Man of Many Colors

by Cindy Bernhardt

Peter Langrock’s second rule of thumb is: Never turn down a case that’s fun

Peter LangrockOne might easily assume that Peter Langrock has discovered how to stretch time to make room for all his activities. Still, to the founder and managing partner of Langrock Sperry & Wool, with offices in Middlebury and Burlington, the law is the highest calling.

Renaissance man. Raconteur. Farmer. Author. Artist. Horse enthusiast. It’s hard to nail Peter Langrock down. To him, though, the most revered term would be “lawyer — the highest calling,” he says.

One of Vermont’s best-known lawyers, Langrock has been practicing law for 45 years. He is the founder and managing partner of Langrock Sperry & Wool, a 26-lawyer firm with offices in Middlebury and Burlington. It ranks among the state’s oldest and largest. The practice offers a complete range of law services from criminal defense to real estate to estate planning.

Langrock Sperry & Wool has been lead counsel on several high-profile cases, impacting Vermont’s legal landscape as well as the nation’s, on such issues as civil unions, campaign finance reform and equal education opportunity. Langrock’s career has spanned the Supreme Courts of four chief justices: He was sworn in before the Warren Court, argued before the Burger and Rehnquist courts, and was lead counsel on a case before the Roberts Court. He also pleaded several cases aired on Court TV.

“I like helping people and getting to know them,” he says. “Our practice is rather unique because we’re so people-oriented. Our clients aren’t major companies or businesses — just people who need help.”

Langrock’s Vermont roots go way back. “My dad taught high school in New York City and summers was assistant manager of Lake Dunmore Hotel, so I spent every summer of my life in Vermont.”

Lise Fifield and Donna BadoreThe firm’s somewhat unusual structure and philosophy, emphasizing what Langrock calls a “balanced law firm,” was the subject of a 2003 Brendan Brown Lecuture Series at Loyola University. Lise Fifield and Donna Badore are secretaries.

His mother, he recalls, determined early he’d “be a Vermont lawyer with a ‘gone fishing’ sign on my door. I never really considered anything else and knew I wanted to practice here.”

It was during a summer break from studying at the University of Chicago, where he earned his undergraduate and law degrees, that Langrock met his future wife, Joann.

“She was a summer-school French student at Middlebury,” he recalls. “I was at the Waybury Inn with friends and she was at the next table when I led a chorus of ‘Alouette.’ I started speaking my high school French with her, asked if I could give her a ride home, and she said, ‘Of course not! I came with these people!’ But I got her phone number.”

They were engaged by their seventh date and married after Langrock’s graduation in 1960. Shortly thereafter, Langrock began campaigning for Addison County state’s attorney, and was elected to the position, he quips, “at the ripe old age of 22.” Langrock juggled the part-time post, which he filled for two terms, with founding his law practice.

Mark Sperry joined Langrock in 1965. “I wanted an associate and had met Mark when he was clerking for Federal Judge Ernest Gibson.” Throughout their 40-year partnership, Langrock says, they’ve never had a cross word. “Our closest confrontation dealt with taking on a particular client. Mark said, ‘Peter, I don’t feel comfortable with those people.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and he turned out to be right about them.”

Mike Wool, “a tax genius who was doing great things,” says Langrock, left his solo practice to join in 1982. “We had nobody in our office who could do those things, and he had clients who needed broad litigation support.”

The firm’s somewhat unusual structure and philosophy emphasize what Langrock terms a “balanced law firm.” Lawyers are encouraged to strike a balance between practicing law, family time and contributing to the community. Langrock presented this viewpoint in 2003 as part of the Brendan Brown Lecture Series at Loyola University.

“Pressure to become more businesslike causes many practices to focus on becoming profit centers,” he says. “It takes real dedication for lawyers to see that their goal is to give more than they take, not to have the biggest portfolio. We’re here to help people.”

Langrock Sperry and Wool is not a typical pyramid hierarchy of seniority, but a cooperative structure whereby virtually each partner is considered a peer. Clients, as well as the firm’s lawyers, benefit from this team approach, which promotes an interdisciplinary rather than specialist perspective.

Within the practice, this philosophy reaps professional, intellectual and personal advantages. “Peter’s the driving force and spark behind it,” notes Ellen Fallon, one of the first female partners hired at the firm 30 years ago. “It’s unusual, if not unique, to resist pressure to specialize practices into narrower areas. We have more opportunity to interact, which greatly adds to our working lives. Professionally it’s much more interesting, satisfying and supportive to have a true intellectual partnership with colleagues.”

Fritz Langrock and James SwiftFritz Langrock (right) is one of Peter Langrock’s three children and a lawyer with the firm. He’s pictured with James Swift, also a lawyer.

