Spotlight on Burch, Porter & Johnson

Member Charlie Newman. On the wall are portraits of Charles N. Burch (1868-1938) and H. D. Minor (1868-1947), founding partners of the firm.

photograph by BRANDON DILL

If the measure of a business is in its revenue and assets, output, production, and what it provides to consumers, then Memphis has had its fair share of successes throughout history. From cotton to lumber and the means to transport it all, the entrepreneurs and visionaries of this city have excelled.

But how does one measure the success of a law firm? Its assets are in the men and women who people its paneled offices and lively conference rooms, in the thousands of hours spent with law books and in hushed libraries, in the ideology and vision of its leaders. To this end, Memphis is rich with the likes of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz; Apperson Crump; and Wyatt Tarrant & Combs, to name just a few: all have storied pasts that stretch back more than half a century.

Another measure of a business’ success might be in how that company betters its community when it comes to social and cultural issues, and in this respect Burch, Porter & Johnson dots the timeline of Memphis history like few others.

Founded in 1904 by Clinton H. McKay, H.D. Minor, and Charles N. Burch, the firm has long had an active hand in progressive issues. McKay served in the Tennessee Legislature; Minor was president of the Lawyers Club of Memphis, the predecessor to the modern-day Memphis Bar Association, which was later founded by Burch among others.

In the 1940s, following the deaths of the three founders, the firm was run by Lucius E. Burch Jr. (nephew of Charles), John S. Porter, and Jesse E. Johnson. Today, overlooking Court Square from his office on the first level of the iconic turret of the Burch Porter building, Charlie Newman, an attorney with the firm since 1965, remarks that the namesakes of the firm looked upon the practice of law as a calling and “not primarily a business and pursuit of money.”

It was with these leaders that the ideology of the firm as it’s now known began to assert itself.

Edward H. Crump had been elected mayor in 1909, and, though he would serve only until 1915, he had a politically charged puppeteer’s reach. And though his accomplishments were legion — improving public health, beautifying the city to national acclaim, extending roadways east into burgeoning suburbs, and improving communications throughout the city — his ways were less than democratic.  

Lucius Burch brought to Memphis from his hometown of Nashville a political connectedness and an unwavering sense of right and wrong. An enthusiastic outdoorsman with a passion for adventure, he hunted and hiked the mountains of the West and flew his own plane to work from his home in what was at the time the far outskirts of Memphis.

Burch’s passion for social justice ran just as deep and wild. As the post-World War II generation began to question dictatorial leadership, whether an ocean away or in its own City Hall, the lawyer was able to rally prominent Memphians Ed Meeman, editor of the Press-Scimitar newspaper, and hardware magnate Edmund Orgill. The three were immediately viewed — and rightly so — as adversaries to political machines in general, and Crump’s in particular. The culmination of the men’s work was the 1956 election of Orgill as mayor, flying in the face of Crump’s own candidate and marshaling in the end of Crump’s nearly 50-year reign.

Lucius E. Burch Jr.

A setback for the progressive Burch and his allies would be the 1968 election of Henry Loeb as mayor. A throwback to the Crump machine, it was Loeb who would preside over one of the darkest hours in Memphis history, and one in which Burch Porter would shine once again. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., planned a nonviolent march in support of the sanitation workers’ strike to make up for an aborted march the week before, the firm was contacted by the American Civil Liberties Union to act as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s local counsel in attempting to lift a federal injunction filed by the city to stop the march.

Burch, along with young up-and-comers Newman and Mike Cody (national board member and past president of the West Tennessee Chapter of the ACLU), met with King at the Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968, to discuss his case. The following day, the three men, along with the SCLC’s Andrew Young, were victorious in having the injunction lifted. The lawyers parted ways with the SCLC representatives on Main Street and, just after returning to their offices, learned that King had been shot.

In the 1970s, Burch, Porter & Johnson’s mission was environmentalism and a fight on behalf of a small neighborhood group against the federal government looking to extend Interstate 40 through the city, bisecting Overton Park. The 342 acres, first set aside as parkland in 1901, is home to the Memphis Zoo, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, a 9-hole golf course, and the Memphis College of Art. It was, and is, an oasis as the city continues to grow both geographically and in population. A landmark Supreme Court case, still studied in law schools today, overturned lower courts’ rulings in favor of pavement. The fight, though, would continue throughout the decade. The result can be seen in today’s Overton Park, with a walk through the Old Forest and a romp on the recently renovated playground designed and implemented by the relatively new Overton Park Conservancy.

The battle for Overton Park is only one such case study in the ideals of the intrepid outdoorsman Burch that has been carried over into later generations. Attorney Newman and others worked to protect from development 4,000 acres along the Wolf River in East Memphis and Shelby Farms Park just across Walnut Grove. The Lucius Burch Natural Area, much like Overton Park, is a place for citizens to find a respite from their hectic days. This, too, is a carry-over from earlier days when, Newman says, “Neither Lucius nor John (Porter) spent much or any time in the office after normal business hours, and it wasn’t unusual for Lucius to come through the office about 5 o’clock and say to us younger guys, ‘You need to get out of here, you don’t need to stay here all night.’” A healthy work-home life balance was as important to the men as any law brief.

Burch Porter is unique among the city’s storied institutions, and its home is unique among downtown’s buildings. For 15 years beginning in 1956, the firm was located in the Goodbar Building at 128 North Court before taking over and renovating the distinctive building one door to the east at the corner of Court and Second St. — the location of that turret where Newman presides.

Erected in 1890 with a mixture of Victorian Romanesque and Moorish styles, the building was designed by architect Edward Terrell and was home to the Tennessee Club for years. The club was chartered to promote the arts and critical thinking and played host to Presidents William Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. Temperance activist Carrie Nation, from its balcony, condemned the consumption of alcohol before sending a fired-up mob off to Beale Street to vandalize saloons. Even Crump, Lucius Burch’s nemesis, held court from the dining room of the club.

More recently, the firm has constructed a new piece to its office puzzle to the west of these two buildings, adjacent to the renovated Lincoln American Tower. Burch Porter today has a team of attorneys hovering near 50. When Newman joined, there were closer to a dozen. “In those days, that was the size of a lot of Memphis firms,” Newman says.
The firm has grown slowly, never adhering to the commonly held practice of a one-to-one (or two, or three) ratio when it comes to partners and associates. “I think many of us had as our goal not to become any bigger than we had to be,” Newman says. “We just tried to get the best people we could.”  

 The Burch, Porter & Johnson building next to Court Square in downtown Memphis. Erected in 1890 with a mixture of Victorian Romanesque and Moorish styles, the building was designed by Ohio architect Edward Terrell and was home to the Tennessee Club for years.


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MBQ's Foundations series is a recurring feature honoring Mid-South businesses and organizations that are 50 years and older.

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