When Robert Montgomery and McGeorge Bundy founded a law firm in the Ledyard Building on Ottawa Avenue NW in Grand Rapids in 1888, they likely had no idea what they had started.
Now, 125 years later, Varnum is one of the largest law firms in the state, with more than 150 attorneys, offices in Novi, Lansing, Grand Haven and Kalamazoo, and taking up floors 13 to 17 of Bridgewater Place on Grand Rapids’ northwest side.
Looking out across Grand Rapids from the 17th floor, Tamara Bergstrom, Varnum’s marketing manager, notes that it’s like viewing the firm’s legacy — its former office buildings, clients and projects with which the firm has been involved, and organizations to which it has given back.
To celebrate 125 years, the firm has provided a timeline and “did you know” section on its website highlighting some of its most formative moments. Entries include:
- 1927 — Laurent Varnum joins the firm.
- 1949 — Robert Howlett and Walter K. Schmidt join in partnership.
- 1983 — Varnum, Riddering, Wierengo & Christenson merges with Schmidt, Howlett, Van’t Hof, Snell and Vana.
- 1993 — The firm moves into Bridgewater Place.
Executive partner Tom Kyros, who serves in the estate planning group and who joined the firm in the early 1990s, said that 1983 is the year he thinks of as when the firm really staked its claim as a progressive organization that would take chances and not shy away from new possibilities.
“The merger, to me, was sort of a sign of things to come and that this firm was willing to try new things,” Kyros said.
Some of those things include a move to the northwest side, the addition of Varnum Consulting and the creation of MiSpringboard.
Kyros notes the firm took a chance by moving to Bridgewater Place, which was in a then-underdeveloped portion of downtown.
“That was pretty big news back then,” he said. “There wasn’t really anything over here back then.”
The firm also made the unique move of adding Varnum Consulting, which is a subsidiary that provides non-legal professional services.
More recently, Varnum created the MiSpringboard program, with the intent of helping businesses thrive in the community.
“MiSpringboard is a project that was started about three years ago,” Kyros said. “It came out of a couple of different discussions. … We are involved with a lot of charitable boards, we give away a lot of hours to nonprofit organizations. But was there a way we could give all of that philanthropic attitude away toward building businesses and helping new companies develop here? So that was this grassroots discussion.
“At the same time, there was also this leadership discussion about is there something an organization like Varnum could do to not just sit by and wait for Michigan to come back and instead be a driver for that and help our state get back on its feet.”
Varnum committed to give away $1 million worth of time to developing businesses. Kyros said the firm has helped 75 companies to date and has provided $350,000 worth of time. He said about half of the companies the firm has helped have done very well in the marketplace.
Varnum works with several organizations throughout the state to locate the companies that need help and have the greatest chance for success. A few of those taking advantage of the legal advice are Varsity News Network, GeLo and Protean Payments.
“You’ve got to have a breeding ground for people to try this stuff,” Kyros said.
At 125, the firm is showing no signs of slowing down.
“We certainly know we want to grow the Detroit area,” Kyros said. “We have an office in Novi that has been really successful, has been a real driver for us. In 10 years we went from two or three lawyers to about 25 lawyers there. We hope in the next three years to go to 50 lawyers in southeast Michigan, probably through opening a second office down there.”
The firm is positioning itself for growth by making some changes internally, focusing on the main challenges all law firms face today: competition for talent — particularly attracting a diverse pool of attorneys, and developing the best practice model for today’s legal landscape.
Kyros said much of the growth he expects to see would come through lateral hiring, which the firm has done well.
He also noted a focus on teambuilding, and said that 13 new firm leaders have been tasked with creating stronger teams within its practice groups.
Varnum places a strong emphasis on mentoring. Two senior partners have committed to spend half of their time working with attorneys at the firm on reaching their goals, whether its business development, expertise development or community service.
The firm also will make some hiring changes. Rather than hiring new attorneys into a specific practice group, Varnum is moving toward what Kyros referred to as a free agency approach that will allow new attorneys to seek out work in different practice areas.
“They will sort of be free agents and they can spend a year or two figuring out who they want to be, what they want to do, learning to stand on their own, learning how to, in a sense, compete for work. … The associates will be (approaching) partners to give them the work and find their way within the firm and figure out what is the best fit for them.”
Diversity remains a challenge for the firm, but Kyros said it has been proactive in trying to recruit women and attorneys of color.
“We’ve had a dedicated diversity committee here at the firm for probably 20 years,” he said. “We certainly make that a priority in our hiring. About seven or eight years ago, we started Varnum’s Diversity and Inclusion Council.”
The council consists of community members who come from diverse backgrounds. The group serves as an advisory board to the firm, meeting quarterly to help address challenges the firm is facing.
“I believe that we are doing a lot of the right things, we are just having the same difficulty with the results that most of the other firms and organizations in town are having.”
The firm also will continue its alternative work schedule policy that allows attorneys to work reduced hours while remaining on the partnership track.
“While this policy is available to attorneys of both genders, it has been particularly helpful to some of our younger women attorneys who are often managing the majority of child care duties at the same time they are managing their career,” Bergstrom said.