Eastern Shore Footnote: The Seeds of Law Firm Giant Covington Burling


Covington Burling is the oldest and largest law firm in Washington; the firm has over 800 lawyers in offices in Washington, D.C., Beijing, Brussels, London, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seoul, and Silicon Valley.  The firm is ranked as one of the 20 top law firms in the United States.  They have been listed in the Lawyers A-List from 2008-2012, one of only twenty law firms to receive this listing.

Covington Burling is known for its ever growing international practice and its national and international negotiation cases, with  many regulatory matters and antitrust cases  important components  of this renowned law firm.

One of the two founders of Covington Burling, James Harry Covington, (May 3, 1870 – February 4, 1942), was an Eastern Shoreman.

Born and raised in Easton, Maryland, Covington was a noteworthy American jurist and politician. He attended the Maryland Military Academy at Oxford, MD., entered the law department of the University of Pennsylvania  in 1891 and graduated in 1894. Soon after graduating, Covington returned to Easton and began practicing law. He made an unsuccessful bid as the Democratic candidate for the Maryland State Senate in 1901, and went on to serve as State’s Attorney for Talbot County from 1903–1908.

In 1908, Covington won a Congressional seat as a Democrat, serving in the United States House of Representatives for Maryland’s First Congressional District, which was then composed of nine Eastern Shore counties.

He served in Congress until September, 1914, resigning to accept the position as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Covington continued to serve as the District’s Supreme Court Chief Justice until 1918, when he resigned and returned to practicing  law, this time  in Washington, D.C. During those years, (1914-1919), he was also a professor of law at Georgetown University. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Covington to the United States Railroad Commission.

In January 1, 1919,  J. Harry Covington and Edward B. Burling established the law firm of Covington and Burling in Washington, D.C., and were joined in the new firm by George Rublee, who had been a member of the Federal Trade Commission – also appointed by President Woodrow Wilson.

Their foresight in realizing the future needs of clients to have representation in Washington was most accurate and the precursor of the firm’s size and success today.

J. Harry Covington

J. Harry Covington

It is interesting to note some important historical footnotes concerning the law firm of Covington & Burling. George Rubble married Juliet Barrett, who was very active in the modern birth control movement, along with Margaret Sanger. Ms. Barrett was a vocal pacifist at the beginning of World War I. She also produced a film on the Mexican War. A biographer of Margaret Sanger wrote that Barrett, (Mrs. Rubble), “more than any other woman in the country’s social establishment, would be responsible for subsequent changes in the orientation of the birth control movement.”

Also joining the firm was  former Justice Brandeis law clerk, Dean Acheson, who would later become U.S. Secretary of State. After serving as Secretary of State, Acheson teamed with a young member of the firm, Brice Clagett, to successfully represent Cambodia in its border dispute with Thailand. Clagett, a Harvard Law school graduate, was Chairman of the Maryland Historical Trust and Maryland Environmental Trust.

The current U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, was a partner in the Covington Burling firm.  Mitchell Reiss, the current President of Washington College was als0 affiliated with the firm as was former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff .

One of the firm’s early cases involved Burling and Acheson representing the Kingdom of Norway in the Norwegian Ship Owners’ case for an international arbitration in The Hague. Norway won and received an award of $12 million in 1922, which was a vast sum at that time.

More recently, the work of Chuck Ruff, (Covington & Burling), as White House counsel for Bill Clinton during Clinton’s impeachment trial, is another example of the successes and prestige of this firm. The political consulting firm of former Clinton Chief of staff, Mack McLarty, is affiliated with Covington Burling.

J. Harry Covington II, the lawyer from Easton, jurist, and co-founder of the  firm of Covington & Burling started it all. From humble beginnings he became a leader of the legal profession in the United States.

He died in Washington, D.C., and is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, in Easton, Maryland.


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