Heyl Royster: A Distinguished Legacy of Service

by Sara Brown

Peoria’s largest law firm continues to grow and expand amidst an ever-changing landscape.

When Clarence Heyl hung out his shingle in downtown Peoria in 1910, he could hardly have envisioned the scale of the law firm that relocated its Peoria headquarters to three floors of the Hamilton Square building this past May. From its humble beginnings, Heyl Royster has grown to be Peoria’s largest law firm, with more than 120 lawyers—including 46 in Peoria—in six offices across the state. And while law firms have come and gone over the last century, Heyl Royster has continued to develop and expand its practice areas, as well as its geographic footprint.

Early Beginnings
The firm originated when Clarence Heyl opened his law office in what was then the YMCA building. After he was joined by his brother Harry, the two brothers practiced under the name Heyl & Heyl for 14 years.

John Royster met Heyl’s daughter when he was enrolled at Northwestern University Law School and she was an undergraduate. He joined the firm in 1934, marrying her the following year. Royster became known as a probate and trust lawyer of great distinction.

William Voelker, Jr. joined the firm in 1946. He had served in the U.S. Army in World War II, rising to captain of an infantry rifle company in the 66th Panther Division in Europe. He and his wife, the daughter of a prominent Peoria pediatrician, settled in Peoria following the war. Proficient in the courtroom, Voelker became invaluable as Heyl needed another lawyer who could take complex cases to trial.

Lyle Allen was born in rural Peoria County south of Chillicothe, and began his formal education in a one-room schoolhouse. During World War II, he served with the 87th Infantry Division in Europe and was wounded in France in 1945. He joined the firm in 1951.

“Lyle Allen was one of the first attorneys in downstate Illinois to represent doctors in malpractice cases,” notes Heyl Royster partner Rex Linder. “In the 1960s, he was one of the first attorneys to try a med mal case to verdict in Illinois.” Allen’s efforts led to Heyl Royster developing an outstanding medical defense practice, representing physicians, hospitals, medical schools and other healthcare institutions around the state.

In 1962, the firm assumed its present name of Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen. When Clarence Heyl passed away in 1968 at the age of 84, the firm was his legacy, along with an outstanding record of professional accomplishment. “Mr. Heyl was one of the last Peoria lawyers who was proficient in almost every aspect of trial practice,” Linder says. “He prosecuted and defended criminal law, handled very detailed business transaction litigation and railroad cases, and defended substantial personal injury cases.”

Growth and Development
By the 1970s, the firm had a well established reputation for excellence in civil litigation, representing businesses and defending insurance companies and their insureds in a wide variety of matters. Between 1970 and 1985, the firm opened offices in Springfield, Urbana and Rockford. During this time, the practice of law was changing: practice areas were becoming more complex, and attorneys were becoming more specialized.

One example would be in the area of workers’ compensation. In the beginning, attorneys in the firm handled workers’ compensation claims along with the rest of their caseloads, but in the 1980s, Heyl Royster developed a practice solely dedicated to defending employers in workers’ compensation claims. Today, it remains one of the top such practices in the state.

In the late 1970s, Heyl Royster started to carve out a practice dedicated to the representation of governmental entities. The firm’s governmental practice originated with the representation of townships in the Peoria area and now encompasses governmental entities covering roughly 65 percent of the state. As with a number of practices that are focused on a particular industry or business sector, Heyl Roster can offer multidisciplinary legal services as a kind of “one-stop shop.”

“The fact that we have overlapping practice areas gives our firm the ability to see a legal or business issue from multiple perspectives, which is a great advantage for our clients,” explains Tim Bertschy, managing partner and chair of the firm’s business and commercial litigation practice. “I think the fact that we understand the inner workings of governmental units has helped us immensely in our representation of the RTA [Regional Transportation Authority] in Chicago in its ongoing tax sourcing litigation.”

The representation of transportation-industry clients harkens back to Clarence Heyl’s days of representing railroads, which continues today in the form of the firm’s railroad and trucking practices.

