time of the name change, both Perkins and Coie had retired.
After a half-century of serving clients in the corporate world, the partnership had earned the esteem of the legal profession in the Pacific Northwest, holding sway as one of the most prominent law firms in the region. The partnership’s 50th anniversary party, celebrated under the name Perkins, Coie, Stone, Olsen & Williams, was attended by the 34 attorneys under its employ. Perkins Coie’s prominence in the region’s legal community stemmed not only from the size of the firm, but also from the company it kept. Since Judge Donworth’s early association with Boeing, the predecessors to Seafirst, and the Blethen family, the firm had developed a reputation as the legal counsel to the region’s biggest names in business.
By 1962, a half-century of growth had deepened the partnership’s imprint on the regional legal and corporate community. The firm was known for serving just a few clients, but the size of it clients compensated for the relatively short list of its accounts. During this period, the partnership served as counsel for Boeing, Puget Power, Rayonier, and Pacific National Bank, among others, enjoying long-standing relationships that upheld the firm as a venerable member of the legal community. Further, Elmer Todd’s decision to leave the firm to steward the fortunes of The Seattle Times had developed into a pattern. Numerous partners left the firm to head the businesses they had once provided legal counsel to, adding to the recognition of the firm. William Allen, a name partner during the early 1940s, left the firm to serve as chairman and president of Boeing. James Prince and Lowell Mickelwait later joined Boeing as vice-presidents. A string of executive appointments followed, including John Ellis to Puget Power, Richard Albrecht, Doug Beighle, and Ted Collins to Boeing, and Christopher Bayley to Burlington Northern.
A Legal Giant in the 1980s
The modern era of the firm’s history began roughly at the same time Perkins Coie became the official name of the firm in 1985. The following year, Robert Giles was appointed managing partner of Perkins Coie, beginning a period of control over the firm that would continue into the 21st century. When Giles took the reins of command, the firm’s revenues—measured by the dollar amount of its billings—stood at $41 million, a figure generated by the 189 attorneys working within the firm. Perkins Coie’s 75th anniversary, celebrated two years after Giles appointment as managing partner, already revealed the hallmark of what would become Giles’ legacy: growth. There were 267 attorneys on hand to mark the occasion, 109 of whom were partners. Based on the number of Perkins Coie attorneys, a support staff of 484 employees, and the billings they generated, Perkins Coie ranked as the largest law firm in the Pacific Northwest.
If managing a law firm, as the old saying goes, is like herding cats, imagine what it’s like to manage Perkins Coie—a firm of almost 500 attorneys in 14 offices worldwide with a Beijing office soon to come. Observers of the legal scene say Robert E. Giles is a master at the task, keeping most of those independent cats from straying. In the process, he’s been successful in helping guide Perkins Coie through the thickets of a changing legal scene, one that has become a competitive pressure cooker.
At roughly the same time that Perkins Coie celebrated its 75th anniversary, the partnership merged with another law firm based in Los Angeles. The deal made Perkins Coie the only law firm with substantial offices up and down the West Coast, from Alaska to California. The merger also set the tone for the 1990s, as the Giles-led firm fanned out and expanded geographically, giving it a sizeable profile in fast-growth regions both domestically and on the international front. In 1992, for instance, the partnership opened an office in Taipei, Taiwan, becoming the first Pacific Northwest law firm to open an office in an Asian country. Staffed with seven attorneys, who dealt with litigation, corporate matters, and licensing and acquisition activity, the Taipei office was the first of three foreign offices opened during the early 1990s. In 1993, when billings topped $100 million for the first time, Perkins Coie opened an office in Hong Kong. The following year, the partnership opened an office in London. The attorneys working these offices represented clients involved in the building of power plants and other infrastructure projects in countries such as Laos, Nepal, and China.
