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Potter Anderson Celebrates 175th Anniversary

November 13, 2001, Delaware Law Weekly

Potter Anderson & Corroon did something last week that no other firm in Delaware can do.  It hosted a 175th anniversary party for itself.

The oldest firm in the state -- and one of the 10 oldest in the country -- observed the milestone with two receptions at its offices in the Hercules Plaza at 13th and Market streets in Wilmington, inviting members of the bench and bar Wednesday evening and its clients on Thursday evening.

"We don't want the clients meeting other lawyers," quipped one senior partner.

Such is the flinty insight that lets a practice bloom from the days -- as Delaware Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey said when he offered his congratulations -- "when Abraham Lincoln was a teen-ager."

The origins of Potter Anderson reside with Andrew Caldwell Gray, a contemporary of Lincoln's born five years before the president in 1804.  Gray was admitted to the Delaware bar in 1826 and set up a solo practice in New Castle, then the New Castle County seat where the courthouse was.

From Gray's solitary operation to a general practice, Potter Anderson evolved through 11 name changes and six moves into a powerhouse of corporate law, its 68 lawyers in the forefront of the business-oriented firms engaged in the signature practice that gives the Delaware bench and bar its international status.

It has been a storied past.  In the mid-20th century, for example, when the firm was called Southerland Berl & Potter, its reach was such that it not only contributed to the rise of corporate litigation here but also wielded vast political power.  Its name partners were legendary.

Clarence A. Southerland became the first chief justice of Delaware's modern Supreme Court in 1951.  E. Ennalls Berl and William S. Potter were the undisputed warlords of the Democratic Party.  Southerland interestingly was a Republican, but his reputation coupled with his Democratic connections led to his nomination to the high court by Gov. Elbert N. Carvel, a Democrat.

The receptions last week doubled as a belated open house, as David B. Brown, a member of the executive committee, noted.  The firm never did get around to holding one when it moved in, primarily because of the traumatic circumstances.  Its former offices at Rodney Square were consumed in the Delaware Trust Building fire, one of Wilmington's most spectacular, in April 1997.

Firm History Written

In addition to the receptions, Potter Anderson celebrated itself by commissioning a firm history written by William T. Quillen, a former partner and retired judge who served on the Supreme Court, Court of Chancery and Superior Court.  The volume is expected to be available in several weeks.

As part of the occasion, Potter Anderson displayed posters that were tributes to some of its more prominent figures.

Naturally there was one for Collins J. Seitz, one of the most famous Delawareans of the 20th century.  As an associate, Seitz was plucked from the firm to serve on the Chancery Court, where he issued a groundbreaking school-integration opinion that became a basis for Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark civil rights decision of 1954.

Not all the posters were historic in nature.  U.S. District Chief Judge Sue L. Robinson, who attended the reception Wednesday, could read about herself:

"Sue Robinson began her legal career in 1978 as an associate with the firm.  Robinson spent her years with Potter Anderson & Corroon as a litigator in virtually every area of the firm practice.  Like many of her predecessors, she decided to use her skills in public service, first as a federal prosecutor and than as U.S. magistrate.  In 1991 she was appointed as a judge in the United States District Court for Delaware and today is the first woman in Delaware history to serve as the chief judge of that court."

Reception-goers were steered to a 15-minute video that put Potter Anderson in its historical context, noting the firm began when John Quincy Adams was president, turned 100 when the Benjamin Franklin Bridge opened in Philadelphia and so on.

Congratulations Offered

The video also featured congratulatory messages from prominent Delawareans.  The well-wishers were the state's top elected officials -- Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, all Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican -- along with Chief Justice Veasey.  There also were appearances by two of the firm's best-known clients, Stacey J. Mobley for the DuPont Co. and Howard E. Cosgrove for Conectiv.

Between Castle and Mobley, the firm's 175-year run was put in perspective.

"That's 170 years more than Schnee & Castle lasted," Castle said, referring to his partnership in the 1970s with Carl Schnee, now the Wilmington managing partner for Duane Morris & Heckscher, as well as the Democratic candidate for attorney general in 2002.

Schnee & Castle did not dissolve over political differences between the partners, as the two remain warm friends, but only to avoid potential conflicts of interest when Castle was elected lieutenant governor in 1980.

Mobley in contrast offered congratulations from Olympian heights.  DuPont is about to observe its 200th anniversary next year.

It was left to Michael D. Goldman, the firm's chairman, to point out that Potter Anderson, for all its history, is not a museum piece but a thriving endeavor.  He carefully noted the celebration simply commemorated "the first 175 years."