Snell & Wilmer L.L.P.
Snell & Wilmer L.L.P.
Founded : 1934 as Snell, Strouss & Salmon
Employees : 635
Sales : $92 million (1998 est.)
NAIC : 54111 Offices of Lawyers
With offices in Phoenix, Tucson, Salt Lake City, and Irvine, California, Snell & Wilmer L.L.P. is one of the western United States’ largest law firms and the 110th largest firm in the country. Its 250-plus attorneys serve more than 8,000 clients, including multinational firms such as Ford, Toyota, and General Motors; Arizona-based firms such as Bank One Arizona and the Arizona Public Service Company; and individuals with a wide range of legal needs. Snell & Wilmer continues to play a major role in the development of modern Phoenix, while at the same time conducting a national practice. It also participates in Lex Mundi, an international association of law firms, to better represent its clients’ interests overseas.
Frank L. Snell, Jr., and Mark Wilmer founded the law firm of Snell & Wilmer. Snell was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1899 and graduated in 1924 from the University of Kansas School of Law. After a few years of solo law practice in Miami, Arizona, Snell moved to Phoenix, where he established Snell, Strouss & Salmon in 1934 during the Great Depression.
Mark Wilmer was born in 1903 in East Troy, Wisconsin. After graduating from Georgetown University with his law degree, he practiced in Texas for two years before moving to Phoenix in 1931. In 1938 Wilmer left the Maricopa County Attorney’s office, where he had prosecuted a local gambling operation, and joined Snell, Strouss & Salmon. To recruit a new lawyer for the busy firm, Frank Snell followed the advice of three Maricopa County Superior Court judges who said Wilmer was the state’s best trial lawyer. Thus began a long partnership and friendship that lasted until both men died in 1994.
During World War II, Frank Snell demonstrated the leadership that made him one of the key players in the development of modern Phoenix. He initiated the “card room putsch” in which the city manager, police chief, and city magistrate—who together wielded undue control over city politics—resigned. Thus Phoenix no longer was off-limits to the military, the USO was reopened, and local leaders began the process to create a new charter government.
After the war, Joseph T. Melczer, Jr., James Walsh, and Edwin Beauchamp joined the firm. Around 1950 the firm decided to shorten its name from Snell, Wilmer, Walsh, Melczer & Beauchamp to Snell & Wilmer. Walsh left the firm to serve as a U.S. District Court judge, and Melczer became one of the state’s premier lawyers for tax issues and estate planning.
The 1950s and 1960s
In the postwar period Frank Snell continued to make major contributions to Phoenix and Arizona as a lawyer and through his civic involvement. For example, in 1952 he helped create the Arizona Public Service Company (APS), the state’s largest utility, from a merger of Central Arizona Light & Power Company and the Arizona Edison Company. Snell had served as an executive of the two predecessor firms from the mid-1940s. His law firm continued to provide outside counsel to APS into the 1990s.
In the 1950s Snell and a few others used an abandoned flight training building in Glendale to start the American Graduate School of International Management, often known as the Thun-derbird School.
Meanwhile, Mark Wilmer represented Arizona in the complex water case Arizona v. California. For years Arizona had tried in vain to gain rights to Colorado River water. In 1953 Arizona filed a lawsuit against the California state government and seven California public agencies. Although California had more attorneys, Arizona had Mark Wilmer. From 1956 to 1958 Wilmer led the plaintiffs team in the trial held in San Francisco.
Based on Wilmer’s discovery of an obscure 1928 congressional act, Arizona prevailed. In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on appeal that Arizona was indeed entitled to Colorado River water, a landmark decision that opened the way for the Central Arizona Project and the state’s tremendous population boom since that time. “The importance of this case to the people of Arizona cannot be overstated,” said attorney Ed Hendricks in the summer 1995 Arizona State Law Journal. “If Arizona had lost, our State would not have had enough water to sustain its remarkable growth.”
From 13 lawyers in 1958, the firm grew to 32 lawyers in 1968, but no women had yet joined the ranks of Snell & Wilmer.
The 1970s and 1980s
In 1972 Frank Snell decided to reduce his administrative role when the firm created its first executive committee, consisting of Mark Wilmer, Joseph Melczer, Don Corbitt, Richard B. Snell, and John T. Bouma. The firm made decisions to build a major national law firm, including expanded recruiting, community service, and legal education.
Meanwhile, two key developments in the 1970s tended to make the legal profession more business oriented. First, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that restrictions on professionals advertising violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and also violated antitrust laws. Those decisions opened the floodgate of advertising by lawyers, dentists, doctors, and other professionals.
Then in 1979 Steven Brill began publishing the American Lawyer with articles about compensation and other internal affairs of the nation’s major law firms. Many firms replaced compensation based on partner seniority to that based on ability to generate clients and build firm income. That led to more lateral hiring or “raiding” of experienced attorneys from other firms.
