The Re-Invention Of Billy Murphy
Ask anyone familiar with Maryland’s legal community for a list of the state’s top criminal defense attorneys and you’ll hear the name of former Baltimore City Circuit Court judge William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. Ask that person, however, to name a Maryland lawyer with a national reputation in the civil litigation arena, and the odds are that Murphy won’t be mentioned. All that could be changing, and soon.
Over the last few years, Murphy has transitioned from one of the state’s best known — and most controversial — criminal defense lawyers to a complex civil litigation expert with a select team of top-notch lawyers to back him up. And a client list that any law firm would envy.
Here’s the short list of recent courtroom victories won by Team Murphy in collaboration with other legal talent, including top Baltimore attorneys such as Stephen L. Snyder, Arnold M. Weiner and Marvin Ellin:
In March, Murphy’s and Snyder’s firms joined forces to win a $276 million verdict against First Union National Bank (now Wachovia Corp.), which included the largest punitive-damage award in Maryland history — $200 million.
Last year William H. Murphy Jr. and Associates helped successfully defend Microsoft Corp. in two $5 billion race discrimination class- action cases brought separately in Washington State by superstar lawyers Willie Gary and (in a bit of irony for the man dubbed “Johnny Cochran East”), Johnny Cochran.
Murphy was brought in by Snyder and Weiner to help prepare Merry- Go-Round Enterprises’ Inc. suit against accounting firm Ernst & Young for trial. The case settled for $185 million, netting a record- setting $71.2 million in contingency fees
Other clients include Sony, Coca-Cola Enterprises, Don King Productions, Merck & Co., Allied Signal, Kaiser Gypsum, W.R. Grace & Co., Cargill and Carnegie International (represented by Murphy and Willie Gary in a pending multibillion-dollar suit against accounting giant Grant Thornton).
When brought up-to-date about Murphy’s transition to the head of a firm that tackles complex business litigation, several people familiar with him said it’s understandable. His victories don’t surprise me,” said Ellin, co-counsel with Murphy on a med-mal case that brought a $1 million verdict. “Billy Murphy is the kind of guy who pursues something and gets it. I’ve known him since the days he was on the bench. He’s a highly gifted and persuasive person, which carries over to his trial work.”
Ronald M. Cherry, a commercial litigator in Baltimore and the past president of the Monumental City Bar Association, said if Murphy hasn’t achieved a national reputation yet as a litigator, “it’s not long in coming.” I knew him as a criminal defense attorney, but I’ve known him to change to the civil side,” Cherry said. “His practice certainly has expanded in scope. He’s handling a wider variety of cases than he’s ever handled before, including a lot of high-profile stuff.” It’s notable, Cherry added, that Murphy and Associates is a minority-owned firm. A lot of companies like having a minority firm representing them,” he said. “Larger companies like Microsoft haven’t hesitated to grasp on to that opportunity. Plus, Billy’s made a good move by surrounding himself with very capable attorneys and staff, both black and white.”
Murphy’s transition from criminal defense lawyer to head of a nine- lawyer, black-owned boutique firm with a client list of Fortune 500 companies has ramifications for the Baltimore legal community, said Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Edgar P. Silver. Now he’s doing the kind of work Snyder and Weiner do,” said Silver, who retired in 1990. “That’s healthy. This will give African- Americans in the community who are shy about going to law school a reason to reconsider. They’re capable of doing what Billy’s doing. He’s paving the way for a whole new kind of law firm.”
That’s the message that Murphy, 59, would like to convey. I saw all those lawyers getting large verdicts and thought, ‘If they can do it, I can do it better,'” said Murphy, seated behind a cluttered desk in his office on the second floor of the firm’s luxurious Mt. Vernon townhouse. The wall behind him is filled with poster-sized, black-and-white photos of Murphy standing alongside heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali and boxing promoter Don King. King, in fact, was a pivotal figure in the firm’s reinvention: He convinced Murphy’s son, William H. “Hassan” Murphy III, to bring his entrepreneurial skills and big-firm experience back home.
