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Legal Ease 

Still formidable after 50 years, Peter Langrock is the "grand old man" of the bar, and the barn

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

Peter Langrock’s corner of paradise, in Salisbury, Vt., is filled with animals. Sheep graze in the north pasture along the dirt road leading to his rambling farmhouse. Just past the house, beef cattle roam beside a Standardbred horse barn, and next to that is a chicken coop. A noisy pack of English spaniels patrols the property. This is the place that Langrock, the grand old man of Addison County lawyers, calls home.

It’s hard to believe he’s the same man who battled in court to defend Bushway Packing Inc., the Grand Isle slaughterhouse accused of cruelty to the calves it was turning into veal. In a video made last fall by an undercover agent of the Humane Society, workers were seen kicking downed calves and prodding them with electric devices.

Closed down in October, Bushway reopened in March under the name Champlain Valley Meats Inc., with two of the original principals — Terry Rooney and John McCracken — still in charge. The case prompted the Vermont legislature, in the session that just ended, to impose stiffer penalties for slaughterhouse violations.

If he’s an animal lover in his private life, Langrock is unapologetic about whose side he takes professionally. “There are people out to destroy the meat industry,” he insists. “The Humane Society has fuzzy-headed people who see everything in the worst possible light. John McCracken is one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. They were set up.”

Controversy draws Langrock to a case the way the right fly draws a trout to the hook in a rushing stream. (Fly-fishing is one of his many passions.) “If you never take anything but the slam-dunk cases, it’s not challenging,” he says with a shrug. “I have two rules: One is that 25 percent of your time is give-back time; the other is that you never turn down a case that’s fun.”

Langrock has been having a lot of fun over five decades. Fifty years after joining the Vermont bar, he is the dean of the legal community in Addison County, or, as former prosecutor John Quinn puts it, “the father figure of one of the biggest law firms in Vermont.” By which he means Langrock Sperry & Wool, which has 25 attorneys between its offices in Middlebury and Burlington.

The state legislature took note of Langrock’s half-century of legal practice this spring with a resolution extolling not only his legal accomplishments but also his two books, his harness racing and his firm’s 50th-anniversary celebration, which includes donating 50 trees each to the town of Middlebury (including a nursery) and the nonprofit Branch Out Burlington.

In town, the physically robust Langrock cuts a dapper figure in one of his many suits — pinstripes in winter, linen or seersucker in summer. His bushy gray eyebrows and round face give him a passing resemblance to his hero, Rumpole of the Bailey — if the barrister of the British TV series had an American accent and lived on a farm.

In a field where practitioners tend to specialize and then highly specialize, Langrock is cut from a different mold. He’s an ecumenical lawyer who’s taken cases ranging from traffic violations to murder to environmental class-action suits. He loves a good fish-and-game case because “the wardens can be overbearing.” He’s also known as the go-to guy for DUI defense work and, at age 72, says he is “the only senior partner I know who tries divorce cases.”

Why does Langrock still take divorce cases? “I’m good at it,” he asserts. “And I feel good about empowering women, helping them see where their lives could be once this is over.”

His reputation as a tough opponent notwithstanding, Langrock insists he’s “a good person to be up against because I’m realistic, and the end result is a reasonable resolution.”

Even so, he admits, some folks will go out of their way to neutralize him in a divorce case. “Years ago, I had a client come in and put down a retainer to represent him in a divorce. I never saw him again. A long time later,” Langrock recalls with a chuckle, “I saw him and asked him what had happened. He said he never intended to hire me, but he wanted to make sure his wife couldn’t hire me, either.”

Langrock cannot remember a time in his life when he didn’t want to be a lawyer, though he can’t say why. “Maybe somebody told me I was good at arguing,” he surmises. “You know, it’s one of those things you say to a kid and it sticks.”

Vermont figured into Langrock’s life plan, too, with more evident reason. He grew up in Queens, but his schoolteacher father had a regular summer job as the assistant manager of the Lake Dunmore Hotel in Leicester, which allowed the younger Langrock to spend summers at the lake. And he seemed to be in a hurry to move back full time. Langrock went off to the University of Chicago at 16, graduated at 19, and earned his law degree there three years later at the remarkably young age of 22. His classmates included Robert Rachlin, of the law firm Downs Rachlin Martin, and Vermont political activist Peter Diamondstone.

Faced with the choice of clerking for a circuit judge in San Francisco or running for Addison County state’s attorney, Langrock consulted one of his mentors. She asked him what he really wanted in life. He chose Vermont. And he won the office.