Not surprisingly, many law firms, including Snell & Wilmer, began to grow by leaps and bounds in the late 1970s and especially the 1980s. Much of that growth occurred under the leadership of John Bouma. Born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Bouma graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Iowa in 1958 and then earned his law degree there. After serving two years in the military’s Judge Advocate General Corps at Arizona’s Fort Huachuca, in 1962 he joined Snell & Wilmer, then a 22-lawyer firm.
When Bouma joined the firm, Phoenix claimed about 440,000 residents, but by 1980 it had almost doubled its population to become the ninth largest city in the United States. Snell & Wilmer grew accordingly.
The law firm opened its Tucson branch office on October 1, 1988 and the following year merged with Tucson’s oldest and largest firm, Bilby & Shoenhair. The combined firm with 213 lawyers operated under the name Snell & Wilmer. “There has been a strong tie between the two firms for many years,” said John Bouma in the May 9, 1989 Arizona Daily Star. “Both organizations want to be able to serve our clients’ expanding needs in the best and most efficient manner. The combined firms will have many of the most respected lawyers in the state in one organization and we’re going to make a great team.”
In 1989 Snell & Wilmer also started an office with five lawyers in Irvine, Orange County, California, the first time an Arizona law firm started a California branch. This move contradicted conventional wisdom, since California was heading into a bad recession. Snell & Wilmer stuck it out, however, and quickly expanded to have one of the ten largest law firms in Orange County.
In the 1970s and 1980s Snell & Wilmer hired its first women attorneys. Two women were part of the 51-lawyer firm in 1978, and by 1989 40 women made up about 20 percent of the rapidly growing firm’s attorney ranks.
Snell & Wilmer’s rapid expansion in the 1980s was influenced by the booming U.S. economy. From 1982 through 1990 Americans enjoyed 96 months of continuous economic growth, the largest peacetime expansion in the nation’s history. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average real family income grew 15 percent from 1982 to 1989.
Developments in the 1990s
Snell & Wilmer in 1991 gained Mrs. Fields Original Cookies, Inc. as a new client. To serve the Utah-based cookie maker, the law firm opened a new branch office in Salt Lake City in 1991. Under the local leadership of Greg Nielsen, Snell & Wilmer recruited seven lawyers from the firm of Hansen and Anderson and hired others from three of Salt Lake City’s oldest firms. By 1994 the Salt Lake City branch included 17 lawyers at its downtown office in the Broadway Centre. It was one of eight out-of-state law firms operating in Salt Lake City.
Our mission is to take a genuine interest in our clients, understand their objectives, and meet or exceed their expectations. We dedicate ourselves to these values. For our clients, we will work hard, provide superior legal services on a timely, effective, and efficient basis, and maintain the highest standard of professional integrity. For our firm, we will foster an enjoyable working environment based on open communication and mutual respect, and will encourage initiative, innovation, teamwork, and loyalty. For our community, we will continue our long tradition of service and leadership.
In 1993 Snell & Wilmer faced a major problem with its long-term client Arizona Public Service Company (APS). In 1993 APS, an account worth $3 million annually to the firm, considered dropping the law firm as its main outside counsel. A worker filed a lawsuit against APS because he felt he had not been selected for a job because earlier he had told APS about safety violations at its Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. In this “whistleblower” case, APS Executive Vice-President and CEO Jaron Norberg said in the August 13,1993 issue of the (Phoenix) Business Journal, “The failure to provide certain items in the discovery process and the overall handling of the case was improper and ineffective.” This case was significant in part because about two-thirds of Snell & Wilmer’s work for APS concerned the nuclear plant. The two Snell & Wilmer attorneys who handled the whistleblower litigation were removed from that account, but APS decided to continue its longstanding relationship with the law firm.
In 1997 the National Law Journal named John Bouma as one of the nation’s 100 most influential lawyers. It mentioned that Bouma was the past president of the State Bar of Arizona, the Arizona Bar Foundation, and the National Conference of Bar Presidents. He specialized in litigation and alternative conflict resolution involving antitrust, malpractice, and commercial law. He continued the tradition of Phoenix civic involvement set by Frank Snell by playing a major role in building new sports stadiums and a new science museum and expanding the Phoenix Art Museum. He served as a leader of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, Arizona Opera Company, and the Foundation for the Conservation of Arizona.
To serve clients’ international needs, Snell & Wilmer became one of the founding members of Lex Mundi, a global association of independent law firms started in 1989 by Stephen McGarry. By 1998 Lex Mundi was the largest such association, with 10,500 lawyers in 145 law firms in more than 80 nations. Other law firm associations included Terralex and Commercial Law Affiliates.
