Practice Makes Perfect

by Rosalyn Graham

George Faris entered law school to relax

Shelburne attorney George Faris has been practicing law and city planning for 28 years. A Pennsylvania native, he chose Vermont for law school, partly because of its excellent faculty.

It only took three years as head of the English department teaching Victorian literature to learning-disabled children who couldn’t read at the Landmark School near Boston, complete with dorm duty, for George Faris to decide he would like to go to law school to relax. He admits he’s never heard of anyone else who thought law school would be relaxing, but when he describes his school years and the work he has done in his 28 years as a lawyer, perhaps the problem is his definition of “relaxing.”

A native of Abbington, Pa., Faris had attended Amherst College, where he discovered Vermont skiing. “I loved Vermont,” he says, so when he learned that a law school was being established here, he enrolled. 

Things got off to a good start for Faris with a couple of summer courses. He did well in the courses, excited by the model of the law school’s importing teachers who taught at the best schools. They were professors at Harvard and Yale who summered in Vermont or took sabbaticals here.

“I studied conflict of law from the Harvard professor who wrote the book; commercial paper from the man who wrote that section of the law; and zoning law from Norman Williams, the man who was counsel to the New York City Planning Commission in the ’50s and ’60s and had just written the five-volume treatise that is still very respected today,” Faris recalls.

Early in his second year, Faris approached Williams about a job as research assistant. When he mentioned he had spent the summer working with the regional planning commission in Woodstock, Williams took him on — as a volunteer. 

Says Faris, “Half way through the year he said, ‘You really like this stuff, don’t you?’ I said I did as it cut across so many different issues, and he suggested that I get a joint degree in law and city planning.” Faris left Vermont at the end of that year for West Philadelphia, to study at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated two years later with a degree in law from Vermont Law School and a city planning degree from Penn. 

Faris had married while working in Boston. He and his wife liked Vermont so much that, in February of his final year at Penn, he says, “I wandered in to the placement office and picked up the Vermont file. Inside was a letter from Allen Martin of Downs Rachlin Martin. I fired off my resume.” The next day, Martin was on the phone, and after a trip to St. Johnsbury and Burlington for interviews in a terrible February blizzard, Faris had a job.

In the spring of 1978, the Farises left West Philadelphia for St. Johnsbury, where he worked for three years. He was making good use of the business and tax law that had been his focus at law school, but there wasn’t much related to planning, he says. “I lived in Danville, so I went to the Danville Planning Commission and said, ‘If you need any help I’d be happy to work on a volunteer basis.’”

photoAnne Castle is business manager for the practice, which focuses on business, mergers, acquisitions and real estate.

That action established a pattern that continued for 25 years — lawyer by day and planner by night. It was a strategy that gave the satisfaction of being involved in two of the things he loved best (after, he says, his family, his boat, reading, and, more recently, his little yellow Boxster) and it put his planning expertise to work for the benefit of a succession of municipalities.

After two years with DRM in St. Johnsbury, Faris was recruited by the Small Business Administration to serve as legal counsel in Montpelier. One of his first duties was to study the business plans of applicants for assistance from the Snow Disaster Program, launched to help those adversely affected by the previous winter’s lack of snow. The move not only doubled his salary at a time when Vermont law firms weren’t noted for paying well, but also gave him an extra perk.

“SBA sent me to Harvard to learn about bankruptcy,” he says, “and while I was there, I also took a course on negotiation from Roger Fisher, author of the famous Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. What a great experience. It was unbelievable!”

Unfortunately, things had not gone well with his marriage. He and his wife had divorced, and Faris was raising their son, Peter. 

He met his current wife, Christine, at a Chittenden Bank seminar while he was working at the SBA. “It was love at first sight,” he says with a sigh. “I called a mutual friend at the Chittenden and asked that he arrange a meeting, and he did.” They were married twice, says Faris: first in February of ’83 by the Elmore Town Clerk, and then a big wedding in Syracuse the following September.

