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Covington & Burling Business Information, Profile, and History

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1201 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20004-2401
U.S.A.

Company Perspectives:

For more than 80 years, Covington & Burling has enjoyed a broad reputation for two paramount qualities--representation of clients according to the highest professional standards and dedication to public service.

History of Covington & Burling

One of the United States' preeminent law firms, Covington & Burling, with its more than 450 lawyers, provides expertise in virtually all legal specialties. It is probably best known, however, for helping clients deal with the maze of federal laws and regulations. For example, it represented Microsoft Corporation as the federal government accused it of antitrust violations. For about 30 years it has served state governments in their disputes with the federal government. The firm represents not only many large companies but also more than 100 trade associations with legislative or regulatory concerns. For several decades it has helped write major laws. Covington & Burling has a strong sports practice with clients such as the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, and the National Football League. It serves foreign governments and businesses in a wide range of concerns, from taxation issues and disputes over mineral rights to intellectual property lawsuits and mergers and acquisitions. Covington & Burling also sets a good example for other law firms by being a leader in providing pro bono services to clients with limited resources. One of the firm's prominent lawyers was Dean Acheson, secretary of state under President Truman, who played a key role in the early years of the Cold War.

Origins and Early History: 1919-45

Covington & Burling began with the distinguished political and legal career of J. Harry Covington. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1894, he practiced law in his home town of Easton, Maryland. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1908, 1910, and 1912. From 1914 to 1918 he served as the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. During World War I, Covington served the Wilson administration but also realized new opportunities abounded because of the expanded power of the federal government. War contracts, the recently passed federal income tax, and increased government regulations influenced Covington to start a private law practice.

On January 1, 1919 Covington and Edward B. Burling formed the law partnership of Covington & Burling. A native of Eldora, Iowa, Burling graduated from Harvard Law School in 1894 and had practiced law in Chicago before moving to Washington, D.C., to start the new partnership.

The biggest case for the young partnership resulted from a dispute during World War I. The Christiana Group of Norwegian Shipowners claimed that the U.S. government owed them about $18 million in compensation for deciding to build its own ships. The Christiania Group persuaded the Kingdom of Norway to join them in pursuing the claim. With the help of Covington & Burling, Norway and the shipowners prevailed in arbitration at The Hague, the headquarters of the League of Nations, winning an award of almost $12 million in 1922.

The law firm kept busy after World War I by serving other clients, including the National Canners Association, du Pont de Nemours, W.R. Grace, Price Waterhouse, United Fruit, Bethlehem Steel, Goodyear, the American Institute of Accountants, and the State of Arizona. It added new partners, the most notable being Dean Acheson, who had graduated from Harvard Law School in 1918 before joining the partnership during the Norwegian shipping case. By the end of 1933 the firm consisted of 18 lawyers, including seven partners.

From the beginning, Covington & Burling intended to represent local, national, and international clients. For example, it helped New York investment banker Eugene Meyer move the Madeira School from Washington, D.C., to rural Virginia, which resulted in the firm representing Meyer and the Washington Post (which Meyer purchased in 1933) for many years. In the early 1930s the firm advised the president of Columbia in helping that nation solve oil disputes and end an undeclared war against Peru. This range of legal services made the young law firm a challenging business to work for, even if it was not as big or as profitable as the Wall Street law firms.

During World War II, the law firm hired female lawyers for the first time. This was a rather typical development at many law firms that needed to replace male lawyers who had left for military or government service. After the war, however, most firms returned to the earlier trend of hiring almost all men. It was not until the 1970s that women joined large law firms in significant numbers.

Postwar Practice and Challenges

In the aftermath of World War II, the firm assisted Iran as it worked with the United Nations to get the Soviet Union to remove its troops. Once that was accomplished, Iran used the firm for other matters.

After World War II, the law firm experienced considerable growth. In 1948 it had 57 lawyers and 69 staff workers. In 1963 it reached 102 lawyers and 162 staff employees.

