The Test of Time: Anniversary companies put the 'long' in longevity

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Axley Brynelson | est. 1885

Axley Brynelson founders Burr Jones and Francis Lamb

In many respects, the history of the Axley Brynelson law firm tracks the history of Madison (and Wisconsin) business and law. The firm began when the Civil War was still fresh in people’s minds, the nation was being “electrified,” and a young attorney named Burr W. Jones returned from serving in Congress and opened a private law practice with another young lawyer, Francis Lamb.

In time, the firm would become known for business and trial law, and Jones himself would become one of the state’s greatest trial lawyers. He would also teach law for 30 years (a practice the firm’s attorneys still engage in at UW-Madison) and write what some consider the definitive book on the rules of evidence. Perhaps his most enduring business legacy, one that still guides the Axley law firm, was his insistence on recruiting only the best law graduates and lawyers.

In addition to looking for legal talent and ethical principles, today that means recruiting for personal qualities like a certain fire in the belly. People with that quality aren’t easy to find, in part because of the dwindling percentage of attorneys who go into private law practice. “The good firms are all zeroing in on a smaller group of people and finding those people that really do have the drive to make it and succeed in private practice; that’s the test and that’s the challenge,” says Partner John Walsh, the latest of three Axley Brynelson attorneys to serve as president of the Wisconsin Bar Association.

In its 130 years of existence, the firm has been challenged in 168 cases before the Wisconsin Supreme Court (403 cases combined before the state high court and the Wisconsin Courts of Appeal) and more than 260 cases combined in the U.S. Federal Court system of District Courts, U.S. Courts of Appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

One case Burr Jones argued before the nation’s high court settled a dispute between his client, the Southern Wisconsin Railway, and the City of Madison over who should pay for paving sections of road between rails. In a decision by legendary Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jones prevailed but was so impressed with the legal work of Bill Ryan, the city’s attorney on that case, he recruited Ryan to join the firm.

The firm’s early team of lawyers was a business-oriented group that helped incorporate Madison General Hospital, now Meriter. Later, its counselors helped shape public utilities and dam projects that electrified Wisconsin cities and spurred the growth of tourism in Wisconsin Dells. Its attorneys would also play instrumental roles in the founding of banks and the direction of business development and law in industries like telecommunications and insurance.

The change and churn that has been evident throughout Axley’s history continues, as John Mitby’s tenure as managing partner has ended and Patricia Gibeault’s has begun. Gibeault oversees a firm of 62 attorneys that operates in a profession of growing specialization. “Just like the medical profession, law becomes more and more specialized all the time,” said Walsh, a trial attorney who specializes in personal injury cases. “I wouldn’t go near drafting a will or an estate, but I’ve got five law partners who are superb at it.”


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