To understand Inslee Best Doezie & Ryder’s long connection to downtown Bellevue, the corporate law firm’s president and managing partner, David J. Lawyer, likes to share a personal anecdote that involves a well-known Eastside tech company.

It was the early 1980s; the law firm was headquartered in the former National Bank building on Northeast Eighth Street; and if the elevator happened to stop on the third floor, Lawyer would peek past the sliding doors and into an office environment much different than his own.

David J. Lawyer

David J. Lawyer. Photo by Jeff Hobson.

“There would be this disaster inside,” Lawyer recalled, during an interview at the firm, which is locally known as “Inslee Best” and long ago moved to the 15th floor of Skyline Tower. “Pizza boxes and Coke cans were everywhere, and there were these grungy-looking people. Finally, somebody in the building complained to the building management: ‘I think we’ve got some squatters on the third floor. They don’t look clean, and I don’t know what they are doing there.’ It turns out it was Microsoft; Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and their cronies were in there coding all day and all night. Talk about humble beginnings.”

Humble beginnings, indeed. And not just for Microsoft or its storied and early lean years.

Inslee Best — which employs 50 people (of whom 29 are attorneys); will mark its 50th anniversary in downtown Bellevue next year; and serves a wide range of clients and offers legal expertise on matters such as environmental and land use laws, estate planning, real estate, intellectual property, family law, labor and employment laws, tax rules, and general business and litigation issues — is the largest private corporate law firm headquartered on the Eastside. True, other firms such as Perkins Coie and Davis Wright Tremaine have a presence on this side of Lake Washington, but they are satellite offices linked to headquarters in Seattle.

How did Inslee Best endure? Oddly, you have to look back more than 80 years and to Seattle for the answer. The firm’s history is a tangled and pocked chronology that is threaded with the ebb-and-flow of new and retiring partners, as well as law-firm name revisions.

“Law firms, perhaps similar to rock bands, kind of have personnel changes as time goes by, and you usually find that there’s sort of a tracing of its DNA that goes back much, much earlier than whatever the constituency is at any given moment in time,” said Lawyer, who joined the firm as a law school intern nearly 35 years ago.

Inslee Best’s first iteration came in 1934, when attorneys Ray Johnson and Larry DaFoe opened the firm Johnson & DaFoe in downtown Seattle. Twenty-five years later, DaFoe had retired, attorney Carl Jonson was hired, and the firm rebranded as Johnson & Jonson. Eventually, Evan Inslee, a young lawyer just two years out of law school (and the uncle of Jay Inslee, the current Washington state governor), was added to the firm’s name to distinguish itself from another Seattle firm with the same name.

“All of Evan’s classmates thought that he was some superstar that had somehow set the local legal landscape on fire,” Lawyer explained. “The reality was that they just wanted to differentiate themselves from this other firm in town.”

But the most enduring and significant change occurred in 1969, when the firm — which hired attorney David Best and became Johnson Inslee & Best — moved across Lake Washington and into a building in comparatively desolate and unproven downtown Bellevue. According to Lawyer, many attorneys thought it was a foolish decision to relocate to the suburbs.

“Bellevue was a sleepy little town back in 1969,” he said. “Kirkland and Redmond were a bigger deal than Bellevue. It really seemed like a daring move.”

In practical terms, the move was designed to bring the office closer to home for Inslee, who lived on the Eastside. More prescient, however, Johnson Inslee & Best was welcomed by a small business community that didn’t want to make the commute to Seattle for legal advice.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Microsoft and Nintendo of America started to expand, drawing more residents and business to the region. Inslee Best found itself representing the kinds of businesses that follow that kind of growth: homebuilders; automobile dealers; new and growing municipalities; and, yes, even tech companies. The timing and location were great for a corporate law firm — and not entirely lost on Seattle firms, either.

More than a half-dozen Seattle-based law firms opened satellite offices on the Eastside and competed for business. But Inslee Best had established Eastside inroads (and a loyal client roster) decades earlier. Most of those law firms have reined their operations back to Seattle, finding it to be an expensive venture.

“Having a satellite office in close proximity to (its original headquarters) and kind of the same client base is a very expensive proposition,” he explained. “There’s a duplication of a lot of expense. We are talking about a lease of physical space, computers and networking, two receptionists, two phone systems.”

One by one, many of those Seattle-based satellite firms closed while Inslee Best maintained its presence on the Eastside.

As for Inslee Best’s future, Lawyer is pleased by how the firm has managed to cultivate talent and find a diverse range of attorneys — young and old, male and female — with sharp minds and an interest in corporate law. It’s part of what has helped the firm grow and remain optimistic about the next 50 years.

“Referrals of work come from our ‘guru status,’ if you will, and people flock to that,” he explained. “But that is dwarfed by the referrals that come from satisfied clients who felt like they were helped and dealt with fairly. Those clients, inevitably, will come into contact with somebody who says, ‘I hate the fact that I have to see a lawyer, but do you know anybody?’ You want to be on the tips of everybody’s tongues when that question is asked. That, ultimately, is the secret sauce — and there are firms gigantic and tiny that are very good at that.”