The Daily Record
BALTIMORE (AP) — An attorney for six decades, John G. “Jack” Wharton of Niles, Barton & Wilmer LLP has experienced a legal world that may sound alien to some today, a testament to how far law has, or hasn’t, come.
Wharton’s experiences during his 60 years — all at Niles, Barton & Wilmer — have been so personally rewarding, he said, that he doesn’t lament law’s operating philosophy transforming from the trusting culture in the 1950s to a more business-centered practice.
“There was an enormous respect and trust for lawyer … as compared to now,” Wharton said. “People had the same respect for doctors (and) ministers (in the 1950s).”
That environment is somewhat particular to Baltimore, according to Wharton, who said that his attorney friends from New York are amazed at the collegial bond between him and his colleagues.
“Firms run more like a business now,” said Craig D. Roswell, the managing partner of Niles, Barton & Wilmer, which has 30 associates and partners. “Firm economics have changed, and, people have changed. It’s faster. There’s certainly more people (now).”
Roswell, who has been at the firm for 20 years, said the upside of the change is that finances are taken care of, but the downside is that practice can sometimes be cutthroat.
It’s not that firms are bigger, advertise more aggressively and track lawyers’ hours fastidiously, but that they simply used to be small and intimate. Business came through the door by reputation and word of mouth, and the confidence among partners at a firm didn’t require strict documentation of their working hours.
“You would be embarrassed to be seen talking to a client of another lawyer, unless it was at a party or something, but you would never solicit a client of another lawyer,” Wharton said.
Wharton, 86, has spent his entire life in Baltimore, where he was born, aside from four years at Princeton University as an undergraduate, majoring in religion.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. I came down to see the dean of a law school. We had this conversation and he asked if I wanted to be a lawyer and I said, `I don’t know. I just don’t want to go to work yet,”‘ Wharton said, laughing.
“And he said, `Well, we need honest lawyers and your grades at Princeton are good.”
After graduating from the then-University of Maryland School of Law and passing the bar exam in 1953, Wharton was hired at Niles, Barton & Wilmer as a transactional lawyer in real estate. He never left.
“If I didn’t enjoy what I was doing now, I would leave tomorrow,” Wharton said.
“Jack is one of those special people,” Roswell said. “I feel blessed — he’s an older, true gentleman. … What he tends to work on is the relationship side of business.”
Wharton was his clients’ confidante, spanning multiple generations of the same businesses and fostering positive relationships, Roswell said.
“The clients aren’t institutions, they’re people,” Wharton said, adding that he feels lucky to have established close bonds with some of them. One life insurance company sent him a Christmas card attached with notes from every employee.
Although he’s seen a lot of change in the legal world, Wharton said as lawyers maintain their professionalism and listen to the needs of their clients, they will succeed, especially with all the new complications arising from technological advancements.
Retirement any time soon? Not for Wharton. The 86-year-old remains challenged and intrigued by his work and has deep connections to his colleagues.
“The firm is a big, big family. I work with a lot of younger people, which is great, really stimulating. Otherwise, my mind would drift more than it does,” he said.
Although Wharton’s workload has decreased, he’s still eager to contribute, approaching Roswell with an idea to create a mentoring program for younger partners and associates.
“The firm is really good to me,” he said, smiling. “I feel they do more good for me than I do for them.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)