How It All Began
Childhood friends Ira Rothgerber and Walter Appel grew up in Denver in the 1890s and attended East High School. They knew each other through their mothers' friendship. In 1898, they enrolled together at the University of Colorado and shared a room with no indoor plumbing in Boulder's Mapleton area. Rothgerber went straight for a law degree and was one of 15 graduates of the University of Colorado School of Law's Class of 1901. Walter graduated the following year.
Walter Appel and Ira Rothgerber, Sr.
Rothgerber spent his first two years as a lawyer working for T.J. O'Donnell, who was regarded as one of the "Titans of the Bar." Appel went to work for the Denver law firm of Bixler Bennett & Nye, a leading bankruptcy practice of the time. After gaining some experience, the young men joined forces and opened their own firm in 1903.
Heads or Tails?
To name the firm, they flipped a coin. Rothgerber won the toss, so his name came first: Rothgerber & Appel. The coin toss became standard practice for the partners to break ties. Indeed, the firm's first formal partner meeting was not convened until the 1960s.
The Next Generation
Rothgerber & Appel remained a two-person firm for more than 30 years until Ira Rothgerber Jr. followed in his father's footsteps in 1935. The young Rothgerber was paid a meager $25 a month as an associate. In 1941, he was made partner and earned $300 to $400 a month.
A year later, Ira Rothgerber Jr. went to war in the South Pacific, serving the Army in Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was awarded the Bronze Star. During his military career, he represented an American soldier in a celebrated court-martial that later became the subject of the major motion picture, Death of a Soldier.
Ira's commanding officer in the South Pacific was New Jersey attorney Bill Powers. They became close friends and, when the war was over, Ira invited Bill to join the firm. When Ira Rothgerber Jr. returned to Denver after the war, he resumed his practice only briefly. He accepted a teaching position at his beloved alma mater, the University of Colorado School of Law, where he remained for several years.
Bill Powers, Walter Appel, Bob Appel, and
Ira Rothgerber Jr.
In 1950, Walter's son, Robert Appel, started working as a clerk at the firm while attending law school. He passed the Bar in December 1951 and graduated in May 1952. The firm immediately named him a partner.
Judge Ira Rothgerber Sr. passed away in 1956 after more than 50 years with the firm. It was a sad time for Walter Appel, who lost his lifetime friend and business associate. It was then that Ira Jr. returned to the firm full-time and assumed a leadership position. The second generation, including Ira Rothgerber Jr. and Robert Appel, would become the driving force behind the firm's long-term growth and success.
By the late 1950s, the firm still had no plan. Business was changing and so was the business of law. Walter Appel saw other firms growing and became concerned. He cautioned the younger partners to start thinking about the future. "If you fellows don't start growing, you're going to die," he said. But he never got to see the results of his sage advice. Walter Appel, the last founding partner, passed away in 1961 at age 81.
His advice was taken, however. In 1959, the firm hired Bill Johnson and began a period of significant growth, from six to more than 50 attorneys within 20 years. Initially, its real estate and probate practices were strong, but it wasn't doing any litigation. Clearly, if the firm was to survive and grow, it would need to expand its services. Ira Rothgerber Jr. and Bill Johnson stepped up to the plate and started handling litigation.
One of Ira Rothgerber's proudest career accomplishments came out of a case to which he was appointed by the court. He participated in the successful defense of a group of Denver residents charged in the 1950s with communist affiliations under the Sedition Act. They had been convicted, and Ira was appointed by the court to represent them on appeal and won. The celebrated case put the firm on the map for its litigation expertise. Litigation remains a signature practice of the firm to this day.
Upon Walter Appel's death, son Robert took the reins as managing partner, continuing in that role until he retired from the firm in 1991. Bob Appel is credited with modernizing the firm's accounting systems and developing the first set of books. He was an early believer in computer technology and introduced the first computer to the firm in the early 1980s, several years before computers became common within the legal profession.
