Burch, Porter & Johnson

“Foundations” in MBQ Magazine

February/March 2014

Striving to better the community through social and cultural endeavors

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.

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. Photo by Brandon Dill

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.
Photo by Brandon Dill

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 . . . (read more)