Perkins Coie: 1990s and Beyond
Billings from foreign operations provided essentially the only source of revenue growth during the first half of the 1990s, as Perkins Coie’s domestic business stagnated. In an era of corporate streamlining, the partnership was forced to alter the way it conducted its business. The firm’s clients wanted efficiency and cost-savings, causing Perkins Coie’s billings and salaries to plateau. The hourly rates charged by associates and partners hardly increased during the first half of the decade. In 1990, associates billed out at between $85 an hour and $170 an hour. In 1996, associates billed out at between $90 an hour and $175 an hour. During the same time span, partners’ hourly rates remained flat, ranging from $160 to $275 in 1990 and from $175 to $275 in 1996.
In response to the changing dynamics of the legal profession, Giles implemented several changes. Perkins Coie began offering incentive arrangements as an alternative to hourly billing, linking its fees to the result obtained for the client. The partnership also invested heavily in technology throughout the decade in an attempt to better communicate with clients and to deliver the firm’s services more efficiently.
By the end of the 1990s, growth had returned to Perkins Coie. The partnership’s billings and the number of attorneys it employed increased largely through the emergence and rapid growth of high-technology companies in the Pacific Northwest. A new breed of high-technology entrepreneurs needed legal advice on issues ranging from corporate finance to intellectual property, and Perkins Coie fulfilled those needs. The partnership expanded its intellectual-property practice by forming a patent-litigation group. Perkins Coie also completed a significant merger late in the decade. In October 1998, the partnership absorbed the practice of a Silicon Valley firm, Hosie, Wes, Sacks & Brelsford LLP. The merger gave Perkins Coie 13 attorneys with a strong high-technology practice that included clients such as Yahoo!, Intuit Inc., and The Learning Company and strengthened its position in the Pacific Northwest. Perkins Coie’s high-technology clients in Seattle increasingly were dealing with counterpart companies and venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. “We had to be seen as a player in the Bay Area to maintain our position in Seattle,” Giles explained in a June 25, 1999 interview with the Puget Sound Business Journal.
As Perkins Coie entered the 21st century, its business continued to be grounded by its long-standing relationships with corporate heavyweights, particularly Boeing. There were a wealth of other important Pacific Northwest-based clients, such as AT&T Wireless and Nintendo of America, that added to the considerable sway of the venerable law firm, lending reassuring stability to the Giles-led enterprise. In the years ahead, Perkins Coie promised to be a fixture in the legal field, its legacy of legal work providing justifiable optimism for its future success.
Cooley Goodward LLP; Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe LLP; Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
- Perkins Coie’s predecessor, Donworth & Todd, is formed.
- Donworth & Todd secures William E. Boeing as a client.
- Robert Giles is appointed managing partner.
- A merger with Hosie, Wes, Sacks & Brelsford LLP gives Perkins Coie a physical presence in Silicon Valley.
Bishop, Todd, “Perkins Weighs a Move,” Puget Sound Business Journal, August 17, 2001, p. 13.
Erb, George, “High-Tech Boom Prompts Expansion at Law Firm,” Puget Sound Business Journal, June 25, 1999, p. 29.
“First-Year Attorneys Vault the $100,000 Bar,” Puget Sound Business Journal, February 18, 2000, p. 2.
Freeman, Paul, “Perkins Adjusts to New Legal Landscape,” Puget Sound Business Journal, June 24, 1994, p. 46.
“Law of Supply, Demand; Big Legal Firms Regroup as Smaller Rivals Win Clients with Down-Home Ambiance, Lower Fees,” Seattle Times, March 10, 1996, p. F1.
Neurath, Peter, “A Trend? Perkins’ Newest Credo: Mediate, Rather Than Litigate,” Puget Sound Business Journal, November 4, 1991, p. 27.
——, “Perkins Coie Opens Office in Taiwan, Eyes China Next,” Business Journal-Portland, June 1, 1992, p. 5.
——, “Faster Growth Suits Perkins Coie Just Fine,” Puget Sound Business Journal, June 27, 1997, p. 57.
—Jeffrey L. Covell