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VOL. 118 | NO. 191 | Thursday, October 21, 2004

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Grand Old Firm Turns 100

Burch, Porter & Johnson Reflects on 100 Years


The Daily News

Its a grand old building that has played host to some of the citys most prominent citizens, not to mention a handful of U.S. presidents.

When Downtowns Court Square was the center of activity in Memphis, the Tennessee Club Building was its hub. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Ulysses S. Grant were among its visitors.

In 1971, when Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC purchased the building to expand its neighboring offices, the Tennessee Club Building became home to one of the citys oldest law firms.

And now Burch Porter, located at 130 N. Court Ave., is set to celebrate a new milestone the firms 100-year anniversary.

Growing with Memphis. Partners Joel Porter and Charlie Newman have been with Burch Porter since the early 1960s. At that time, the firm employed seven attorneys. It has grown to 48 since then, but that doesnt mean Burch Porter has expansion on its mind.

I think its fair to say we havent grown as fast as other firms here, and Id say its been intentional, Newman said.

The Memphis legal community has changed over the years, but those changes have affected more than numbers. The makeup of firms has been shifting, as well, and Burch Porter has been a part of the trend.

Female lawyers have really grown in numbers and in importance in the legal community, Porter said. There were very few female lawyers when I came. I had maybe two in my class at Vanderbilt Law School out of 100, and now law school classes are 50/50 everywhere.

And the same with African-American lawyers. There were not very many, and no African-American judges when I started. Now its about half and half with judges and African-American lawyers in the community its grown from a handful to a very representative group now.

Strong legacy. Burch Porter was founded in 1904 by Clinton H. McKay, H.D. Minor and Charles N. Burch. In its early days, the firm focused on the railroad industry, but by the 1940s, Lucius E. Burch Jr., John S. Porter and Jesse E. Johnson ran the firm. Burch and Porter were active trial lawyers, considered two of the best around.

They were two of the most respected lawyers in this community in the last 50 years, and its certainly a huge advantage for us, I think, Porter said of his father, John Porter, and of Lucius Burch.

The attorneys in the Burch Porter family continue to build upon that strong legacy.

An important tradition passed down through the years at Burch Porter is the way the firm prepares its new attorneys. Burch and Porter would take young lawyers to court with them for priceless courtroom education.

The firm emphasizes the importance of other aspects of development.

Within the firm, we try to expose young lawyers to a variety of kinds of work and not let them get too specialized too quickly, Newman said. Which I think is one of the problems these days with the mega firms. Some of the younger lawyers get into a very narrow specialty very early.

Community involvement. Burch Porter doesnt mandate that its attorneys become involved in the community. But its members and associates serve groups ranging from the Greater Memphis Arts Council and Ballet Memphis to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis, the Boy Scouts of America and the National Civil Rights Museum.

I think this firm has been at least as active in the community over the years as any other firm or organization that Im aware of, Porter said. Its something that we dont promote, but we certainly understand if people want to devote time to it, and we encourage them.

That was one reason new attorney Mary Hale decided to come back home to Memphis to work for Burch Porter rather than take a job with a Washington, D.C., firm.

There is a real emphasis on community involvement here, she said. They have such a good reputation of outstanding lawyers and a collegial atmosphere.

The attorneys work outside the office inevitably includes political involvement, ranging from work with the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to federal judgeships. For instance, Burch Porter attorney W.J. Michael Cody served as Tennessee Attorney General in the 1980s.

One thing that is somewhat unique about the firm and its community involvement is that weve got people all across the political spectrum, Porter said. Nobody has problems understanding if somebody is supporting one candidate and somebody else another.

Weve always had people who were Republicans, Democrats, conservative and liberal. Charlie and I rarely see eye to eye about politics, and we dont get upset with each other about it either.

That is among the reasons the firm has historically been successful, he said.

Joels father and Lucius Burch were the best of friends, but they never agreed politically, I dont believe, Newman added.

Important involvement. The firm has been involved in many important issues over the years, but one that is particularly poignant to its members occurred during one of the darkest times in Memphis history.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis in April 1968 to aid with a sanitation workers strike, the city of Memphis received an injunction about a proposed march.

Burch Porter was hired to get the injunction lifted.

It was a very dramatic situation, remembered Newman, who was involved in the case. We actually went out the night before to the Lorraine Motel to meet with Dr. King. We went into his motel room, sat on the bed and talked to him. He designated a younger man, Andrew Young, who later became mayor of Atlanta, to go to court with us. We didnt know much about him, but his testimony was really brilliant.

Soon after their success in court, King was assassinated.

Supporting Downtown. Bleak days followed for Downtown Memphis. But while many Downtown businesses boarded up and headed out, Burch Porter remained.

We were among the first to commit to the rebuilding of Downtown, Porter said. We feel like lawyers need to be Downtown, particularly if theyre involved at the courthouse or with public administration. I feel good about Downtown.


Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC

Founded: 1904

Attorneys: 48

Basics: One of the oldest law firms in Tennessee, Burch, Porter & Johnson celebrates its 100-year anniversary next week.


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