In the early 1970s, down in the old Willamette Law basement, Jim Griggs ’71, JD’75 and Bob Saalfeld JD’74 met and worked together on the Willamette Law Review editorial board. That shared interest sparked a friendship that has been central to their professional partnership ever since.
Just blocks from the Willamette Law campus — and its basement — lies the law firm Saalfeld Griggs, a downtown fixture. Saalfeld and Griggs joined the firm (then Harland & Ritter) not long after their Willamette Law graduations, and, in little more than 40 years, have taken the firm from four lawyers to about 30 now, give or take a couple.
As 2018 rolled in, Saalfeld and Griggs prepared to hang up their hats. Both retired effective January 1, and despite the shared enjoyment of their work and the practice they worked to build, they were ready for their exit.
“The attorneys who remain here, hopefully will have a chance to succeed in their own right and continue to build on really what is a group effort,” Griggs says. “It’s not the product of Bob and me so much as it’s a product of a group of people who worked hard together in a positive way.”
“It’s been so good to us, and I think to see that develop in the way that it has is something that I am proud of.”
Saalfeld came to Willamette Law having grown up in Salem. He attended the University of San Francisco for his undergraduate degree in history. Following graduation, he went to Army boot camp in Washington, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the summer of 1971 and started law school that fall. Willamette was a lot different than boot camp.
“I did fewer pushups in law school,” he jokes.
Griggs’ path to Willamette Law was similar, yet different. He mainly grew up on a small farm in eastern Oregon. Thinking he, too, would be a history major, he went off to Willamette University to get his degree. A tough job market for history professors forced him to rethink his major. He switched to an economics degree, intending to go to law school shortly after graduating.
He spent the year between his graduation and enrollment in Willamette Law in the Army Reserves, completing basic and on-the-job training, as well as working as a contractor laying flooring to earn money for law school.
The two were just a year apart in school, and they recall fond times working on Law Review and playing softball together as students. Both agreed Professor John Paulus’ real estate course was one of the best offered at the time.
“He was truly a great professor, very gentle with students,” Griggs says. “He could handle the most ridiculous question you could possibly imagine, with grace, and then lead you right back into a good discussion of what the law is and why this was important.”
To complement his studies, Saalfeld began clerking at the law firm that eventually became Saalfeld Griggs, then headed by Roy Harland LLB’32 and Daniel Ritter JD’65. He enjoyed the experience and encouraged Griggs, a second-year at the time, to join him as a clerk.
Griggs, who had continued working as a contractor, says he decided he should give working in a law office a try, since it was his chosen profession. The opportunity to see contrasting styles and work with professionals was a good thing, he says. While he graduated and went on to New York University to earn an LLM in tax, he returned to the firm not long after.
Both men agree that their education from Willamette Law set them on a positive trajectory. For Saalfeld, it “just made sense” to get his law degree in the place he saw himself working.
“I thought it gave me a very good background to practice law,” Griggs says, “and I thought I was exposed to some really good teachers and encouraged to do well, encouraged to be successful.”
At their practice, Saalfeld started out doing general business work. For a number of years, he focused on working for a bank client, although he eventually transitioned that work off to a younger lawyer. When Ritter left the firm, there was no one to do the estate planning — so Saalfeld volunteered to do it.
“Bob has remade his practice two or three times, and he’s actually an exceptional estate planning lawyer,” Griggs says. “He’s widely recognized for his skills.
“Bob has often been the person who pushed innovation, changed things. It’s easy to get comfortable with where you’re at, unless you have somebody who’s willing to say, ‘But should we look at this?’ I think that through our years of practice together, Bob has consistently pushed complacency out of the way and caused us to do things better.”
Saalfeld is just as complimentary about Griggs and his work in tax. After earning his LLM, Griggs worked in the business corporate tax group, focusing on business formations, reorganizations, purchases, and the like. Once, the two worked together on a contested partnership dissolution case that lasted for two years. Justice Wally Carson JD’62 presided over the trial for that case.
“He was a great judge,” Saalfeld says. “I think Jim and I probably wish we would’ve paid a little tighter attention to evidence class during some of the early hearings.”
