Midwest Focus Winston & Strawn: A Chicago Foundation For A Global Presence

Wednesday, June 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Governor Thompson, would you summarize for our readers the high points of your career?

Thompson: I have been fortunate in always believing that the job I had at the moment was the best job I'd ever had. This is something that was as true at the time I was a young assistant prosecutor in the 1960s as it is today. A real highlight for me was appearing before the Illinois Supreme Court at a time when the rest of my law school class was waiting to be sworn in as lawyers. Another high point was helping the Illinois Attorney General expand the authority and influence of his office. I taught at Northwestern Law School and while there co-authored three casebooks. Obviously, the time I spent as Governor of Illinois was a very important time in my career. During that time I was engaged in the state's largest highway construction program in the 20th century, and I went on to implement the rehabilitation and restoration of Navy Pier, McCormick Place and Comiskey Park, among other projects. I was also involved in a great many downstate construction projects. When I left office in 1991 after 14 years, the percentage of Illinois income that we took in taxes was less than when I came to office, but state government services had been greatly expanded. My years at Winston & Strawn also constitute a real high point. When I began, the firm had about 300 lawyers. Today the number exceeds 900. We had three offices then, today we have eight and a global presence. The quality of our lawyers is, in my opinion, higher than it has been at any point in our more than 150-year history, and the reputation of the firm is at its zenith.

Editor: What were the factors that went into your decision to join Winston & Strawn, or rejoin, since you had been with the firm at an earlier stage in your career?

Thompson: When I left the governor's office, I interviewed with some ten law firms, and all ten made offers. The decision was not an easy one. One firm offered to change its name to include mine. All of them offered greater compensation than Winston & Strawn, but Winston offered me the first opportunity for leadership. I came back to the firm as Chairman of the Executive Committee, and two years later I became Chairman of the firm. The opportunity to serve in a leadership position was an extremely important consideration for me.

Editor: Winston & Strawn recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. For most of that time it has been identified with Chicago. Would you tell us something about the firm's history and its place in the city - its role in the civic, cultural and community life of Chicago?

Thompson: Historically, the leadership of Winston & Strawn has always been part of the leadership of Chicago. From its inception, the firm's leaders have been called upon by Chicago mayors to assist the city, and, indeed, our leadership has answered the call of Presidents of the United States to serve the country. With respect to the firm's place in the city, we have - both individually and as a firm - supported many cultural and educational institutions. Our lawyers serve on the governing boards of a great variety of arts, cultural, civic and community organizations, and our dollars - provided individually and through the Winston & Strawn Foundation - support their operations.

The firm has an active role in Chicago's many professional organizations as well. One of our partners, Kimball Anderson, was the ABA pro bono lawyer of the year last year, and another, Jennifer Nijman, served as President of the Chicago Bar Association last year. Our pro bono activities are also extensive. At the moment we are handling the defense of Governor Ryan as a pro bono matter, and this is going to take literally thousands of hours of preparation and trial time. We have adopted a school on the west side of the city, something that we do wherever we have offices. My own pro bono work includes a year and a half service on the 9/11 Commission. Currently I am serving as Co-Chair of a committee charged with the revision of the Illinois Criminal Code. This is a fascinating experience for me, given the fact that one of the first things I did just out of law school was to serve on the Committee that wrote the original Code in 1961. While I am speaking of our Chicago office, I must point out that the lawyers in all of our offices are fully engaged in this kind of activity. We encourage all of our people to undertake community and pro bono activities, and, indeed, we recognize their efforts when our Compensation Committee meets. In connection with the celebration of our 150th anniversary last year, individual lawyers at the firm took a pledge to devote at least 35 hours a year to pro bono activities, and that commitment has continued into the present year.

Editor: How do these activities contribute to the culture and values of Winston & Strawn?

Thompson: We believe that it is important for our lawyers to have full personal and professional lives. Giving time to the community is part of a balanced life, and it also makes for better lawyers. Participating in cultural, educational, philanthropic and pro bono activities reminds all of us - and particularly the young lawyers who spend so much time in research activities, working weekends, and so on - that there are other responsibilities to be met and rewards that may far outweigh the effort spent to achieve them. Helping someone in need is a wonderful experience for a young lawyer. We take great pride in our commitment as a firm to this type of activity, and while we do this work because it is the right thing to do, we recognize what a positive signal such a commitment sends when we are trying to hire out of law school or bring in young laterals. Law graduates and associates in their early years of practice know a great deal about the firms which seek their services. We pay close attention to the Vault Law Survey, which measures associates' quality of life, and I am very pleased to say that Winston & Strawn is consistently ranked in first or second place in the country in this category.

Editor: Winston & Strawn has also been one of the pioneers in establishing a national platform and in opening offices overseas. This did not just happen. Would you share with us what led to the determination to take a leading regional firm into the national and then international arena?

Thompson: Winston & Strawn was in Washington and New York before I arrived in 1991. I can say that the reasoning behind taking these steps was pretty simple: a firm cannot have a first-rate corporate practice without being in New York, and it cannot have a national legislative, energy or regulatory practice without a Washington presence. Similar reasoning has taken us to California - Los Angeles and San Francisco - and Europe - London, Paris and Geneva. During the period of my chairmanship of the firm, the primary motivation for opening offices in California and Europe has had to do with the globalization of our clients. It is not that we need to be on the ground everywhere - we don't - but rather that many of our most important clients have become truly global organizations and, as part of their transition to global status, they are reducing the number of law firms with which they do business. I will be the first to say that I do not think we have done enough to meet our clients' expectations in this regard. Our offices abroad need to be larger. And we need to be in places other than Europe. Asia, for starters. The firm as a whole also needs to be much larger. There was a time when people thought that a law firm with 900 lawyers was bound to be unwieldy. Today we consistently go up against firms with 1500 or more lawyers. Size is not an end in itself, of course, but size does matter. There is a critical mass that is necessary for the kinds of project that we handle, and only firms of a certain size possess the resources - in terms of personnel and diversity of expertise - that enable them to compete for such work. As clients downsize the number of firms with which they deal, they seek a depth of service in the ones they continue to retain that was simply not part of the equation even a few years ago. When Phillip Morris became one of our clients a few years ago, it was only a couple of weeks before we were called upon to put 45 lawyers to work for them. Our defense of Microsoft on their retrial in Washington took a huge commitment of talent. Unless a firm is of a certain size, it is not going to have the depth to permit it to take on such matters without hurting the day-to-day representation of its other clients.

Editor: Returning to Chicago, how does this office fit into the firm-wide enterprise? Is Chicago the head office for a group of satellites, or is the firm a unitary operation residing in a variety of locations?

Thompson: Winston & Strawn is a unitary operation. Chicago is our largest office and it is, of course, where we began 151 years ago. Our Executive Committee includes more members from Chicago than from any other office, but every office is represented on both the Executive and the Compensation Committees. And all of our major matters are staffed from offices across the firm.

Editor: Where would you like the firm to be in, say, five years?

Thompson: I would like us to have a complement of 1200 to 1500 lawyers, and I would like us to have larger California and European offices. In addition, I would like for us to have an Asia presence, particularly in China. Transcending all of this, however, are three goals that define what Winston & Strawn has been in the past, is today and aspires to be in the future: a firm comprised of lawyers with the very highest professional expertise; a firm possessing a culture that is collegial, diverse and welcoming; and a firm that places its greatest priority on communicating with, and understanding the needs of, its clients.

Please email the interviewee at jthompson@winston.com with questions about this interview.