Q&A: Bart Winokur, Partner, Chairman and CEO of Dechert LLP

Why he's stepping down, what he really wanted to be when he grew up, and how stressful it is to manage a few thousand people

You’re going to keep practicing law, but you’re stepping down as Dechert’s CEO this month. Why now?
I’ve done this job for 15 years. That’s a very long time.

Growing up in West Oak Lane, did you want to be a lawyer?
My dad was a lawyer. He came home from work every day, sat at the dinner table and told stories. They all had drama to them. But I wasn’t going to go to law school. I was going to graduate school to study Chinese.

Why the change?
My mother bribed me. [laughs] She paid for me to take the LSAT. It cost $10 in those days, and I didn’t want to spend it.

Dechert now has more than 750 lawyers in 21 offices around the world. What was the firm like when you joined in 1965?
The law firm had 60 lawyers. Clients were passed down from generation to generation.

Your leadership has been described as “tough” and “ruthless.” Sounds rather Gadhafi-esque.
I don’t think “tough and ruthless” is fair. Tough-minded, maybe. That means you adopt principles and keep to those principles through thick and thin.

What have you lost the most sleep over during your tenure?
My predecessor told me, “Until you’re responsible for a couple thousand people, you don’t know what it is to have difficulty sleeping.” That was absolutely true. The market in the past three years was a tremendous challenge for everyone in the law business. We had layoffs. It was terrible.

Last year, Dechert had average partner profits of $2 million. Is there too much emphasis on the bottom line?
The real focus is performance. What people earn is a result of that.

Do lawyers make too much?
We live in a supply-and-demand economy. If people end up getting paid more than they should, a lot of people go into the business and pay goes down.

How would you describe the rivalr­y between Dechert and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius? Eagles versus Cowboys?
I don’t think there is a significant rivalry today. In the days when the focus was on local law firms, there was a lot of competition. But today, we both have less than half our lawyers here in Philadelphia.

Dechert represented former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, who spent $1.2 million to redecorate his office in 2008. How do you respond to those who say only Wall Streeters and their lawyers profited in the financial crisis?
[laughs] First, that’s stuff for selling newspapers. What happened is very complicated. John Thain’s a great guy. I’ve known him for 35 years. But he’s a client, and we don’t discuss our clients.
You’re 71. Why not retire? Almost all my clients are friends. I love the challenge.

Interview by Richard Rys. This piece originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Philadelphia magazine.