Banking on the Future
In the early 1960s, Bill Johnson helped establish another signature practice for the firm: banking. The firm represented an applicant in the first contested national bank charter application. The hearing was held in Washington, D.C., before the Comptroller of the Currency. A bank charter had never been contested before. In the end, the firm's lawyers emerged victorious. The exposure from this decision was monumental, and almost overnight the firm had a national reputation as a leader in banking law.
Everett Williams, Ira Rothgerber, Jr., J.R. Thomas, Bill Johnson, Roger Reisher (seated), 1965
The firm's banking practice developed further in 1963 when it became involved in the organization and founding of what today is known as FirstBank. Bill Johnson and Ira Rothgerber Jr. were founding directors. Two clients had been looking for organizers to establish a new Colorado-based national bank. They applied for a bank charter in Lakewood and established what remains the lead bank for FirstBank Holding Co., the largest bank organization headquartered in the state. Today the organization operates more than 100 bank offices, with assets approaching $6 billion.
In the late 1960s, Johnson again challenged the status quo in banking when he pioneered the "one bank holding company" structure. The firm secured IRS letter rulings exempting bank holding companies from personal holding company status. These rulings allowed bank holding companies to become vehicles for efficient debt management and launched a revolutionary structure for community bank ownership. Today, the holding company structure is widely used by banks nationwide. Johnson estimates that he personally formed more than 1,000 bank holding companies for community-based banks in 48 states.
In 1985, in recognition of Johnson's significant contributions to the firm's success, the firm's name was changed to Rothgerber, Appel, Powers & Johnson.
Serving the Front Range
In the 1960s and 1970s, during a period of heavy growth, several attorneys were hired who today lead the practice. This generation of lawyers has taken the firm to the next level and further developed its reputation for excellence and client service.
President Clinton and Jim Lyons
, hired in 1971, has since developed into one of the most accomplished, respected trial lawyers in the Rocky Mountain region. In addition to his impressive legal career, Lyons completed his service as Special Advisor to the President of the United States and the Secretary of State for Economic Initiatives in Ireland and Northern Ireland. His name was added to the firm marquee in 1998. In late 2006, Lyons served as Executive Director of then Governor-Elect Bill Ritter's transition, coordinated with Gov. Owens and his office, and oversaw the Cabinet selection process.
Dick Clark was hired in 1973 and is credited with building the firm's prominent real estate litigation practice. In addition to many area builders, developers and real estate finance clients, Dick has served as general counsel for the Colorado Association of REALTORS® since 1991. Clark also led the development of RJ&L's international business practice through his work with many prominent Japanese companies that have established operations in the Rocky Mountain region, as well as with American companies conducting business overseas. He has served as general counsel to the Consulate General of Japan since 1999.
Lyons, Clark and a group of several other senior partners have worked together for more than 25 years. This core group works extremely well together and has built lasting friendships based on mutual respect. "These fundamental internal relationships are in many ways like a family," says Lyons. "They provide a platform for all of us to be successful."
From the beginning, the firm developed a strong reputation for political activism. Many of the firm's lawyers have participated in party politics and have worked in presidential campaigns from Roosevelt to Clinton. But political differences never have gotten in the way of their friendships.
In the early 1990s, with an expanding client base that reached well beyond the Denver metro area, the firm opened several regional offices to bring its attorneys closer to the businesses they serve. This proximity helps the firm's lawyers gain a better understanding of local issues and become a part of these communities.
In 1995, the firm hired several lawyers from the long-established Colorado Springs firm of Hecox, Tolley, Keene & Beltz. Today the Colorado Springs office, with 12 resident attorneys, has become one of the largest, most reputable firms in the city. This office represents a variety of clients, including some of the city's largest corporations as well as several nonprofit organizations and religious institutions.
In 2001, the firm expanded further into Wyoming by opening a Casper office managed by former two-term Wyoming Governor and U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Michael J. Sullivan. Governor Sullivan brings his expertise in natural resources law, mediation and arbitration and international business to assist the firm's clients in Wyoming and abroad.