PJC In The News

Retiree starts new day job helping indigent tenants

By Brendan Kearney

The Daily Record

August 22, 2010: On the morning of Aug. 9, Russell R. “Ronnie” Reno cinched his necktie, took special care to comb his white hair into place, and left his Federal Hill home a little earlier than usual to walk to work. That’s because for the first time in more than a half-century, “work” did not mean “Venable.” It was the 76-year-old Baltimore lawyer’s first day at a new job.

“‘I feel like I’m starting first grade,’” Reno remembers telling a neighbor who saw him leaving that Monday morning. “All that was missing was the apple for the teacher.”
Reno made his way up Charles Street, past Inner Harbor buildings that bear his legal fingerprints and past Pratt Street, where he had turned right in recent years to get to the posh offices of Venable LLP. A few blocks farther north, he arrived at the smaller, humbler offices of the nonprofit Public Justice Center, “promptly at 9” for orientation.
After 52 years at Venable, including a two-year stint in the Attorney General’s office in the early 1960s, Reno retired from the firm on June 30. He is now a full-time volunteer at the PJC working on tenants-in-foreclosure issues — a far cry from representing a Forbes billionaire in commercial real estate transactions, not to mention a new area of law for a man who once upon a time was a generalist.
“I figured I had a few good years left,” Reno said of his career change in an interview last week. “It’s a challenge, and I figure that’s what makes it interesting.”
Morton P. Fisher Jr., a prominent Baltimore real estate attorney who has been on the other end of deals with Reno and co-taught a class at the University of Maryland School of Law with him, said Reno’s decision to devote his twilight years to public service is typical behavior for his longtime professional peer and friend.
“This is his way of ultimately giving the remainder of his career to the community, and I applaud him for it,” Fisher said.
Although Reno admits to showing up a few minutes past 9 a.m. these days, he has immersed himself in the plight of renters whose lives are upended through no fault of their own. A recent change in federal law entitles tenants in foreclosure to stay for the balance of their lease term, or at least 90 days.  But not everyone, including judges, knows that.
“Part of our job is to get the word out to tenants so they know what their rights are,” he said.
Since the PJC represents some clients — people who probably couldn’t afford an hour of Reno’s time when he was at Venable — Reno might find himself back in a courtroom for the first time in 30 years.
Reno admits to having felt “a certain amount of apprehension coming into a new environment” and said there’s been a “real learning curve” getting up to speed on consumer law and having less computer support. But he has settled in and has high praise for his new co-workers, recently telling them in a staff meeting that they do “Venable-quality work.”
Reno would know, having started at the firm on July 1, 1958.
“When we started off, Venable was the largest law firm in Baltimore at the time,” he said. “And I was the 16th lawyer. Shows you what it was like in those days.”
Reno, whose father was a real estate law professor at the University of Maryland for 40 years, said he handled wills and estates, criminal defense in federal court — “bank robbers,” he said. “They all went to jail” — and tax and appellate work for Attorney General Thomas B. Finan before following in his father’s footsteps.
It began with real estate questions from firm colleagues who knew his father was the authority.
“They knew I had the pipeline to the source,” Reno recalled. “So I’d say, ‘Pop, what do you think of this?’”
And when he returned to his colleagues, not telling them the source of his insight, he’d say, “I think the solution to this issue is as follows…”
Over the years, Reno has represented billionaire David H. Murdock as he built the Harbor Court Hotel and renovated the old Hutzler Palace building into a home for telecommunications switch gear; the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association in its loan that allowed the Rouse Co. to build Harborplace; Goucher College before the school hired inside counsel in the early 1990s; and, on a pro bono basis, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, where his title was chancellor — until he recently decided to join the diocese standing committee.
“Since I would now be the client, I figured I shouldn’t be the lawyer,” Reno said. (He passed the job to a Venable partner.)
Reno has also published a two-volume treatise, “Maryland Real Estate Forms — Procedure,” and was the first recipient of the state bar’s Distinguished Maryland Real Property Practitioner Award in 2003. (Fisher won the award two years later.)
While his career might entitle Reno to a retirement of relaxation, he has remained “as active as a 30-year-old,” in the words of Fisher, who at 74 years old is “still laboring” as senior counsel at Ballard Spahr LLP.
Part of Reno’s deal with the PJC is 10 weeks of vacation a year. Though he claims he’s no “exercise nut,” Reno still skis with a group of friends every winter and does “Reno Camp” with his children and grandchildren every summer, which last year involved a weeklong backpack trip in the Cloud Peak Wilderness area of the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming.
Reno is grateful the PJC has taken him on and thinks other law offices in town should court aging lawyers in addition to offering fellowships for lawyers just beginning their careers such as those offered by the PJC or Attorney General’s office.
“If people have programs for folks like that coming out of law school, maybe we ought to have a program like that for folks who are retiring,” he said.
Read the original article in The Daily Record: Retiree starts new day job helping indigent tenants

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