Posted: Sept. 21, 2005
IN THIS DELAWARE LAW FIRM, IT'S DEGREES OF CONJUGATION
By Celia Cohen
No one who knows anything about Delaware ever talks about degrees of separation. What matters in this little state is degrees of conjugation -- how many ways people are connected to one another.
It is particularly true at the crossroads of politics and law, as is evident at an expanding law firm that is nothing short of a clinic in conjunction. The firm has retired judges and ex-legislators reincarnated as colleagues, and it has lifelong family ties and a certain unifying political office that keeps cropping up in conversation.
That political office would be attorney general. The firm is bursting with lawyers who tried to be or might try to be attorney general, even if they do want to change the subject whenever it comes up, and it comes up frequently.
The law practice is headquartered, symbolically enough, in a charming old house that sits at an odd angle of an intersection in Wilmington at Delaware Avenue and West 14th Street, as though it has been caught and framed in a crisscross.
The firm is Bifferato Gentilotti Biden & Balick, the result of a recent merger between Bifferato Gentilotti & Biden and Balick & Balick. It has so many degrees of conjugation that it could rival a genealogy chart in Appalachia.
"At the heart of it, we're friends who trust each other implicitly," said Ian Connor Bifferato, the managing director.
It is at least that. Among the 18 lawyers, there are three from the Bifferato family -- Vincent A. Bifferato Sr., a retired Superior Court resident judge for New Castle County, and his sons Vincent Jr. and Connor. Jeffrey M. Gentilotti, who was Connor Bifferato's off-campus roommate at Widener University law school, is regarded by the Bifferatos as an adopted son.
The next name on the letterhead belongs to Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, who is the prime reason the attorney general's office always is being mentioned. He is a childhood friend of the Bifferato brothers, and it also matters to him that Gentilotti grew up outside Scranton, Pa., where his own family has roots. His father-the-senator was born there before moving to Delaware as a boy.
The Balicks are the father-son combination of Sidney Balick and Adam L. Balick, and their arrival signifies another renewal of old ties. Years ago, in the late 1960s, Sid Balick took a chance on hiring a new lawyer who planned to get into politics. It was Joe Biden.
"I knew Beau before he was born, when his mother was pregnant," Sid Balick quipped.
Although the names that comprise BGB&B end there, it is impossible to talk about the firm without listing two others -- Carl Schnee, a veteran lawyer who did a stint as the U.S. attorney for Delaware and also ran for attorney general in 2002, and William Swain Lee, a retired Superior Court resident judge for Sussex County and candidate for governor in 2004.
Bill Lee is the outnumbered Republican amid the Democratic contingent of Bifferato, Balick, Biden and Schnee.
The merger of the two firms amounted to spontaneous combustion and took about as long. Connor Bifferato and Adam Balick were having dinner together with their families at the Charcoal Pit. At one point the two were alone, the topic came up, and in about three minutes they had the gist of an agreement.
"How it came about is the way things always come about in Wilmington," Adam Balick said.
While politics clearly runs through this firm, it is first and foremost a law practice, long on litigators who go to trial and mediators who referee cases to keep them from having to go to trial.
The younger generation handles most of the trial work, generally personal injury cases, health law, bankruptcy and corporate matters. It has been building a caseload of asbestos filings, which brings to mind another one of those Delaware degrees of conjugation. The state's thick asbestos docket recently was assigned to Superior Court Judge Joseph R. Slights III, who spent the early 1990s as a young associate with Sid Balick.
The firm also has what Lee once called "the old men's wing," where the members go by the title of senior counsel and anchor a well-regarded mediation practice, largely provided by Bifferato Sr. and Lee, the two ex-judges, and Schnee. While Sid Balick qualifies for the wing, he plans to continue doing what he was doing -- personal injury, criminal and workers' compensation cases.
At this firm, though, it appears to take more than seniority to become senior counsel. Political experience looks necessary, too. Lee and Schnee had their recent statewide runs, and Bifferato Sr. and Sid Balick both briefly served in the state House of Representatives.
Bifferato was swept in by a Democratic tide in 1964 and swept out by a Republican counter-tide in 1966. It led him to the bench and a life away from political tides.
Balick obliged the city Democrats by running and winning in a special election to replace a legislator who died in 1970 and then went back to his law practice when the term ended. "I made them promise they would not make me run again," Balick said. "I had three young kids."
Balick has another political credential, one he shares with Schnee. He also ran for the office that the firm prefers not to talk about.
Balick was a candidate for attorney general in 1966 against David P. Buckson, the Republican incumbent who previously had served as lieutenant governor and 18 days as governor, filling in after Republican Gov. J. Caleb Boggs left Dover early to take the U.S. Senate seat he won in 1960.
Buckson was popular, and the 1966 election was terrible for Democrats. Balick never had a chance. He went down in the same landslide that knocked Bifferato Sr. out of the legislature. "We all lost that year," Balick said.
Balick's background and his renewed association with a Biden have led to widespread speculation that he still might be attorney general -- as part of a spellbinding political deal that appears to be unfolding.
What is projected to happen is that Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat in her final term where anything seems to go, would appoint Attorney General M. Jane Brady, a three-term Republican, to a Superior Court judgeship for which she applied last week.
Such an arrangement would clear the way for Minner to name a Democratic replacement as attorney general and for Beau Biden, the Democrats' not-so-stealth candidate, to have an open shot for the office, not to mention sparing Brady from seeking re-election against a Biden in a state that rapidly is turning Democratic.
Balick is being mentioned as the Democratic seat-warmer, because of all of his degrees of conjugation, but he is cool to it. "I don't know how anybody got my name. I wouldn't do it," Balick said.
Beau Biden, however, is not saying no about running for attorney general, so the firm has come up with a policy that says all that it wants to say.
"We've kind of taken a bury-the-head-in-the-sand approach to that," Adam Balick said.