During its years in business, the Minneapolis-based Gray Plant Mooty law firm has survived and thrived by managing to stay big and small at the same time. It’s been small enough to encourage its clients to get to know Gray Plant’s lawyers and staff personally, yet large enough to compete in an ever more-crowded legal market that seems to more and more encourage mid-sized firms to merge with large ones.
Striking that balance has led Gray Plant to a milestone. The firm this year is celebrating 150 years in business, making it the longest-running continuing law practice in Minnesota. (Moore, Costello & Hart in St. Paul held the mark before closing in 2012.)
Asked what has led to Gray Plant’s longevity, firm leaders present and past pointed to the kinds of values and priorities that most firms have: client service, a nurturing workplace and commitment to the community. But what makes Gray Plant stand out?
“We like what we do, which can be a radical thing for lawyers to say,” said Sarah Duniway, the firm’s co-managing partner and a 19-year GPM veteran. “Even as we advocate zealously for our clients, we try to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. That’s more satisfying in the long run than winning little tit-for-tat battles.”
Straight from the Civil War
Gray Plant had its modest start as the solo real estate practice of Charles Woods, a former Union captain who fought in the Civil War. “Minneapolis wasn’t even a city when he started,” said firm principal Bruce W. Mooty, whose father and uncle both practiced at the firm. “He was elected the city’s first judge.”
Woods’ practice eventually expanded, and in the 1880s added William J. Hahn, a former Minnesota state attorney general and Joseph R. Kingman. Before long, the firm’s success enabled it to buy a telephone, one of the first made available for public purchase.
Although the firm’s official name was Woods & Hahn, it became better known as the Kingman firm, especially as Kingman made partner and later graduated to the front of the firm’s name — Kingman, Cross, Morley & Cant, which the firm was rechristened in 1920.
“Casey Cant was the senior partner when I came on, and he dated back to about 1917,” said Clint Schroeder, a former Gray Plant managing partner who worked there from 1957 until the end of last year. “The firm’s history came up from time to time. They talked about the early leaders of the firm — Joe Kingman, Norton Cross. They were proud of what they grew into.”
Franklin D. Gray, the first of the Gray Plant Mooty’s current namesakes, began a tradition of remarkable longevity among firm leaders. His six decades with the firm roughly matches the tenures of Frank Plant, though both were dwarfed by John Mooty, who practiced for 70 years.
“He was practicing for real the entire time,” said Mooty’s son Bruce, himself a 22-year GPM veteran, “not just hanging around the library and saying hello to clients occasionally.”
The old-timers didn’t preach any kind of firm gospel to young lawyers, but according to Duniway, they did create an atmosphere that made the firm’s culture and priorities clear. Partially as a result of that culture, the firm won so many “Best Place to Work Awards” over the years that it stopped applying for them, according to Mooty.
“It was understood that there are some values in this firm that we were to live up to,” said Duniway. “We were kind of told, ‘This is how we do things here.’ In my leadership role, I’ve tried to pass that on.”
Expansion yes, merger no
The past three decades have seen growth for Gray Plant that its founders could scarcely have imagined. It now boasts 179 attorneys and has folded in several smaller firms and expanded to St. Cloud, Fargo, N.D. and Washington, D.C.
As one longstanding Minnesota firm after another has been the target of a merger, Gray Plant Mooty has resisted such overtures, preferring to keep its own identity. The firm leadership hopes to keep it that way as it looks toward year 200.
“One big change I’ve seen is the national firms that have established offices here,” said Schroeder. “To compete with them, we need to maintain both a high level of skill and retain the commitment to the best interests of the client.”
“We don’t know what changes are coming in the next 10 years, let alone the next 50,” said Mooty. “But we know we will continue giving the same representation to clients, and the skills that let us do that will always be around — even as the way you deliver services might change.”
Minnesota’s oldest law firms
- Gray Plant Mooty, Minneapolis (est. 1866)
- Lampe Law Group, Northfield (est. 1878)
- Bassford Remele, Minneapolis (est. 1882)
- Briggs and Morgan, Minneapolis (est. 1882 in Hudson, Wis.)
- Moore and Hansen, Minneapolis (est. 1885)