What he got for it was $2000 a year, a free office in the courthouse and permission to take on all the civil practice he could handle. “In the early days,” Langrock says, “I bought roadkill from the game wardens when I had no money.”

He had first met Joann, the woman who would become his wife, at a party in 1958. She was then a student at Middlebury College and on her way to study in France. At the time, Joann brushed him off, but she later relented. “Seven dates later,” by his reckoning, they married on July 4, 1960.

Langrock served 12 years as Addison County state’s attorney, and during that time he had a direct impact on the man who would eventually succeed him in that job. John Quinn was a preteen in Vergennes who had caught the unwelcome attention of a local bully. One day, Quinn recalls, he found himself at a social event attended by both his antagonist and Langrock. “After that, the bully left me alone,” he says. “Peter had protected me. That’s why I went into law.” Quinn was state’s attorney from 1985 to 2009 and deputy for seven years before that.

Later, Quinn and Langrock frequently were opponents in Vermont District Court. “He was always professional, no tricks, no surprises,” Quinn recalls. “His word is his bond. He always enjoyed small cases like deer jacking and DUIs as much as the big class actions.”

Langrock began his solo practice in 1960 while he was state’s attorney. Mark Sperry joined him in 1965. Compared with the Queen City’s “white-shoe” firms, such as Downs Rachlin Martin and Gravel and Shea, whose pedigrees go back a century, Langrock & Sperry was a legal babe in the woods, with no history and no big names. The firm grew in 1972 when the late 2nd Circuit Judge Fred Parker and the late Jon Stahl joined, and again in 1982, when tax attorney Michael Wool came on, adding the Burlington office.

Sperry credits Langrock with being “one hell of a lawyer, wonderful to work with.” In all their years together, he adds, “We’ve never had a cross word.”

The firm was thrust into the spotlight a decade ago when two of its partners, Beth Robinson and Susan Murray, won the civil-unions suit before the Vermont Supreme Court, granting gay couples the right to quasi-marital status. Langrock is proud of the achievement and of his firm’s role in it. “Beth and Susan were pro bono for 10 years,” he says. “They slowly built a constituency, brought the Baker [v. Vermont] case, appealed it, and nursed the civil-unions bill and gay marriage through the legislature.”

Langrock himself has never been afraid to take on unpopular and controversial clients, and not just the Bushway slaughterhouse. Last year, he won a settlement for Susan Hegarty, who had been keeping more than 100 animals in poor condition on her farms in Hubbardton and Brandon. The settlement returned some of those animals to her care. This incensed local animal-rights activists, few of whom count Langrock as a friend.

Asked to cite his most important cases, he doesn’t even pause to think. One, he says, was the trial of Rebecca Durenleau, a woman accused — seven years after her husband’s death — of hiring someone to kill him. Even now, the case makes Langrock’s blood boil.

“The polygraph tapes came up missing. The evidence file came up missing,” he remembers. “They reconstructed bits of evidence and convicted her as an accessory before the fact. She was sentenced to life. The Vermont Supreme Court found insufficient evidence and entered an acquittal.”

The day of the ruling, Langrock and Durenleau scheduled a 3:30 p.m. press conference, just in time for the evening news. “We were able to right an injustice,” he says with a sly grin. “It was also a fun way to win.”

On a more somber note, Langrock says he’s convinced the court system results in “lots of wrongful convictions, and the more serious the crime, the higher the risk. I’ve had four clients convicted of first-degree murder,” he says, “and I’m convinced two were innocent. I don’t make a judgment about whether people are guilty, but if you’re convinced they’re innocent, you have an extra responsibility.”

Another favorite case, finally settled in 1985, involved Jamaican banks and the U.S. Department of Labor. The feds were trying to shut down the flow of Jamaican apple pickers into Vermont by disallowing orchardists from fronting their transportation costs into the country. Langrock personally negotiated with the Jamaican bankers to extend loans to the pickers, leaving the labor department with no recourse.

“It was important to me,” he says, “because it was important to the workers, to my clients (the growers), and to the economy of Jamaica. It was solving legal problems and people problems at the same time.”

Langrock’s success in the courtroom has resulted from both his innate skills and a sense of strategy he’s honed over the years. His ace up the sleeve, he believes, is his ability to cross-examine witnesses. This attorney never shows his hand by taking depositions, because he wants witnesses to give him an unrehearsed reaction on the stand.

