Tyrannosaurus Lex*

*Powerful law

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

bauer0617Joe Bauer (center) and John Gravel (right), the founders of the law firm Bauer Gravel Farnham in Colchester and North Hero, have ceded their partnerships and now serve as senior co-counsel. In 2015, Dan Farnham picked up the reins as managing partner.

When Joe Bauer was admitted to the bar in 1975, there were 800 lawyers in the state of Vermont. “I think now there are more than 800 in Chittenden County alone,” he says. “It’s still a relationship between you and your client, but the challenges are different. I could go on forever on the impact of regulatory and other changes.” He laments the resulting loss of easy collegiality among members of the profession in times when the court process was much more personal “and you didn’t have the long waits that we have now.”

Bauer and John Gravel are the founders of the law firm known these days as Bauer Gravel Farnham, with offices in Colchester and North Hero. Bauer says that in July 2015, he “persuaded” Dan Farnham to take on his duties as managing partner, and in January of 2016, gave up his own partnership interest. Gravel had ceded his partnership the year before. They continue to work reduced hours — Bauer currently four days a week, Gravel, two — but both are planning to fully retire within the next few years.

All three have deep Vermont roots. Although not officially a native Vermonter, Bauer came to Springfield with his mother and stepfather at age 1 1/2. He attended Springfield schools, and spent his senior year in Connecticut at Marianapolis Preparatory School before heading to The University of Vermont. He majored in history with a psychology minor, graduating in 1966. He did not attend law school.

After graduation, Bauer and his first wife, whom he had married in 1963, headed to Philadelphia where he worked for five years in the insurance industry. In ’71, wanting to take advantage of Vermont’s policy that allows individuals to “read for the bar” without a law degree, he returned to Vermont to start a clerkship with the late William E. Mikell (a Vermont legislator, assistant secretary of state, and District Court judge), who was practicing law at 350 Main St. in Burlington. Bauer initially lived over the office, and in 1975, he and lawyers Michael Cain and Bob Bing bought the building.

“That building had a history,” says Mikell’s son Andy, now executive director and general counsel for Vermont Attorneys Title Corp. “I was a teenager; my brothers and I would mow the lawn and occasionally paint the office in the summertime. That office was my dad’s father-in-law’s building (my grandfather was a doctor in that building), and my father took it over.”

Bauer Gravel Farnham has represented both Vermont Attorneys Title Corp. and its insureds on real estate and title insurance claims “with very good results,” says Mikell. “It’s a great office.”

“Joe indicated he read for the bar,” explains Gravel. “Vermont is one of the few states that allow that. John Stebbins, a partner in our firm, and Harry Parker, a young associate, also read for the bar and passed. In school they teach you, but in practice, you see the sausage being made. I think it’s actually a better way to train for a profession than simply the academics. When I got out of law school, I knew a lot about the law but didn’t know how to make it work.”

Gravel is a Burlington native, whose father, the late Clarke Gravel, was also a lawyer. A former Chittenden County State’s Attorney and a Probate Court judge, the elder Gravel opened his practice in 1955. After graduating from Rice Memorial High School in 1965, his son earned an undergraduate degree from St. Michael’s, and graduated from Boston College Law School in ’72.

Right out of college, he joined his father’s law firm, at the time called Gravel, Shea & Wright. He joined Bauer in 1980.

The firm had opened a North Hero office in 1975 at Cain’s home on U.S. 2, which moved to South Hero in the former Merchants Bank building in 1980, but closed in ’83. A year later, “Our clients said they really wanted us to come back,” says Bauer, who reopened it in his own home. It’s now in the village of North Hero, and Bauer often makes his way there after checking in at Colchester to see what’s happening for the week.

As the firm grew, the Burlington office moved to accommodate it — in 1989 to a carriage house behind the Lang House on Main Street, to a space at Battery and College in 2000. In 1983, a merger with the practice of Bob Anderson changed the firm name to Bauer, Anderson, Gravel and Abare and provided a location in Colchester village, which remained open until it merged with the Burlington office in 2013 for a final move, to Water Tower Circle. By then, Cain and Bing had left the practice.

