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Gentlemen, Scholars, and Lawyers

ISSUE:  Summer 1990
The Style of a Law Firm: Eight Gentlemen from Virginia. By Anne Hobson Freeman. Algonquin Books. $24.95.

This is the era of law firm giantism, a time of exploding growth when firms annually set new records for size. They add specialties, open more offices, merge with other practices, and hire countless fresh recruits. The three largest firms—Chicago’s Baker & McKenzie, Cleveland’s Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, and New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom each boast more than a thousand lawyers, veritable armies spread across the nation, ready to enter battle for any willing (and paying) client.

Richmond’s Hunton & Williams is not far behind the profession’s leaders. It ranks 20th on the national list, leaving in its dust the top local competitor, McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe, a mere number 66. From September 1988 to September 1989, Hunton & Williams grew from 375 to 427 lawyers, an increase of 14 percent, or one-seventh of the firm.

While Hunton & Williams celebrates its boom, the partners still hang dearly to their memories of a smaller, closely-knit law practice, one where the lawyers not only knew each other, but considered their firm “family.” It is in this spirit that Anne Hobson Freeman, a published essayist and fiction writer and wife of Hunton & Williams partner George C. Freeman, Jr., has written The Style of a Law Firm: Eight Gentlemen from Virginia.

Freeman chronicles Hunton & Williams’ genesis and growth through biographical sketches of the eight men whose names appeared at various times on its door, as she says, in the “law firm’s style.” Each brought to the practice distinct persona and their own professional accomplishments, blending over time to form the current Hunton & Williams style, one of hard-charging personalities, diverse strengths and interests, and a deference to Southern gentility.

The firm was founded in 1901 by four lawyers, Beverly B. Munford, Eppa Hunton, Jr., E. Randolph Williams, and Henry W. Anderson; they were a large practice for the time. From the beginning, they planned to model Munford, Hunton, Williams & Anderson after the full-service law offices in New York. It was then a novel idea.

Munford and Hunton were the most senior of the founders, both established attorneys recruited by the junior Williams and Anderson to lend stature to their new enterprise. Unfortunately, Munford, a successful politician as well, developed tuberculosis and was able to participate in the new practice only part-time and intermittently. However, his Richmond reputation and his clients helped the new firm gain its footing. Hunton, whose father was a Confederate general and lawyer, left his Warrenton home and country practice to join the others in Richmond, where he would eventually become a railroad executive.

The two younger founders differed sharply in philosophy and temperament, but Williams, described as a kindly father figure with a philanthropic bent, felt particularly close to the flamboyant Anderson, a bon vivant, ladies’ man, and specialist in railroad reorganization law who nurtured Republican political aspirations. “The strong friendship between these two men, the original instigators of the law firm,” observes Freeman, “is one of the most reassuring facts in the firm’s history.”

Each of the remaining four name partners, Thomas B. Gay, T. Justin Moore Sr., Lewis F. Powell, Jr., and George D. Gibson, in turn added their own personal styles to the firm, leaving their marks both locally and nationally in public utilities and business law, in litigation, in public service, and in service to the bar. Powell, the most famous of the group since his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the only surviving name partner, wrote the introduction to Freeman’s book, praising the other senior lawyers’ “perception of the practice of law.” The law, writes Powell, “was one of the ancient professions. The primary purpose of practicing was not to make money.” While priorities may have shifted from earlier times, the Supreme Court justice, now retired, personifies such noble ideals to this day.

Read together, Freeman’s biographies chronicle the growth of Richmond and its law practice through most of this century. Although the history lesson is an integral part of her book, Freeman’s writing is most charming and endearing for her individual portraits, sprinkled with colorful descriptions and anecdotes sharing not only her subjects’ legal accomplishments but also their humanity, complete with flaws and eccentricities. She spent six years, she explains in an author’s note, gathering tales about these Virginia gentlemen; the observations she amassed provide insightful and vivid commentary. Among them, for example, is Hunton & Williams partner John Riely’s description of Justin Moore, his controversial business style, and his ability to attract clients, as if he had “the aroma of a bitch in heat. He could walk into a room, and every businessman would take him over in the corner and say “I want you to do my work.”“

In another chapter, Freeman relates that Henry Anderson’s niece, Frances Richardson Shield, “lived with him and had a chance to observe his dedication to pleasure, which was almost as intense as his dedication to the law and public service. . . . First of all, there was the staff of English-trained servants waiting on him night and day: the butler, Mr. Mangan, and his wife, who was the cook; a chambermaid; and a valet who often traveled with him. Once in the late twenties, when he signed a hotel register: “Henry W. Anderson and valet,” his associate then signed himself on the next line as “Jennings C. Wise and valise.”“

In all, The Style of a Law Firm, clearly illustrates why Hunton & Williams cherishes the heritage of its eight name partners. Their dedication to the law, keen business sense, loyalty to the professional family, and commitment to service are traits the firm strenuously promotes. They are the characteristics that have enabled Hunton & Williams to weather the rapidity of change in the profession without the same turmoil, defections, and splintering that have damaged so many other large firms.

But the eight gentlemen from Virginia were harbingers for Hunton & Williams’ future in other ways as well. Their strong work ethic, raw ambition, aggressiveness, and foresight—as evidenced in the founding and nurturing of the full-service practice—have provided shining beacons in Hunton & Williams’ push forward to national prominence. Were the early Richmond leaders to learn that their once four-lawyer firm now proudly staffs offices throughout the South—in Atlanta, Raleigh, Knoxville, and Fairfax—as well as in Washington, D. C., New York, and Brussels, they would be pleased indeed.


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