Vinson and Elkins was founded in Houston in 1917 by Texas natives William Ashton Vinson and Judge James A. Elkins, who joined their talents to build a successful law firm. In 1995, with more than 500 lawyers, four domestic offices, and four foreign offices, Vinson and Elkins was one of the largest and most profitable law firms in the world and was internationally recognized for the quality and breadth of its practice. Vinson, who was reputed to be the more scholarly of the two partners, moved to Houston at the turn of the century and was prospering in a small partnership when his partner died in 1917. Elkins, the more entrepreneurial of the pair, had a successful practice in Huntsville, where he also served as a county judge, but he longed to resettle in Houston. The two lawyers probably met around 1915 and got to know one another during Elkins's frequent trips to Houston on business. Finding in each other the professional and personal qualities both were seeking in a new partner, they agreed to associate. In September 1917 Vinson and Elkins was established. The new law firm tied its fortunes to the oil and gas industry, and its early and continuing concentration on that industry proved very profitable. The United States had entered World War I, and demand for petroleum soared. Texas then monopolized the world supply of oil, and opportunities for the firm proliferated because of persisting confusions about property rights in oil. Unlike other firms, Vinson and Elkins sought wildcatters as clients, often refusing fees in favor of shares in oil speculations or other risky ventures. Vinson's adept representation of the firm's oil, gas, and insurance clients attracted many lucrative accounts, and the number of attorneys associated with the firm increased with its clientele.
Elkins singlehandedly ran the firm until the late 1940s, when he began to parcel his authority to an executive committee of senior partners he appointed and chaired. In the 1960s, David Searls, a member of the executive committee and an internationally respected antitrust litigator, patiently engineered a transition from Elkins's autocratic leadership to a more modern and democratic form of operation. He also encouraged the firm to diversify its client list and focus more attention on international work to serve domestic clients with major foreign interests and foreign clients with interests in America and elsewhere. In 1971 Vinson and Elkins established an office in London, and temporary Vinson and Elkins detachments served clients in locations ranging from Scotland to Malaysia. In the 1990s the firm opened offices in Warsaw (since closed), Moscow, Mexico City, and Singapore. The 1970s and 1980s also saw domestic expansions, with new offices in Austin, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. Neither Searls nor Elkins lived to see these far-reaching changes, however, for both men died in 1972. The firm's managing partners since Elkins's rule—Angie Frank Smith, Jr., J. Evans Attwell, and incumbent Harry M. Reasoner—have overseen the continuing growth of the practice. In 1995 Vinson and Elkins represented several thousand domestic and international clients in virtually all areas of civil law and certain areas of white-collar criminal law. Although oil and energy-related work continues to be a mainstay of the firm's practice, other practices include business, energy regulation, environmental regulation, intellectual property, international law, real estate, securities, and taxation. The firm's service orientation extends to the communities it serves as well. Lawyers in all offices participate in pro bono, bar association, and community service activities. The firm's pro bono efforts were recognized in 1993 with the Houston Bar Foundation's Large Law Firm Award. Particularly noteworthy is the firm's commitment to the arts. Vinson and Elkins is the only law firm that has ever received the prestigious Business in the Arts Award given by Forbes magazine and New York's Business Committee for the Arts since its founding by David Rockefeller in 1967.