Written by Patricia A. Shlonsky, Cleveland Partner-in-Charge
This article originally appeared in the CMBA Bar Journal Magazine in April 2019
The firm of Ulmer & Berne has played an integral role in shaping the legal, business, and community landscapes of Cleveland for more than 110 years. What once began as a humble practice run by two Case Western Reserve University Law School graduates has grown to be one of Cleveland’s largest firms. As Ulmer has expanded and evolved over the years, the firm has remained true to its Midwest roots and steadfastly committed to making a difference in the community. One of Ulmer’s priorities has and always will be civic engagement, following the high standards set by the firm’s founders.
Ulmer was formed by brothers-in-law Jacob (Yank) M. Ulmer and J. M. (Joe) Berne who graduated from law school in the class of 1908. Their decision to practice together was based in part on their great friendship, but also because most firms in Cleveland at the time refused to hire Jewish lawyers. With endless determination, the pair opened their practice in a single office on Public Square. Their close bond allowed them to succeed in this small space where they worked facing each other at a double desk and where one partner would have to retreat when the other partner’s client required privacy.
Yank and Joe’s practice quickly outgrew their double desk. While the duo’s reputation as respected lawyers increased, so did their standing as good citizens who were committed to positively impacting the greater Cleveland community. Joe has been described as a caring person, true friend, and mentor to young lawyers, who inspired a generation of Ulmer attorneys to become involved in civic activities and the life of the Jewish community. He served for nine years as the president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and in 1945 received the Charles Eisenman Award for his outstanding contributions to the city’s social and civic betterment. He also was the founder of the Cleveland chapter of the American Jewish Committee, and served as the president of the historic Oakwood Country Club in Cleveland Heights.
Joe’s vast impact on Cleveland is noteworthy. In addition to serving in several community roles, including as a Cleveland Heights City Council member, president of the Euclid Avenue Association, and a trustee of Mount Sinai Hospital, the Cleveland Community Chest, and Cleveland Bar Association, Joe played a significant role in the development and city planning of Cleveland. In particular, he led the development of Playhouse Square by persuading the president of the Keith’s Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit to build the Palace Theater, which was at the time and still is one of the most beautiful theaters in the country. In the early days of the century, Joe also worked on some of the city’s first zoning ordinances and served as chairman of the Chamber of Commerce’s City Planning Committee. For his public service to the community, he received the distinguished service certificate of the Cleveland Community Fund.
Yank Ulmer had an equally fascinating impact on the world through his devotion to promoting research on the causes of blindness, which was inspired by a two-year period of blindness he suffered as a result of cataracts. As an avid reader of the city’s Daily Legal News, he discovered his condition when he began to believe the type of ink used by the newspaper was deteriorating. When the editor assured him that was not the case, he consulted an ophthalmologist who diagnosed him. His great curiosity and insistence on knowing more on this subject led to his extensive involvement in the field of blinding eye diseases and to the creation of research funds, which prior to that time were not available in this area. Yank’s dedication led him to assist with the creation of the National Institute for Eye Research and the National Institute of Health in Neurological and Blinding Eye Diseases. In addition to his medical research endeavors, he was also largely responsible for the creation of a better pension plan for retired federal judges, who at the time were significantly underpaid.
Over the years, many talented attorneys and partners joined the firm, resulting in various changes to the firm’s name. It was in 1953 that Ulmer, Berne, Gordon & Glickman merged with the firm of Laronge & Curtis. With that merger came the addition of Robert L. Lewis, who would later become a managing partner of the firm and who had an enormous impression on Cleveland. On top of being an excellent business lawyer, Robert was an education activist who was vital in the creation of Cuyahoga Community College. He served as the founding chair of the school’s board of trustees and was known for his love of learning and passion for exploring civic responsibility and ethics issues. In his retirement, he served on the faculty of Tri-C where he taught Greek mythology and Case Western Reserve University where he taught business ethics. Today, Tri-C’s Robert L. Lewis Academy of Scholars program, which was launched in 2008 in his honor, empowers ambitious students with a passion for social justice to pursue his dream of a civil society.
In 1958, Marvin L. Karp joined the firm and began the litigation career that would make him one of the most distinguished members of the Cleveland bar. Throughout Marv’s life, he has maintained a deep commitment to ethics and professional responsibility, and has had a lasting impact on the Cleveland legal community. Marv served as president of the Cleveland Bar Association, as a member and chair of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, and as an advisor to the ABA’s Commission to Evaluate the Model Code of Judicial Conduct. While president of the CBA, he developed “A Lawyer’s Creed of Professionalism,” a respected guide that promotes civility in the legal profession and that has been adopted by hundreds of state and local bar associations across the country.
Throughout the firm’s history, civic engagement has remained one of the firm’s core principles. Our attorneys honor this commitment today by generously dedicating their time and talents to community endeavors, following in the footsteps of the firm’s founders. Presently, several Ulmer attorneys hold board positions or government roles with organizations throughout Cleveland. As a brief example, I serve as the president of the board of trustees for the Cuyahoga County Public Library and as a vice president of The City Club of Cleveland, Partner Inajo Davis Chappell serves on the board of the Cleveland Foundation and is the chair of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, and Partner Michael Ungar serves on the board of trustees for The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and is a city council member for the City of Cleveland Heights, just as Joe Berne was many years ago. This example of community work is reflective of numerous attorneys at the firm who strive each day to make Cleveland a better place.
Ulmer is proud to have an important place in Cleveland’s history. The firm’s original name of Ulmer & Berne was restored in 1988, and the firm moved to the Skylight Office Tower of Tower City in 2005. Now more than a century later, the firm remains committed to the same goals that Yank Ulmer and Joe Berne themselves sought to achieve – to practice law at the highest skill level and to be active community leaders. The firm’s civic engagement is one of its driving forces, which will radiate in Cleveland for years to come just as the efforts of the firm’s founders continue to impact the city today.