Law and Lawyers in Seattle's History

  • By James R. Warren
  • Posted 9/14/1999
  • Essay 1667
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When humans began creating laws for each other to follow, the legal profession was born. As the number of people increased and life became more complex, the number of both laws and lawyers multiplied. In Seattle alone, the list of law firms grew from 311 in 1900 to one that required 94 telephone directory pages in 1999. Leading attorneys in Seattle's early history included Thomas Burke (1849-1925), Arthur Hanford (1855-1932), his brother Cornelius Hanford (1849-1926), John McGilvra (1827-1903), and his son Oliver McGilvra. Many of the city's largest firms, notably Preston Gates & Ellis, Lane Powell Spears Lubersky, and the recently dissolved Bogle & Gates, trace their roots to nineteenth century practices. Later attorneys such James Ellis, Betty Fletcher, and a growing roster of distinguished lawyers of color have helped to transform our physical and social landscape. Historian James R. Warren (1925-2012) surveys some of Seattle's legal history in this special essay adapted with permission from the Puget Sound Business Journal.

Firm Roots

The 1900 Seattle City Directory simply listed 311 law firms in alphabetical order. Not one legal specialty was mentioned. In the 1999-2000 Seattle Metro telephone directory, attorney listings and their advertisements (something that was not allowed until fairly recently) fill 94 pages. Furthermore, the lists are divided into specialties such as personal injury, divorce, elder law, immigration, juvenile law, and on through the alphabet. Only a few names are listed under "general practice." Obviously, life has grown more complex over the century.

Legal practices have frequently been handed down through several generations of the same family. The 1900 directory lists a Bogle and Richardson, a J. F. Dore, and a Preston Carr and Gilman among the firms. Those names remain familiar to us a century later. Puget Sound Business Journal's Book of Lists indicates that eight of Seattle's 25 largest law firms with headquarters in Seattle and Tacoma were founded before 1900.

Preston Gates & Ellis' roots extend back to 1883. The Lane Powell Spears Lubersky firm, with offices in Seattle and Portland, lists its founding date as 1889, the year Washington became a state and the heart of the downtown burned down. Bogle & Gates was founded in 1891, and survived until its dissolution in the spring of 1999.

Lawyers Who Shaped Seattle

Local history books preserve the names of some of the noted lawyers. None can rival Judge Thomas Burke, who secured Seattle's first transcontinental rail terminus as attorney for the Great Northern Railway in the 1890s. Few sectors of Seattle's early civic life were untouched by Burke: He helped establish the town's first railroads, utilities, and harbor facilities; defended Chinese immigrants against rioters; co-founded the Rainier Club; and promoted education, scientific research, and world peace until his death in 1925.

Lawyer John Leary first came to Seattle in 1869, when he was 32, and was eventually elected mayor. While he owned the Post newspaper, he merged it with the Intelligencer, creating today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He often teamed with Burke and other leading lawyers to help guide Seattle's early development and industrial growth.

Arthur E. Hanford, listed in an early book of city leaders, was born in Seattle in 1855, three years after the town's founding. Hanford Street is named for his family. His older brother, Cornelius, was an attorney who served as the last Chief Justice of the Washington Territorial Supreme Court.

Lincoln's Friend

John J. McGilvra passed the bar in Illinois in 1853 and became a friend of Abraham Lincoln, whose office was in an adjoining room. In 1861, after being elected president, Lincoln named McGilvra to be the U.S. Attorney for Washington Territory.

After he arrived in the Territory, McGilvra was involved in securing rail service for Seattle, helped promote the concept of a pipeline to bring Cedar River water to the growing city, and developed several hundred acres on Lake Washington due east of the city center. In 1865 he funded a wagon road through the forest to his property.

Today we know that road as Madison Street, and a couple of blocks before Madison reaches the lake it meets with McGilvra Boulevard, which crosses through the original site of McGilvra's farm. John J. McGilvra died in 1903, but his son, Oliver, continued in the legal profession.

Pro Bono Publico

Attorneys continue to play major roles in development of the Seattle area. James Ellis began his career as an activist with the Municipal League and helped to formulate the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, which after its approval in 1958 directed the clean up of Lake Washington and in 1973 assumed responsibility for mass transit (Metro was absorbed by King County in 1993). Ellis also conceived and guided development of the 1968 Forward Thrust bonds to finance the Kingdome and other local improvements, and he continues to champion development of "Mountains to Sound" greenbelts in King County.

In the 1960s, women and minorities began to make their mark in the local practice of law. Judge Betty Fletcher became the first woman to head the Seattle-King County Bar Association and was later appointed to the federal bench. Many African Americans, Asian Americans, and other attorneys of color have risen to leadership positions in government, corporations, and local law firms -- while often breaking down racial barriers and strengthening the civil rights of all citizens along the way.

Thus, we may be tempted to curse the multiplication of laws and lawyers, but history shows that they have left our community better off than they found it.


James R. Warren, "A Century of Business," Puget Sound Business Journal, September 17, 1999. Adapted with permission. Original copyright 1999, Puget Sound Business Journal.

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