Hanging in the lobby of our law firm is a letter dated July 20, 1960; a brief thank you note from a young senator from Massachusetts to our firm's founder, David T. Wilentz. This yellowed piece of paper, with Kennedy's famously handsome profile emblazoned on the letterhead, easily could have made its way to the trash despite the eventual importance of the author. It was kept—whether deliberately or sheer luck, is anyone's guess. Or is it?
As I get older, I find myself thinking about what makes things last. I find, too, that my thoughts about the past and the future are inextricably bound. Let me make clear, I do not declare the woefulness of our age. I trust innovation and generally find talk of the good ‘ol days to be dreadfully boring, at times naïve. To be sure, we have endured difficult economic times of late and faith in our institutions and our leaders has been tested. But we have endured. On a regular basis, we all witness inspiring examples of human intelligence, generosity and courage. But the new always ushers out the old and I believe we would be wise to not throw away some things so easily.
This year, our law firm celebrates its 95th anniversary. This strikes me as an astounding accomplishment, particularly now, when it seems everyone talks about the difficulty of growing and maintaining a successful enterprise. We bemoan living in a hypercompetitive time, where speed is king and substance is overlooked. We worry we won’t be able to keep apace and afloat. We fear becoming irrelevant. But I would argue that these pressures are not new. Innovation and adaptability have always been keys to success. So what is the real secret to building something that will last not just for years, but for generations?
Often, it’s helpful to begin at the beginning. What did the world look like 95 years ago when this firm started? It was 1919, and as soldiers returned battered and broken from World War I, entire nations were leveled by the ravages of modern warfare. Prohibition had led to the rise of bootleggers as well as ruthless criminal organizations. Corruption abounded in politics and law enforcement. I imagine many people felt cynical and disheartened. Yet, they did not all lose hope. People raised families and bought homes. They danced and went to the movies. They started businesses.
The founder of our firm, David Wilentz, was just a baby when his parents emigrated from Lithuania to Perth Amboy, NJ. He worked at a local newspaper while commuting in the evenings to Manhattan to attend law school. He joined the army during World War I as a private and emerged a lieutenant. He finished his law degree after the war and founded the firm in 1919. Immersing himself in his local community and politics, he eventually became Attorney General of New Jersey.
The central principles of David’s life — service to country, community and the law—were mirrored in a firm that served businesses both large and small, individuals with means both great and humble. Plaintiffs and defendants. Our founding mission was to serve our clients and the law, not to pick sides. Did David Wilentz have an inkling that, building on that mission, the small law firm he started in Perth Amboy would grow and prosper? Perhaps not. What he did know, and the legacy he has bestowed upon us, was the basic truth that a sound principle is the steadfast thing to unify a group of individuals, to build a strong foundation, to survive the tests of time.
Lest nostalgia get the best of us, I’m reminded that no generation is inherently greater than any other. 1919 was a time of great upheaval. The future was tentative, but also rich with promise. Sound familiar? Of course. This is how the future always looks to the generation that must wield it. The visionaries among us have always known this, and are not distracted from their purpose by clamors of fear and uncertainty. This secret is one that David Wilentz knew. It is why he was able to build something that stays true to his vision all these years later. Something that has lasted and will continue, into the foreseeable future, to last.
Brian J. Molloy is the president and managing partner of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer P.A.
Molloy, a shareholder, is managing partner of the law firm and co-chair of the Appellate Practice Group. Prior to becoming managing partner, he was Chair of the Commercial Litigation Group. He has years of experience as lead counsel in trials in several jurisdictions, and has extensive appellate experience in the state and federal courts.
He is also president of a wholly-owned subsidiary of the law firm providing sports management services to professional baseball athletes.
In his community, Molloy served on the Westfield Zoning Board of Adjustment, president and trustee of the Westfield College Men’s Club, trustee of the Westfield High School Boosters Association, and coached soccer and baseball teams for his two children.