It wasn't any particular case that stood out when Baird Holm attorneys reflected on history as part of celebrating the firm's 140th anniversary this year.
It was the people, and the way the firm's attorneys have contributed to the firm's longevity and to Omaha's development over the decades.
“At the end of the day, it's a relationship-driven business,” managing partner Rick Putnam said. “If you have the people, the service will follow. 99.9 percent of businesses are never going to make 140 years.”
One of those people was co-founder C.S. Montgomery, an organizer of and general counsel to the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, the fair that drew more than 2.5 million people to Kountze Park in north Omaha in 1898.
Another was Paul L. Martin, who served as second dean of the Creighton University School of Law. And Baird Holm is taking pride in its first female attorney, Effie Cover Sullivan, who graduated in 1916 from the University of Nebraska and went to work for the firm four years before women had the right to vote.
Along with another attorney who helped craft the version of the state constitution in place today, and one who was the first Nebraska-based chief judge of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Baird Holm lawyers have made their mark on history.
Today the city's oldest law firm has 88 attorneys and is the state's second-largest, behind Kutak Rock (with 488, including 160 in Omaha).
Baird Holm has kept a relatively low profile, so it is probably most known to the general public as the firm that has represented the Omaha Public Schools since the 1960s, along with other public clients such as the City of Omaha.
The firm traces its history to 1873, when Civil War veteran Milton M. Montgomery and son C.S. Montgomery founded Montgomery & Son. It was just six years after Nebraska was admitted to the union. Omahans traveled by carriage, the city's population was around 20,000 and the law firm's current home, the Woodmen Tower, wouldn't open for 96 years.
Their practice grew and, by 1935, it had dropped the Montgomery name, later merging with two other firms also founded in the 19th century, to form what in 1970 had the unwieldy name of Young, Baird, Holm, McEachen, Pedersen, Hamann & Haggart.
In 2006, for simplicity's sake, it became just Baird Holm.
This year, firm leaders are reflecting on what's kept them in business through the years.
“We did the same thing day one that we do now, which is service to our clients and service to our city,” Putnam said.
The firm celebrated its anniversary Wednesday night with a party at the Joslyn Art Museum for clients and supporters of the firm. It also marked the occasion with an in-house party for staff last week, and throughout the year with small gifts for staff, such as a framed group portrait of everyone together on the steps of the Douglas County Courthouse.
Baird Holm handles a growing variety of legal practice areas: banking and corporate transactions, agribusiness and estate planning, labor and health care, and real estate and nonprofit organizations, among others.
A new focus this year is patent law. Putnam called it a growth business that justifies investment. The team that handles intellectual property includes Baird Holm veterans, attorneys hired from other Omaha firms, and a 2013 Creighton University School of Law graduate, Kamaal Patterson, who graduated magna cum laude and edited the Creighton Law Review.
The international group also has grown recently, as Nebraska firms expand their businesses overseas. The total number of attorneys has grown by more than 25 percent in the last seven years.
To make room, the firm plans to expand within the Woodmen Tower, leasing another floor. Renovations are expected to be complete by the end of this year, and the firm will occupy floors 14 through 18 and a portion of 10.
Baird Holm attorneys are not usually in the spotlight. The firm doesn't handle criminal law. And when it comes to trials, more often the firm is defending a client, not prosecuting a case. That means taking a “business perspective” and working with the client to minimize risk and to balance the cost and benefits of a litigation strategy, the firm says. Usually, clients are trying to avoid publicity.
Its representation of the Omaha Public Schools has had Baird Holm in the public eye more often in the past year. Some board members criticized attorney Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda for not sharing with the full board information that led to the resignation of a newly selected superintendent, Nancy Sebring. And some called for the board to consider looking elsewhere for legal representation, a move the board did not ultimately make.
The district did hire an in-house attorney and changed the way it pays the firm for its counsel, a response to criticism that it was racking up big legal bills at Baird Holm, more than $13 million in five years.
Putnam said that he embraced the change and that the firm has a “great relationship” with the district's new superintendent and mostly new board.
“Right now we couldn't be prouder to have them as a client,” he said.
Baird Holm said OPS is one of hundreds of clients, and no one client makes up more than 5 percent of the firm's business. Other clients include the Woodhouse Auto Family, Methodist Health System, Burlington Capital Group, the Sherwood Foundation and Woodmen of the World.
Woodmen Vice President and general counsel Matthew Ellis said Baird Holm has represented Woodmen for decades, since before the law firm was one of the Woodmen Tower's original tenants. Baird Holm handles Woodmen's litigation and specialized transaction work, Ellis said.
“It's nice to have a business partner that can step in when you need them,” he said.
Ellis also said he has noticed the “team approach” that Baird Holm says is a trademark of its firm. Putnam said attorneys' compensation is set up so that they are not rewarded as much for individual accomplishments, like recruiting the latest client, but for efforts that build business for everyone.
“I've been here since 2006 and I think I've interacted with 18 of their lawyers,” Ellis said. “When you have a special need, they have a specialist that can help you. You're hiring a team, not just one lawyer.”
The firm is going into its 141st year with a renewed focus on its brand and place in the city's economy. A new director of marketing, Meredith Williams, joined Baird Holm about six months ago, overseeing the anniversary planning and development of a new website. And for the first time in its 44 years in the Woodmen Tower, the firm has a sign on the building, hung in May.
“How many people see it, I'm not sure,” Putnam said. “But it's a point of pride for us. After 140 years, we're hanging our shingle.”