Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Dan Webb in for Big Jim Thompson at Winston & Strawn; Continuity?

As the French are wont to say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Well, not quite, with 61 year old Dan Webb, a "Thompson boy," taking over today for 70 year old Jim Thompson as Chairman of the nine office, 850 attorney, international law firm of Winston & Strawn, the Chicago based law firm will be headed by someone who has never held elected office, unlike the 14 year Illinois Republican Governor Jim Thompson [1977-1991].

As noted here, Winston is developing a specialty practice of defending governors who stand accused of and have been convicted of public corruption [former Illinois Governor George Ryan, a nominal Republican who in large part made the transformation to a Democratic philosoply long ago [See here]] or are being investigated for public corruption [current Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a devout Democrat]. It was Thompson who said, "Whether at a law firm or with law school faculty or a business, there's politics everywhere; it's how the process works." You can say that again [See here].

Indeed, former Governor Thompson is known for what some would call his agile, political gymnastics. In short, he is criticized by some and admired by others for reportedly having been, at one time or another, on all sides of all major public policy issues in Illinois during the last thirty five years. For example, as illustrated here, the man who once was Mr. Republican in Illinois now sits in perhaps a bigger tent than the one that holds only the Republican Party.

Then there is Dan Webb, made perhaps of somewhat different stuff. Or, is he? While never having been a real pol, Dan Webb is one of the “Thompson boys,” who in a sense “grew up,” under U. S. Attorney Thompson. That was when Dan Webb, then and now with boyish looks, worked as an Assistant U. S. Attorney in Chicago in the early 70s. Webb went on, like so many of the Thompson boys, to serve in appointed office under Governor Thompson [or get elected with Thompson's help, See, e.g., Ty Fahner, former Illinois AG and now chairman of the Management Committee at Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw, a major competitor of Winston's and also based in Chicago], and then Webb became a U. S. Attorney himself under President Reagan.

Webb is a great trial lawyer [See here] who has spent the last two decades at Winston and who understands politics—more than well enough to chair Winston & Strawn and help run the firm. Of course, he will be doing that with a lot of assistance, including that of his new managing partner, Thomas Fitzgerald, who takes over responsibility for Jim Neis for the day to day operations of the firm.

As Crain’s reported today, “…the Chairman’s role would now be limited to ‘public issues, client development…more external matters—whatever the executive committee thinks is going to be appropriate.’ ” [See here]. And as Chair of the Executive Committee, Thomas Fitzgerald will have a substantial role in delineating his own responsibilities relative to Dan Webb. But we can expect, at a minimum, Dan Webb will be Mr. Outside to Fitzgerald’s Mr. Inside.

It was Dan Webb, Mr. Outside, who just finished trying the George Ryan case. But, it was Jim Thompson who was “Mr. Insider,” of that case. Big Jim sat next to Lura Lynn, George Ryan’s wife, at the sentencing, reminding the Judge of the civic leader who was standing by George. And, it was Jim Thompson who made sure George Ryan could avoid the media crunch, after George was sentenced to 78 months in prison, by arranging for his exit from the garage inside the Federal Courthouse, beyond the sight and grasp of the media and their cameras. It was Jim Thompson who made sure that his old Lt. Gov. and pal, George Ryan would have a 20 million dollar legal defense, courtesy of Thompson’s and Webb’s partners. Webb might have been happy, or at least willing, to go along, but clearly that was Big Jim’s call.

Next time, it will be on Webb’s watch. And, if Ryan wins his appeal and gets a new trial, Webb will have to guide and manage the decision of whether the firm should try to cut its losses and ask George to find another sponsor. As the man who tried the matter the first time around, that would seem to be a conflict of interest if Webb were to influence the call. Good legal policy might be good politics and Webb might recuse himself from the matter. As Thompson said, “There is politics everywhere, it is how the process works.” You can say that again.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at JBCG@aol.com