In the end, they had a good result for the client and everything worked out. Through the years, the two have earned many awards for their work, including Griggs’ First Citizen of Salem Award and Saalfeld’s 2017 Paul J. De Muniz Professionalism Award from the Marion County Bar Association. Griggs previously received the Professionalism Award, and Saalfeld says his partner should have won it twice before he won it once.
They both say they have enjoyed working with people they admired. Both are grateful to have joined the firm they did and to have had the support of their wives and families.
“We were lucky enough to join a firm with Roy Harland and Dan Ritter, who were very well-respected in the community — as terrific lawyers and terrific people,” Saalfeld explains. “Jim and I had the benefit of just learning from them, not only how they were as lawyers, but how they were as people.”
They learned so much during their own clerkships and time under Harland and Ritter, and they’ve passed that on — in many cases to Willamette Law students through clerk or full-time positions — throughout their careers. With the physical proximity of the law office and the school, the relationship was natural, Saalfeld says.
Many current and former employees at the firm are Willamette Law graduates, including at least 14 who work there now. Saalfeld and Griggs encourage students to think about working in a place that has good people.
“People ought to think about where they want to spend their lives, where they want their families to spend their lives, and make decisions based on more than where they’ll get a few more thousand dollars,” Griggs says. “If they can get out and actually work in a law office, that really does add a perspective that I would’ve missed completely if I hadn’t done that.”
After 40-plus years, Saalfeld and Griggs aren’t worried about leaving their namesake. They’re ready for the freed-up calendar space.
“One of the good things is that we really try to replicate skills,” Griggs says. “We just have a lot of good lawyers coming up behind. I think both of us have had to accept the fact that just because it’s done differently doesn’t mean it’s not done as well or better.”
In addition to having grown the firm’s client base and reputation, the two emphasize making a positive impact on the community as something highly important to them. Part of the firm’s culture is to give back, Griggs says, and it’s something they’re really proud of.
In retirement, Griggs and Saalfeld will use some of their free time to volunteer. Griggs plans to continue his involvement with the Boys & Girls Club and begin volunteering for SMART (Start Making a Reader Today). Saalfeld will spend time helping in a grade school classroom, and he will also start serving on the Willamette Law Leadership Cabinet.
Both are in good health and look forward to traveling — something they’ve done together many times and plan to continue.
“I was cleaning out my study recently, and I realized how many photographs of good experiences were with Jim and I together,” Saalfeld says. “Whether it was biking in Europe or climbing a mountain or cross-country skiing.”
Indeed, to celebrate turning 60, the two did a cross-country skiing marathon in Canada. Griggs jokes Saalfeld nearly killed him. In training, they competed in a race in Bend, Oregon.
“They were taking down the finish line when we came in,” Saalfeld laughs. “That was pretty funny.”
However, the two fared a little better than they expected. They finished first and third in their age group.
“There were only three in our age group,” Griggs explains. “We got medals and felt pretty good about it.”
Griggs has since completed running marathons (including New York City), and Saalfeld has completed nearly a dozen cross-country ski marathon races around the world. Although the two won’t work together every day anymore, they will see each other often. The affection they hold for one another is obvious.
“We’ve worked together 40-some-years, and we still like each other,” Saalfeld says. “He’s like a brother. It’s been great to practice with somebody as good a person as Jim.”
Griggs couldn’t agree more.
“I feel very much the same way,” he says. “Bob’s really one of my best friends and one of my most trusted advisors for myself. Working together has really been something that’s been mutually beneficial for both of us in our lives.”
About Willamette University College of Law
Opened in 1883, Willamette University College of Law is the first law school in the Pacific Northwest. The college has a long tradition at the forefront of legal education and is committed to the advancement of knowledge through excellent teaching, scholarship and mentorship. Leading faculty, thriving externship and clinical law programs, ample practical skills courses and a proactive career placement office prepare Willamette law students for today's legal job market. According to statistics compiled by the American Bar Association, Willamette ranks first in the Pacific Northwest for job placement for full-time, long-term, JD-preferred/JD-required jobs for the class of 2014 and first in Oregon for the classes of 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. Located across the street from the state capitol complex and the Oregon Supreme Court, the college specializes in law and government, law and business, and dispute resolution.