Smith Haughey celebrates 75 years of practicing law
Firm transitions from small practice to full service law firm with offices in five locations.
Over the past 75 years, Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge has transitioned from a small litigation practice to a full service law firm with an impressive reputation and a history of influential cases.
The firm was founded in 1941 as a partnership between Clifford Mitts, who’d been working as a solo practitioner for several years, and A.B. Smith, Jr., who was Mitts’ associate since 1938.
When Smith was called to war in 1942, Mitts continued his law work, and Smith rejoined him in 1945 after concluding his military service.
The pair added a third partner in 1950, David Haughey, who first came to the firm as a law school graduate in 1948, and the firm became Mitts, Smith & Haughey.
The three men concentrated on litigation cases.
Roland “Bud” Roegge, who joined the firm in 1962, said the firm stayed small in its early years.
“We really expanded from 1975 to 1985,” he said.
He said the main impetus for the expansion was the level of cases the firm began to pick up.
“Our main trial lawyer started on some GM work,” Roegge said. “He tried some of the first GM cases — the steering wheel collapse case and the seat belt case.”
Roegge said the firm also began doing work for Dow Chemical and Upjohn.
“We started to gain recognition back then, and I think handling some of the larger cases let people know we were capable,” he said. “We started getting referrals from Chicago and Washington, D.C. firms to be local counsel for them.”
The firm handled one of the biggest cases in Michigan in the mid-1970s, the PBB (polybrominated biphenyls) case.
In 1973, the Michigan Chemical Corporation mistakenly shipped the toxic flame retardant chemical to the wrong location. The chemical ended up in cattle feed sold across the state.
The mix up wasn’t discovered until a full year later.
The ramifications were widespread, and Smith Haughey served as legal representation for Michigan Chemical Corporation as it faced hundreds of lawsuits over the next several years.
The firm also became involved in litigation related to the MGM Grand hotel fire that occurred in 1980 in Las Vegas, Nevada, killing 80 people.
Roegge said another influential case for the firm was the EPA v. Chevron Superfund contamination case.
He said working on these types of complex matters required additional attorneys and staff.
“When you have big cases, you need a fair number of people, and that was where our growth came from,” he said.
William Jack, attorney and CEO at Smith Haughey, joined the firm in 1975 and took on many of the firm’s medical malpractice cases.
“Bud was involved in a big case involving fire retardant contamination in cattle feed,” Jack said. “He was busy for several years with that, and I fell into defending medical malpractice suits, which had been a big part of Bud’s practice. I did that for nearly 25 years.”
Growth also came from the firm’s decision to diversify in the late 1980s.
“We made a very important decision to diversify,” Jack said. “We were primarily a litigation firm. We had some real estate and some business work, but we made the conscious decision to become a full service law firm.”
In 1990, Smith Haughey acquired a Traverse City firm with a strong business practice.
And in 2001, it added an office in Ann Arbor.
More recently, in 2013 and 2016, it added a Muskegon and Holland office, respectively.
Today, between the firm’s five offices, Smith Haughey employs 80 lawyers, with another 60 individuals serving on its staff.
In addition to litigation, the firm has a strong reputation for its work in health care, construction and corporate law.
As it has grown, the firm has moved its headquarters from its original offices in the McKay Tower, to the Calder building, and in 2011, to its current home at 100 Monroe Center NW.
Jack said it’s been important to the firm to remain downtown and for its additional offices to also be in downtown locations.
“All of our offices are in the downtown areas of the communities we serve,” he said. “We are committed to our communities. That is trademark of ours.”
It’s also important the firm’s offices be reflective of the present day legal environment.
Many things have changed since the early days of Smith Haughey, including how lawyers work, where they work and what kinds of spaces they work in.
Roegge and Jack said lawyers can do a lot more work outside of the office now, and many of its attorneys and staff take advantage of that flexibility.
“I’d like to think we were at the forefront of developing flexible work programs for men and women, and we continue to do that for our lawyers and staff,” Jack said.
“That was one of the most attractive things for me was that willingness,” said Shannon Cunningham, director of marketing and business development at Smith Haughey. “It was one of the first things I recognized.
“That is important for the next generation, the flexibility and support you receive from your employer. Working styles are so different, that is due to technology and the change in generation and the desire to work differently, and I noticed that right away here.”
Law firms also require less space now thanks to technology, which has drastically reduced the amount of paper that needs to be filed and stored as well as the need for law libraries.
Jack noted Smith Haughey’s Grand Rapids office is 10,000 square feet smaller than its previous space in the Calder building.
Law firms also have been hiring less in recent years, and their hiring strategies have changed, as well. Many law firms are seeking experienced attorneys to join their firm, as opposed to newly minted law school graduates.
“In the early years, we hired out of law school and had a big summer associate program. If everything worked out, we’d hire them,” Roegge said. “We haven’t done that as much in recent years. Now, we are finding people with three to five years of experience.”
Jack said hiring has gotten easier for the firm.
“We are now in destination communities. All of our offices are in communities that are great places to live,” Jack said. “Thirty or 40 years ago, you had to sell West Michigan; you don’t have to sell the communities anymore.”
Smith Haughey is wrapping up the first year of its most recent strategic plan, and Jack said its goals include continuing to grow its business practice and its offices around the state.
“We are not growing for the sake of growing,” he said. “We are making strategic considerations. We want to be placed in communities with client needs we can address.”
Roegge said he has no doubt the firm will make it to 100 years — and beyond.
“I think we are well positioned to get to 100,” he said. “I believe the firm will be around and will be doing even better. The competition has been pretty fierce over the years, but we’ve kept our growth even, and we look forward to continuing that.”
He said one reason for his prediction is the new talent that will eventually take the reins at the firm.
“What is really interesting to me, is to see our young people, our partners and staff, they remind me so much of us when we were younger, their energy level and enthusiasm for the practice and the firm,” he said. “It is so exciting to watch that transpire. It’s been great.”