Now managing partner, Hassan Murphy, a graduate of Georgetown University
Law Center and the eldest of Billy Murphy’s four children by his
first marriage, never harbored any ambition to practice law with his father.
“I was recruited out of law school to a white-shoe firm in Manhattan doing corporate finance,” Hassan Murphy, 33, recalled, leaning against a desk in his father’s office. “I had no plans of joining my dad. I was intensely happy with the work. I loved New York.” “I told him not to go into trial work,” Billy Murphy interrupted. “If you do it right, it eats you alive.”
But Hassan Murphy, who is unabashed about wanting to make money, had no intention of getting eaten alive. As a kid growing up in Mt. Washington, Hassan Murphy raised parrots — and transformed a hobby into a lucrative business. “I probably made 40 grand,” Hassan Murphy recalled wistfully. “I was breeding parrots and I won awards.” “That made him an entrepreneur,” Billy Murphy noted. “He understood money management.”
After earning an undergraduate degree from Williams College, Hassan Murphy worked for a year as a loan officer (“A great experience; I learned some salesmanship”) and learned how to finance real estate. Then he went to Georgetown Law with the ultimate goal of practicing transactional law. The “white-shoe firm” — Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle — soon gave him a commitment to build a professional sports practice. “I signed two kids to be the first-round draft picks for the NBA,” he said. “Then I got this call from Pop — and he put Don King on the speakerphone.”
In 1997, King was facing charges of violating federal wire fraud laws in a dispute with Lloyd’s of London over a canceled 1991 bout between Julio Caesar Chavez and Harold Brazier. After writing Billy Murphy a “six-figure check” to represent him, King convinced Hassan Murphy to join the legal team with his father. “It was a defining moment,” Hassan Murphy recalled. “I got on a plane and never looked back.” The upshot? “We won the case,” Hassan Murphy said. “It was a wonderful outcome. We worked shoulder-to-shoulder.” Added Billy Murphy: “When you win for Don King, that’s major league baseball. There were 40 TV cameras and zillions of international press. We were on the front page of Newsday and the front page of the New York Times sports section.”
After the victory — and the most publicity that Billy Murphy ever got in his career — “the phones started ringing,” Hassan Murphy recalled. At that point, the father-and-son team decided to build a law practice, with Hassan Murphy as managing partner. “We decided on a couple of things,” Hassan Murphy recalled. “We decided to become consumer advocates.” “The public prosecutors of corporations,” Billy Murphy interjected. “To have an impact for people and to make money,” Hassan Murphy continued. “And to do the right thing,” his father jumped in. “I wanted to put money in working people’s pockets. So we decided to go after corporations.” Added Hassan Murphy: “With Billy’s trial skills and to make a real difference — and to make money.” “When you represent the working man and you put money in his pocket, that’s God’s work,” Billy Murphy said.
Yet, the attorneys pointed out, the firm sometimes defends corporate clients. “We also want to work with a limited number of corporations that don’t discriminate or commit fraud,” Hassan Murphy said. “I don’t think Corporate America realizes the skills Billy has. They generally pick up the phone and call Piper or Venable. That’s not often the best choice. We can be the best choice to defend or prosecute — when the cause is just or the cause is not just, but the client is committed to correcting the problem,” Billy Murphy said.
