As a young associate in a prominent Seattle law firm, John MacDougall Davis had been demonstrating knowledge and skill far beyond his years. So much so, in fact, that when a partner took time off from the practice for health reasons, he felt confident enough to assign his cases to the novice lawyer.
When that partner returned to work, however, Mr. Davis had concerns about his own career trajectory. He summoned the courage to talk candidly with his bosses.
"Do I have a future here?" he asked.
"You stay with us," one of the partners said, "and we’ll take care of you."
But Mr. Davis didn’t want others to take care of him. He wanted to take care of others.
He set into motion a plan to do just that, scribbling some notes on the back of an envelope that framed the objectives for starting his own firm. He called them his "Real Aims." Within that list emerged a value he considered fundamental to any law firm that would bear his name:
"Good reputation among fellow men, especially for ability and integrity."
The principles of ability, integrity and service drove Mr. Davis throughout his long and illustrious legal career, and in the honorable and energetic way he lived his life. Though he has passed on, Mr. Davis remains the inspiration and force behind Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, the firm he founded in 1944 as a solo practitioner.
“It’s part of what makes us special,” said Jeff Gray, managing partner. “Any firm can devise a slogan about what it is all about. It’s quite something else to have operated and lived under a set of guiding principles, which this firm has done for more than seven decades.”
The "Real Aims" never were far from Mr. Davis' reach. He stored the notes within a drawer of his desk, sharing them at opportune times with an endless procession of young lawyers he mentored. Sepia-toned with age, its edges frayed from overuse, the pages endure as scripture of what really matters most.
"The work is always better than the rewards," Mr. Davis would remind the young lawyers.
His venture into law began when he came across an article in Life magazine about James McCauley Landis, the new dean of Harvard Law School. At the time, Mr. Davis worked at a bank, but craved something more.
"The article said no man could be a better model of fierce intellectual effort," Mr. Davis recalled in 2011. "That phrase grabbed me. It was exactly what I had wanted to pursue."
He graduated in 1940 from the University of Washington Law School, where he was president of the Law School student body and comment editor of the Law Review. Later, he taught courses and gave lectures at the school, and became president and director of its alumni association.
His banking background provided a path for developing a special niche. Mr. Davis worked as counsel to the state banking association for 36 years. In the early 1980s, he helped bring about changes in state law in order to avert default for one of Washington’s largest banks – and financial catastrophe for its fund holders and the region. He was instrumental in getting Japanese banks to open their first-ever U.S. offices in Seattle, which helped advance Pacific Northwest trade with the Pacific Rim.
He saw potential in Asian markets at a time few did. Davis Wright Tremaine was the first U.S. law firm to establish an office in Shanghai, China – a bold move that Mr. Davis strongly encouraged.
Each year, the firm gives the John M. Davis Award to a partner who demonstrates a superb knowledge of the law. Mr. Davis not only is the namesake of the award, but also its first recipient.
"He always will be considered a ‘super-lawyer,’ but he was far more than that,” said Mark Hutcheson, chairman of Davis Wright Tremaine. "He served generations of lawyers in our firm, and throughout the Pacific Northwest legal community, as an excellent role model. We all aspire to be like John Davis. He was a true professional in the purest sense."
Mr. Davis never was driven by a desire to make his law firm the richest or the biggest, although Davis Wright Tremaine has grown into one of the top 200 in the country.
"I assumed we would grow modestly, but growth wasn’t an aim," he said in 2008. “Respect, companionship, lack of friction, freedom of action, hard work, no jealousies – as long as those are happening, then (the firm) will grow."
His mere presence engendered an enduring environment of civility within the firm that allows lawyers the freedom to study the law, focus on clients, serve the community and leverage their talents and skills to the greatest extent possible.
"John’s honorable career demonstrated his belief that successful lawyers are those who dedicate their abilities to the service of others," said Susan Duffy, former partner-in-charge of the Seattle office. “He viewed his role as an attorney – and his complementary roles as community leader, educator, mentor and father – as the means to contribute to the betterment of humankind.”
His dedication to service was instilled back in his first day of law school, when then-UW Law School Dean Judson Falknor met with the incoming class and told the impressionable students that law was not about making money, but instead was a service profession.
"I was grateful that he set the table for us right there." Mr. Davis recalled in 2011.
Mr. Davis said in an interview in 2014 that when making money becomes the goal of a lawyer, "you are in trouble. That is why some big firms have imploded. But if you are here to be honorable and help people, this is the right profession."
That deep-seated ethic of service extended to giving back to the community. Mr. Davis devoted more than three decades of volunteerism to the Pacific Science Center, a world-renowned exhibit space in Seattle that inspires life-long interest in science, math and technology. An outdoors enthusiast, he helped establish the Mountaineers Foundation, an admired Pacific Northwest institution dedicated to passing the best possible environmental legacy to ensuing generations. For 27 years, he sat on the board of Virginia Mason Medical Center, which has provided patient care in the Seattle area for nearly a century.
In 2004, to honor Mr. Davis' 90th birthday, Davis Wright Tremaine established an annual diversity scholarship in his name at the UW Law School.
"It is our duty to participate in the community – it’s part and parcel of being a lawyer," Mr. Davis once said. "Unless we are serving mankind to the top extent of our ability and putting our best talent into that service, what good is life?"
Another of Mr. Davis' "Real Aims" laid out his goal to maintain a healthy balance of work and "enough time off to enjoy living." Mr. Davis achieved that aim, too, never letting his job get too much in the way of making time for his family – wife Ruth and their children: Jean, John, Bruce, Ann, Margaret and Elizabeth."
My wife and I raised our six children to contribute to our world in meaningful ways," Mr. Davis said in 2014. "To that end, we climbed mountains, boated into Canadian waters, built cabins, and dug geoducks."
Whether it was to family or clients or colleagues or his community, when Mr. Davis made a commitment, it was a promise – fulfilled with energy, wisdom and integrity.
"To have had a leader as beloved as Mr. Davis to inspire us for as long as he did was an ongoing gift," said Bob Blackstone, partner-in-charge of the Seattle office. "He was a stellar lawyer and a giving man. He did so much for this profession and our community. He was a real treasure."
"John Davis: a legacy in law, living long and living well," Mercer Island Reporter, March 26, 2008
"Remember when … An interview with John Davis (’40)," UW Law (Alumni magazine), Fall 2011, Vol. 64
"John M. Davis, a lifetime of service, a century of memories," Mercer Island Reporter, Feb. 18, 2014
"Centenarian John M. Davis a model for legal profession," Puget Sound Business Journal, Feb. 25, 2014
"Obituary John MacDougall Davis," Seattle Times, April 17, 2015
"Legal Leader John M. Davis, Founder of Davis, Wright, Tremaine, Dies at 101,” Puget Sound Business Journal, 04.23.15
"Davis Wright Tremaine Founder Dies at 101," Portland Business Journal, 04.22.15
"John M. Davis, who founded Seattle law firm, dies at 101," The Seattle Times, 04.22.15
"In Memoriam: John M. Davis," King County Bar Association, 04.17.15