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Sunday, September 27, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Venerable Law Firm Looks Back 200 Years

AP

NEW YORK - When a person reaches age 100 the world asks: Did you eschew spirits or tobacco to live so long? Eat bran every breakfast? Worship with regularity?

When a law firm reaches age 200, as that of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft did this year, one need not ask its secret of longevity. America, home of the brave and land of the free, is also the fatherland of laws and litigation.

The shingle that Cadwalader and company has hung out for two centuries is something of a casebook of the nation's history. The hoary firm and/or its members have done business with Robert Fulton and his steamboat, succored the maimed in the Civil War, formed railroads, busted trusts, represented birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger, handled the ugly custody battle of heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, written wills for Astors, provided ammo for cartoonist Peter Arno in The New Yorker, floated bonds, dabbled in sinking funds and sued Ivan Boesky, et al.

John Wells, the founder of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, a Horatio Alger prototype, worked his way through Princeton and in 1792 joined New York's 83 other lawyers attending to the needs of 35,000 potential clients.

Wells' one-man shingle grew under various titles and permutations before becoming Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft more than a century later.

Wells kept busy with cases of foreclosure, theft, trespass, an unpaid $625 promissory note, contracts and such. New York was a boomtown, so there was much real-estate work and a lot of business with new insurance companies.

A NATURAL FOR LAW

Wells was a natural for the law. As a second in a duel, he talked the rivals into an amicable resolution without a shot being fired. His togaed bust still resides in the majestic silence of Cadwalader's reception foyer.

Wells and George Washington Strong formed one of the country's early law partnerships in 1818 and "did a monstrous deal of business" with such as the John Jacob Astor family and Fulton's steamboat company, despite a public reluctance to trust a vehicle "with a volcano in its bowels."

Strong said the law could make no man rich without one of two things: that he "charged extravagantly" or "possess a total destitution of principle." He wrote the will for Alexander Hamilton's widow three times - no charge.

Strong's most lasting contribution was his son, George Templeton Strong, a noted diarist of the mid-19th century. There was much to note: mortgages and foreclosures in the constant boom and bust of those unregulated days; the "Robinson whale-oil case"; suits for and against the emerging banks that financed the booms; and endless estates to be settled.

"If any more old woman's wills come into the office," Strong told his diary,"I shall certainly secure an early passage to Texas."

He pondered, with disarming frankness for a lawyer, why "women and clergymen should of all clients be the most grasping." He called the sheriff's office "a den of Celtic thieves." He found the Southern slave-owning gentry "a race of lazy, ignorant, coarse, sensual, swaggering, sordid, beggarly barbarians."

What Strong would have written in 1942 when Catherine Noyes Lee became the first woman partner in a major Wall Street law firm is unknowable. But in 1869 he opined: "No woman shall degrade herself by practice in law if I can save her."

THE GILDED AGE

Before the Civil War, a New York law partnership usually consisted of one attorney delving into books at the office and a second arguing in court. After the war the nation erupted in a boom of industrialization, railroads inchworming across the West, all accompanied by a free-for-all of stock and bond issues.

Cadwalader, by then Bidwell & Strong, almost missed the then high-flying Gilded Age. Charles E. Strong, G.W.'s nephew, was the sole surviving partner. He never tried a case, contenting himself with wills, mortgages, marriage settlements and the like. He even considered closing shop and joining a bank. But he felt a loyalty to the firm and its longtime clients. In 1878 he teamed up with John Cadwalader, assistant to Hamilton Fish, secretary of state in the Grant administration.

The firm began playing the corporate game, but in keeping with the dictum of Cadwalader, Princeton 1856, that a law firm should have "at least one gentleman among its partners."

Robber barons needed lawyers galore and Wall Street firms greatly expanded. George W. Wickersham became a partner in 1887. The firm was busy organizing railroads, probating the will of tycoon Collis Huntington and representing the company that built New York's first subway.

When times were flush, Wall Street law firms made money from corporate expansion. When the economy panicked, they prospered handling bankruptcies and suits by poor losers. Oddly, the firms themselves were socially above the fray, staffed in large part by the patrician "white shoe" set, named for the white-buck footwear favored by Ivy Leaguers.

Notwithstanding, Wall Street was recruited by Washington to help bust the trusts it had created. Henry Taft went to work for President Theodore Roosevelt to bring the first criminal prosecution under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Wickersham became attorney general for President William Howard Taft, Henry's brother, and broke up Standard Oil and the American Tobacco trusts. All this created more work for lawyers.

When Cadwalader took its present name in 1914, the firm had nine partners, 14 clerks and a staff of 29. In those days, Wickersham, a luminary of the bar and a member of a commission that opposed Prohibition, frequented the same restaurant as cartoonist Peter Arno, who immortalized his walrus mustache as the elderly party who stormed and ogled in his New Yorker cartoons.

WHITE-SHOE ERA

The white-shoe era at Cadwalader reached its apogee during the 1950s and '60s under the reign of Cornelius Wickersham Sr., known as The General for his service (National Guard) in both world wars. Jackets - suits only - were never doffed except in summer heat and then only behind one's closed office door. First names were not used.

With the passing of The General in 1968, nepotism was abolished. Hiring was on the basis of what - rather than whom - one knew.

Today Cadwalader has 96 partners, 19 counsels, 191 associates and more than 400 assorted others. It has merged several buildings on Maiden Lane behind Wall Street to become the city's only firm to own its own building. Some of its clients, such as the Salvation Army, go back 100 years.

By spreading the clientele, it lessens the risk. No client provides more than 4 percent of the law firm's business. It takes in 20 to 40 new lawyers each year from among 1,500 interviewees and some 5,000 applications. Starting pay is about $85,000. It's an up-or-out system, as with most Wall Street law firms. If not made partner in eight years or so, and 80 percent to 90 percent aren't, one goes elsewhere.

KEY TO LONGEVITY

Donald Glascoff, a Cadwalader partner in real estate who has guided the firm's bicentenary, is in his shirt sleeves on a not particularly warm day in his office. The door is closed. He is explaining how a firm lives to be 200. And why a firm may not.

"We didn't stay the same for 200 years. We didn't stay WASP in this century. Firms fail because they fail to adapt both to society and the law."

He stresses "collegiality," regular intercourse among partners for advice, guidance, policy.

Cadwalader is so collegial that cleaning staff is invited to the Christmas party.

"To become a partner you need one-third hard work, one-third how smart you are and one-third luck."

Are there any gentlemen left in this firm in the year 1992?

"We have 14 gentlemen on our roster, all from south of the Mason-Dixon line." Pause. "And the rest aren't so bad, either."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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