Levy Mayer

The man in the elegant portrait by Leopold Seyffert in the Entrance Lobby to Levy Mayer Hall at Northwestern University School of Law is Levy Mayer, facing a painting of his widow, Rachel Meyer Mayer who, after Levy Mayer’s death in 1922, donated $500,000 of his eight million dollar estate to build Levy Mayer Hall, giving the School of Law its first and remaining home on the downtown campus of Northwestern University.

Levy Mayer was born in Virginia in 1858, the sixth of thirteen children, the son of 1855 immigrants from Bavaria, now Germany, where only Catholics had been allowed to hold certain jobs and pursue professions, or hold public worship, and where there were many laws against minorities, not only Jews, purchasing and owning real estate. The family went to Virginia, after arriving in New York, because Levy Mayer’s mother had a brother there, and then in straightened circumstances came to Chicago when Levy Mayer was five, leaving the turmoil and economic devastation of the South.

The Mayer family settled on the Northwestern Plank Road, later Milwaukee Avenue, where Levy Mayer’s father set up a small business. Between the Great Plank Roads were large sections of open prairie. The Plank Roads were literally planks of wood put down over ice and snow, and they ran as spokes to the central hub of the city, the courthouse, city hall, and the business district which grew up around those institutions.

Levy Mayer entered Chicago High School at the corner of Halsted and Monroe Streets before the age of 12, and a special exception was made to admit him at that age. His parents were committed to their children’s education, especially to the education of their gifted son.

His older brother David had already entered business and supported his younger brother attending Yale College and then the Yale Law School, paying his expenses to go there at age 16 in 1874, again succeeding in persuading the institution to waive its requirement that entering students must be 18.

While at Yale the young man wrote voluminous letters, copious notes on his reading, and kept close accounts of his expenditures. At that time there were two classes at the Law School: the Junior Class and the Senior Class. Levy Mayer prepared himself for law study by corresponding with some members of the faculty. At that time Yale College required a bond to be paid to the President and Fellows of the College, and Levy Mayer’s brother David put forward that bond.

The young man graduated and returned to Chicago in 1877, however he had to wait until he was 21 to be able to practice law, the one time when an age requirement was not waived in his favor. In 1876 school houses were still being used for courts because Chicago had not rebuilt itself after the Fire. Although courts were makeshift, there was plenty of work for lawyers after the Fire. Legal records, tax warrants, deeds, and titles had been burned, and the legal foundation for ownership had to be reestablished. Lawyers from all over the country came to Chicago which was in the middle of a building and economic boom lasting until the 1890’s.

Levy Mayer put his temporary disqualification to good use becoming an Assistant Librarian for the Chicago Law Institute, where City Hall and the Office of the County Recorder was put after the Fire. Lawyers who came to the Law Institute were given access to the Library, a desk, and a temporary room accommodation. Levy Mayer’s job was to take care of the rooms, sweep the floor, and help the lawyers find the legal authorities they needed.

At this job he was paid $4 a week, and he met and worked with everyone with legal business in Chicago. During his three years there he also prepared a catalog of the Law Institute Library and revised two legal treatises, receiving royalties of $0.25 on every copy sold. In two years 2500 copies were sold.

At the time Levy Mayer worked at the Law Institute all of the Reports of the Supreme Court of Illinois numbered only some 75 volumes, and the federal reports were equally inconsiderable. One person could master all of the court reports. In 1876 there were 1025 lawyers in Chicago.

Like Florence Kelley, Levy Mayer wrote for legal magazines and periodicals, getting paid little — $10 or $12 per contribution, but becoming well known as a commentator and authority. In Chicago in the 1880’s and 1890’s the law was an active, busy profession in a society where people built themselves buildings to live and work in, then built them higher, dressed themselves in furs and leather, bought and commissioned paintings, read books, wrote poetry, toasted themselves, fought over politics and economics, traveled and didn’t hesitate to sue.

Levy Mayer organized the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and spearheaded the fight against the factory inspection law and Florence Kelley and her staff. He was the first Counsel to the organization, and then counsel and friend to the great commercial interests in Chicago. At his death in 1922 he was one of the richest men in Chicago. Later in life he became Philip Armour’s personal attorney and business advisor.

After the Supreme Court of Illinois declared the eight hour provision for women unconstitutional in 1895, Levy Mayer continued to champion the fight against state and federal regulation of business. His masterly application of the law, his long standing relationships with the commercial and professional elites, all contributed to his significant professional and economic successes. Not only did Levy Mayer galvanize the business community into forming the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association to fight the factory inspection law, but he orchestrated the litigation around the state successfully bringing the constitutional challenge to the statute to the Supreme Court of Illinois in Ritchie v. People.

Like Florence Kelley, Levy Mayer’s success was grounded in his intelligence, wit, energy, and in his ability to galvanize and inspire others. He was a founding partner in the law firm of Mayer Brown which carries his name to this day.

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