Written by Harry W. Lerch in celebration of the firm’s 65th anniversary in 2015
On February 1, 1950, my father, Henry Lerch, and his partner, Wilton Wallace, founded our firm. Our first office was in the Bowen Building at 815 15th Street in the District of Columbia. It was a few blocks north of the White House, where Harry S. Truman was then in residence. The firm soon opened a suburban office in Bethesda to better serve its clients. The first Bethesda office was in the Perpetual Bank Building at 7401 Wisconsin Avenue, across the street from the Madonna of the Trail statue, a Bethesda landmark, a few yards from the "Five Points" center of downtown Bethesda.
Even in the early years, Henry and Wilton had many fine clients. These included small businesses, such as a new company they incorporated, known as Colonial Parking, as well as Galliher & Huguely Lumber Co., United States Travel Agency, Wiegand Lumber Co. and many others. They also represented health care providers, like local doctors and dentists, the National Lutheran Home (now National Lutheran Communities & Services) and Leland Memorial Hospital. Other clients included individuals, for whom they handled taxes, incorporations, some criminal and juvenile matters, and personal injury cases. Two notable personal injury victories included a case on behalf of a client whose hand was nearly cut off by a Wardman Park Hotel venetian blind, and a woman injured in a Capitol Transit bus. Our win was a tough loss for Capitol Transit’s lawyer, John Sirica of Hogan & Hartson. For the man who would later preside over the Watergate trials, it was his last jury trial before becoming a judge.
The Consolidation in Bethesda to Serve Clients throughout the Region
In 1970, I left the Park and Planning Commission as its general counsel to join the firm’s Bethesda office. I agreed to spend one day a week downtown, but never had time to do so. After leaving Park and Planning, I was called back as special counsel to handle the so-called “Charter” case that challenged the very existence of the Park and Planning Commission. Our firm won this “bet-the-company” case in the Court of Appeals with a five-volume brief. During this time, we were involved in some of the state’s biggest issues, like school funding and the Orioles Stadium referendum case. In the early 1970s, we began to expand our services. Ron Early established our litigation practice, which today, under Stan Reed’s leadership, handles complex civil and white-collar criminal litigation at all levels of state and federal courts.
We consolidated our offices in Bethesda in 1975 and ultimately relocated to our current home at 3 Bethesda Metro Center in 1986. This move to one office in a regional business center allows us to easily serve clients throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.
Our Philosophy of Defining and Achieving Client Objectives
Early on, the firm developed a philosophy (and reputation) of working with our clients to define and efficiently achieve their objectives. In one example, our client, Washington Adventist Hospital, was selected by Montgomery County to build a new “up county” hospital on Shady Grove Road. We were able to achieve a zoning text amendment allowing the new hospital (Shady Grove Adventist Hospital) to be built on the County’s new medical center site without a zoning special exception, thereby saving hundreds of thousands of dollars of fees and years of hearings and appeals. Other significant successes through the 1970s and 1980s included the creation and development of the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation, several other new hospital buildings, nursing home additions, private school buildings and country clubs. We also represented Home Depot, IBM, Bechtel and Target in the implementation of their plans.
One day in 1978, I went out on a late Friday afternoon beer run for our attorneys and stopped by EuroMotorcars. The salesman talked me into trying out a “new” (used) car for the weekend. I ultimately bought it, and the relationship turned into a wonderful 35-plus year representation as EuroMotorcars’ general counsel.
For nearly 30 years (until its purchase by Capital One), we were privileged to represent Chevy Chase Bank in many of its development projects including Chevy Chase Garden Plaza, the bank's headquarters at Wisconsin Avenue and East-West Highway (now the home of Capital One and Chevy Chase Trust). In our land use practice, now under Bob Harris' leadership, we also have been honored to represent Lerner Enterprises, Lockheed Martin, Miller and Smith, Lancaster Homes, The Tower Companies, Home Depot and The JBG Companies for many years. Our land use practice expanded in 2011 with the addition of seven land use attorneys who had worked in the Montgomery County office of a national law firm, solidifying Lerch Early's position as the County's foremost land use practice.
