Law Offices of Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams, P.C.
Main Office: 114 Third Street S, Great Falls, Montana 59401 • 406-761-3000 • Fax 406-453-2313

Our History

From Humble Beginnings . . . The Founders of Our Firm

Our firm, known today as Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams, P.C., has its roots and owes its tradition of excellence to four exceptional attorneys and men; I.W. (Jerry) Church, George Harris, Bjarne Johnson, and Carter Williams

I.W. (Jerry) Church

Those who knew Mr. Church not only recall his remarkable ability as an attorney, they also remark on his exceptional character as a person. Although several stories abound, each recall one heroic act which places Mr. Church among a select few in America.

On January 20, 1905, when Mr. Church was a 20 year old student at Lawrence College, he came across three women drowning in the Fox River located in Appleton, Wisconsin. The three women, Elsie C. Plantz, Belulah E. Hubbs, and Blanche H. Bennison were twelve feet from shore and struggling to stay afloat in water that was eight feet deep. Without regard for himself, Mr. Church, supported only by thin ice, pulled each of the women to safety and saved them from certain death.

For his act of heroism and bravery, Mr. Church was awarded the 55th prestigious Carnegie Medal. The Carnegie Medal, established by legendary industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, is awarded by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission to recognize acts of outstanding civilian heroism.

Mr. Church was born on his father's farm in Waukesha County, Wisconsin on August 23, 1885. At the age of sixteen, Mr. Church taught school at North Lake, Wisconsin. By the time he was twenty, Mr. Church was spending the summers working in Butte, Montana, as a motorman for the Street Railway Company. In fact, from 1905 to 1911 Mr. Church spent every summer in Butte working as a motorman so he could pay for his legal education. However, in the winters of 1906, 1907, and 1908 Mr. Church worked in Lexington, Missouri where he taught at the Wentworth Military Academy.

Mr. Church attended Lawrence College for a short period before he transferred to the University of Chicago, where he earned his college degree. After college, Mr. Church enrolled in Columbia Law School, earning his degree in 1911. On June 6, 1911, Mr. Church was admitted to the State Bar of Montana.

Mr. Church began his legal career as an associate of William G. Downing. When Mr. Downing passed away in 1912, Mr. Church succeeded him as the attorney for the Great Falls National Bank and began to build his practice.

In 1913 Mr. Church was featured in the History of Montana and was described as a "prominent Great Falls lawyer." During his career Mr. Church served countless clients, including the Estate of Charles M. Russell when he acted as the Estate's attorney in the probate proceedings conducted in Montana in 1926.

Mr. Church was a partner in the law firm of Maddox and Church until 1931 when he and Arthur S. Jardine formed the partnership of Church and Jardine. However, in 1943, Mr. Church formed a new partnership with Mr. Harris and they became known as the law firm of Church and Harris. In November, 1949, the law partnerships of Church and Harris and Johnson and Williams merged to form the firm of Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams.

Mr. Church passed away in 1972, but his memory and legacy lives on to this day both in our firm and the many lives he undoubtably touched throughout his career and life.

George Harris

The attorneys who practiced with Mr. Harris not only recall his willingness to teach and mentor the younger attorneys in the firm, they recall his remarkable skill as an expert practitioner in fields of real estate and oil and gas law.

Mr. Harris graduated from the University of Missouri in 1908 and was admitted to practice in Missouri upon graduation. Shortly after graduation and for the first few years of his career, Mr. Harris practiced as an attorney in Spokane, Washington. In 1918, after serving in World War I, Mr. Harris moved to Montana and began practicing law in Great Falls. Mr. Harris opened a second law office in Shelby in 1923 with his law partner G. C. Hoyt. In 1943, Mr. Church and Mr. Harris formed a law partnership and the firm of Church and Harris was born.

Those who recall Mr. Harris vow that much of his success as an attorney was due in large part to his phenomenal memory. During Mr. Harris' day he didn't have a dictaphone or tape recorder to dictate into. Instead, Mr. Harris dictated directly to his secretary. The younger attorneys in the firm recall that it was very common for Mr. Harris to get interrupted in the middle of his dictation by either a phone call or a question from a younger attorney in the office. Without fail, after he had finished his phone conversation or had answered the question he was asked, Mr. Harris would, without pausing, dictate the very next word of his document without any need for recall or prompting.

