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).

 

 

 

Edward B. Burling’s Years at Harvard University, 1890-1894

This series about the life of Edward B. 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. Now we look at his four years at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[1]

 Harvard College, 1890-91

For the  academic year, 1890-91, a wealthy relative (Perkins Bass) paid for Ned (and his brother James) to attend Harvard College, where they each earned another B.A. degree in 1891. Again Ned worked hard at his courses, earned good marks and made no friends.

Harvard Law School, 1891-94

In the Fall of 1891, at the suggestion, and again with the financial assistance, of Perkins Bass, Ned started at the Harvard Law School. The three years there, in contrast to his other years of higher education, were “very happy, satisfactory.” He did very well in his classes and was a member of the Harvard Law Review, finishing with “highest honors” and a LL. B. degree in 1894. Moreover, Ned became good friends with classmates, especially with Learned and Augustus Hand, both of whom became noted federal judges, and with George Rublee, who became a public-spirited U.S. lawyer who involved himself with state and national political reform during the Progressive Era (1910-1918) and with international affairs from 1917 to 1945.

Immediately after law school, Perkins Bass financed a nine-month tour of Europe for Ned to accompany one of the Bass sons. Later Ned commented that the trip turned out to be a handicap or burden, rather than a blessing, because it exposed him to the glamorous life of the wealthy and “diverted my attention from my main undertaking, which was to earn a living.”  As that old song goes, “How are you going to keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree [Paris]?”

Conclusion

The next installment of the Burling saga will discuss his years as a Chicago attorney, 1895-1917.

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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). A subsequent post will discuss Burling’s life-long friendship with Learned Hand.