Founded: 1875 as Mac Veagh & Bispham
Sales: $284.5 million (2000)
NAIC: 54111 Offices of Lawyers
Dechert is one of the largest international law firms, especially after a major merger in 2000. It maintains offices in Philadelphia; London; Boston; New York City; Brussels; Har-risburg, Pennsylvania; Hartford, Connecticut; Newport Beach, California; Paris; Princeton, New Jersey; Luxembourg; and Washington, D.C. Dechert provides legal counsel in a wide range of specialties, from banking, taxation, and antitrust to intellectual property, biotechnology, litigation, and employment law. Dechert’s 700 lawyers serve large multinational companies, small startup firms, nonprofit groups, government agencies, and individuals. Its predecessor firms represented the Pennsylvania Railroad and Getty Oil Company, among others. Contemporary clients include Aetna, Pfizer, US Airways, the Investment Funds Institute of Canada, Nomura Capital, The British Retail Consortium, Gerber Products Company, Internet Capital Group, CNN, and Comcast Corporation. Francis Biddle and U.S. Senators Arlen Specter and Joseph Clark were three prominent Dechert partners.
Origins of the First Predecessor Firm: 1875-99
The first predecessor of Dechert began in 1875 when Wayne Mac Veagh and George Tucker Bispham started a partnership. Mac Veagh had graduated from Yale in 1853 and then studied as an apprentice in a law firm before joining the bar in 1856. After the Civil War, Mac Veagh served as the U.S. minister to Turkey and on an Indian commission.
Meanwhile, Bispham graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1858 and in 1861 graduated from the Law Department of the University of Pennsylvania and was admitted to the bar. In 1874 he wrote Principles of Equity, an important legal textbook for the next several decades.
Although both Mac Veagh and Bispham brought their own clients to the new partnership, in 1877 the firm marked a major turning point when Mac Veagh was named general counsel and solicitor for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Philadelphia District. Thus began about a century of service to one of the nation’s largest railroads.
In the late 1800s the partnership gained other clients, including The Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, the Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company, and the Westmoreland Coal Company. Bispham in 1889 joined the Board of Managers of the Girard Trust Company, one of the firm’s long-term clients.
A leading member of the Republican Party, Mac Veagh in 1877 headed the commission that led to the compromise resolving the 1876 Hayes-Tilden presidential election dispute that originated in Louisiana. As President Garfield’s attorney general, Mac Veagh indicted the president’s assassin. Bispham in 1884 became a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, so both partners distinguished themselves outside their law firm practice.
In his history of the Dechert law firm, Robert V. Massey, Jr., said Bispham’s most significant litigation occurred when he defended the Pennsylvania Railroad after several homeowners charged that the railroad’s operations decreased their property values. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of the railroad, and the plaintiff’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court failed.
A Developing Practice: 1900-45
In addition to the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Philadelphia law firm served a variety of banks and insurance and coal companies in the early 20th century. Following the 1908 collapse of part of the Phoenix Bridge Company’s bridge across the St. Lawrence River, the company used the law firm to defend itself against lawsuits.
Name partner John Hampton Barnes served as president of the Chestnut Street Realty Company, a subsidiary of the Girard Trust Company. The realty company owned Philadelphia’s Morris Building, which was the law firm’s home from 1910 to 1942. In the late 1930s a firm lawyer was appointed to represent the Philadelphia Transportation Company when it faced a series of lawsuits.
Name partner Francis Biddle became quite well known in the first half of the 20th century. While remaining with the first predecessor law firm from 1916 to 1939, he often served in major government positions. He became an assistant U.S. attorney in 1922. In the mid-1930s he served as the chair of the National Labor Board and was instrumental in the origins of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act or Wagner Act that led to a huge increase in the percentage of American workers in unions. During World War II, he served as President Roosevelt’s attorney general.
