The earliest records of the Baltimore County Bar Association commence with typed minutes of a May 21, 1920, meeting, some sixty-nine years after the formation of Baltimore County as a unit of government. The official separation of Baltimore County from Baltimore City had occurred on July 4, 1851. After the separation, however, it took three separate elections to have Towson declared the seat of County government and to provide for local government. The County Courthouse was started in 1854. Originally, it was to have cost $30,000, but not surprisingly, there was a cost overrun, and an additional $20,000 had to be raised to complete the structure.The first session of court in Baltimore County occurred in January, 1857. There have been three separate additions to the structure since that time, with the final addition occurring in 1958. A new courthouse was constructed and put in use across a plaza from the original structure in 1974.
Courtroom 5 in the Old Courthouse is still used for trials as well as for ceremonies and for Bar Association meetings. It has been fully restored and contains portraits of past jurists and members of the Bar since the founding of the County. The portraits were commissioned by the Bar Association starting in the mid-1920’s and include some of the most prominent members of the bench and bar in the State. The courtroom itself so accurately reflects the public image of an old-style courtroom that it has been used in movies and in county promotional videos.
The County Seat was not the only contentious issue during the early days of the bar. The Civil War truly split the bar membership. Richard Grason won a contested seat for the bench in 1864, but after a challenge and a hearing before the Maryland Committee on Elections was denied his seat for sympathizing with, if not directly supporting, the confederacy. The Constitution of the State subsequently was amended to exempt confederate sympathizers, of whom there were many even in the state legislature, from the “enemy” provision, and Mr. Grason later received the position he had so avidly sought.
Although the association does not begin its records until the third decade of the 20th century, there is some evidence that there was cohesion among the members of the bar and of a Bar Association. Newly married members of the bar were given substantial wedding presents of silver service subscribed to by the “Baltimore County Bar”, and there were various social gatherings. The promotion of social relationships, however, was not the sole reason for the inception of the Association. It is clear that the “trade aspects” of the practice were a major concern.
The first minutes of the Bar reflect a dinner meeting with twenty-two members in attendance. After the election of officers the “schedule of fees” was amended to provide for the fixed fees to be charged by attorneys for releases in equity. Also, a resolution was passed stating: “RESOLVED that no member of this Association shall be subject to censure if he shall, as Attorney for a corporation, charge the fees prescribed by the constitution, rules or by-laws of such corporation.” The next entries for the Association reflect a meeting a year later with only 13 members present. There were, however, 27 dues paying members at the rate of $1 per year. The schedule of fees again was discussed as was the question of laymen practicing law.
In addition to the fee and business discussions and discussions of a social nature a third reason for the Bar Association also became clear. According to the first recorded minutes the members recommended the appointment of a judge to the United States Circuit Court. Politics was clearly part of the reason for providing a united organization. Certainly, this was to be expected as several members of the bar held prominent political office. The members of the Association wanted their impact to be felt on judicial appointments, and the minutes over the years show strong organizational interest in nominees and appointments for state and federal positions.
Discussions of fee schedules are prominent over the next forty years of Association minutes. In 1967 the Association published a handbook of minimum fee schedules. It was estimated that the average attorney would have 1300 billable hours a year including five and a half workdays a week. Overhead was estimated to average about 1/3 of gross revenue. As a result of these projections it was determined that the minimum hourly rate for office consultation was to be $25. Based on an overhead of 40% the net income of the average attorney was estimated at $19,500. Federal matters were deemed worthy of higher fees.
While the fees quoted just thirty years ago raise a smile, so to do the charges for the lavish dinners held by the Bar Association throughout the first half of the century. The most sumptuous six course dinner with cigars and entertainment was less than $5 even for guests. Speakers at the meetings were some of the most prestigious public officials in the United States including numerous Senators and Congressmen. Spiro (Ted) Agnew, however, was the only “President-in -Waiting” to address the Association, an occasion remembered by many members of the Association more for the practical jokes played on the former member of the Association and his secret service staff than for his remarks.
The 1960’s saw the opening of membership of the Association to women and minorities. Even after women were admitted, however, they were requested not to attend the annual dinner meeting, and the character of the association as an exclusive club limited to a favored few continued. Membership was limited to 100 members even though the number of attorneys practicing in the county had greatly increased. Threats to form a rival association were perhaps motivation in removing the limitation on the number of attorneys allowed to join and in opening up the membership to attorneys practicing generally in the County.
In recent years as the needs of the membership have changed so to has the Association. While the annual banquet continues to attract many members of the Association, its legal education programs attract the highest participation. In 1976 the Association acquired its present office in the County Courts Building and with the office came a new sophistication and a realization that the Association had to reach out to the membership in the areas of legal education and support and to the community with lawyer referral programs.
To support the programs the Association had to broaden its base of support. Although old Charter provisions limiting membership to only 100 members had been discarded, in 1981 the Association only numbered 450 members. An amendment to the Constitution was adopted permitting attorneys living in the County but practicing elsewhere to join in addition to those already practicing in the County. As a result of this action the members of the Association now number 1367.
This expanded membership enables the Association to present a broad range of services to the members, not the least of which is the award-winning monthly journal, The Advocate. Committees include areas of particular interest such as family law, state and local laws, and alternate dispute resolution. Committees also have been formed to aid attorneys in single member and small firms and to aid the Association in furthering the public image of attorneys.
The Association remains committed to reaching out to practitioners to aid in the skilled presentation of legal services that has become the hallmark of a Baltimore County Bar member.
– John B. Gontrum