Like Gravel, Farnham is a Burlington native. He graduated from Rice Memorial, earned his business administration degree from The University of Vermont in 1988, and his law degree from Vermont Law School in ’93. He joined the firm as an associate with Anderson in 1995.

“We bill ourselves as a full-service law firm,” Gravel says. “We all come to work and do different things. I used to do a fair amount of litigation, but now do more corporate planning, estate planning, and a fair amount of transitional work — for example doctors and dentists who are buying or selling their practices.”

Percentages have differed over the years, says Bauer. “Probably now, 40 percent or more of our time is involved with real estate, both residential and commercial. That includes land use, development matters. Then probably another 30 percent is involved with litigation, which covers everything from workers’ comp to personal injury, family law, contract litigation. The rest is heavily weighted with estate planning, probate administration, and business formation and corporate law. We also handle bankruptcies.”

No longer partners, Bauer and Gravel act as senior counsel. Working with Farnham are three additional partners: Tom Nuovo, who joined the firm in 1997 and was named partner in ’98; Eric Parker, who moved his law practice from Barre to Burlington in 2000 and became a partner in ’02; and Jon Stebbins, who joined as a temporary employee in spring 2001, was hired as a full-time legal assistant enrolled in the law office study clerkship that June, became an associate attorney in 2006, and partner in 2013.

Three other attorneys complete the list of lawyers; a support team — three in North Hero and 10 in Colchester — complete the staff lineup.

The office atmosphere is easy going and friendly, with good-natured humor in abundance. “We’re an 8 to 5 business,” says Farnham. “We gather here at 8, everybody maps out their day, and have their own tasks. We’re quite a collaborative firm, so if someone has an issue, even if it’s not in your particular area of expertise, we bounce ideas off one another.”

Asked what they do in their spare time, Gravel quips, “Involving alcohol or not alcohol?” generating laughs all around. His avocation, he says, is musical theater. “I’ve been involved in Lyric Theatre for 40 years, involved with the Flynn for 30 years or so.”

In fact, Gravel was the first chair of the Flynn Theater’s first board of directors. “I was Lyric’s president at the time, so did the legal work to purchase the Flynn, set up the corporation, and worked for seven years.”

“John spearheaded the first campaign we did to buy the Flynn and save it from the wrecking ball,” says Syndi Zook, executive director of the Lyric Theatre Company. “And God bless him, he’s chair of our current campaign to get Lyric Theatre into its new creative production facility.”

Gravel has also produced and performed in countless productions over the years, says Zook, who mentions one of his most recent roles, as Lumière in Beauty and the Beast. “He had to hold up his two candle arms throughout the show!”

“That takes up a lot of my spare time — that and being a grandfather,” he says. He and his wife, Mary Ann, have two grown children.

“And on a nice sunny day, he plays golf,” pipes in Bauer. “Also geezer ball and a lot of biking,” Gravel adds.

Farnham’s passion is Lake Champlain “and being outside, and duck hunting and fishing, along with golf. I’m a pretty bad golfer,” he confesses.

He and his wife, Jill, have one child. “My main passion outside of work and being with my family is ice hockey,” he says. I still play Wednesday mornings at 6 o’clock.”

“I’ll start off by saying the partners have voted that I should never touch a golf club again,” says Bauer. “I’m a sailor. I always thought that you can’t be a sailor and play golf because they both take up a day. I used to love to ski, but I’ve now had two knee operations and don’t ski anymore.” He has two daughters from his first marriage, and adopted the daughter of his second wife, Sue. “We have a camp on Lake Champlain, and I’m involved heavily with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and family,” he says.

All three have produced a trail of community service and pro bono work too long to list.

“Part of the joy of being a lawyer, if there is such a thing,” says Gravel, “is that you get to work on people’s problems, and you get different problems every day. So in essence you are a problem solver, and if you do a good job, do it collaboratively, it also allows you to develop great friendships.” •