When the law firm now known as Foley & Lardner was founded in Milwaukee, agriculture was a major part of its practice.

Then came clients in the railroad, maritime, banking and manufacturing industries.

Now the firm’s practice groups include cybersecurity and driverless cars.

Chairman and CEO Jay Rothman said that adaptability to an evolving economy is a big reason it survived to celebrate its 175th anniversary on Friday.

“We have to be as innovative as our clients are to be successful,” Rothman said. “No question about it.”

Two New York natives, Asahel Finch and William Pitt Lynde, founded the firm in Milwaukee on Sept. 8, 1842 — six years before Wisconsin became a state.

“It’s something we’re particularly proud of,” Rothman said of the milestone. “And really it’s due to our clients who have supported us and put their trust in us. It’s both an honor and humbling at the same time.”

Foley & Lardner has had its current name since 1969; its namesakes Leon Foley joined the firm in 1921, while Lynford Lardner Jr. joined in 1945.

The firm still has its headquarters in Milwaukee. It added its Madison office in 1975. It’s now among the largest law firms in the nation, with 17 offices in the United States, one in Brussels and another in Tokyo. As its clients expanded their sights beyond the state, the firm did as well to keep up.

Foley & Lardner stands out because of its expansion, according to Fran Deisinger, immediate past president of the Wisconsin Bar Association and shareholder in Milwaukee-based Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren.

“Foley & Lardner is absolutely one of the top firms in our state,” Deisinger said. “The firm is rather unique among Wisconsin firms in that it did expand very significantly. There are a few other firms, mine included, that looked outside the state, but nobody else expanded on the scale of Foley & Lardner.”

Deisinger also complimented Foley as being a great corporate citizen. For its 175th anniversary, the firm is raising money and in-kind contributions to provide 175,000 meals to people in need. Rothman said the firm is on track to reach that mark by the time the effort wraps up at the end of the month.

The firm has a tradition of being active in its community. From the beginning, the law partners were political actors.

Finch is believed to have helped hide runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. He was an unsuccessful Whig Party candidate for Congress and Milwaukee mayor. He also helped form the Republican Party.

Lynde, a Democrat, served as attorney general for the Wisconsin Territory as well as mayor of Milwaukee and as a congressman after Wisconsin became a state.

The firm’s current political brand names include former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and former U.S. Rep. Scott Klug, a Republican. The firm also recently held a forum for state Supreme Court candidates at its Madison office.

While an office in the state capital has its benefits, the Madison operation also sees the economic growth in Dane County as a major opportunity.

The firm’s venture capital fund makes a range of investments, including startups and emerging growth companies.

“For a law firm it’s a very exciting time to be in Madison,” said Paul Wrycha, who heads the Madison office and chairs Foley’s Venture & Growth Capital Practice. “When I look at cities around the country with growth potential, Madison makes all sorts of top 10 lists for that reason.”

For the law firm to continue to grow and continue for another 175 years, Rothman says its biggest challenge is finding skilled attorneys who embrace change, which has been accelerated in an era of technological disruption.

“We are in a profession driven by great talent, and what keeps me awake at night is, are we recruiting and are we developing and are we retaining the talent that is necessary for this firm to be successful?” Rothman said. “If you get that piece of the puzzle figured out ... you’re a long way toward home in being able to serve your clients really well.”

And, he hopes, a long way toward Sept. 8, 2192.

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