Boyhood pact

The Beginning of a Legacy

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Our firm’s story began 150 years ago on October 1, 1866, when Civil War veterans Norman Williams and John Leverett Thompson formed a partnership to practice law together, fulfilling a pact made in their college days. The lawyers received their first clients in a three-room set of offices on the third floor of the Marine Bank Building in Chicago. Williams and Thompson further reinforced their practice with associate Charles E. Towne and one office messenger.

The firm took on cases that were typical of the era—suits to collect money owed on promissory notes, protests against tax assessments, insurance claims and wills. By the end of the year, the firm’s ledgers boasted fees totaling $2,357.15 from 25 clients. Among these early clients were George M. Pullman, Mary Todd Lincoln and Western Union Telegraph Company. 

Railroad entrepreneur George M. Pullman first hired the firm in 1867 to draw up the corporate charter for his rapidly expanding sleeping car business, Pullman, Incorporated. Pullman’s original “Pioneer” sleeping car had received national attention two years earlier, when he offered it to Mary Todd Lincoln for the funeral train carrying President Abraham Lincoln to his burial place in Springfield, Illinois. 

In the difficult time following President Lincoln’s assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln sought the firm’s counsel on personal and family matters. Both Williams and Thompson were close friends with her son, Robert Todd Lincoln, a lawyer who would go on to start his own firm, Isham, Lincoln & Beale, in Chicago.

During its early years, the firm also became involved with the burgeoning communications industry, taking on Western Union as a client in 1869. The firm’s responsibility on behalf of Western Union increased greatly during the so-called “telegraph wars,” which lasted until 1881. 

Successful representation of these and other prominent clients helped enhance the firm’s standing in the business and legal community and bolstered its connections to key industries of the era.