Even more impressive are the stories told by those attorneys who began the practice of law under Mr. Harris. When they asked Mr. Harris a question, he would calmly think about what he was asked and then he would say if you look at this case, located on this page in the Montana Reports, the Montana Supreme Court has addressed that issue and answered your question. The younger attorneys would take Mr. Harris' advice and quickly go to the case and page in the Montana Reports that he cited and sure enough, their question had been answered.

Mr. Harris passed away in 1973, but just like his unbroken dictation, his memory and legacy lives on to this day in our firm.

Bjarne Johnson

Mr. Johnson was born in Dutton, Montana in 1917 and graduated from Montana State University in 1942. Mr. Johnson had plans to practice law in Great Falls immediately after graduating from law school; however, his plans were delayed briefly while he served with the armed forces during World War II. Mr. Johnson, who served in the infantry, did not let his duty to his country derail his plans for long, for as soon as he was discharged he returned to Great Falls and became a part-time deputy county attorney and established his own private practice. Eventually, Mr. Johnson's law school classmate, Carter Williams, returned from his service in World War II and the two formed a partnership in May 1946, as they had planned on doing so since law school.

It did not take Mr. Johnson long to develop a practice emphasizing wills and probate, estate planning, banking and real estate law. Finally, in November, 1949, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Williams merged with the established partnership of Mr. Church and Mr. Harris to form the firm of Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams.

Mr. Johnson pursued his interest in probate work because he wanted to help people with their problems. Mr. Johnson's role in Montana probate practice, however, extended well beyond the representation of individual clients. His work on probate reform was instrumental in fundamentally changing the entire probate process in Montana.

In 1969, Mr. Johnson was appointed Montana Chairman for the Joint Editorial Board to evaluate and make recommendations on the proposed Uniform Probate Code. Mr. Johnson and his committee worked exhaustively for two years studying the proposed Uniform Code. The committee spent hundreds of hours for over five years adapting the Uniform Probate Code to Montana practice and convincing the State Bar of Montana to approve the Uniform Probate Code. It was by no means a simple process nor one universally welcomed by other lawyers. Mr. Johnson and the committee held meetings with local bar associations as well as retired citizens groups in order to explain the Uniform Probate Code and its impact on the practice of law in Montana. With Mr. Johnson's leadership and assistance, the Montana Legislature in 1974 adopted the Uniform Probate Code with some Montana adaptations. The Code still serves Montanans well today. For his contribution to the Uniform Probate Code in Montana, the State Bar in 1975 presented a testimonial to Mr. Johnson in recognition for his leadership and service to the Bar.

Mr. Johnson also served as the chairman of the committee which drafted the initial forms used in probate practice under the Code in Montana. Those forms continue to be used today with some modifications. After development of those forms, Mr. Johnson and his committee held seminars throughout the State in order to educate both the lawyers and the public.

Mr. Johnson's commitment to the law continued over the years. He was appointed Montana's representative for the ALI-ABA probate section and was a member of the State Bar probate section for many decades. In 1973, Mr. Johnson was elected the national president of the American College of Probate Counsel, or what is now known as the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC), an organization in which he had been a Fellow since 1958. Mr. Johnson served as a member of the Great Falls School Board for six years; was an active participant on numerous charitable boards, including service as president of the local chapter of the American Cancer Society, the president of the Shriner's Club, and trustee of various charitable foundations.

Mr. Johnson was active in encouraging and creating the Joseph Blankenbaker Foundation and the George and Laurine Harris Trust. He served as a trustee of those charitable foundations for many years. The Joseph Blankenbaker Foundation funds the annual professionalism lecture at the University of Montana Law School. The George and Laurine Harris Trust, in addition to providing scholarships to the top law students each year, has contributed virtually all of its net income to the Law School, thus allowing the school to develop programs not possible otherwise.

The Montana Supreme Court appointed Mr. Johnson to the Commission on Practice in 1985. This is a tremendous commitment which serves to enhance the Bar and protect the public. Mr. Johnson retired from the Commission on May 2, 1996. In 1996, the University of Montana School of Law presented Mr. Johnson with its Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Although Mr. Johnson passed away in 2007, the values he instilled are still present in the firm to this day.

Carter Williams

Mr. Williams was born in Boulder, Montana in 1917 and graduated from Montana State University in 1942. Before graduating from Law School at the University of Montana, Mr. Williams and Mr. Johnson had agreed to form a partnership to practice law together in Great Falls.  Their goal was delayed briefly while both served with the armed forces, but when Mr. Williams, who was a pilot in the Air Corps, returned to Great Falls in May 1946, the partnership of Johnson and Williams was formed. Mr. Williams became the office manager and the trial lawyer, later developing an emphasis in oil and gas law.

