Max E. Wildman, known for his extensive career as a trial lawyer and for co-founding a Chicago law firm, died today at age 91.
Wildman represented numerous high-profile clients, earned recognition by federal court buffs as "The Great One," and helped build from scratch Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon LLP.
Born in Terre Haute, Ind. on Dec. 4, 1919, Wildman knew he wanted to be a trial lawyer by age 11, according to biographical information provided by his family. His father's brother was a U.S. Attorney in Indianapolis and Wildman enjoyed accompanying him to court as a child, his family said.
Wildman started at the University of Michigan Law School on track to graduate in 1944, his family said, but he instead ended up serving 39 months in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. He returned to the same law school after the war and graduated in 1947.
He joined the firm of Kirkland, Fleming, Green, Martin & Ellis — now Kirkland & Ellis LLP — in 1947 and married his wife, Joyce Smith Wildman the following year.
Wildman earned his MBA from the University of Chicago in 1952 and served as Special Assistant Attorney General for Illinois in 1957, his family said.
After 20 years of practicing at Kirkland, Wildman left the firm with Bernard Harrold, Thomas D. Allen, Stewart S. Dixon and two associates to build their own firm in 1967. The resulting firm grew to employ about 200 attorneys, a representative of Wildman, Harrold said, and now represents some Fortune 500 companies.
On Oct. 1, the firm will merge with Edwards, Angell, Palmer & Dodge LLP to become Edwards, Wildman, Palmer LLP. The new firm will employ about 650 attorneys.
Judge William J. Bauer of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said Wildman was "a tiger in the courtroom," but he always maintained civility and even friendliness. Wildman appeared before Bauer for a seven-week trial in the mid-1960s, and the two became fast friends.
"Everybody around him was just comfortable," Bauer said.
Wildman's prowess in the courtroom was both entertaining and engaging, Bauer said.
"A good cross-examiner can lead a witness into a quiet stare," Bauer said.
"He took them where he wanted to go and he had one of the beautiful attributes of a cross examiner: He knew when to shut up. I never heard him ask one question too many."
Bauer said Wildman was also active in the community because of a sense of "belonging to everything and everyone."
"What he did for the community he was doing for everyone," Bauer said.
Dan K. Webb, chairman of Winston & Strawn LLP, said he tried a famous Sealy Mattress anti-trust case against Wildman during the 1980s. Wildman lost a $122 million verdict in the case, according to Wildman's family, but Webb later sent him a newsletter from federal court observers dubbing Wildman "The Great One."
Like Bauer, Webb also said he remembered Wildman's unfailing civility and friendliness.
"I really liked his warmth of personality," Webb said.
"He had a laid back way of practicing law, and he didn't take himself all that seriously. He recognized that we may be opponents in the courtroom, but that doesn't mean we can't be civil and courteous."
Webb said Wildman will be remembered as a "legend" in the courtroom.
"I consider Max one of the all-time great Chicago trial lawyers," Webb said.
"His skills in the courtroom are legendary. I think it's fair to say that for decades, he was one of the giants of the Chicago legal community, so he's going to be deeply missed."
Part of Wildman's success, Webb said, was his "Jimmy Stewart, 'aw shucks' demeanor."
"The jurors really were just mesmerized by Max, and I was a little bit younger then, and I was pretty much mesmerized myself," Webb said.
"He was really effective in front of a jury, and just a well-prepared trial lawyer."
John L. Eisel, a partner at Wildman, Harrold, said Wildman taught him never to make "a gratuitous enemy."
"Law practice goes on (for) many years, and we fight aggressively for our clients, but he believed that in the end, you should be respectful of not just your clients, but those on the other side of your transactions," Eisel said.
"I took that away with me, and I think it's a nice perspective to have as you try and work your way through your legal career."
Wildman's decision to leave Kirkland and start a new firm made him a pioneer at a time when that splitting from established firms was relatively rare, Eisel said.
"It was kind of a startling thing when they left," Eisel said.
"They were pioneers in leaving a well-respected, long-established firm and starting on their own, but he had a philosophy that he wanted to put into practice.
"His theme was 'we want a firm where each individual can maximize his or her potential.' He was certainly well-loved by all of us who have been here for many years for the atmosphere and culture he created."