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Robert J. Kutak

Robert J. Kutak, a man of uncommon vision and described by his contemporaries as an “able and complex dreamer,” was the founder and first chairman of the law firm that will always bear his name, Kutak Rock LLP. Born in Chicago and educated at the University of Chicago (Bachelor of Arts from the College, 1952; Doctor of Jurisprudence from the Law School, 1955), his firm was formed in 1965 in downtown Omaha on the basis of a handshake with his first two partners. The firm thereafter expanded rapidly as a national organization with offices in many cities. He presciently believed in the then radical idea that law firms of the future would be significant in size and organized around multi-state and interdisciplinary principles and disciplines, as the firm he founded is today in fact so organized. He was a tireless advocate of egalitarianism, informing newly employed law school graduates that they were the most important members of the firm on entry since they would have the greatest opportunity to influence its future success or failure over the passage of time, and impressing upon the staff that they, along with the lawyers, were an indispensable part of advancing the collective mission of the firm. He has been frequently credited with pioneering the idea of a national law firm, as no one had previously formed a network of offices in American cities as he did during the 1970s.

Bob’s many interests included architecture (the firm has twice renovated a Stanford White-designed 1888 building in downtown Omaha that is a classic example of reclamation), inner-city and urban design, contemporary art, legal services to the poor and federal prison reform and criminal rehabilitation. He had a vast library of books, mostly biographies which were frequently loaned out and rarely returned, and a massive collection of eclectic modern art, said to number over 600 pieces which were distributed throughout the offices of the firm and in the homes of many clients and colleagues. Almost 30 years later, his collection remains a prominent feature in the firm’s current offices.

Bob Kutak’s entire career was characterized throughout by a dedication to public service, the improvement of justice, legal education and training and prison reform. He was instrumental in developing the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) at the Department of Justice, and was a member of the blue-ribbon National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals. He was an original member of the board of trustees of the national Legal Services Corporation, and a recognized expert in federal correctional reform and rehabilitation, serving the administrations of presidents of both parties in various capacities. He was a delegate to two United Nations congresses on the prevention of crime and the treatment of prisoners, and served on the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals. Above all, he had a great passion for the law.

But he is best remembered for his pioneering work as Chairman of the American Bar Association’s Special Commission on Evaluation of Professional Standards (1977-1983). Working in the post-Watergate era when the entire concept of self-regulation of the legal system was under attack, the 13-member Commission, universally known as the “Kutak Commission,” proposed sweeping revisions to ethical rules relating to lawyers and the practice of law. The proposals, known as the Model Rules, directly confronted sensitive and controversial issues such as lawyer/client confidentiality, advertising and solicitation and conflicts of interest. The Model Rules were approved overwhelmingly by the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association shortly after Bob’s death in 1983 and were eventually adopted in most substantive respects in 49 states. On his death, he was extolled by a national publication as “irrepressible in redefining legal ethics.” Geoffrey Hazard, an esteemed scholar and professor at the University of Chicago and the future Director of the American Law Institute, said “few people have devoted so much public-spirited energy to improving the legal system.”

Any summary of the life of Bob Kutak would be remiss if it failed to note his use of the power of rhetoric in defining mission and driving its implementation. He thought big and was constantly searching for new opportunities on distant horizons. “Dream no small dreams,” he would say, and “Work is Joy” to those engaged in the most difficult and burdensome tasks in his firm. Due largely to his presence, for most of his fellow Kutakians the work of the Firm truly was and is a joy. One of his favorite collections of verse was Carl Sandburg’s The People Will Live On, featuring an old anvil that “laughs at many hammers” as an analogy for people of honor who cannot be bought and have a vision for the future. Its ending chant of the people is opportunistic and, thus, so very like Bob Kutak: “Where to? What next?”

In an interview near the end of his life, in speaking of opportunities ahead and the many things still to accomplish, Bob quoted Sandburg for the proposition that “Life goes before you know what life is.” Shortly after his untimely death in January of 1983 at the age of 50, the Omaha World Herald eloquently articulated the feelings of Bob’s working colleagues and partners in commenting that a rarity was gone, “a dreamer who had the ability to implement his dreams.”