Edward B. Burling, The  Prominent Washington, D.C. Attorney, 1919-1966

This series about the life of Edward B. (“Ned”) Burling commenced with a post about his connections with Katherine Graham, the owner and publisher of the Washington Post, and then retreated in time to a post about his birth and early years in Iowa, 1870-1890, followed by a post about his four years at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1890-1894, another post about his 22 years as a Chicago attorney, 1895-1917, and a post about his two years as a federal government attorney in Washington, D.C., 1917-1918.[1]

Burling’s Private Legal Career in Washington, D.C.

In 1919, Burling co-founded the Covington & Burling law firm (C&B and n/k/a Covington) and thereafter served as its de facto managing partner. In the words of his partner and former U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, Ned helped to create “a practical organization, engaged in achieving practical ends, for real people, who were in real trouble.” To that end, Burling hired talented recent law school graduates, gave them responsibility as soon as possible and compensated them on the basis of merit, rather than seniority.” Burling also developed a personal practice focusing on corporate transactions and federal taxation.

C&B’s first big case shortly after its founding was a contingent fee case for the Kingdom of Norway against the United States for $16 million arising out of the U.S. taking of contracts for ship construction during World War I. For assistance, Burling hired his old law school friend, George Rublee, and the 28-year old Acheson, who had just finished a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Recognizing Acheson’s talents, Ned asked him to argue an important and difficult issue in the six-week hearing before the arbitral panel at the Peace Palace at The Hague. During the young Acheson’s argument, Burling slipped him a terse note: “Shut up.” Acheson, however, ignored this order and continued the argument, which lead to an important concession by the other side (the U.S.). The result was a 1922 award of nearly $US 12 million to Norway and a subsequent Norwegian knighthood for Burling.

Later Burling ironically pointed out that after Acheson made his very first court argument at the Peace Palace, the rest of his legal career would all be downhill. Fortunately for the law firm and the U.S. that was not true. Whenever Acheson was not holding high positions in the U.S. Government, he was practicing law at C&B. Through it all, Acheson and Ned had a strong friendship. Shortly after Acheson became Secretary of State in 1949, Burling wrote to him,

  • “I have been impressed by the growing kindness and consideration for others that you have shown. The absence of any feeling of importance is rare in one who has attained the high office that is yours. And at the same time a growing strength is apparent. Your head has always been better than other heads but once you were inclined to defer to more assertiveness. You show less of that trait. And you have no reason to yield your opinion when you have come to a considered conclusion. You have a right to believe that your conclusion is probably better than what will be offered by anyone else. So trust in yourself and go ahead and do a swell job for the world.”

A year later, Burling observed that Acheson was “one of our great men. Great, I mean, looking at the entire history of our country. I am greatly impressed by the way he has grown. He is a powerful figure.”

As noted in previous post about Burling and Katherine Graham, on October 3, 1996, Edward B. Burling died at age 96 in Washington Hospital Center. According to an editorial in his honor in the Post that Graham may have helped write,  Burling was the city’s “grand old man of the law [who from] the days when he was graduated from Harvard Law School in 1894, with one of the best records ever made there, he had been an outstanding legal scholar. And with the law as the base of his operations, he also  exerted a substantial influence in the fields of business, government and community relations.”

The editorial also stated that at the C&B law firm the “scholarly and retiring Mr. Burling, who made a specialty of cultivating and training brilliant young lawyers, was chiefly responsible  for keeping the firm’s performance  at a high level of professional excellence.”

Covington is still one of the world’s preeminent law firms with over 1,000 lawyers in 12 offices in the U.S. and around the world, and it remains dedicated to the founders’ values of excellence, tolerance, integrity and commitment to public service and professionalism [1]

Conclusion

We next will look at some of the highlights of Burling’s life-long friendship with Learned Hand.

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[1] Citations to the sources for this post are found in this blogger’s Edward Burnham Burling, The College’s Quiet Benefactor (April 2008)(18-page essay and bibliography; on file in Grinnell College’s Special Collections and Archives).

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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