Four decades in, Ogletree Deakins is No. 2 in its field

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Lewis Smoak, founding partner, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart.

What is now the nation’s second-largest labor and employment law firm representing management began on Valentine’s Day, 1977, with 11 lawyers in Greenville and five in Atlanta.

Today, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart employs more than 800 attorneys in 52 offices across the country and in five foreign countries.

The firm, which reported gross revenue of $427 million last year, is led from Raleigh, N.C., where its fifth managing shareholder, Matt Keen, is located.

Yet its roots remain firmly planted in Greenville, home to more of its employees than any other city, partners said.

 

Homer Deakins and Frank Ogletree in 1977. Photo provided.

Thirty-nine lawyers work in the firm’s legal office in the Ogletree Building along North Main Street, directly across from the Hyatt Regency Greenville, assisted by 31 other employees.

Another 179 employees work at the firm’s administrative headquarters along International Drive, including the chief financial officer, chief operating officer, director of technology, and director of human resources.

Two of Ogletree Deakins’ founding partners — Lewis Smoak of Greenville and Homer Deakins of Atlanta — told UBJ they never expected the firm to get so big.

“It just happened,” Deakins said. “We had satisfied clients, and our clients were growing, and we grew with them.”

Much of the firm’s early work was advising company executives on labor issues, including how to keep manufacturing plants union-free.

The firm’s relationship with clients such as General Electric, International Paper, and BorgWarner started with work for their South Carolina operations and grew from there.

Over time, Ogletree Deakins took on more work related to employment, such as workplace safety, executive compensation, non-compete agreements, and business-related immigration.

Employment-related litigation forced the firm to grow, Smoak and Deakins said, because that kind of practice requires local counsel for trying cases in the locales in which they originate.

As the firm added offices around the country, it picked up new clients from the lawyers it hired to man those offices.

Ogletree lawyers in black tie at the firm’s 30th anniversary in 2007. Seated (L-R): Baker Wyche, Jimmie Stewart, Homer Deakins, Gray Geddie, Fred Suggs. Standing (L-R): Eric Schweitzer, Lewis Smoak, Bob King, John Burgin. Photo provided.

Deakins cited the firm’s culture of collegiality as a key reason for its growth.

A big problem at some firms, he said, is that lawyers refuse to share work. That’s not true at Ogletree Deakins, where half of the work at each office, on average, came from another office, he said.

“Our lawyers trust each other and have a collegial relationship,” Deakins said. “That’s probably the most significant part of the success of the firm.”

MILESTONES

An early milestone in the firm’s history came in 1980, when it opened an office in Washington, D.C., led by the late Peter Nash, a former general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Ogletree Deakins expanded beyond the Southeast in 1996, when it opened an office in Houston in support of big construction companies such as Bechtel Group.

Another watershed moment occurred in 2004, when the firm merged with Greenville-based Haynsworth Baldwin Johnson & Greaves, another labor and employment firm.

Ogletree Deakins opened the first of five overseas offices in Berlin in 2012.

EYEWITNESSES TO HISTORY

Over the years, Ogletree Deakins lawyers have been eyewitnesses to notable chapters in U.S. business history.

For example, the firm advised Miami-based Eastern Airlines — formerly one of the country’s biggest airlines — as it clashed with labor unions in the 1980s. That labor conflict was a key reason for Eastern’s ultimate demise in 1991.

Smoak said the airline’s former management has told Ogletree Deakins that they wished they had followed the firm’s advice about negotiating with the pilots’ union.

Ogletree Deakins lawyers were also a witness to historic efforts by organized labor to penetrate the network of foreign-owned automotive plants in the South.

The firm advised Nissan as the United Automobile Workers tried, and failed, to organize the Japanese automaker’s plant in Smyrna, Tenn., in 1989 and again in 2001.

TOP 100 FIRM

Jimmie Stewart, founding partner of Ogletree Deakins, in the early ’70s. Stewart died in 2016. Photo provided.

As the firm turned 40 this year, it found itself listed as the nation’s 77th largest law firm, as measured by gross revenue, in a ranking by The American Lawyer magazine.

The same ranking shows Ogletree Deakins as the nation’s second-largest labor and employment law firm, behind San Francisco-based Littler Mendelson.

Ogletree Deakins reported gross revenue of $427 million in 2016, a 7 percent increase over 2015.

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