Expanding to a Full-Service Firm
In the mid-1970s, Robby Brewer joined our firm, and in addition to expanding our land use practice, he developed our health care practice. Under Sigrid Haines’ current leadership, we now advise hospitals, nursing homes and physicians on licensure, accreditation and certification issues, contracts, guardianships, health care litigation, and legislative and regulatory representation.
Lateral attorney additions to our firm since the early 1980s have increased the services we offer to our clients. Through Eric Core, our estate planning and probate practice matured to serve individuals with significant assets for their taxes, wills, estates and trusts; it is now co-chaired by Frank Baldino. We added a community association practice when Jeff Van Grack joined the firm, creating a team that now represents hundreds of community associations throughout Maryland and the District of Columbia. Our commercial lending group, started by John Joyce and now under Larry Lerman’s leadership, serves clients like Capital One, SunTrust and EagleBank, to name a few. Our commercial real estate transactions group, under Sharon Nelson Craig's leadership, helps clients buy, sell, develop, finance and lease properties of all kinds throughout Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia.
We grew to include an entire group focused on providing business and tax services to our clients. In this group, started by Paul DiPiazza and now under Ray Sherbill’s leadership, these attorneys serve as general counsel to some of the area’s finest privately held companies, like Ruppert Nurseries, as well as to international companies like Thrustmaster of Texas (an Inc. 500 manufacturer). They complement our employment and labor group, founded by Rick Vernon and now co-chaired by Marc Engel. This group focuses on helping employers establish strong employment policies and avoid litigation, as well as defending employers against workplace claims. We developed a family law practice through George Paxton and now, under Deborah Reiser’s leadership, we provide an in-depth understanding of marriage, separation and divorce law coupled with the ability to use the knowledge of other attorneys within the firm on real estate, business, tax or other issues.
We have been fortunate to attract many skilled attorneys who stay and build their careers here. We have at least a dozen attorneys who have served clients for two decades or more at our firm, including Cindi Cohen, Marty Hutt, Lauri Cleary, Susan Bloomfield and Paul Alpuche.
Our Guiding Principles
Twenty years ago, we developed a list of our “Guiding Principles.” They include our devotion to quality, integrity, professionalism and respect for our clients and all the people who work here. One of the most important principles, teamwork, results in constant collaboration among clients, attorneys and staff, so that we collectively become greater than the sum of our individual parts. We work on strengthening that teamwork every year through a firm retreat at a rustic locale. We strive to create a friendly, low-key, selfless, and non-hierarchical workplace where everyone is comfortable working with each other.
Living out these principles has led to recognition from our clients and our peers. A great many of our attorneys have been recognized by publications such as Best Lawyers in America, Super Lawyers, Washington Business Journal and SmartCEO magazine. In addition, several of our attorneys have been elected to prestigious groups like the American Colleges of Trial Lawyers, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the American College of Real Estate Lawyers and the College of Community Association Lawyers.
Giving Back to the Community
Over the years, we have developed a strong commitment to participating actively in our community. Our attorneys have taken on many leadership responsibilities, including chairing several local chambers of commerce and other civic groups such as Kiwanis and Rotary, as well as serving on the boards of charitable and arts organizations like Montgomery Hospice, Habitat for Humanity and Strathmore Hall Foundation. Several of our attorneys have served as bar association presidents, and many have held key positions with the state bar association, the women’s bar association and judicial nominating commissions. Three have also been TV stars, hosting the Law School for the Public, and one is a fencer! Beyond that, our attorneys have donated thousands of pro bono hours to people who cannot afford legal assistance, and they and our staff volunteer time at a wide range of organizations, including Little League, Miracle League, Friends of the Library, and Susan B. Komen for the Cure.
Our firm indeed is blessed with outstanding professionals. The “wind beneath our wings” is truly our staff members and administration, many of whom have been with us for decades. They have earned the love and respect of our attorneys and clients through their tireless efforts. In fact, our “first paralegal,” Bobby Lerch, celebrated her 100th birthday and first 60 years of association with our firm in 2010. It comes as no surprise that the Maryland Work-Life Alliance named us an “Excellent Place to Work.”
We thank our clients and staff for our successes of the past, and we look forward to our next 65 plus years of service with the best clients and best staff in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area.
Harry Lerch will celebrate his 45th anniversary with the firm in 2015.