“The tendency to specialize hasn’t affected us much,” adds Langrock. “We respond to the needs of people who call upon us, so trends develop us rather than we develop trends. What happens over the next 10 years we don’t know. We have to be flexible.” Langrock says the firm does aim to expand its expertise in the elder law field.

Underscoring balance has led to a self-selective recruitment process for new lawyers. “We don’t actively recruit,” Langrock says. “Those interested in our philosophy see how we practice law and approach us. We’ve been able to attract good, bright people who seem to be getting brighter all the time. And good lawyers doing good work attract clients.”

“Peter has surrounded himself with the best people,” says Hisham Kanaan, a longtime client and the owner of C.E. Bradley Laboratories in Brattleboro. “They do their research, so Peter comes fully prepared. He really knows and understands his clients and asks all the right questions. He’s a great lawyer.”

Communication and camaraderie abound here. “It’s a tradition that all available lawyers have lunch together every day,” says Langrock. Ensuing discussions range from case issues to Red Sox updates.

Offering sabbaticals every seven years keeps lawyers fresh. “Entering a profession and never doing anything else is a little scary,” he says. “People should have the opportunity to try something else.” Since the firm’s beginning only five partners have left the practice.

Community focus is a cornerstone at the firm, which was honored as one of the country’s Pro Bono Firms of the Year in 2000 by the National Law Journal.

“We don’t have a formal mission statement,” Langrock notes, “but we have two rules of thumb: Twenty-five percent of our time is devoted to giving back to the community whether serving on a school board, coaching Little League, participating in bar activities, or doing pro bono work; the second rule is we never turn down a case that’s fun.”

Several pro bono (literally, “for the public good”) cases taken on by the firm have been landmark, including Baker v. State of Vermont, which legalized rights for same-sex couples and ultimately led to passage of Vermont’s civil union law.

Other civil rights cases undertaken were also far reaching. Brigham v. State of Vermont established equal educational opportunity; Randell v. Sorrell (on which Langrock was the lead counsel) raised constitutional challenges to Vermont’s campaign finance law; and Chitttenden Town School District v. Vermont Department of Education clarified separation between church and state.

Langrock is predominantly a courtroom lawyer spending the bulk of his time on criminal defense, domestic relations, and personal injury cases. Clients come from sources as varied as prisoners to the Yellow Pages to word-of-mouth. “The best source is previously satisfied clients,” he says.

“I’m an advocate. Being a lawyer means you can handle either side. I can fall in love with either cause, but not so deeply that if it’s unrequited I can’t get over it.

“You have to have faith the system works and provides due process,” he continues. “It’s like an engine that works best when all the parts are good. If I, as an advocate, try to be the judge, it doesn’t work. But if I do my part and the defense or prosecution and court do theirs, the engine runs.”

Asked to name his most satisfying case, Langrock’s quick reply is, “My last case. It’s a fun way to live.” More seriously, “Some of the most rewarding are small cases or divorces where we helped somebody regain power over their lives and saw a difference in a human being by helping them.”

“The law for Peter is more than a way to make money,” says Chittenden County Superior Court Judge Matthew Katz, who has known Langrock for 37 years. “He loves the law for itself. He represents every kind of case from simple assault to stolen property, because he feels a responsibility to the community, as a private lawyer, to provide defense to ordinary people.”

On the big cases, Langrock says he’s always thinking about “how to bring resolution in a publicly responsible way. I get excited being involved in a major lawsuit with major issues with good lawyering.”

Outside the office, Langrock lives a balanced life. Says Kanaan, “He’s a bon vivant par excellence. He exudes excitement about life.”

Dana vander Heyden of St. Michaels College with whom Langrock serves on the Burlington Arts Council board, coins him “very much a Renaissance man in the 21st century. He is a wonderful man who knows so much about so many things.”

Langrock’s known as “Dad” to Katie, Eric and Fritz — also a lawyer with the firm. Home for the family is a 300-acre farm in Salisbury with a rich trout stream and a host of animals, including standardbred horses, which he’s raced at Saratoga and state fairs for 35 years. “I used to race myself, but I don’t bounce as well as I used to,” he quips.

A prolific oil painter, Langrock has produced nearly 500 impressionistic paintings, some of which he’s exhibited locally. He’s also a published author, having written Addison County Justice and Beyond the Courthouse.

A man who wouldn’t have done anything differently, Langrock reflects, “Every day is fresh. I enjoy meeting with young lawyers and clients, dealing with new problems, learning new things and working hard to pass on both clients and knowledge. Every good run has an end, but I’m not ready to find that end yet. I’ll be practicing as long as I’m capable of practicing.” •