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Pay Your Dues, Or Pay Your Bills≠ This Firm Found a Way to Do Both

Fighting the good fight while making money: For most lawyers, that’s an oxymoron.

Yet one Baltimore firm has proven the conventional wisdom is dead wrong.

Brown, Goldstein & Levy has earned a stellar reputation as aggressive advocates in complex public interest cases while — here’s the tricky part — building a successful commercial litigation practice that pays the bills.

Located across from the steel framework rising on the site of the new University of Maryland School of Law, Brown, Goldstein is a 10-lawyer litigation firm that legal experts say sets a national example of how to do it right.

“They are truly the only public interest and private practice firm in the state,” said Michael A. Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor, a founder of the Public Justice Center and an expert on public interest law.

“They’re a national model — absolutely,” Millemann enthused. “They’ve stayed the course and made a living doing it. There are only a handful of firms like Brown, Goldstein & Levy in the country.”

The game plan is simple, one of its founders said.

“Our goal is to do good stuff and make money,” explained C. Christopher Brown, who established the firm in 1982 with Daniel F. Goldstein, then an assistant U.S. district attorney. “We’ve gotten to the point where we can be selective in what we take on and don’t have to do high-risk, low-return cases.”

Brown, Goldstein’s track record includes the successful litigation of many high-profile, public interest cases during the last 18 years.

Highlights include groundbreaking voting rights cases on the Eastern Shore, lead-paint poisoning cases that helped define the rights of children, suits on behalf of disabled people seeking to gain access to Baltimore’s courthouses, and a multimillion-dollar settlement for the family of a child killed by a pit bulldog.

“We strive to provide excellent legal representation, especially in novel areas where the courts haven’t quite gotten there yet,” Brown noted. Next on the agenda: a series of lawsuits aimed to make ATMs accessible for blind people.

Showing more than lip service to its dedication to public interest law is part of Brown, Goldstein’s overall strategy for success.

“Because we’re good litigators, period, we get a lot of commercial litigation,” said Brown, who like several other firm members is on the faculty of UM Law. “If you can do a good job on public interest work, you can do the other. That’s part of our key to survival — that we can demonstrate to fee-paying clients that we can do just as good a job for them.”

Another part of the success formula is to hire top-notch lawyers.

“Chris’s objective was to set up a firm to get profitable work, make a decent living and sleep well,” said E. Clinton Bamberger Jr., a professor emeritus at UM Law and the first director of the Legal Services Program in the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity.

“And as a result he’s attracted some excellent people — bright people from top-notch schools who worked at large firms for three to six years before applying to Brown, Goldstein,” Bamberger said.

“Our philosophy is that we would just be litigators and we’d hire people that are among the best,” Brown said. “Most of the lawyers here have very good academic credentials.”

Brown, 58, is a 1968 graduate of Georgetown University School of Law, and Goldstein received his J.D. at the University of Texas in 1973. Name partner Andrew D. Levy, who is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of this paper, is a 1982 UM Law graduate, while Andrew D. Freeman graduated from Stanford Law in 1986. Managing partner Dana W. McKee (Duke Law, 1985), Joseph B. Espo (UM Law, 1990); and associates Martin H. Schreiber II and Deborah T. Fleischaker, both UM Law graduates.

More kudos: Both Brown and Levy are listed in the 1999-2000 edition of The Best Lawyers in America, and Freeman was named Trial Lawyer of the Year by the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association.Paying the bills

Levy — whose work on litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act Bamberger called “precedent setting” — readily concedes it’s the commercial clients such as Waste Management Inc. and K-mart who pay the bills.

“That’s not our reputation,” Levy added. “But I find the commercial work interesting and fun. Obviously, it doesn’t have the social impact. But any good lawyer takes a lot of pride and satisfaction in doing a good job for the client. There are no second-class clients in this office.”

Moreover, the public interest cases help in other ways, Levy said.

“If you’ve honed your skill doing David vs. Goliath stuff, it makes you a better lawyer — and you don’t get intimidated going up against big firms,” explained Levy. “So our commercial clients benefit in ways they don’t suspect.”

Public interest groups represented by Brown, Goldstein laud both its willingness to take on important health and civil rights issues, and its intellectual resources.

“They show a great deal of class,” said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. “You don’t usually find that level of quality of representation for the people who really need it. Chris has set an example that you can do right and do it well.”

Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Public Justice Center, calls Brown, Goldstein “a great firm.”

“They’re a terrific model for a law firm that works for the underdog,” Smith said. “Frankly, we need a lot more like them. It’s also a really bright bunch of terrific trial lawyers.”

Another reason for the firm’s success and its four-star reputation is a dedication to scholarship.

“We all have a finger in the academic world,” Brown said. “If you teach, by necessity you have to be up on the latest developments in evidence, torts and civil procedure.”

“Chris is what a lawyer really ought to be — a teacher, a practitioner and a scholar,” Bamberger added. “He exemplifies what the best law faculty could be. For example, based on his experience Chris is writing a book on voting practices on the Eastern Shore, which brings together teaching, practice and scholarship.”

Finally, Brown, Goldstein set the standard for determination and effort on its work on lead paint cases and other difficult — and risky — litigation, Bamberger said.

“It’s the kind of practice that compares well with the best corporate law firms that push the law to the limits,” said Bamberger, a former dean of the Catholic University Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C. “It’s an absolute commitment to the ethics of the profession when you do that when you may not be compensated very well, or not at all.”