“It’s the thing I do best,” he declares. “I’m not a note taker. I keep a lot in my memory, so I can watch body language. One dry swallow can say more than 1000 words. I’ve learned to watch, listen and retain,” Langrock continues. “You’ve got to be able to ‘tickle the trail’ — that’s a trout-fishing term — so things come out where you want them to.”

Sometimes his strategy is to lose, at least initially. Langrock made an appearance in Addison Probate Court at the end of April knowing full well he wouldn’t win. His client was a woman from New York State whose uncle had cut her out of his will in favor of his neighbors in Goshen, Vt. Langrock intends to make the case that the uncle was pressured into changing his will, but he knew this couldn’t happen in probate court, which is not set up to handle criminal cases.

The case next moves to Addison Superior Court, where, in effect, it starts over. “We have information that’s helpful to us, but I wasn’t prepared to expose it” at the probate court, Langrock says. “All I need is a decision so we can move forward. In Superior Court, it’s as if this never happened.” When it moves to Superior Court, the case is treated de novo, which means it begins all over again.

That way of thinking, says Don Rendall, is what makes Langrock the lawyer he is. Now general counsel for Green Mountain Power and formerly in private practice, Rendall says he enjoyed his courtroom bouts with Langrock. “I knew I had a worthy opponent who would represent his client zealously,” he says. “He has the gift of being able to tell his client’s story forcefully and make you believe that he believes it.”

Not all Vermont attorneys are equally enthusiastic about Langrock’s legal skills. Some say his courtroom presentation is blustery and not necessarily effective — sound and fury without substance.

Outside the law, Peter Langrock’s life is something of an “Old McDonald” enterprise. He and Joann joined two former farmsteads to create a 300-acre property, complete with beaver pond, on a back road in Salisbury. His primary requirement was privacy. As it happened, the land turned out to be ideal for raising animals.

A handsome carved sign reading “Salisbury Standardbreds” marks the entrance. Past the sheep, the house at the end of the driveway is bordered by paddocks, a huge vegetable garden and an overgrown training track where horses and cows now graze. Gawky foals squeal and race around the paddocks. Over the years, the menagerie has also included pigs, veal calves, turkeys, pheasants, and a goat or two — not to mention the couple’s three children: Katie, Eric and Fritz. Fritz is now an associate in his father’s firm.

The house is well situated for the Langrocks to keep an eye on comings and goings, lest a visitor escape without the offer of a cocktail. Langrock is proud of his ability to mix drinks — “all of them,” he avows. “Joann and I have a Manhattan every night, but my specialty is martinis. I make a Mexican martini with hot peppers.” He kisses his fingers in appreciation.

Langrock also cooks, with an emphasis on unpronounceable German specialties that reflect his heritage. A particular favorite is sauerbraten. He bakes bread every Saturday morning, usually in anticipation of a dinner party that night. When he’s not baking or cooking, Langrock might be found in the garden, trout fishing in the stream that flows through his property, or “hunting” with his spaniels. “They just romp around in the woods and sometimes they scare up something,” he says.

In the ’90s, Langrock took up writing and produced two books: Addison County Justice and Beyond the Courthouse, both about cases he’s handled. And then he turned to visual art. “The day I finished proofreading the second book, I put my pencil down and picked up a paintbrush,” Langrock recalls. He’s been painting ever since, and his impressionist-style landscapes decorate the homes and offices of friends in the area, as well as his own.

For a man devoted to his home, Langrock loves to travel. Every spring for 11 years, he’s presided over an international moot court in Vienna. He and Joann went to China last New Year’s, and his “passion for jump racing [steeplechase]” has taken him to England. The couple’s next expedition will be a train trip through France for their 50th wedding anniversary.

Langrock’s first flirtation with harness racing happened in 1968 when an impoverished client offered him a half-share in a filly in lieu of payment. He took it, and immediately hired the client as his trainer. Bitten by the bug, Langrock began building his barn — owning up to 10 horses at once — and hiring trainers to work with them. “I once bought nine horses at one time,” he says. “I figured I could resell them at a profit.” He laughs. “That didn’t happen.”

His horses race under harness — the driver is in a cart — at venues such as the Saratoga harness track and state fairgrounds. Although Langrock retired as a driver a couple of years ago, he continues to raise horses and do some training.

Unlike his legal practice, Langrock’s racing career has yet to produce any winners. “I start out each season with four or five horses. Most of them are lucky to finish out the season,” he says a bit ruefully. “I’ve had some decent horses — Dale Tuck, Salisbury Seth, Little Whiz — but nothing great. I’ve been lucky in life,” Langrock concludes, “in everything but horses.”

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