WRITTEN BY RACHEL MORTON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN DRY
rubbing noses with Salisbury Seth.
Vermont lawyer Peter Langrock
took the road less traveled. For him, that has made all the difference.
It is 8 a.m.
and Peter Langrock and his wife Joann move about the big
country kitchen of their 1850s Vermont farmhouse, making breakfast
like they do most mornings. He cracks blue-shelled eggs, gathered
from their laying hens, into a bowl. She starts the hot milk for
café au lait. The sausages sizzling on the griddle of an
eight-burner stove come from one of the four Yorkshire pigs they
raise each year. Langrock folds the omelets over their filling of
homegrown chives and local cheddar.
Soon Langrock, AB’58, JD’60,
will exchange his jeans for a suit and drive his Grand Marquis the
six miles to his law practice in the quaint college town of Middlebury.
But first he goes outside, striding across the front yard, past
the hammock strung between two tall silver maples, across his dirt
driveway, and to the wood-frame barn, where he kisses the nose of
his prize-winning Standardbred horse, Salisbury Seth. Then he turns
and wades through long grass, wet with morning dew, pointing out
his crops. “Here’s my corn and squash and pumpkins.
Here are a couple apple trees I put in.” Rising beyond his
300 acres are the hills of the Green Mountain National Forest.
He follows Joann to the chicken
shed while she feeds the chickens and the young turkey poults that
will end up as Thanksgiving dinner for the Langrocks and their three
children and four grandchildren.
From his patch of paradise in a
state that is among the nation’s most rural—with about
half as many cows as people—Langrock, 65, a Queens, New York,
native, has cultivated a lifestyle and career that mirror the independence
and liberal sensibilities of his adopted home. His firm, Langrock
Sperry & Wool—among the largest and most prestigious law
firms in Vermont with offices in Burlington as well as Middlebury—handles
an assortment of legal issues, from the rural cases Langrock has
documented in two books to the 2001 landmark legislation that resulted
in Vermont’s legalization of civil unions for same-sex couples.
For the moment only Kady the English
setter breaks the quiet, barking at some Canadian geese on the pond.
A red-tailed hawk circles overhead, and barn swallows sweep in and
out of the outbuildings, aged gray from years of harsh New England
By Langrock’s own standards
he is living the good life, and he knows it. He stands surveying
his bucolic surroundings, smoking a postbreakfast cigar, and notes
with a grin, “Had I joined a big law firm I might now be able
to afford the life I’ve lived for 42 years.”
grew up a city kid, he developed a love for the Green Mountains
in the 1940s when his father, a schoolteacher, worked summers managing
a hotel on Vermont’s Lake Dunmore.
As a high-school sophomore Langrock
applied to the University of Chicago’s early-admission program
and arrived at the University in 1954, a 16-year old freshman armed
with a scholarship to help with the $690 tuition. In three years
he finished his undergraduate studies and enrolled in the Law School.
With small classes, law students got to know their teachers well,
and his professors, Langrock declares with the fervor of a closing
argument, were “the greatest faculty ever assembled.”
He especially credits Karl Llewellyn with giving him an understanding
of the law’s human significance.
When Edward H. Levi, PhB’32,
JD’36, then dean of the Law School, approached him about a
clerkship with the Ninth District U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco,
Langrock was ambivalent, even though it was a plum job. So he went
to talk to one of his professors, Soia Mentchikoff.
Lawyer in the dell: Peter and Joann
Langrock have raised three children—plus chickens, pigs, dogs,
and horses—on their Vermont farm.
“She asked me one question,”
he remembers. “ ‘Where do you eventually want to live?’
When I said, ‘Vermont,’ she said, ‘Then what in
the hell do you want to go to San Francisco for?’ It was as
simple as that.”
So after graduation Langrock went
directly to Vermont and took the bar exam with 13 other aspiring
lawyers. At that time there were fewer than 300 lawyers practicing
in the state.
Langrock decided to run for state’s
attorney, and in the summer of 1960 he and Joann, whom he’d
recently wed, went door to door—which in many parts of Addison
County meant traipsing across farmland to meet farmers in their
fields. He estimates that he visited 80 percent of the county’s
residences. He won the half-time job and officially assumed the
position in February 1961. To supplement the $2,000 annual salary
he opened a part-time law practice. Today that practice numbers
23 lawyers, and Langrock is known throughout the state as a tough
What his mentor Llewellyn had taught
him at Chicago was that the practice of law is all about people—and
their disputes. And in mid-20th-century Vermont those people were
a colorful, cantankerous lot. He recounts his early experiences
in Addison County Justice: Tales from a Vermont Courthouse
(1997) and its sequel, Beyond the Courthouse (1999).
The tales he tells exude a certain
historic charm, even when they are about serious misdeeds. One man
on trial for attempted murder jumped out the second-story window
of the courthouse. Because there had been so much snow that winter
he landed, unhurt, in a huge snow bank and escaped. Memorable characters
from Langrock’s books include George “Punk” Farr,
who retired in 1952 as county clerk but ran the office until his
death in 1961. Farr’s constant companions at work were his
dog, Lady, and his pet mouse, which lived in the courthouse walls.
Lawyers who had business with the county clerk had to step around
the mouse’s saucer of milk and brush dog hair from their suits.
In the 1970s Langrock defended
a rural marijuana grower charged with dealing drugs. Langrock’s
defense, which he dubs “the zucchini defense,” could
only have been persuasive in a rural community. He argued that like
any good farmer, the defendant had germinated a lot of marijuana
seeds to ensure that he’d have a few plants for himself. But
so many sprouted, and what gardener can throw out a healthy plant?
