Kirkland History

In the News

Stuart G. Shepard, Robert R. McCormick and S.E. Thomason announce that they have formed a partnership for the general practice of law under the Firm name of Stuart G. Shepard & Robert R. McCormick, with offices at 1306 Tribune building. Telephone Randolph 2929. - Chicago Legal News, March 28, 1909

The Foundation

Serving clients for more than one hundred years is an achievement for any institution, but especially so for an institution as fragile and idiosyncratic as a law firm. To not only last but thrive, on what is now a global scale, we have relied on our distinct and dynamic culture, recruiting and empowering top talent, encouraging entrepreneurialism, operating ethically, and a sustained record of excellence wherever we practice.

Kirkland’s success today was largely foretold by its auspicious beginnings. Founded in Chicago by Robert “The Colonel” McCormick, Stuart Shepard and S.E. Thomason in 1909, we have handled high-profile, high-stakes matters from the start.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, newspapers were at their zenith in influencing politics, business and culture, and McCormick used the law firm he founded as a key strategic partner in both protecting and advancing the Tribune’s influence throughout the country. Whether it was taking on Henry Ford’s libel suit against the Tribune, fighting Chicago Mayor “Big Bill Thompson” as part of political reform or underwriting the cost of press freedom in the landmark Near v. Minnesota case in the U.S. Supreme Court, our lawyers have delivered outstanding results, under great pressure, time and again.

Colonel McCormick was by far the most well-known member of the Firm’s original partnership. His grandfather, Joseph Medill, was the legendary publisher of the Chicago Tribune and his family was one of Chicago’s most prominent. Less than a year after starting the Firm, McCormick was thrust into an unexpected leading role at the family business. His succession to the editorship effectively ended his legal career though his name remained on the door until 1927.

Overshadowed by his more famous partner, little is known of Stuart Shepard except that he withdrew from the Firm in 1917 to become general counsel of the federal agency that would become the Department of Veterans Affairs. S.E. Thomason would also find success in the newspaper business, first as vice president of the Chicago Tribune, and then as publisher of the rival Chicago Daily Times (today’s Chicago Sun-Times).

McCormick's Legacy

McCormick’s departure left two important legacies to his former Firm: its first major client, the Tribune Company and a revolutionary new partner, Weymouth Kirkland. While representing the Tribune in prosecutions which arose from a circulation war with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Kirkland had cemented his relationship with McCormick. He joined the Firm in 1915 as a named partner, along with a recent graduate from The University of Chicago Law School, Howard Ellis. It was the combination of Kirkland’s outstanding trial skills and the legal expertise of Ellis that would ultimately turn this small partnership into the global firm we are today. It would also establish our professional ethic: our lawyers handle the biggest and most difficult matters, whatever the odds. 

The Chaffetz Touch

Of course, this tradition required that the Firm attract and promote hardworking and highly skilled lawyers. Weymouth Kirkland’s recruitment of Hammond Chaffetz in 1938 is a prime example of hiring based on merit. Even though Chaffetz was a young government lawyer who wanted to remain in Washington, D.C., the Firm nonetheless recognized the value he could bring with his expertise in antitrust and persuaded him to join Kirkland. Chaffetz, in turn, went on to lead the Firm as it grew to handle large, complex commercial cases and built a premier tax and corporate practice as well. He instilled a deep sense of community within our partnership, whose members are proud to have made important contributions to the Chicago Symphony, Steppenwolf, United Way, The University of Chicago and Northwestern Law Schools and other leading civic, charitable and educational institutions.

And, like those before him, Chaffetz put in place a group of younger talented lawyers who were deeply committed to making Kirkland a lasting institution. By adding expertise and offices where needed, and changing the Firm’s management to include more partners and points of view, they created the platform which continues to serve the Firm today.

With approximately 2,500 attorneys now and an varied set of complementary practice areas, the Firm’s founders might be surprised by Kirkland’s sheer size and its diverse makeup, but they would surely recognize the guiding principles they put into place more than 100 years ago.

An Unshakeable Commitment

More than anything else, our continued success is due to the confidence our clients have placed in us. Kirkland’s client base has always been dynamic and varied, ranging from multinational companies to middle-market investors to indigent members of our communities represented pro bono. Because of our resolute commitment to promoting our clients’ interests, we have maintained the philosophy of conservative growth. We open new offices and hire outstanding lawyers in areas that are complementary to our business to enhance our service to clients.

The world has changed and we have changed with it, but our founders’ unshakable commitment to excellence holds true. Our predecessors McCormick, Kirkland, Ellis and Chaffetz and many others, believed in hiring the best lawyers to take on the toughest cases and most challenging deals. They set the standard for excellence during the Firm’s first century that all Kirkland lawyers and staff will continue to follow through the next 100 years.