The professional character of Semmes, Bowen & Semmes is evident in its strong business and litigation practice, its history, which spans more than a century, and its deep Maryland roots.
The firm, however, traces its beginnings to 1887, when John E. Semmes, a former Baltimore City Solicitor, joined two other lawyers, Francis K. Carey and John N. Steele, in forming the partnership of Steele, Semmes and Carey. Mr. Semmes had already established his reputation as a skilled practitioner whose interests in commercial and maritime law were encouraged by two Civil War-veteran uncles, Admiral Raphael Semmes and Commodore John Guest.
By the turn of the century, Steele, Semmes, and Carey became one of the most powerful law firms in the city with a large practice in many areas of law. Semmes, Bowen & Semmes acquired its professional name on August 1, 1909, with the association of John E. Semmes (1851-1925); his son, John E. Semmes, Jr. (1881-1967); and Jesse N. Bowen (1879-1938).
The firm grew to become one of the larger and most influential law firms in the State of Maryland, numbering among its attorneys four Presidents of the Maryland State Bar Association: Jesse N. Bowen (1924-26), Rignal W. Baldwin, Jr. (1967-68), Norman P. Ramsey (1973-74), and Cleaveland D. Miller (1987-88). Semmes' attorneys also have served as Presidents of the Bar Association of Baltimore City, President of the Defense Research Institute, and Presidents of the Maritime Law Association of the United States.
John E. Semmes (1851-1925)
John E. Semmes was born on a farm near Cumberland, July 1, 1851. He was descended from a family identified with Maryland almost from its first colonization. His father, Samual Middleton Semmes was at one time judge of the Court of Appeals in Maryland. One of his uncles was the great Confederate naval commander, Admiral Raphael Semmes and another uncle was Commodore Guest who distinguished himself on the Northern side.
Mr. Semmes' early training and education were unusually diversified. Before graduating from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1874, he spent a year as a medical student at the University of Virginia. In 1874-76 he served as secretary and clerk for his uncle, Commodore John Guest, U.S.N. on the wooden frigate Brooklyn.
He then came to Baltimore and entered the law office of John H. B. Latrobe, father of Gen. Ferdinand C. Latrobe. Mr. Semmes regarded Mr. Latrobe as one of the strongest factors in his career. Mr. Semmes wrote and published the biography of his legal preceptor and devoted friend Mr. Latrobe.
Although a Democrat himself, Mr. Semmes held his first public office as City Solicitor of Baltimore, from 1897-1899, on appointment by a Republican Mayor, William T. Malster. Mr. Semmes also served as head of the School Board and head of the Water Board of Baltimore City and was twice president of the Reform League. He was a member of the Maryland and University Clubs and was one of the organizers of the Baltimore Athletic Club.
Mr. Semmes' characteristic, both mentally and physically, was strength and directness. He had a strong personality and sense of obligation. His standard of ethics was high and was rigidly enforced in his office. He was a lawyer by profession, but his interest in public affairs and municipal welfare was characterized by the same zeal which he displayed in his legal profession. In the 16 years preceding his death in 1925, at the age of 74, Mr. Semmes became increasingly disabled by severe rheumatism, which ultimately affected his heart and caused his death. Yet his malady never abated the keenness of his mind, and his deep interest and involvement in all matters of public concern was active and unabated up to the time of his death.
Jesse N. Bowen (1879-1938)
Jesse N. Bowen was a graduate of the University of Maryland Law Class of 1905. It was at the University of Maryland where he met the acquaintance of fellow law student John E. Semmes, Jr. After graduation he went to work in Mr. Semmes' father's firm of Steele & Semmes. In 1909, the two classmates became partners and the name of the firm changed to Semmes, Bowen & Semmes. Mr. Bowen was urged by Governor Ritchie to accept appointment to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, but he declined the offer. He was twice elected President of the Bar Association of Baltimore City, the only one who ever served two terms, 1924-26.
During James W. Chapman's term as President of the MSBA, Mr. Bowen served as Secretary. He died during his term as 43rd President of the MSBA on May 18, 1938, at his home at 2929 North Calvert Street. He was associated with Semmes, Bowen & Semmes for 33 years and served as Partner for 29 years.
John E. Semmes, Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1881. He was the son of John E. Semmes, Sr., a founding partner of Semmes, Bowen & Semmes. Mr. Semmes was a graduate of the University of Maryland Law Class of 1905. After graduation, Mr. Semmes joined the United States Marine Corps and served in the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. In 1908 he left the Marine Corps and joined his father's law practice, then named Steele & Semmes. In 1909, he became partner along with Jesse N. Bowen, a fellow classmate of his at the University of Maryland School of Law. The firm reorganized under the name Semmes, Bowen and Semmes. Mr. Semmes served as Partner for 37 years and as Counsel for 21 years until his death on November 26, 1967.
"Having spent my entire legal career of 34 years with Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, I was privileged to practice law with so many excellent lawyers and good friends. It would take a book to just summarize my experiences with all my past partners and associates. Thus what follows are only a very few highlights.
I came to the Firm never expecting to be a trial attorney certainly not arguing before juries and cross examining witnesses, but found early on that this was my niche. Thanks in large measure to the tutelage of Norman Ramsey, Rig Baldwin, David Owen and John Mudd. I learned the ropes from masters of the trade, all members of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Bill MacMillan was in the twilight of his career, but Dave Owen brought him into a case before Judge Chesnut in the District Court where I had done the legal research as a young associate and I watched the trial. Mac demonstrated how he had earned the reputation of being one of the best before juries in the state. Judge Chesnut limited him to one hour in closing argument and Mac spent probably a quarter of an hour taking out a big pocket watch and asking the Judge if he was running out of time. This was the only jury case that I was ever involved in where I saw the foreman give the victory sign behind his back to the defense attorney as they returned to the courtroom to render their verdict!
Norman Ramsey was not quite the jury trial attorney that MacMillan, Baldwin and Mudd were, but he was the most all around consummate advocate in the Firm before he went on the Bench, without peer before judges and on appeal. He also was such a generous contributor to all his partners and associates he brought me into the life, accident and health field passing on one client after another. My fondest memory was when Ben Rosenstock, former president of The Frederick County Bar, had a defamation suit filed against him in his capacity as a member of his firm and director of a bank in Frederick - his allegedly defamatory remarks were made at a cocktail party and when he told his insurer that when he spoke it was not in his capacity as an attorney or bank director, his insurer declined coverage and refused to defend him. Ben offered Norman and me a generous retainer to defend him and we told him to put it in his pocket - we would file suit against the insurer requiring them to defend him with his choice as counsel, namely Semmes, Bowen & Semmes - we prevailed in our suit against the carrier and, with them paying our fees, successfully defended Ben in the defamation suit all the way to the Court of Appeals.
Watching and working with John Mudd, I maintain he "never lost a case" - of course there were some verdicts against his clients, but never more than he had offered to settle!
Trying cases for Semmes in my day was fun! The caliber of the judges I argued before was quite high both at the trial level and on appeal. It was a time when if your clients deserved summary judgment or directed verdict, they usually got it.
My favorite client was the Sheppard Pratt Health System which gave me a change of pace from trial work while also involving me in fascinating psychiatric malpractice litigation. The Hospital got me closest to the Supreme Court where Norm Ramsey, Cleave Miller and I relied on the then available charitable immunity defense in Sammer v. Sheppard Pratt.
Most of all I am proud and fortunate to have spent all my years practicing law with the Firm."