During the depression of the 1930s, the law firm represented its long-term client Pennsylvania Railroad in a number of lawsuits. Those were Pennsylvania Railroad’s peak years. According to the June 1936 issue of Fortune magazine, the railroad’s 100,000 employees were 10 percent of that industry’s workforce. The Pennsylvania Railroad also was one of the four railroads in the famous board game Monopoly that Parker Brothers patented during the Great Depression.
The Second Predecessor Firm and the 1942 Merger
When World War II began, the first predecessor firm, then known as Barnes, Myers & Price, lost most of its lawyers due to military or government service. With just two or three lawyers left, it decided to merge with Dechert, Smith & Clark, another small partnership in Philadelphia.
Robert Dechert and Curtis Bok had formed the second predecessor firm in 1930. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1916, Dechert served as an Army officer during World War I and then graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1921. After working for his father’s law firm, he became the vice-president and counsel of The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company. Dechert remained the head of Penn Mutual’s legal department after forming his partnership with Curtis Bok. When the two predecessor firms merged in 1942, the Barnes firm moved to the larger facilities in the Packard Building where the predecessor Dechert firm had its offices.
The Post-World War II Years
After World War II ended, the merged Dechert firm became more specialized, a typical development for such law firms. In 1946, for the first time, it formally created four practice groups: taxation, litigation, fiduciary, and business and corporate law. Its business practice of advising corporate clients on how to deal with the government’s increasing laws and regulations expanded, while its litigation practice declined in comparison.
Robert Dechert headed his firm’s taxation practice and was chosen as the president of both the Association of Life Insurance Counsel and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania. Dechert also served as counsel and trustee to the American College of Life Underwriters.
In 1946 the firm’s 28 lawyers made it Philadelphia’s second largest law firm behind Morgan, Lewis & Bockius with 36 lawyers. In 1955 the growing Dechert firm with 39 lawyers moved its offices to Penn Center. In 1954 the firm hired its first full-time female associate, but it was not until 1973 that a woman became a Dechert partner.
In the 1960s Carroll Robbins Wetzel, a member of the Dechert firm since 1931, made major contributions in the banking law field. In 1962 he played a key role in writing a report for the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency concerning proposed changes in the National Banking Act. In 1966 and 1967 Wetzel served as chairman of the American Bar Association’s Banking and Business Section.
To mark the firm’s centennial, in 1975 it published a book on its history written by retired partner Robert V. Massey, Jr. Unfortunately, Massey seldom even mentioned who the firm’s clients were over the previous 100 years. In his preface Massey explained that he included little such information “to avoid dulling the reader’s interest.”
The Dechert law firm in the early 1980s represented Getty Oil Company, which had been started back in the 1930s by J. Paul Getty. On January 6, 1984 Getty Oil signed an agreement to be acquired by Texaco for $10.2 billion. However, that acquisition led to a major legal battle when Pennzoil filed a lawsuit for $15 billion in damages from Texaco for interfering in its planned takeover of Getty Oil. In November 1985 a Texas state court’s ruling for Pennzoil awarded the company $10.53 billion. In April 1987 Texaco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Dechert Price & Rhoads in May 1987 represented several former Getty directors when they issued a formal statement saying they had never agreed to merge with Pennzoil. Robert Lenzner in his 1985 book about J. Paul Getty described the merger and litigation that pitted Getty descendants against each other, but he did not mention the role of the Dechert law firm, a fairly common omission in business histories.
Dechert is a multipractice, international law firm committed to providing the highest level of legal representation to our clients. Our more than 700 lawyers across 11 U.S. and European offices work collaboratively with clients to recognize business opportunities and challenges and to help them achieve their business goals. We creatively build on our legal experience and industry knowledge to deliver the smart, solid results our clients seek.
Dechert supports the varied and international interests and growth of our clients. We offer services in more than 30 practice areas and industry concentrations to fit the unique scope and complexity of clients’ legal needs.