“It (Lex Mundi) gives us the confidence to make referrals when our clients have needs outside the southwestern U.S.,” said Snell & Wilmer attorney Rob Kinas in the June 11, 1998 Arizona Business Gazette. Lex Mundi’s specialty committees also helped educate members on ongoing concerns such as international differences in ethics and law. Kinas also reported that Lex Mundi’s web site (www.lexmundi.org) received more hits than any other online legal site. Some large law firms, however, including Chicago’s Baker & McKenzie, chose to open multiple offices around the world instead of joining a group like Lex Mundi. A third globalization strategy for some law firms was to affiliate with one of the large international accounting firms.
In 1998 U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Brett upheld much of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge John H. Allen’s decisions earlier in the decade by ruling that Snell & Wilmer was not entitled to some $500,000 from Bonneville Pacific, a Salt Lake City alternative-energy firm, for work done by attorney David Leta. But Brett also said the law firm might receive more than $70,000 for Leta’s work for bankruptcy trustee Roger Segal.
In 1998 Snell & Wilmer received two honors or awards. The Arizona Best Practices Awards program, sponsored by the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, honored the law firm with a “Distinguished Achievement” award for “exceeding customer expectations.” Snell & Wilmer was the nation’s first law firm to receive this award from Arthur Andersen.
The second honor came when Kimm Walton, the author of America’s Greatest Places to Work with a Law Degree, chose to include Snell & Wilmer as a firm attractive to new or junior associates. The author pointed out that Snell & Wilmer’s clients included the Tucson Airport Authority, Honeywell, Del Webb, Intel, Mercury Marine, and Household International, which helped make it the nation’s 110th largest law firm. Snell & Wilmer associates told Walton they enjoyed a family-friendly atmosphere in which they were encouraged to work at home if necessary. With computers and modern telecommunications, that policy was consistent with a major trend in many businesses.
Other Snell & Wilmer associates reported they liked the firm’s decentralized management style that supported individual creativity, an open-door policy that improved communication between partners and associates, and “a lot of laughter in the halls.” For example, every year the firm’s annual retreat included videos and skits poking fun at the firm or its attorneys. That sense of humor helped Snell & Wilmer attorneys prepare for serious obstacles in the future.
In March 1999 Snell & Wilmer received a Governor’s Arts Award for its long history of supporting Arizona’s arts community. For example, it provided legal counsel in gaining lottery funding for the arts. The firm also had put together one of the state’s largest photography collections and helped finance the restoration of Tucson’s San Xavier Mission.
In the 1990s the legal profession faced major challenges, from little respect from the public, as seen in popular lawyer jokes, to a self-help consumer movement featuring standard legal forms on computer software and more legal information available on the Internet. Independent paralegals also offered certain services and tested the boundaries of the legal profession.
To improve the firm’s efficiency, Chairman Bouma in 1994 announced that using standardized forms available on the computer would be a priority. One of the first law firms to use such an electronic forms bank, Snell & Wilmer by 1997 had about 3,000 forms available for all its major practice areas. Examples included litigation pleading forms, merger and acquisition confidentiality agreements, and loan forms for banking and real estate transactions. Although much time and effort was necessary to implement this program, in the long run it saved time for the firm’s lawyers. This type of commitment to using technological solutions when appropriate helped the firm compete in a rapidly changing world.
Arizona Photographers: The Snell & Wilmer Collection, University of Arizona: Center for Creative Photography, 1990.
Campo-Flores, Arian, “We Are the World,” American Lawyer, November 1998, pp. 124-27.
Costanzo, Joe, “Law Firm Wants Criticisms Stricken,” Deserei News, June 20, 1996.
Fimea, Mike, “Staying in Good Company Law Firms Benefit from Affiliations,” Arizona Business Gazette, June 11, 1998.
Funk, Marianne, “Bonneville Pacific Trustee Cuts Cash Flow to Lawyers, Others,” Deserei News, December 2, 1992.
_____, “Local Opportunities Blossom As National Law Firms Branch Out,” Deserei News, April 3, 1994.
Giblin, Paul, “APS May Fire Snell & Wilmer After 41 Years,” (Phoenix) Business Journal, August 13, 1993.
Marcus, Daniel R., “Electronic Forms Banks: Low-Tech, High-Yield,” American Lawyer, November 1997.
Rozen, Leah, “A Hot Shot in Sun City,” American Lawyer, July 1982, pp. 11-12.
Rubenstein, Bruce T., “Does Your Outside Counsel Ask for Your Feedback?,” Corporate Legal Times, November 1997.
Schwartz, John, “Many Law Firms Chip Off Old ‘Parents,’” (Phoenix) Business Journal, February 3, 1995, pp. 29-30.
Svejcara, Bob, “Bilby & Shoenhair Join State’s Largest Law Firm, Snell & Wiimer,” Arizona Daily Star, May 9, 1989, p. C1.
“Tribute to Frank Snell,” Arizona State Law Journal, vol. 26 (winter 1994), pp. 917-23.
“Tribute to Mark Wiimer,” Arizona State Law Journal, vol. 27 (summer 1995), pp. 411-22.
Walton, Kimm A., America’s Greatest Places to Work with a Law Degree, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.
—David M. Walden