Young and aggressive, Piper & Marbury's next chief typifies new legal leaders

November 28, 1993|By Gary Cohn | Gary Cohn,Staff Writer

On the walls of his office in his Guilford home, Frank Burch Jr. has pictures of his father with presidents Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, and a framed invitation for his parents to visit President Lyndon Johnson.

The pictures remind Mr. Burch that a guy who went to public school and loaded freight, like his dad, can accomplish almost anything. As Frank Burch himself says, "There's really no place in the world he can't go if he works hard and he's ambitious. It's sort of a metaphor for the notion you really can go as far as you want."

For Mr. Burch, like his dad, who became the attorney general of Maryland, hard work and ambition has paid off. In February, he will become chairman of the Baltimore law firm of Piper & Marbury, succeeding Decatur H. Miller.

In that role, Mr. Burch will preside over the state's biggest law firm with 278 attorneys, annual revenue of more than $75 million, offices in Baltimore, Easton, Philadelphia, New York City and London -- and roots in Maryland that go back to the early part of the century.

It all seems natural for Mr. Burch, 45, an energetic and outgoing man with a reputation as one of the city's better litigators. He joined Piper in 1974 after graduating from the University of Maryland School of Law and rose through the ranks to become a partner in 1981, a member of the firm's policy and management committee in 1986 and chairman of its litigation department in 1991. In fact, Mr. Burch will be the first litigator to head Piper since William Marbury more than two decades ago.

"He's got terrific values and high standards, with a lot of vision and a lot of energy, and he gets along with people" said Mr. Miller, 61, who has headed the firm since 1987. "He thinks hard about the future of the profession and our firm's position in it. He's very optimistic by nature, very decisive and action-oriented. . . . You can't ignore him."

Mr. Burch, who is 6 feet 2 inches tall and an avid surfer and skier, has long been an acknowledged leader of the younger lawyers at Piper. His appointment is heralded as a change in the firm's direction.

"It signifies a turning toward the younger people in the firm," said Gerard P. Martin, a partner at Martin, Junghans, Snyder & Bernstein and president of the Federal Bar Association of Maryland. "Piper is making a real effort to give the reins of the firm over to people who are going to carry it through the next 10 to 15 to 20 years."

"I think people are excited about having Frank take over as chairman," said Robert J. Mathias, a 37-year-old partner at Piper. "He represents a new, young and aggressive leadership style that should carry us into the 21st century."

His personal attributes aside, Mr. Burch's selection is part of a trend by big law firms nationwide to select relatively young managing partners and chairmen. Unlike the past, when law firms were typically run by partners in their 60s, many firms are naming managing partners in their 40s or younger.

"Historically, law firms chose very senior, very busy lawyers who may have been terrific at attracting business or who were terrific at lawyering," said Joel F. Henning of Hildebrandt Inc., a law firm management consultant. "As law firms have grown and clients have become more demanding, law firms have begun to realize they need good managers -- with an ability to plan ahead, an

ability to lead, an ability to organize and, most important in a law firm, the ability to take a helluva lot of abuse. The partners are there every day and are going to second-guess. It's a very tough job to be manager of a law firm."

Indeed, in recent years many law firms have laid off attorneys, and at least two prominent firms in Baltimore have gone out of business altogether. Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman dissolved in 1992 and Melnicove, Kaufman, Weiner and Smouse folded in 1989.

Piper has fared relatively well in this period of retrenchment, partly by shifting attorneys from sections like real estate that have been pinched by the recession into areas have have benefited from the economic slump, such as bankruptcy law and creditors' rights. Despite the economic slowdown, Piper's revenues grew from $68.5 million in 1991 to $75.5 million in 1992 to an anticipated $78 million this year.

Still, of the 100 largest law firms in the country, Piper ranked 80th in terms of profits per partner in 1992, according to The American Lawyer. The only other Baltimore firm among the nation's 100 largest, Venable, Baetjer and Howard, was ranked 100th.

Nonetheless, Mr. Burch's selection "indicates a movement away from the hardheaded bottom-line-driven operation of a law-firm-as-a-business approach of the 1980s and at least a partial return to the large-law-firm-as-a-profession approach that historically prevailed at Piper," said Henry A. Smith III, a former partner at Piper who left in 1992.

Mr. Burch does not disagree. The key to a firm's success, he believes, is the caliber of lawyer it attracts and keeps.

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