WASHINGTON -- Paul Quinn is one of the main reasons legislation allowing banks to branch across state lines is about to pass Congress.

For his No. 1 banking client, Fleet Financial Group, Providence, R.I., Mr. Quinn has dogged interstate branching legislation for five years, keeping the faith during long months when almost everyone else had given up.

The 59-year-old Irish-American put together a coalition of bank chief executives, led by his good friend Fleet chairman Terry Murray, and he worked behind the scenes -- on Capitol Hill and within the administration -- to breathe life into the once-moribund bill.

Now it appears his efforts are about to pay off. The House gave final approval to the bill last week and the Senate could vote on the measure this week. If a few last-hurdles can be surmounted, the bill will be on its way to the President's desk.

Positive Impact

And Mr. Quinn said that's good news for banks.

"The immediate impact from enacting legislation will be very positive for individual banks such as Fleet that currently operate as multibank holding companies," he said. "This will save them substantial amounts of money."

Over the longer term, interstate banking will help the whole industry operate more efficiently, which will make banks more competitive, Mr. Quinn said.

Mr. Quinn is a classic Washington lawyer. His practice focuses exclusively on the government, whether that means Congress, the administration, or the agencies. Outgoing and personable, he can get you into see just about anyone.

Though a devout Democrat, Mr. Quinn still could finesse meetings for bankers with top administration officials when the Republicans ruled the White House.

But now that Bill Clinton is in command, Mr. Quinn's stock is climbing. While he's not close friends with the president, he did raise money for Mr. Clinton. Mr. Quinn celebrated St. Patrick's Day at the White House.

Being Irish is not just his ancestry, it's his passion. Mr. Quinn, along with such congressional luminaries such as House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Mass., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., champions Irish causes.

Mr. Quinn is on the board of directors for the American Ireland Fund. The fund -- 10 years old -- raises money to promote cultural and economic development in Ireland. The fund's annual dinner last March raised $500,000.

While he is currently hailed as one of banking's best friends, that wasn't always the case.

In fact he got his start in financial services law suing the Comptroller of the Currency on behalf of travel agents determined to keep banks out of their business. The case, Arnold Tours v. Camp, went all the way to the Supreme Court. It took about a decade, but Mr. Quinn won in 1972.

In addition to representing the travel agents, Mr. Quinn worked for auto dealers, insurance agents, and the data processing industry -- all allied to keep the regulators from letting banks encroach their turf.

Mr. Quinn authored the 1969 amendments to the Bank Holding Company Act that have dominated how bank powers are doled out.

"Banks shall engage in only those activities so closely related to banking as to be a proper incident thereto," Mr. Quinn said, reciting the crucial words. "That's my language."

But in 1982, his law firm fell apart because the government decided to stop litigating Indian claims cases which meant that the bulk of the firm's 55 lawyers had nothing to do.

Mr. Quinn broke off with two colleagues to form Wilkenson, Barker, Krauer & Quinn. He made the decision then to start over and woo banks.

Joining the Bank Ranks

"I made a conscious effort to try to develop a banking practice that put me on the side of the banks," he said. "I thought the opportunities to assist banks in expanding in the financial services area would be more challenging and more interesting than continuing to represent people who wanted to constrain them."

His first financial services client was JC Penney, which hired him for the fight to grandfather non-bank banks.

Then came Fleet. Later Security Pacific came looking for help, lobbying the Reagan administration on comprehensive banking reform. Other banking clients include NationsBank, PNC Corp., Norwest, and Bank of America.

Today, having grown to 33 lawyers, Mr. Quinn's firm is involved in health-care reform, telecommunications, broadcasting, and energy.

The firm also has a strong international practice that represented the German government's interest in a $4 billion investment in the U.S. long-distance provider, Sprint.

Mr. Quinn's specialty is forming coalitions. Aside from the alliance he pieced together on behalf of interstate branching, he's pulled various banks together to work on regulatory capital issues and tax matters.

Window of Opportunity

Mr. Quinn believes an opportunity for sweeping banking reform is at hand.

"I think next year probably for the first time ever there is a possibility of comprehensive bank reform legislation taking place," he said, warning that the bill must be structured right.

Overreaching could kill a banking bill, he warned. For example, trying to combine banking and commerce is going too far. He suggested legislation that settles bank insurance and securities powers and creates a financial services holding company.

"If you go beyond that" by adding in agency consolidation, for instance, he said: "you're buying a whole bunch of other problems."

Mr. Quinn grew up in Pawtucket, R.I., and attended Providence College. After a stint in the Army, he went to law school at Georgetown University. He got his first taste of Capitol Hill then working for Sen. John O. Pastore, a Rhode Island Democrat.

When Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., was elected in 1960, Mr. Quinn was his first legislative assistant.

After 32 years of lawyering, Mr. Quinn clearly loves his job. He puts in 60 to 70 hour weeks; working hardest when Congress is in session.

"When they're here, I'm here."

And when Mr. Quinn isn't here, he's either at his home in Largo, Fla., playing golf or at another home in Newport, R.I., sailing.

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