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A Brief Historical Note


Judge J. Harry Covington and Edward B. Burling opened the doors of Covington & Burling in Washington, DC, on January 1, 1919. The eminent George Rublee soon joined them as a partner, and a former Brandeis clerk named Dean Acheson was hired two years later as an associate. The firm was off and running.

One of the firm's first cases was an international arbitration in The Hague, with Burling and Acheson representing the Kingdom of Norway in the Norwegian Shipowners proceeding against the United States.  Success in that arbitration -- an award of the then-astronomical sum of $12 million -- helped build the firm's reputation.  The burst of New Deal legislation a decade later increased corporate demand for regulatory expertise, leading the firm to gain recognition in fields ranging from economic to product regulation.

The firm steadily grew during the 1930s, eventually becoming known as Covington, Burling, Rublee, Acheson & Shorb.  The lengthy name had its uses, as an old New Yorker piece recounted in describing how the firm's name helped someone who was "groggy trying to dig up enough names for a litter of puppies that just arrived."  Notwithstanding the five mythical puppies (portrayed in the photograph above that for many years hung in the firm's library), several years later the firm's name was restored to Covington & Burling.

The 1940s saw the coming of age of a legendary group, including Tommy Austern (a master in fields ranging from antitrust to food and drug law), Gerhard Gesell (a litigator later renowned as a federal judge), Dan Gribbon (the brilliant trial and appellate lawyer who became the firm's leader in the 1970s), Charlie Horsky (a pioneer in bankruptcy and other areas whose range was reflected by his pro bono representation of Fred Korematsu), and Howard Westwood (the iconoclast who hummed the "Internationale" in the firm's hallways during the 1930s and served as a Drill Instructor on Parris Island during World War II).

After the war’s conclusion, the firm boomed.  Together with a wide array of regulatory disciplines, antitrust litigation became one of the staples of the firm's practice.  But there was plenty of variety.  Westwood and Stan Temko played a major role in the Steel Seizure case.  Acheson, now back from his service as Secretary of State, teamed with the young Brice Clagett and successfully represented Cambodia in its border dispute with Thailand.  Hugh Cox, later described by Justice Harlan as "the perfect advocate," was distinguishing himself at the Supreme Court bar.

In 1960, with Peter Hutt's arrival, the firm was 100 lawyers strong.  By the end of the 1960s, the firm's growth required a move to 888 16th Street, just across Lafayette Park from the White House.  The firm's tangible and enduring commitment to pro bono was also sealed during the late 1960s with the firm's launch of its still-running lawyer rotation program at a Neighborhood Legal Services office.  The firm, an early leader among law firms in terms of religious tolerance, had begun to diversify in other ways as well.  In 1974 and 1975, Virginia Watkin and Wes Williams became the firm's first woman and African American partners.  Led by Horsky, armies of lawyers toiled on the Penn Central reorganization throughout most of the 1970s.

Lawyer headcount topped 200 around 1980, and it was again time for a larger home.  In 1981, the firm became the first major non-governmental tenant on the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, moving to a new building at 1201 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Another generation of stars came into its own, including Michael Boudin (appellate standout and now a federal appellate judge), Peter Nickles (a competitive tri-athlete and formerly the District’s Attorney General), Chuck Ruff (who started the firm's white collar practice and later impressed the nation as President Clinton's White House Counsel during the impeachment trial), Bob Sayler (who almost single-handedly created a new field of practice called insurance coverage), and Paul Tagliabue (who left to become the NFL’s Commissioner and is once again our colleague).

With this new generation of leaders, the 1980s and 1990s were decades of growth and expansion.  In 1988, Covington opened a London office, followed by a Brussels office in 1990.  The biggest move came in 1999, when Covington merged with a 60-lawyer New York City firm called Howard, Smith & Levin, which boasted a remarkably similar value system combined with first-rate practices in corporate, white collar, and other fields.  Also in 1999, the firm opened its first West Coast office in San Francisco.  2008 literally and figuratively involved opening new doors.  We launched our Beijing office, and then we expanded our intellectual property practice with the addition of approximately 50 lawyers who joined us in Washington and San Francisco and helped us start new offices in the Silicon Valley and San Diego.

On January 20, 2009, President Obama was inaugurated, and we said farewell to a number of our lawyers who answered his call to service.  Among them was our partner Eric Holder, who became the Attorney General of the United States almost sixty years to the day after Dean Acheson’s swearing in as Secretary of State.

In 2013, we added new offices in Seoul and Shanghai.  As 2014 began, the Washington office was preparing for its move later in the year to CityCenterDC, a new mixed-use development in the vibrant Penn Quarter area.
Now in our tenth decade, the firm's good work and good works have continued.  Today, the firm numbers more than 800 lawyers in ten offices.  Those lawyers and their practices are extraordinarily diverse, obviously more so than at the firm's creation more than 90 years ago.  But importantly, the traditions handed down by the firm's founders -- excellence, tolerance, integrity, and a commitment to public service and professionalism -- endure today.
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