John Davis: a legacy in law, living long and living well

Rebecca Mar
Mercer Island Reporter

  • Monday, November 24, 2008 9:01pm
  • Life

Rebecca Mar
Mercer Island Reporter

Nearly 70 years after graduating from the University of Washington School of Law and becoming a lawyer, John MacDougall Davis — at age 94 — has yet to retire.

Davis, a co-founder of the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, no longer represents clients, but his current work involves meeting with lawyers, providing counsel on the firm’s operations, board collaboration with nonprofit and community organizations, and reading law materials.

A recent surgery and the chaos of moving units at Covenant Shores on Mercer Island have kept Davis from the Davis Wright Tremaine office, but he plans to spend one day each week at the law firm again in the near future.

The firm held a birthday party for Davis last month at the Seattle office.

“He is a treasure — he is unique,” said chairman of the law firm, Mark Hutcheson, who has known Davis for 40 years. “At 94 years old, he has the same energy, quickness, brightness, positive attitude, integrity and wisdom that he had 40 years ago. He’s a classic mentor, and [among] people in the firm — whether a senior partner or brand new staff member who has a job that may be fairly simple and straightforward — he is loved. He is beloved across the ranks.”

Davis opened his first law practice in Seattle in 1945, then became a founding partner of Emory, Howe, Davis and Riese (1948), David, Wright, Todd, Riese and Jones (1969) and, finally, Davis Wright Tremaine in 1990.

“As the practice of law has grown, we’ve been growing with it,” said Davis. “We haven’t lost track of who we are, what we are or what we’re doing — serving others as best we can. We have a rather unique character in how we treat people and how we treat ourselves.”

Davis still believes in the three guiding principles that he jotted down on notepaper as “Real Aims” before starting his first practice: “financial independence; good reputation among fellow men, especially for ability and integrity; enough time off to enjoy living.” The key words for his firm, he said, are “ability, integrity and service — not size, not money.”

Now, Davis Wright Tremaine has approximately 500 employees and nine locations throughout the United States and even in Shanghai, China. The firm’s numerous areas of practice include estate planning, health care and patents, among others. One of its most significant litigation cases was the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“There’s absolutely no way I imagined we would become this size,” Davis said. “I assumed we would grow modestly, but growth wasn’t an aim. Respect, companionship, lack of friction, freedom of action, hard work, no jealousies — as long as those are happening, then [the firm] will grow.”

Davis’ law career transpired after he graduated from the University of Washington in 1936 with a bachelor’s degree in English. While employed at a bank, he decided to attend law school after reading an article in LIFE magazine that described law as “a fierce intellectual challenge,” which appealed to him.

But since then, not all of his energies have gone toward practicing law, he said. He went on to become the president of the Mercer Island School Board, Whitman College, the Pacific Science Center and King County Bar Association, to name a few, and he helped to found the Washington Student Loan Guarantee Association and the Mountaineers Foundation.

Indeed, Davis has been active in various ways since his youth — from the Boy Scouts’ 1929 World Scout Jamboree in England, to service in the National Guard, to operating an 11-acre farm in Poulsbo, Wash.

He built a new house on the Mercer Island property that his parents, David and Georgina, bought on the North end in 1912 — the house where he lived with his wife, Ruth, for 45 years. The property still belongs to the family. Davis “pioneered it” with Ruth — who he married in 1939 — and their six children at their Port Gamble vacation spot, where they cleared land and built cabins along with a 300-foot bulkhead. Mountain climbing, square dancing and gardening were among Davis’ past hobbies.

“I’ve been trying to carry out an oath I took as a Boy Scout at age 12: ‘On my honor, I’ll do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout law, to help other people at all times and to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight,’” Davis said.

He holds no secrets to living a long life — although he thinks avoiding both alcohol and cigarettes might have had something to do with it — but does have a prayer, written by an unknown author, for living well:

“Lord, Thou knowest better than I know myself that I am growing older and will someday be old … I dare not ask for improved memory but for growing humility … Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places and unexpected talents in everybody … make us practice and preach ‘Dum vivimus vivamus’ [while we are living, let us live] and ‘I want to be happy, but I can’t be happy ’til I make you happy, too.’”

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