In 1969 Covington & Burling began representing states, an important part of its practice in the years to come. Most of the original 13 states hired the firm when the federal government filed a claim in the U.S. Supreme Court that it owned the continental shelf, the relatively shallow area along the Atlantic coast. The court accepted the federal government's claim in United States v. Maine in 1975.

Meanwhile, in 1971 the firm began representing New Jersey, and later other states, in a conflict over whether or not the federal government should provide states with funds for social services under the Social Security Act. In State of Florida v. Mathews (1976), the states, helped by Covington & Burling, won their case in district court. During the appeal, the parties settled out of court. The federal government agreed to pay $543 million to the states, and in 1978 Congress finally appropriated that amount. Since that time, the law firm has served various state governments on different issues.

Covington & Burling assisted General Dynamics in the early 1980s when the defense firm and the Navy argued over massive cost overruns from building nuclear submarines. Each side blamed the other. The Navy accused General Dynamics of fraud, mismanagement, and poor training, while General Dynamics claimed that the Navy made thousands of new design modifications after the initial contracts had been signed. This dispute lasted several years and was the subject of intense media scrutiny.

In the 1980s the law firm also represented Puerto Rico when the Reagan administration wanted to eliminate a section of the tax code that gave U.S. companies tax breaks for money earned in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, Covington & Burling served the Tobacco Institute of America as the controversy over health risks from smoking heated up, and the Bank of Boston when it was charged with money laundering for alleged mobsters.

Covington & Burling opened its first office outside of Washington, D.C. in 1989 by setting up a London branch that focused on international arbitration and assisting clients with investments in the United States and Europe. The Wall Street Journal pointed out on March 27, 1989: 'Competition is intense among law firms in the international arena, and Washington firms appear to be playing a game of catch-up. Most large New York firms have had European branch offices for years.'

In 1989 Covington & Burling lawyer Paul Tagliabue left to become the commissioner of the National Football League (NFL). Since he had joined the firm in 1969, his practice had focused on various NFL issues, and the law firm continued to represent the NFL in the years to come.

The Partnership in the 1990s and Beyond

In 1990 Covington & Burling joined the growing number of American law firms in Brussels, the European Community (EC) headquarters. They came to help prepare their corporate clients for the EC's effort to create uniform business rules and regulations in its 12 member nations by 1992. In 1988 only eight American firms were in Brussels, but the number had grown to 25 by 1990. Most either merged with Belgian law firms or hired local lawyers.

Covington & Burling lawyers assisted leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties. For example, Charles F.C. Ruff during a four-year absence from the firm served as President Bill Clinton's counsel during the impeachment crisis. During the 2000 electoral disputes in Florida, George W. Bush used lawyers from many leading law firms. Covington & Burling's Bobby Burchfield, an expert on evaluating ballot chads, assisted Bush in the recount controversy. Covington & Burling assisted the District of Columbia when it tried to gain representation in the Congress. The D.C. government and 57 residents used the law firm when they filed the lawsuit Alexander v. Daly to gain full voting privileges. In 2000, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the District of Columbia after a two-year struggle. This was a good example of Covington & Burling's pro bono cases.

As part of Texaco's 1996 settlement of a racial discrimination lawsuit, the company established a Task Force on Equality and Fairness. In June 1997 Covington & Burling's Thomas Williamson, Jr., became the chair of the Texaco Task Force, a model used later for Coca-Cola's task force.

Covington & Burling assisted Microsoft Corporation in the late 1990s when the federal government investigated it for antitrust violations. Firm attorney Charles Ruff testified on Microsoft's behalf in 1997 hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In 1999 Exxon Corporation chose Covington & Burling for advice on antitrust issues when it merged with Mobil Corporation. Both sides hired several major law firms to help in various aspects of this $79 billion merger that created Exxon Mobil.