The Microsoft racial discrimination cases are the “perfect” example, Hassan Murphy said. “Their legal team got beat by David Bois,” he said. “On their next major case, they called us. They wanted the best trial lawyers to try these cases. It was Billy Murphy right here in Baltimore. It was quite a validation of our model. Reverting to the royal “we,” Billy Murphy — whose great- grandfather had owned the Afro-American newspaper chain — posed an obvious question. “What is Billy Murphy doing representing Microsoft in a racial discrimination case?” he asked. “Bill Gates is the largest single donor to blacks. He gave $100 million to the United Negro College Fund. It was real simple: How could this guy be a racist? Our instincts were to represent Microsoft because Bill Gates is the model for the industry.” Kirk A. Dublin, managing partner at Preston Gates & Ellis in Seattle, was local co-counsel with the Murphys on the Microsoft cases. The law firm has represented Microsoft as its outside counsel since its founding. (“Our Gates is Bill Gate’s dad,” Dublin noted.) “I was in favor in having Billy on board for his courtroom skills and knowledge — the strong skill set the Murphy firm brought,” Dublin said. “Billy, Hassan and the firm fit very smoothly into the larger team” — which also included Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, a prominent national labor-law firm. Billy Murphy was one of only a “handful” of attorneys who participated actively in the courtroom during the cases, said Dublin, who described his co-counsel as “complex” and “a fascinating human being.” “It’s fair to say that Microsoft was quite satisfied,” he added.
Team Murphy is also embarking on the legal path of counseling, rather than litigating, with a diversity group headed up by James E. McCollum Jr. “I’m not only proud of the verdicts, but we’ve helped clients avoid billions of dollars in liability, like Microsoft,” said Hassan Murphy. “We’ve come up with strategies for clients. Companies come to us and say they’ve got a problem and ask us to consult with them on policies to avoid discrimination exposure.”
Billy Murphy: “We tell them what changes to make so they’re not vulnerable. If a company wants a good-faith diversity policy because it’s good business or to achieve a higher social objective, they come here. Our strong civil rights background means we know what the problems are and how to solve them. So we can translate that knowledge into new policies.”
But, they cautioned, the company must demonstrate its commitment to clean up its act. “Don’t come here unless you’re falsely accused or have a problem you want to fix,” Billy Murphy said. “Is that a fair statement, son?” “Yes,” replied Hassan Murphy, who segued into the firm’s transactional practice.
“We’ve been getting a lot of corporations saying, ‘We’re in the middle of a deal and if something goes bad am I covered against possible litigation?'” Hassan Murphy said. “We understand transactions and understand the pressure points.” While there’s still room for some growth at the firm, it will be limited. “I’d like to open an office in Washington by the end of the year,” said Hassan Murphy, who lives there. “We’ll grow our office in New York. But I want to stay nimble — not be a two-headed monster that has to be fed every day. Our strength comes from Billy. If we grow big, we can’t give cases the attention clients want from him.” Pausing, Hassan Murphy thought for a moment before continuing. I don’t know anyone else who does what we do,” he said. “I honestly believe Billy is the best trial lawyer in America, bar none.”
Charming the Crowd
Talk to some lawyers about Billy Murphy, and be prepared to hear such un-lawyerly terms as “brilliant” and “a fascinating human being.” Others, promised anonymity, bemoan his outsized ego, chronic disorganization and a perceived lack of dependability. But none faulted his intelligence, courtroom skills or his well- known ability to charm a crowd — preferably, a crowd of jurors. “If I ever need a lawyer, I’ll call Billy Murphy,” gushed Tina L. Ahrenberg, a juror in the First Union case. “… He never bored us.” (In fact, Ahrenberg and another juror wanted to award the plaintiff, Steele Software Systems, $500 million in punitive damages. “But we hit the limit with the other jurors at $200 million,” she said.) Stephen L. Snyder, who brought Murphy in as co-counsel on the First Union case and, earlier, on the Ernst & Young litigation, praised his ability to “think on his feet” and to collaborate successfully. “It’s difficult to get two top lawyers to get along, but we did,” Snyder recalled. “Billy’s an excellent orator, he’s comfortable in the courtroom and he’s achieved success with me.”
Even members of the bench are not immune. “Billy’s a very talented guy,” enthused retired Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Edgar P. Silver. “He’s got a flair. He could’ve been a Hollywood actor.”