During the mid-1980s, as asbestos litigation and similar environmental cases became an increasing national phenomenon, Heyl Royster developed a significant practice defending some of the country’s top corporations. “We’ve been defending asbestos cases since the first cases were filed in the 1970s,” notes Lisa LaConte, chair of the firm’s toxic torts and asbestos practice. “We’ve refined our practice over the years to meet the needs of the ever-changing mix of companies finding themselves named as defendants.” With much of this litigation focused in the St. Louis Metro-East area, Heyl Royster opened an office in Edwardsville, which is now its second-largest office.

Innovative, Progressive, Collaborative
From the 1990s to the present, the legal profession has been changing rapidly. “These days, you have to embrace change in the legal profession,” says Bertschy. “And the one constant in this firm has been change.”

The past two years have been especially busy for the firm—with new offices in Chicago and Peoria; the rollout of state-of-the-industry integrated business application software; the culmination of the firm’s “Green by 2015” initiative; and the development of practice groups focused on areas such as drone law, the Concealed Carry Act, military law, Qui tam (whistleblower) claims and medical marijuana.

“One of the things that helps keep us on track is our strategic plan,” Bertschy adds. Drafted in 2010, the plan covers areas such as client teams, industry focus, practice specialization, diversity, technology and continued geographic growth.

“In terms of being ‘progressive,’ we don’t just measure ourselves against local firms, we look at what firms around the country are doing,” LaConte says, citing Heyl Royster’s Women’s Forum, which she chairs, as an example. “It is a firmwide initiative designed to foster, highlight and promote our women attorneys. It’s not new to the legal profession, but it’s something very few firms in central Illinois are doing.”

National Reputation, Community Commitment
“As the world is shrinking, our client base has consolidated,” says Roger Clayton, chair of the firm’s healthcare practice. “Many of our clients have shifted from having a local presence to operating on a national scale.

“In response, we use technology not only to keep them informed, but to put the best team together… regardless of where the attorneys with the required expertise reside,” he adds. “We are local in central Illinois… but we also offer resources that you would typically find in a much larger firm.”

Judging from its recognition and leadership in a range of organizations, the firm’s reputation is on solid ground. Nationally, Heyl Royster attorneys have held leadership positions at the American Bar Association; served on the board of the Defense Research Institute; and served as presidents of the Association of Trial Defense Attorneys, Lawyers for Civil Justice, the Federation of Defense & Corporate Counsel, the International Association of Defense Counsel and the College of Workers' Compensation Lawyers. In addition, three of its attorneys have been presidents of the Illinois State Bar Association.

Across the firm, Heyl Royster attorneys serve as officers and board members of many civic and community organizations, providing hundreds of hours of pro bono legal services every year. Firm partners have taken prominent roles in the American Red Cross and United Way campaigns, as well as The Salvation Army’s Tree of Lights campaign. Locally, the firm’s leadership credentials include positions on the Peoria City Council, Tazewell County Board, Peoria County Bar Association, Bradley University, Peoria Sister City Commission, Greater Peoria EDC, Peoria Historical Society, Community Foundation of Central Illinois, Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce.

The firm has an ongoing program with Prairie State Legal Services to handle 30 family law pro bono cases per year. In conjunction with the National Immigrant Justice Center, Peoria Friendship House and Caterpillar's legal department, Heyl Royster attorneys have assisted immigrants with temporary deportation deferrals and work authorizations through the federal government's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Looking Ahead…
Heyl Royster’s new Peoria office occupies three of the four floors of the Hamilton Square building. The newly renovated space features seven conference rooms on the ground floor, video conferencing capabilities, a learning center that seats 75 people, and collaboration space to facilitate internal teamwork and collegiality.

“We are proud of our firm’s distinguished history and tradition,” says Bertschy, “and we plan to continue to grow the firm in a number of ways: by adding more lawyers, by increasing our geographic footprint in other states, and by developing and enhancing those legal services that are of the most benefit to our clients.” iBi