Fresh out of law school at the University of Georgia, R. Wilson Smith Jr. came home to Gainesville to hang out his shingle with a solo law practice on the top floor of the Jackson Building.
"He was the consummate Southern gentleman," said Steve Gilliam, a partner in the firm that Smith founded in 1928. He practiced in the era when lawyers were addressed as "colonel." In addition, he actually did serve as a colonel in the U.S. Army during World War II.
This year, the firm now known as Smith, Gilliam, Williams & Miles, is celebrating its 80th year in business. It is the second-oldest firm in Gainesville behind Whelchel, Dunlap, Jarrard & Walker, a firm that dates back to 1888.
Smith's son, John H. Smith, the senior partner of the firm, got an early taste of the law as a boy working for his grandfather, Robert W. "Bob" Smith, who was clerk of court for nearly 40 years.
"The first job I ever had was being a runner for him taking pleas and fines from the judge's office to the clerk's office," said John Smith, who followed in his father's footsteps and joined the firm in 1961.
The firm survived The Great Depression and the devastating tornado of 1936 in Gainesville. On that morning, Wilson Smith was heading for his office and found his car wouldn't start. About that time, he saw the funnel cloud loaded with debris from its path of destruction downtown. He rode out the storm huddled with his wife in a closet in their Ridgewood Avenue home.
When he arrived at his office, he found a brick had shattered his office window, went through his desk chair and was lodged in the typewriter Smith used to write his legal papers.
One memento of that vintage office is a conference table used by the senior Smith in the 1930s that has been restored and is used by the firm today.
Much has changed since the early days. The firm now has nine attorneys and 12 support staff members.
John Smith said at one time, the firm had one of the largest law libraries of any law firm in Northeast Georgia. Today, the volumes of legal books have been replaced by computers with software giving them the very latest case law.
Smith has presided over an evolution of technology. He remembered when the firm used typewriters and carbon paper. He said the firm was one of the first in the area to have a telecopier that would send pages at an astonishing 10 minutes per page.
The firm has represented a number of past and present business clients through the years, many of whom have contributed to the growth of the region.
"We anticipated and expected this area to grow," Smith said. "It's one of the greatest areas of the country and is close to Atlanta."
He said the building of Lake Lanier has significantly contributed to the success of the region, though the current economic climate has offered new challenges.
"We're going through a tough time right now as a community," said Gilliam. "I've been here 34 years and have seen a lot of tough times. But it's always grown, we've never regressed. We've moved from a dominant poultry and agribusiness and picked up other things."
Gilliam said as businesses move away from the central Atlanta area, their client base has grown. "We're now getting people out of the Atlanta area, because it's so expensive to have lawyers in Atlanta."
Gilliam said the firm has done well because of hard work.
"We've had a lot of lawyers come through this firm," he said. "We've been very demanding as to the type of person we want to practice law with this firm and how they treat clients."
Smith said the other attribute to the firm's success is the close relationships.
"We treat ourselves as family," he said. "There's a lot of give and take among each other here."
Smith's son, M. Tyler Smith, is the third generation of the Smith family to be affiliated with the firm. He dispels the notion that law is the family business and said he will let his children, ages 3 and 12, make their own decisions about a career.