Posted: July 23, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

A small Wilmington law firm, known for its practice and its politics, is taking another step in both directions.

The firm is -- or was, actually -- Bifferato Bifferato & Gentilotti, a 13-lawyer operation that is generation-spanning and happily bipartisan. It is a blend of youthful practitioners handling commercial clients and plaintiffs' trial work and retired judges cleaning up on mediation, all in an only-in-Delaware mix of conflicting Democratic and Republican loyalties.

As of last Monday, the firm changed its name to Bifferato Gentilotti & Biden with the arrival of Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the Democratic senator's son whose future could be legal, political or both.

As of next Monday, the firm temporarily loses Carl Schnee, a senior member of the bar and former Democratic candidate for attorney general. He will spend up to six months running and restructuring the operational arm of the state courts before he comes back.

Also part of this political safe haven is William Swain Lee, the retired Superior Court judge who is the Republican candidate for governor.

"It's a wonderful place to be. Democrats, Republicans, young guys, old guys, wonderfully vibrant, great cameraderie," Schnee said.

Biden was drawn to the firm by the opportunity to practice with the three partners who started it in 1996, all of the foursome ranging in age from their mid-30s to mid-40s, all boyhood friends, including two brothers who also grew up in Delaware with a well-known father.

Vincent A. Bifferato Jr. and Ian Connor Bifferato are the sons of retired Superior Court Judge Vincent A. Bifferato Sr., now also with the firm since leaving the bench in 2000. Jeffrey M. Gentilotti is the other name partner.

Biden arrives from Monzack & Monaco, another small Wilmington firm that his father helped to start before he was elected to the Senate in 1972. Beau Biden worked there after leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia in 2002.

Bifferato Gentilotti & Biden is also home to an older generation that has given it a name in the growing and lucrative field of mediation, where disputes are resolved before going to court.

Bifferato Sr., a deeply respected courtroom presence, brought immediate cache to the mediation practice. He was joined last year by Bill Lee, no one minding that Connor Bifferato was on the finance committee for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democrat whom Lee would like to defeat.

Schnee, another veteran practitioner with political tendencies, showed up to help with the mediation work after he lost the 2002 election for attorney general to M. Jane Brady, a Republican now in her third term, but he is taking a break to help out a longtime friend.

Schnee was asked by Myron T. Steele, the new chief justice, to become the acting state court administrator, running the Administrative Office of the Courts, where the top job is vacant. Schnee will evaluate the workings of the office and help in the search for a new administrator.

"He brings a seasoned, reasoned and unbiased eye to the operation of the AOC with my full support to do whatever needs to be done," Steele said in a press release announcing the appointment.

A member of the bar since 1962, Schnee has appeared before all of the state courts and worked at large and small offices, homegrown as well as the Delaware branch of an out-of-state mega-law firm.

Although Schnee could not get elected himself, he has friends who have. He once practiced at Schnee & Castle, where his partner was Michael N. Castle, the Republican who went on to become lieutenant governor, governor and current congressman. Schnee also had a two-year stint from 1999 to 2001 as the U.S. attorney, a presidential appointment he received on Joe Biden's recommendation.

Schnee ought to be back at the law firm in time to tell Beau Biden what not to do if Biden, as widely expected, runs for attorney general against Brady in 2006. Brady has been up against a Biden before, losing to Joe Biden in her first campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1990.

This clearly is a law firm conscious of the generations and who has done what when. Beau Biden, who is 35, has a father who was elected to the Senate at 29. By Connor Bifferato's age of 37, his father had been on the bench for seven years.

"As Beau points out," Connor Bifferato quipped, "that makes us both over the hill."