Faris did a lot of bankruptcy work and read thousands of business plans, reviewing the files and adding his legal perspective. At the end of six years, however, he decided to leave. “The SBA was always on the chopping block; it was the Reagan administration; and there was always the threat that they were going to get rid of programs like SBA.”

He joined the Burlington law firm of Hoff, Wilson, Powell and Lang and continued to work on the same type of law he had done with the SBA — banking and commercial — and doing planning work in the evening. He worked with the Lamoille County Planning Commission and then the town of Elmore Planning Commission. “I kept my hand in,” he says. 

During his dozen years with the Burlington firm, he became a partner and the firm’s name became Wilson, Powell, Lang and Faris. He and Christine bought a house in Shelburne. His law practice in the mid 1980s focused on high-profile bankruptcies, including the Charlie Kelton bank fraud case and the complex Rodney Mayo fraud case. He was also lender’s counsel for the Howard Bank when it made loans to Jeff Davis to develop Taft Corners, and in the negotiations to arrange the financing for Wake Robin Corp. to buy its property from the developer.

By then, he was chairman of the Shelburne Planning Commission. “I had to step down during discussion of the proposal,” he says. “I didn’t take part in any consideration of the project.”

Soon after he moved to Shelburne, Faris answered an ad by the Selectboard seeking someone to run the Planning Commission. “I went to see them and said, ‘I’ve got some experience.’ They said OK.” When the chairman retired, Faris was nominated to replace him. He held that position for 15 years. 

photoJohn Weil, Faris’ law clerk, will become an associate in the firm when he passes his examination and is admitted to the bar.

Kate Lampton, town planner for nine of those years, has a high opinion of Faris’ accomplishments. “We had a lot of complex projects come through,” she says, “and he was always good at being able to defuse things when they got prickly, with a sense of humor and firm control of the meeting. His background in planning gave him a good perspective of both sides of many of the issues, and he took us through several changes in bylaws, town plan rewrites and new ordinances for sewer and telecommunications.” He also represented Shelburne on the regional planning commission and was involved in writing the master plan for the county.

In October 1997, Faris decided to open a solo practice in Shelburne. Until 2006, his office was on the second floor of what is now the Citizens Bank building on U.S. 7, where his Bernese mountain dog, Zoe, and secretary Anne Castle’s husky, Quick, greeted everyone. With the sale of the building to Citizens, he relocated to the front corner of the former Harbor Industries building, an adaptive reuse of space that pleases his land-use planning soul and provides lots of space for Castle; law clerk John Weil, a May 2006 graduate of Vermont Law School; and Dennis Stefanini, Faris’ paralegal since early 2000. The practice focuses on business, mergers, acquisitions and real estate.

Although he retired from the planning commission when he was elected to the Shelburne Selectboard — a position he resigned in 2004 — Faris has found a way to finally combine his law and city-planning training, addressing more land-use issues in his practice. In April 2005 he opened an office in West Dover, where he works on real estate with developers. “It’s where I wanted to be,” he says. “I’ve brought it together.”

Faris has always been careful to set bounds to ensure that there was time for family. Christine is an employee benefits lawyer who was with KPMG until the employee benefits part of the business was sold to Smart & Associates in Philadelphia. She commutes to Philly to work with the same group of high-powered clients she used to advise from her office on Water Tower Hill, but hopes to soon be working from a home office in Shelburne. 

Son Peter is 26 and waiting tables in Denver; Alex, 18, is wrapping up an Outward Bound type of experience in Utah before looking at colleges; and Andrew, 16, is a junior at Brooks School in North Andover, Mass. 

Reflecting on his career, Faris says the best thing about the legal profession is receiving the confidence of clients and using your mental faculties to devise solutions to problems. Asked why he is good at what he does, he pauses, then says, “I listen very closely and try to think outside the box. And I’m able to use my planning background. When you are doing planning, you identify the facts, then look at where you want to be, and then identify how you can get there. By casting your mind out into the future you can often find a more comprehensive solution. I like looking into the future more than looking into the past.”•