Covington & Burling's tax attorneys assisted Computer Associates in its 2000 acquisition of Sterling Software. According to International Tax Review in April 2000, this $4 billion acquisition made it 'the largest software deal ever.' The firm also represented Computer Associates in its acquisitions of Platinum Technologies, Legent, and Computer Management Sciences.

Continuing its tradition as a key player in legislative and regulatory matters, in the 1990s Covington & Burling's lawyers helped write important laws, including the 1992 Energy Policy Act, the Sports Blackout Legislation of 1993, the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health Education Act, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and the 1997 Food and Drug Modernization Act.

Covington & Burling for many years represented numerous trade associations. In the late 1990s the Association of Publicly Traded Companies hired the firm to lobby Congress for laws limiting liability from possible computer failures in 2000 due to the so-called Y2K problem. Other association clients were the Council for Marketing & Opinion Research, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the National Food Processors Association. Covington & Burling's clients in the 1990s or in the new millennium also included Bacardi, Monsanto, Union Pacific, Merck, Warner-Lambert, Eli Lilly, Turner Broadcasting, the Smithsonian Institute, Procter & Gamble, Public Broadcast System, IBM, General Motors, ASARCO, Warburg Dillon Read, Granaria Holdings, the National Treasury Employees Union, the government of Vietnam, BankBoston Corporation, and the Motion Picture Association of America.

While recognizing corporations' need for lawyers, consumer activist and lawyer Ralph Nader often criticized corporate lawyers who destroyed documents, harassed citizens groups, overcharged clients, or in other ways were unethical. But Nader and Wesley Smith, in their book No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America, praised Covington & Burling attorney Charles Horsky for his 1952 book The Washington Lawyer, which outlined the principles of an ethical corporate law practice.

Covington & Burling was criticized in the 1990s, however, for its role in the tobacco industry. A lobbying firm named State Affairs Company organized Contributions Watch to be a nonpartisan group that examined political campaign contributions. In 1996 Contributions Watch released a study on trial lawyers' contributions. The Washington Post, however, found documents indicating that Philip Morris, State Affairs Company, and Covington & Burling influenced the work of supposedly independent Contributions Watch. The Washington Post also reported that the law firm allowed Philip Morris to give more than $1 million to fund a company that often testified that only minimal health damages came from secondhand smoke indoors, but the law firm denied any illegal actions.

As part of a law firm consolidation trend, in October 1999 Covington & Burling's 340 lawyers merged with the New York City firm of Howard, Smith & Levin. The 60-lawyer firm represented General Electric's GE Capital section and the Bank of New York Company and had a significant capability in litigation and mergers and acquisitions.

The merger with Howard, Smith & Levin was not counted in the American Lawyer's annual ranking of the United States' largest law firms. Thus based on its 1999 gross revenue of $165 million, Covington & Burling was ranked number 79. Gross revenues of $152 million in 1998 resulted in a number 70 ranking. In 1997, Covington & Burling had $143 million in gross revenue, making it number 61 in the annual ranking.

Although it had declined in the rankings by the American Lawyer, Covington & Burling seemed well prepared for the challenges of the new millennium. With a heritage of major contributions to the legal profession, the firm's more than 450 lawyers continued to provide its clients with legal counsel in many areas of American and international law.

Principal Competitors: Arnold & Porter; Hogan & Hartson; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.

Chronology

  • Key Dates:

  • 1919: The partnership of Covington & Burling is founded in Washington, D.C., on January 1.
  • 1921: The firm is renamed Covington, Burling & Rublee.
  • 1949: The firm becomes known as Covington, Burling, Rublee, O'Brian & Shorb.
  • 1951: The firm returns to its original name of Covington & Burling.
  • 1989: The London office is opened.
  • 1990: Covington & Burling opens its Brussels office.
  • 1997: The firm enters an exclusive cooperation agreement with France's August & Debouzy.
  • 1999: The firm establishes an office in San Francisco in March; the firm merges with Howard, Smith & Levin of New York City in October.
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