About

History

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” – Winston Churchill

Kerr Russell traces its origins to 1874; the year young attorney James T. Keena entered the practice of law. The son of a ferry ticket agent, Keena had served in the Union navy during the United States Civil War, and had earned his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1873. Following law school graduation, and after a brief stint as a ticket agent for the Detroit and Cleveland ferries, he joined the existing law firm of Atkinson, Atkinson & Trowbridge in Detroit, Michigan.

The last quarter of the 19th century was an era of tremendous change in the United States. In the aftermath of the Civil War, with former Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the White House, the country was deeply divided, and its economy was in shambles. Meanwhile, the rest of the world kept turning: in 1874, Benjamin Disraeli was elected Prime Minister of England during Queen Victoria’s reign; E. Remington marketed the first typewriter; future luxury watchmaker Georges Édouard Piaget created his first timepieces in a small village in France; and the first world international postal conference convened in Switzerland.  That same year, future notables, including Winston Churchill were born.

Keena recognized the opportunities that presented with change. He and his colleague from his former firm founded Trowbridge & Keena in 1876. Name partner Luther S. Trowbridge, a former Union Army General, served as Judge Advocate under General George Custer at San Antonio. Years later, Trowbridge became Treasurer of the Detroit College of Medicine, among many other legal and civic accomplishments. Keena quickly gained prominence in the banking and business communities, serving as attorney to the Peoples’ State Bank, and was director and chief counsel of the Standard Life and Accident Insurance Company. In 1914, Keena was elected President of the Peoples’ State Bank, which was the largest bank in Michigan at the time.

Propelled by the distinguished careers of its partners, the law firm continued to grow and flourish over the next several decades.Subsequently its name changed as follows: Keena & Lightner (1898-1907); Keena, Lightner & Oxtoby (1907-1912); Keena, Lightner, Oxtoby & Oxtoby (1913); and Keena, Lightner, Oxtoby & Hanley (1913-1922).

Our early clients included some of America's most successful industrialists and financiers. Among them was Henry Ford, whom we represented in acquiring land for the Ford Rouge Plant which, at the time it was completed in 1928, was the largest manufacturing plant in the world. We also helped form many of the early banks in Detroit which in turn, led Detroit and the rest of the country to economic success. Our early partners provided thought leadership and counsel to many, and helped to structure the business agreements that spurred manufacturing and trade in our region and across the country.

In 1906-07, partners Clarence Lightner and Walter E. Oxtoby joined the firm. Lightner was heavily involved in banking matters and also served as President of Peoples State Bank. For years he headed the State Board of Bar Examiners overseeing admissions to the State Bar of Michigan. Likewise, Oxtoby became an outstanding leader in the business community. He eventually involved the firm with the city’s commercial tanning industry through his marriage to Emma W. Schmidt, whose family had founded the fur market in what is today Greektown’s Trappers Alley. Oxtoby served as vice president of the tanning concern, Carl E. Schmidt & Co., while maintaining an active law practice.

In the 1930s, the firm drew on its roots in banking, real estate, and business to expand its legal service offerings, and the multidisciplinary practice that is Kerr Russell today began to take shape. This timeframe saw the addition of Donald N. Sweeny to the firm, following his service as the president of the First Wayne National Bank. (The firm still possesses a sheet of uncut US five dollar bills carrying Sweeny’s signature as bank president, a practice common before enactment of the banking reforms of the Depression era.) 

Our ongoing relationship with the medical and dental professions began in the 1940s.  Lester Dodd, a former president of the Michigan Bar Association, and a member of the firm since 1918, began representing organized medical associations affiliated locally and statewide with the American Medical Association. As our proficiency in the legal areas related to medical, dental and other health care interests grew, the firm became an early leader in related insurance matters, managed care issues, and the multifaceted group of legal disciplines which ultimately were recognized as the field of health law. In the 1970s, the firm also incorporated (and still serves) what is today one of the largest insurers of professional liability risks in the country. At that time, no one had formed a mutual insurance company in Michigan in twenty years. The chosen format became a model followed in other states as solutions were sought nationwide for the then-current shortage of certain professional liability coverages. Kerr Russell now proudly represents medical and dental professionals locally and statewide. Consequently, key Michigan health legislation and appellate matters vital to the health care field often directly reflect input from the firm’s attorneys.

Stewart Kerr joined the firm in 1947 after being head of the US Justice Department’s Antitrust Division office for Detroit, where he had successfully prosecuted key antitrust and War Price Act cases during World War II. Kerr was among the founders of the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section in the early 1950s and the State Bar of Michigan’s corresponding group later that decade. Kerr is credited with helping to write the US antitrust laws, and his leadership established the firm in the complex field of antitrust practice. He served on the prestigious US Attorney General’s Antitrust Commission in the mid-1950s, and continued to be involved until his retirement in 1985.  Later generations of our attorneys have followed Kerr to become members of the ABA Section’s national governing council and committees, and chairs of the State Bar’s Antitrust and Trade Regulation Section.

The firm’s trial practice reputation had grown steadily. One of the outstanding litigators at the firm and at the bar was Bob Russell.  His many achievements include serving as one of the faculty founders of the Wayne Law Review after graduating with honors from the University of Michigan Law School. There was scarcely a major case in federal or state court in the Detroit area during Russell’s forty-plus years in the courtroom that did not find him listed among the counsel of record. Russell also served as President of the Detroit Bar Association in the early 1970s.

From the 1970s through his retirement in 2004, Dick Weber was instrumental in leading the firm’s growth and expansion into many different practice areas, including health care, automotive and construction.  Weber was an honors graduate from Wayne State University Law School, Senior Editor of the Wayne Law Review and a Trustee of the Michigan State Medical Society Foundation. At Kerr Russell, he is described as “a pillar of our firm, one of the most respected attorneys in the community.” He was also regarded as our firm’s “moral compass, who instilled in lawyers the proper priorities in terms of serving the client first, the firm second and the individual attorney, third.”

The world, the practice of law, and the law firm founded in 1874 have changed dramatically since James Keena’s time. Like our founder, however, we remain a firm that recognizes the opportunities inherent during change. Today, Kerr Russell provides high-quality, sophisticated services to a wide range of businesses and individuals in virtually all major areas of the law.  Our clients include the brightest start-ups in industries and businesses Keena could never have imagined, businesses headquartered around the globe with multinational manufacturing facilities, and offshore captive insurance companies located in countries that did not exist a century-and-a-half ago. Many of our attorneys are certified public accountants as well as lawyers, and other members of our legal teams hold advanced degrees, certifications and specific training in their areas of specialty. The comprehensive nature of our practice means we can handle any legal issue; our size affords us the flexibility to be nimble, and to serve clients efficiently and at a reasonable cost.

We are proud of our nearly 150-year history and the perspective it brings to our practice. We would like to think that James Keena would recognize, in the modern Kerr Russell, a firm that has successfully adapted to change while respecting and honoring its past.

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