The Team Murphy plan is to bring corporate clients a group of experienced attorneys with strong scientific, engineering and business backgrounds — and to do it without becoming a big firm. “We want to avoid the bureaucracy of a large firm and especially avoid the pyramid structure with a rainmaker at the top,” said managing partner Hassan Murphy. “Everyone has a serious level of expert skill. If you have a serious problem or a matter with the potential for major damages, we pride ourselves on the ability to cross lines of expertise. Most big firms don’t have that ability.” “Big firms have litigation departments without our experience,” explained Billy Murphy, who still sports his trademark ponytail, but recently lost the beard. “I’ve done jury trials back-to-back-to-back for years. If you count my district court work, I’ve tried 2,500 cases and cross-examined 15,000 people in my career.”
To bolster that c.v., he has brought on board legal talent with similar qualifications. They include former Venable, Baejter & Howard partner George C. Doub; James E. McCollum Jr., former clerk for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and associate counsel for the Office of the Independent Counsel for the Iran/Contra investigation in the late 1980s; longtime partner Richard V. Falcon, a former University of Maryland law professor; and Robert E. Frey, an accountant and former New York prosecutor who successfully sued the Hunt brothers of Texas for the monopolization and manipulation of the silver futures commodities market in 1982. “That’s an extraordinary grouping of trial lawyers,” Billy Murphy boasted. “That’s unprecedented in this town or in any other. It’s a unique idea.”
The goal? To become “the 800-pound gorilla” of civil litigation firms. The 800-pound gorilla has a tremendous advantage,” Murphy explained, warming up to the topic as he paced and gestured in his large corner office, also embellished with photographs of jazz greats John Coltrane and Billie Holiday. (Murphy frequently gigs as a professional jazz drummer; put on hold, callers listen to Miles Davis’ classic album, “Kind of Blue.”) “There’s a likelihood you won’t want to go up against an 800- pound gorilla,” Murphy explained. “Our objective is to be an 800- pound gorilla — a svelte 800-pound gorilla.”
Joanne L. Suder, a Baltimore lawyer who handles both criminal defense cases and complex civil litigation, recalled Murphy from her early days as a criminal defense lawyer. “I thought Billy was a good criminal attorney,” said Suder, who represents Dontee D. Stokes, accused of shooting a priest he says molested him. “When he was a judge, I told him he appeared bored and should resign. He seemed shocked at the time, but I made the correct observation. He needed intellectually challenging work and it sounds like he found it.”
Before and after his years on the bench, Murphy earned a reputation for courtroom theatrics, tardiness and as the lawyer of choice for accused drug dealers. During the ’70s he represented the Black Panthers and Vietnam War protesters. Murphy also had run-ins with judges around the state. In 1979 he was fined $1,000 by a Dorchester County judge for failing to appear in two cases. Another time, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge sent sheriffs to arrest Murphy at his law office after he failed to turn a file over to a public defender.
Other well-publicized brushes with the law include wife-beating charges
in 1994 (put on the inactive docket after Murphy assembled a stellar defense
team); and a 1995 confrontation with an Anne Arundel court commissioner
that resulted in charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Murphy
was later acquitted.
But those problems are now behind him and Murphy can now build on his reputation, noted Arnold Weiner, his erstwhile co-counsel. “They’re smart to keep Baltimore as their base,” Weiner said. “Billy is prominent and you need a strong local base unless you’re nothing but a national law firm. He’s spent a career developing relationships and he’d squander it if he moved.”
Up for a Challenge
Billy Murphy, the son of a Baltimore City district court judge, graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1969, four years after earning an electrical engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After clerking for Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, he launched a criminal law practice. In 1980 Murphy successfully ran for judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, only to resign three years later to run — unsuccessfully — for mayor of Baltimore against William Donald Schaefer (now state comptroller).
Copyright 2002 Dolan Media Newswires
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