When the 25 plants matured, there was too much marijuana for him,
so he gave some away to friends—just the way Vermont farmers
give away zucchini every August. Langrock quoted the old Vermont
saw that you only lock your car in the summer because if you don’t,
one of your neighbors is liable to fill it with zucchini.
lawyer: Langrock heads for the downtown Middlebury office
of Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP, where his practice tackles
cases with both local color and national import.
Typical of the small-town cases
Langrock took on was a dispute between “Doc” Mitchell
and his brother Bob over a deer pool—whoever bagged the largest
deer got a brand-new deer rifle, a .300 Savage. Doc brought in a
200-pound, 12-point buck, but its state of rigor mortis led the
brother to believe Doc had bagged it before hunting season began.
Bob further contended that the deer had been left in water overnight
to soak up more weight, and that Doc had put a lead pipe in the
deer’s throat. Bob refused to pay, so Doc filed suit for the
price of the gun. The deer was skinned, and a quantity of water
poured out. Doc did not get his gun.
That 1960s story says something
about the large role that animals played in Vermont life well into
the 20th century. Sometimes they were even a lawyer’s payment
for services. Langrock got his first horse, Big Red, in trade from
a client. In 1967 he got a second horse, also a swap. But this horse
was a racer, a harness racer, and before long Langrock found himself
immersed in a new pastime. He has since raced in the United Kingdom
and New Zealand as well as in Vermont and Saratoga, New York. Langrock
placed fourth in the 1987 North American Amateur Driving Competition.
In 1994 he and Salisbury Seth won four in a row at the Vermont State
Fair in Rutland. Though he and Salisbury Seth both retired last
year—“I don’t bounce as well as I used to”—he
still breeds Standardbred horses.
drive from the farm is the Middlebury office of Langrock
Sperry & Wool, LLP. Langrock takes pride in this 1801 Federal
building, which after extensive remodeling in the 1840s gives the
appearance of a grand Greek Revival home. His office is in one of
the two fireplaced parlors and shows evidence of his passions for
racing and painting—many of his own oils adorn the walls.
Langrock has made two additions to the back of the house (both architecturally
correct, according to Middlebury College professor of art and architecture
Glenn Andres). The hallways twist like a maze, and at every turn
Langrock pokes his head into an office greeting colleagues. He may
be the biggest lawyer in town, but in this office he is “Peter”
to everyone (except one lawyer, Frank “Fritz” Langrock,
AB’85, who calls him “Dad”).
Though he has written many colorful
and humorous anecdotes about his work as a country lawyer, Peter
Langrock is no hick. He has handled his share of weighty cases:
his current practice is 25 percent criminal law. And recently his
firm made legal history.
In 1997 two of his partners, Beth
Robinson, JD’89, and Beth Murray, successfully represented
Vermont’s landmark case involving the rights of same-sex couples.
In Baker v. State they argued for gay partners’ constitutional
right to the benefits and protections of civil marriage. Following
the December 1999 Baker decision Murray and Robinson spearheaded
a statewide lobbying effort that ultimately led to the passage of
Vermont’s civil-union law.
life: Langrock painting in his home studio.
“I’m so proud of my
partners,” Langrock says. “Without their efforts this
would never have come about. They did the research, found the plaintiffs,
brought the lawsuit, tried the case, took the appeal. And after
the Vermont Supreme Court decision, they lobbied through the civil-union
legislation. The important thing is that the whole firm backed them
and protected them.”
Langrock himself has twice argued
in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, on environmental issues concerning
Lake Champlain and its lakeshore. Both cases involved International
Paper Company, accused of dumping sludge into the lake and fouling
the air with emissions. In arguing one of the cases Langrock brought
in the longtime tollbooth operators at tiny Crown Point Bridge,
not too far from Middlebury. As Langrock writes in Addison County
Justice, “Their testimony was simple and unanimous: whenever
there was a south wind coming from the direction of the mill, people
from out of state would roll down their windows, stop their cars,
and say, ‘What the hell is that awful smell?’ We didn’t
have consulting companies or professional sniffers, but there was
no doubt that we had the better of the argument.” The paper
company settled, plaintiffs were paid, and a $500,000 trust fund
was established to underwrite research projects on the lake, including
a University of Vermont study of lake-cress, and outreach programs
to teach local schoolchildren about the effects of outside forces
on water quality and ecosystems.
Langrock is now representing a
class of soybean farmers in an antitrust action against the Chicago
Board of Trade. After a 1989 resolution passed by the board, the
market dropped precipitously. The suit is an attempt to regain what
American farmers lost in soybean pricing as a result of the resolution.
The case is pending before the United States Court of Appeals for
the Seventh Circuit.
Though Langrock began his professional
life as a Republican (“If you wanted to be elected in Addison
County, you had to be a Republican”), he switched parties
in 1964, and his liberal leanings are informed by his opinions about
the country’s judicial system.
“The force that drives me is absolute hatred of arbitrary
authority by reason of position rather than merit,” he says.
“Maybe I got that from my Chicago education.” At Chicago,
he says, “one thing mattered—your ability to think and
Practicing law is indeed a cerebral
endeavor, but Langrock has created a life that balances the thinking
with the doing. When he goes home at night and exchanges his business
suit for blue jeans, there are no arguments or fancy legal footwork
that will override the necessities of daily farm life. As the sun
sets over the foothills, Langrock can survey his garden, his barns,
his horses and chickens and know that he is as firmly rooted in
the Vermont countryside as the massive silver maples that have stood
in his yard for much of the past century.