After celebrating their firm’s 25th anniversary in October 2019, the attorneys at Hellmuth & Johnson are experiencing a time of affirmation and renewal. At this milestone, Managing Partner Chad Johnson takes a moment to reflect on the accomplishments of the past and articulate his vision for the future.
When Johnson founded the firm with partner David Hellmuth back in 1994, both attorneys were eager young professionals, only two years into their careers. They opened an office, built their furniture from a box, and started out doing everything from answering the phones to representing clients.
Today, Hellmuth & Johnson is ranked among the 25 largest law firms in Minnesota, a distinction it has enjoyed for eight years. The firm has earned a reputation for multidisciplinary excellence in transactional law, litigation and appeals across practices ranging from construction, finance, patent, trademark and copyright litigation; business and real estate; to trusts and estate planning.
With 45 attorneys and 100 total personnel, Johnson says by far the firm’s greatest resource is its people. “The number one reason why the firm has been able to consistently grow in the way we have is that we’ve been fortunate to hire very good people for 25 years,” Johnson says. “Blake Nelson was our first associate hire and became our first new partner. He’s been with us for more than 20 years. Rob Keena, Nancy Polomis and Ray Bonnabeau are recognized as some of Minnesota’s top attorneys, and they have played a big role in helping us grow. When people look at Hellmuth & Johnson, they want to talk about what Dave and I did in starting the firm, and yes, we started it, but I always remind them that the path we’ve taken over 25 years was definitely influenced by great people along the way.”
Having the right people in key leadership roles has also advanced the firm’s evolution. Johnson and Hellmuth have a history of leading with transparency, and they are still present at the office every day, both as practitioners and as champions of a brand known for good attorneys who keep clients at the forefront. “Our leadership group has long demonstrated the ability to tackle issues, see changes coming and make swift decisions to address those changes. They can talk frankly about the advantages and disadvantages of each scenario in that decision-making process, and at the end of the day, reach consensus and move forward. I think everyone leaves the table feeling heard and that they have had an opportunity to contribute and shape the decisions made.”
Others also have a voice, and Johnson emphasizes that there is a true “open door” policy within the firm. Associates convene for a monthly meeting that is a forum for discussing challenges in their working environment and suggestions for improving it. When those ideas are brought to Johnson, he strives to implement them. “From a business standpoint, we’re looking to be as efficient as we can be and give people the tools they need to do their jobs. In order to do that, we have to listen to our employees and what they want or need to advance in their careers. Giving people a clear path to advancement and ownership is an important piece of retention. We’ve also created an environment here that is very work-life balance friendly to our employees and attorneys.”
In like manner, Helmuth & Johnson’s track record of client retention is a testament to its strength, and Johnson says he counts the firm’s clients and referral sources as part of its circle of good people. “I look back, and some of our best clients and referral sources are those that came early on in the firm’s existence and have grown right along with us. They have continued to be our champions in the community, referring others to the firm and continuing to use us. In any professional business, relationships are key. As a law firm, our widget to sell is professional service and legal advice. But what elevates us is our relationships with the people we serve. We understand not only that our clients need a lawyer to handle litigation, business acquisitions, or real estate transactions, but what causes them to have that need. We focus on what our clients need from our services in order for them to have success.”
Hellmuth & Johnson is not only an award-winning law firm, it is a successful business enterprise. In 2018 and 2019, David Hellmuth and Chad Johnson were named by “Minnesota Monthly” as among “The Most Powerful Business Leaders in Minnesota.” The list celebrates leading business executives across a variety of industries for the impact they are making in their business communities and for their thought leadership in their respective fields. In addition, Hellmuth & Johnson is one of only two law firms ever to be recognized as one of “Minnesota’s 50 Fastest Growing Private Companies” by the “Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal,” and the only one that remains in existence to this day.
“The firm grew in revenue every year for its first 24 years, a trend that becomes more difficult to sustain as the firm grows larger,” Johnson says. “We’re very proud to be recognized not only as a law firm that ranks among the 25 largest, but as business leaders. In order to be successful, we’ve had to think of our law firm as a business. I look at the clients I’ve represented that have had great success around me, and I’ve learned as much from them as they have hopefully gained from me. We strive to look at our firm from a business viewpoint, adopting solid business practices into the law firm environment in order to deliver high quality legal services to our clients while making sure our employees have the opportunity to advance.”
Looking ahead, Johnson says he is bullish on the firm’s future growth. With five attorneys in the firm who are certified by the Minnesota State Bar Association as Real Property Law Specialists and the firm ranking as the ninth largest real estate law group in the state, Hellmuth & Johnson will continue as a leader in real estate and construction law. The firm has also anticipated practice areas where demand from clients is increasing, and it has expanded services accordingly. “Real estate remains one of the core areas of the firm, but there are other areas that we have grown more recently and will continue to grow in the future,” Johnson says. “We’re doing a great deal of work in the banking, finance and insurance areas, and our mergers and acquisitions and business and corporate practices have become a larger piece of what we do. A few years ago, we started our class action group, and we’ve been involved in a number of large cases since. And many years ago, we identified e-commerce, information technology and intellectual property as areas where our clients needed more services from the firm. We will continue to grow in the areas of need for our clients.”
As part of its 25th Anniversary observance, the firm established the Hellmuth & Johnson Foundation. “This is actually an idea we had a couple of years ago, and we felt that our anniversary was the right time to introduce it. The H&J Foundation recognizes the law firm’s good fortune, with many years of high quality service and results for loyal clients. We recognize that our success affords us the opportunity to give back and support the community that has supported us for the last 25 years. We look forward to making an impact on that community.”
The firm’s partners made an initial donation of $25,000 in recognition of the firm’s anniversary. Going forward, employees will support the foundation through annual and payroll gift s, which the partners will match dollar for dollar. “Making this foundation successful will be a team effort, and we expect this year’s contributions to be well in excess of $50,000. We have formed a committee made up of about 10 people, including attorneys, staff and management, who will search out worthy opportunities to make our impact through charitable giving. We want the foundation to reflect the H&J family, giving our people a voice in where the H&J Foundation makes its charitable investments.”
Johnson says the firm likes its place in the Minnesota legal community: a midsize, locally owned law firm. There are no grand plans to become a mega firm or part of a national brand. Instead, with room to grow, Hellmuth & Johnson will continue filling its niche in the marketplace, as local attorneys serving its clients with a value-based system. “As a midsize firm, we deliver the legal services our clients need, and we do so without the overhead and corporate structure of much larger law firms, drawbacks that do not serve our clients or our people internally. Our clients appreciate doing business with somebody who is right here, just like they are, and whose organization has similar values to theirs. Our firm started and has been grown based on the values we determined were important to us and our community of clients, and we’ve developed a law firm around that message. We will continue looking for the best talent available so we can deliver high quality legal services to our clients.”
Here’s to the next 25 years!