Practice in the 1990s and the New Millennium
Dechert Price & Rhoads expanded its international practice in 1995 by opening an office in Paris. Since law firms from outside of the European Union were allowed to open a French office only by associating with a French lawyer, Dechert’s office was officially a correspondent office. Its goal was to serve non-French corporations operating in France and other European nations.
In 1996 Dechert Price & Rhoads attempted to strengthen its Washington, D.C. office when it hired veteran litigator Leonard Garment. The firm’s goal was to increase its access and influence in Congress and other parts of the federal government, for Garment had a long history of government involvement, from being a crisis manager in the Middle East, Wounded Knee, and Watergate episodes to representing Reagan officials in the Iran-Contra scandal and Judge Robert Bork when he was appointed but not confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court. By early 1998 Garment had gained some business for the firm, completed his memoirs, and then left Dechert. However, he filed an age discrimination lawsuit against the firm that was settled out of court in 1999.
The Garment case illustrated relatively new developments in the legal profession. First, lawyers now sued other lawyers, an unheard of event a generation ago. It also showed changing expectations of senior lawyers. “It isn’t a learned profession any more that values sagacity and experience,” said Stanley Brand, a Garment attorney in the Dechert lawsuit, in the Wall Street Journal on January 4, 2000. On the other hand, Joel Henning, senior vice-president of legal consulting firm Hilde-brandt International, said, “Knowledge and wisdom and insight are all well and good, but there are tremendous expenses, and very demanding clients.”
Meanwhile, the Dechert firm teamed up with Pepper, Hamilton & Scheetz, another large Philadelphia law firm, to cooperate in training young associates. Writer Amy Stevens commented that, “Such camaraderie was once unheard of for competing law firms.” This development was fueled by clients’ unwillingness to pay their outside law firms for training new associates.
In the 1990s Dechert’s intellectual property lawyers annually issued a report on trademark trends. Not surprisingly, its April 2001 report on trends in 2000 said that dot-com trademark applications had declined rapidly as Internet companies struggled in the stock market.
Dechert Price & Rhoads’s clients in the late 1990s included some of the largest U.S. corporations, namely Philip Morris Companies, Sun Company, Crown Cork & Seal, Campbell Soup, AmeriSource Health, Baxter International, American Stores, and VF Corporation.
In the late 1990s Dechert Price & Rhoads’s gross revenue increased, but its relative standing declined in the American Lawyer’s annual rankings of the nation’s 100 largest law firms. In 1997 the firm’s gross revenue of $160.5 million placed it at number 54. In 1998 it had $171.5 million in gross revenue and a number 59 ranking, which fell to number 60 based on its 1999 gross revenue of $197 million.
In 1994 Dechert Price & Rhoads had formed an alliance with the London law firm Titmuss Sainer & Webb, which then changed its name to Titmuss Sainer Dechert. The London firm served as legal adviser to The British Retail Consortium. According to Dechert’s web site, the firm repeatedly had “been voted number one in the country by the Legal 500 (the clients’ leading guide to U.K. law firms) for its advice to the retail sector.”
After six years of the alliance, the two firms merged in 2000 to create a unified partnership called, simply, Dechert that by 2001 included 700 lawyers in 12 worldwide offices. This merger was part of an international trend in which law firms consolidated into much larger megafirms. For example, London’s Clifford Chance merged in 2000 with a New York City firm and a German firm to form the world’s largest law practice with about 3,000 lawyers. The consolidation trend exemplified by mergers of American and British law firms was part of a worldwide phenomenon in which businesses of all kinds joined forces.
- Mac Veagh & Bispham is formed in Philadelphia.
- Bispham, Wintersteen & Barnes becomes the new partnership after Mac Veagh leaves.
- Wintersteen, Barnes & Brinton is the firm’s new name.
- Firm is renamed Barnes & Brinton.
- Barnes, Biddle & Morris is established.
- Barnes, Brinton & Biddle becomes the firm’s new name.
- Barnes, Biddle & Myers is the new name.
