In 1826, James Fenimore Cooper published The Last of the Mohicans, but Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas were still years away. Beethoven was still alive, Victoria was still a princess, and the Spanish Inquisition was still in progress. The first railroad in the United States was yet unbuilt, and the Mormon church had not been formed. In 1826, Thomas Jefferson died, and only 24 states had joined the Union.
Also in 1826, Thomas and John Slidell, two very prominent attorneys in Louisiana, founded a law firm. Today that firm, 186 years “young,” is Chaffe McCall, L.L.P., the oldest continuously operating law firm in Louisiana. Beginning with the Slidell brothers, it has developed a tradition of excellence that it continues to earn each day.
Thomas Slidell prepared one of the first Louisiana case digests, and in 1846 left his private practice to become a member of the Louisiana Supreme Court, where he was later named its Chief Justice. Thomas A. Clark had joined the firm in 1842, and after Thomas Slidell's departure for the judiciary, the firm was re-named Slidell & Clark in 1852.
John Slidell became a cause célèbre during the Civil War. While en route as a Confederate emissary aboard the British vessel TRENT, Slidell was taken off after a Yankee frigate intercepted it. The incident nearly brought England into the war on the side of the Confederacy. Thomas Clark was also a classmate of Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin. When Clark was imprisoned by the Union forces during the War, Benjamin sent a special train to rescue him.
Thomas L. Bayne joined the firm and became a partner in 1851. The firm was later known as Clark & Bayne. It was subsequently re-named Clark, Bayne & Renshaw (1869); Bayne & Renshaw (1878); and Bayne & Denegre (1880). George Denegre was a brilliant commercial lawyer who also acquired distinction as a leader in the successful battle overcoming the Louisiana Lottery and the Citizens' League campaign in 1896. In the words of his obituary written by the Louisiana Supreme Court, George Denegre's efforts "in large measure laid the foundation of the city's political regeneration."
In 1888, Thomas Bayne's son, T. L. "Nervy" Bayne, became a member of the firm, and it was then known as Bayne, Denegre & Bayne. Nervy Bayne was a legendary figure who coached both football teams of archrivals Tulane and L.S.U. in their first intercollegiate game in 1893. It was also said that he built the goal posts, laid out the field, sold the tickets, and refereed the game.
During this period, the firm's practice focused on maritime and commercial law. Its name changed in 1893 to Bayne, Denegre & Denegre; in 1894 to Denegre & Denegre; and in 1895, to Denegre & Blair, after J. Paxton Blair became a partner. Blair became renowned for representing railroads, including J. P. Morgan's Louisiana & Texas Railroad.
In 1902, Victor Leovy joined the firm and distinguished himself as a stalwart of its admiralty practice. At the same time, Henry Chaffe finished clerking for state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Breaux and also became a member. Chaffe earned great prominence as a trial attorney and established the firm's oil and gas section.
In 1913, J. P. Blair left the firm to become General Counsel of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the firm was then known as Denegre, Leovy & Chaffe, the name it retained until the deaths of Messrs, Denegre, and Leovy. In 1915 Harry McCall, Sr. joined the firm. While continuing to practice law, he also taught English and Mathematics at Tulane University. Later he served as a judge ad hoc of the Court of Appeal, was President of both the Louisiana and the New Orleans Bar Associations, and was Chairman of the Charter Commission, which drafted the New Orleans Home Rule Charter. In 1942, the firm became Chaffe, McCall, Bruns, Toler & Phillips.
After Henry Brun's retirement in 1948, the firm merged in 1955 with Rosen, Kammer, Wolf, Hopkins & Burke, and became Chaffe, McCall, Phillips, Burke & Hopkins before being re-named Chaffe, McCall, Phillips, Burke, Toler & Hopkins in 1962. By 1968 James Hopkins had died and Leon Sarpy’s name was added to the masthead, making it Chaffe, McCall, Phillips, Burke, Toler & Sarpy.
In 1971, Gibbons Burke had departed the firm, and the firm assumed the name: Chaffe, McCall, Phillips, Toler & Sarpy. In the years since then, at a time when many firms were becoming known by shorter versions of their full names, the firm was referred to simply as Chaffe McCall. In 2005, this change was made official, and it is now the name of the firm.
The year 2005 marked yet another milestone in the firm’s history. On Friday, August 26, 2005, the firm cut short its workday in New Orleans to allow members to batten down their offices and return home to make preparations for Hurricane Katrina, which was in the Gulf of Mexico. The expectation was that the New Orleans office would re-open on Monday, after the storm had passed but, nonetheless, in a manner typical of the foresight and planning at Chaffe McCall, a decision was made to take vital computer information and data out of the office as a precaution.
Hurricane Katrina blew in from the Gulf, and that story is all too well known. In the aftermath, when firm managers realized it would not be possible to return soon to the New Orleans office, the firm's Baton Rouge office became home. Within a matter of days, that office was expanded to accommodate most of the firm’s attorneys, with other offices established in Mobile, Nashville, Asheville, Dallas and Lafayette, almost anywhere space could be found. The critical decision to evacuate with the electronic data enabled the firm to be functional by the end of that week and, after an emergency trip to the New Orleans office to recover the actual hardware from the main offices, Chaffe McCall’s computers were fully functional. Clients were contacted by email, land line, and cell phone and were assured that the firm was operating and ready to serve them.
Writing to the members of the firm from her office in Lafayette, the firm’s managing partner praised all for coming together in the incredible crisis, and for working through personal problems and losses to come to the aid of the firm. Chaffe McCall ultimately reoccupied its New Orleans office in mid-October 2005, although several attorneys remained in the outlying offices due to home losses and the lingering effects of Katrina. The firm continued to service the needs of its clients, and has since developed a very strong program in preparation for any similar event. Click here to read Chaffe's "Katrina Chronicles," a detail of the firm's events related to the hurricane.
To this day, just as the Slidell brothers did at the firm’s inception, and as so many others have done over the firm’s history, Chaffe McCall’s attorneys continue in their service to their clients, to the bar and to the community. In 2007, Chaffe McCall was recognized by the New Orleans Pro Bono Project as a Pro Bono Law Firm of the year. Members of the firm serve in a variety of civic, business, political, professional, and non-profit boards improving the quality of life in the Greater New Orleans area.