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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

On the demise of Dewey & LeBouff

This Wall Street Journal report, reporting on the settlement of debt litigation against ex-partners of the bankrupt New York law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, may generate considerable schadenfreude among those who dislike lawyers in general or NYC-based BigLaw firms in particular.

It made me remember a clear fall day in 1979, however, on my very first trip to New York City. I've previously written about other adventures on that same trip in a 2004 post featuring Dick Cheney, John Edwards, the Plaza Hotel, and supermodel Cheryl Tiegs.

Earlier in the day I described in that post, I'd had my first "fly-back interview" with the NYC firms with whom I'd interviewed some weeks before on campus at UT-Law. The morning interview was with what was then called "Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood." The first name partner, former NY governor and two-time GOP presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey, had died early in that decade. But my first interview of the morning was, as I recall, with name partner Wood — whose Christian name I am embarrassed to admit that I cannot recall, perhaps since it never occurred to me that I'd ever have occasion to address him by it.

Altogether contrary to my confident expectations, however, and notwithstanding the many decades' gap in our respective ages (I was all of 21), Mr. Wood actually might not have minded at all if I'd called him by his first name. He was among the most comprehensively charming gentlemen I've ever met in my life, and he put me instantly at ease — I don't remember how, so I can't rule out the possibility that hypnosis was involved, but it was entirely effortless and instinctual on his part.

Not far into our interview, he said this: "So, Bill, how big a chip did you carry up from Texas on your shoulder?" And he winked. Somehow I knew he wasn't voicing a criticism, but rather an insight — and an absolutely accurate one.

I answered: "I think it may have been a pretty big chip, but I didn't expect any of my interviews here to be like this one. I'd like to clerk in New York next summer so I can compare it to what I saw last summer in Houston and Dallas, to see whether the difference would justify a permanent move here after my judicial clerkship. And so I hoped to learn about your firm's practice today. But I frankly didn't expect to be this much at ease, especially with a name partner in one of the most distinguished firms in New York."

This seems trite or smarmy as I re-read it here, but at that moment in his corner office, it was an entirely genuine statement of exactly what I was feeling: I had abandoned any expectation of trying to "manage" this interview since he seemed entirely capable of reading whatever was on my mind, so there was no point in trying to spin him.

He nodded thoughtfully. In my memory he may have fiddled with his pipe, perhaps re-tamped and re-lit it, before he continued:

"Most of this firm's partners came here from other states. The reason we're so good is not because we're in New York. Rather, we're so good precisely because we draw the best talent from everywhere. And to keep them, we've always done whatever is necessary for non-New Yorkers to be comfortable and productive here."

I was utterly convinced of his wisdom and his trustworthiness at that moment. The chip had flown from my shoulder without him or anyone having knocked it off. We were also both aware that I was aware that he was flattering me outrageously and far beyond any merit I could yet have demonstrated. But he was entirely confident in the merits of his pitch, and our mutual awareness of his outrageous flattery did not detract a whit from his style and panache in troweling it on. And as they sometimes say on the prairies of west Texas whence I hail, "If'n you got the what-for to back it up, then it ain't exactly braggin' now, is it?" Mr. Wood had a lot of what-for.

The rest of the day's interviews were pleasant enough, but none was nearly so memorable. I ended up working elsewhere in NYC that summer at one of Dewey Ballantine's archrivals. Years later, when I was at Houston's Baker Botts during the 1980s, I worked against Dewey Ballantine's mergers and acquisition lawyers on a couple of contested tender offers. (As expected, they were quite formidable, but not superhuman.) Their merger with LeBoeuff, Lamb in 2007 to become "Dewey & LeBoeuff LLP" seemed a longshot even at the time, and I don't know many of the details of the merged firm's demise, but I'm not at all convinced that its collapse is any kind of deathknell for BigLaw.

It's by no means certain that even someone as gracious and polished as Mr. Wood could have piloted their ship through the competitive storms of the last two decades. "First-world problems," my kids would probably say, and I won't lose any sleep worrying about the ex-Dewey & LeBoeuff partners having to pay "clawback" settlements. But based on nothing more than my sentimental memories of that extraordinary interview, I'm slightly sad to watch the firm so spectacularly dashed on such financial reefs. And I still count myself lucky to have met and spoken with Mr. Wood, even if the sort of law firm and law practice he symbolized and represented no longer can compete effectively on a national or international stage.

Posted by Beldar at 11:25 PM in Law (2012), Trial Lawyer War Stories | Permalink


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(1) dchamil made the following comment | Oct 14, 2012 8:05:39 AM | Permalink

About Texas and New york, I saw a photo of Judge Ted Poe, now a representative from Texas, in his office. Among many items on the wall was a plaque reading "I don't really care how you did it up north!"
As for what is bragging and what is not, I feel that self-praise is unseemly. If it's true, it's bragging. If it's not true, it's lying.

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