- Dechert & Bok, the second predecessor firm, is founded.
- Dechert, Bok & Smith is the new name.
- Dechert, Bok, Smith & Clark becomes the new name.
- Dechert, Smith & Clark is the new name.
- First predecessor firm is renamed Barnes, Myers & Price after Biddle leaves.
- Two predecessor firms merge to become Barnes, Dechert, Price & Smith.
- Merged firm’s new name becomes Barnes, Dechert, Price, Smith & Clark.
- Partnership becomes known as Barnes, Dechert, Price, Myers & Clark.
- Barnes, Dechert, Price, Myers & Rhoads is the new name.
- Firm is renamed Dechert Price & Rhoads after Myers retires.
- Firm opens its Brussels office.
- Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. offices are established.
- London office is launched.
- Partnership opens its new office in New York City.
- Boston and Princeton, New Jersey offices are opened.
- Dechert firm forms an alliance with London’s Titmuss Sainer & Webb, which is renamed Titmuss Sainer Dechert.
- Firm opens its Paris office.
- Firm’s office in Hartford, Connecticut is started.
- Dechert Price & Rhoads merges with London’s Titmuss Sainer Dechert to become Dechert.
At the start of new millennium, Dechert faced numerous challenges as political, economic, and social changes occurred rapidly all over the world. New technologies usually required legal systems to play catch-up. Trading alliances impacted exports and imports by multinational corporations and smaller companies. The Internet economy still in its infancy continued to be important. Lawyers debated the wisdom of multipractice partnerships, how to retain young associates lured by larger salaries at other firms, and how to attract and retain more minority and female lawyers. Dechert lawyers needed to deal with these and many more complex issues to succeed in the years ahead.
Principal Operating Units
Antitrust; Bankruptcy and Reorganization; Business and Technology; Complex Commercial Litigation; Corporate and Securities; Criminal, Government Investigations and Civil Fraud; Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation; Environmental Law; Federal Tax; Financial Services; Government Affairs; Health Law; Immigration; Intellectual Property; International Business; International Trade; Labor and Employment; Latin America; Media Law; Mergers and Acquisitions; Privacy Law; Private Client; Product Liability and Mass Tort; Real Estate and Mortgage Finance; Securities Litigation and Enforcement; Securitization; State and Local Tax; Tax-Exempt Organizations.
Pepper Hamilton; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Chartrand, Sabra, “Requests for New Trademarks by Internet Companies Have Fallen As the Market Has Slowed,” New York Times, May 7, 2001, p. 2.
“Dechert Partners Approve Transatlantic Merger; Firm Banks on Success Following Six-Year Alliance,” PR Newswire, June 26, 2000, p. 1.
Lenzner, Robert, The Great Getty: The Life and Loves of J. Paul Getty— The Richest Man in the World, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1985.
Massey, Robert V., Jr., Dechert Price & Rhoads: A Law Firm Centennial 1975, Philadelphia: Dechert Price & Rhoads, 1975.
”Paris Move for Dechert,” International Financial Law Review, June 1995, p. 3.
Petzinger, Thomas, Jr., “Ex-Getty Directors Defend Their Acts in Texaco-Pennzoil Takeover Contest,” Wall Street Journal, p. 1.
Schmitt, Richard B., “Storied Lawyer, in His Twilight, Sues His Firms,” Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2000, p. B1.
Shook, Barbara, “Ex-Getty Directors Say No Pennzoil Deal Made,” Houston Chronicle, May 27, 1987, p. 1.
——, “Pact Called Not Binding in Getty-Pennzoil Talks,” Houston Chronicle, September 27, 1985, p. 2.
Stevens, Amy, “Lawyers and Clients: Rival Firms Discover the Benefits of Training Young Lawyers Jointly,” Wall Street Journal, December 11, 1995, p. B8.
Tagliabue, John, “International Merger Wave Catches Europe’s Law Firms,” New York Times, August 4, 2000, p. C3.
—David M. Walden