Mr. Williams served as chairman of the State Bar of Montana committee that, in conjunction with the American Bar Association, studied and made recommendations on the economics of the practice of law. This was the first and most intensive study of its kind in Montana. Mr. Williams authored the Montana Law Review article entitled "Economics of the Practice of Law" in 1963. His trial and business skills resulted in many successful innovations in the delivery of legal services to the public. Mr. Williams served numerous times as an expert witness regarding economic areas and issues affecting the practice of law.

Despite this apparent emphasis on the "bottom line" in the practice of law, Mr. Williams consistently reminded his fellow partners that public service is an obligation to the community in which we live and practice. Among his innovations as the former manager of our firm, Mr. Williams developed daily time records for the firm which include categories for civic, charitable, and religious commitments; professional development; pro bono work; legal associations; and CLE participation. Mr. Williams created these daily time records in order to instill in each attorney a commitment to activities beyond billable hours, emphasizing the importance of this activity with a system for recording these non-billable hours of service. Indeed, these non-billable hours are weighed at the end of every year in the determination of each attorney's annual compensation.

Mr. Williams served in leadership roles with numerous civic and charitable organizations. Mr. Williams founded the United Way of Cascade County, and arranged for a committee of business people, labor unions and civic minded citizens to meet weekly until the organization was fully formed. Mr. Williams served as one of the first directors of the United Way and acted as its president for a number of years. Before the United Way was formed, Mr. Williams was active for both the American Red Cross as Cascade County Chairman and delegate to the National Conference, along with the annual fund drives for not only the American Red Cross, but also the Community Chest. Mr. Williams's commitment to the community was unwavering over the years. He was a director and chairman of the major gifts committee of the now Benefis HealthCare Foundation, which exists solely to support Benefis HealthCare. In 1998, the new Emergency Room at Benefis HealthCare was named in his honor.

In four different years when the State Tennis Tournament was held in Great Falls, Mr. Williams was elected and served as the President of the Montana Tennis Association and managed the tournaments. He also was a Director and Officer of the Great Falls Professional Baseball club for a number of years. He was President of the Great Falls Ski Club during the time when that Club operated the ski facilities at Kings Hill. He was a Director and Officer of the Country Club Operators, a predecessor to the current Meadow Lark Country Club.

Mr. Williams himself will tell you that he is an extremely lucky Montanan, in his 2001 book entitled the same: My Memories of the 20th Century; An Extremely Lucky Montanan.

Mr. Williams passed away in 2013 but the groundwork he and the other firm founders laid for the firm is rock solid.  

How two Partnerships became . . . Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams

In January, 1943, Mr. Church and Mr. Harris formed the law partnership of Church and Harris. By 1949, Mr. Church and Mr. Harris had been practicing in Great Falls and Montana for over forty years and were looking for two new attorneys to train and take over their practice. Fortunately for Mr. Johnson and Mr. Williams, they happened to be those attorneys.

Both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Williams were very familiar with Mr. Church and Mr. Harris, as their offices were located just down the hall from the Church and Harris law firm in the historic Ford Building. 

In November, 1949, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Williams merged with the established partnership of Mr. Church and Mr. Harris, and the law firm of Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams was forged. Having formed their partnership in 1946 after their discharge from the military, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Williams had practiced together for three years by 1949. Although their practice was blooming and successful, having the opportunity to become associated with two well-established attorneys like Mr. Church and Mr. Harris would no doubt be the opportunity of a lifetime. And that it was.

Yesterday . . . Today . . . Tomorrow

What began as a four attorney partnership in 1949 has today grown to be one of the oldest and most respected firms in Montana. Our firm cherishes a reputation for integrity and competence established by its founding attorneys over the long years of service to its clients. Seven decades have come and gone. During that time our firm has seen former partners become judges, both at the State and Federal levels. Our firm has seen immense changes in society and the practice of law, and has adapted to those changes. In 1992, our firm incorporated as a professional corporation and became known as Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams, P.C.

Today is here and tomorrow is on the horizon. Our firm has committed to carrying on the tradition of those who came before. Through a close relationship with the University of Montana School of Law, our firm has consistently sought out and employed the finest legal minds in the state, building a reputation for scholarship, high professional character, and diversity. Striving for excellence, our firm has melded tradition with technology, establishing a foundation upon which we can build for the future.