Dechert’s history is both long and impressive. The firm’s forerunner, MacVeagh & Bispham, was established in Philadelphia in 1875 when Wayne MacVeagh and George Tucker Bispham joined forces. MacVeagh, a Yale University graduate admitted to the bar following a law firm apprenticeship, brought to the partnership a distinguished record of public service, including experience as district attorney of Chester County, Pa.; infantry captain and major in the cavalry for the Union army during the Civil War; and a U.S. ambassadorship to Turkey. As a firm partner, he maintained an ambitious roster of outside activities, heading the commission that led to the resolution of the 1876 Hayes-Tilden presidential election dispute and briefly serving as President James Garfield’s attorney general. MacVeagh’s partner, Bispham, was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and University of Pennsylvania Law School. He authored Principles of Equity, a legal textbook that was considered the definitive work on the subject at the time. In 1884, Bispham became a law professor at his alma mater.
The Pennsylvania Railroad, one of the nation’s largest and most powerful economic enterprises, first retained the firm in 1877 and would remain a client for nearly a century. In one significant trial, Bispham defended the railroad against claims by several homeowners that its operations had decreased their property values. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of the railroad, and the plaintiffs’ appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court failed. Other early clients included Girard Trust Company, The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, the Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company and the Westmoreland Coal Company.
World War II
With America’s entry into World War II, the firm, then known as Barnes, Myers & Price, lost most of its lawyers to military or government service. With just a handful of lawyers remaining, Barnes, Myers & Price in 1942 merged with another Philadelphia law firm, Dechert, Smith & Clark, established by Robert Dechert and Curtis Bok in 1930. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and its law school as well as an army officer during World War I, Dechert went on to become vice president and counsel of The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company and continued as head of Penn Mutual’s legal department after forming his partnership with Bok.
The Modern Firm Emerges
As laws and regulations governing corporate entities proliferated, the firm offered a more diverse range of services. Focused practice groups, including taxation (headed by Dechert himself), business & corporate, fiduciary and litigation, were introduced in 1946. Through the mid-1950s, most of the firm’s trial lawyers were immersed in Pennsylvania Railroad litigation arising from the Federal Employer’s Liability Act. But clients increasingly sought the firm’s representation in antitrust and securities litigation as well as in general business and labor matters.
After undergoing several more name changes, the firm became Dechert Price & Rhoads in 1962.
National and International Expansion
Dechert was among the first law firms in the United States to recognize the importance of serving clients abroad, establishing a Brussels office in 1968 and a London office in 1972. Beginning in the mid-‘90s, Dechert’s international presence began to significantly expand, with offices opening in Paris (1995); Luxembourg (2001); Munich (2004); Hong Kong (2007); Beijing (2008); Moscow (2009); Dublin (2010); and Frankfurt, Almaty, Dubai and Tbilisi (2012).
Dechert secured a 32-lawyer Paris team from Coudert Brothers in 1995, which significantly expanded its cross-border corporate/M&A, life sciences and international litigation/arbitration capabilities, as well as its French tax and employment law practices.
In 2000 Dechert merged with Titmuss, Sainer & Webb, a UK firm with roots dating back to the 1930s in London. The merger significantly expanded the international financing and investment funds, litigation, finance and real estate services offered to Dechert clients.
Closer to home, the firm has grown well beyond its Philadelphia roots, opening offices in Washington, D.C. and Harrisburg (1969), New York (1980), Boston and Princeton (1987), Hartford (1996), Orange County (2001), San Francisco (2002), Silicon Valley (2003), Charlotte (2004), Austin (2006), Los Angeles (2011) and Chicago (2012).
Star litigator Andrew Levander and acclaimed antitrust lawyer Paul Denis, along with a group of 63 other Swidler lawyers, joined Dechert’s New York and Washington, D.C. offices in 2005.
Throughout its history, Dechert has attracted, and been shaped by, internationally acclaimed lawyers who have held prominent posts in government and politics before, during and after their association with the firm. Francis Biddle, a partner from 1916 through 1939, held several influential government posts during his time with Dechert, most notably as chair of the National Labor Board, in which capacity he helped to create the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner Act), which guaranteed workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively. After leaving the firm, he served as attorney general of the United States for most of World War II, and as the primary American judge during the Nuremberg trials.
Joseph Clark joined the firm in 1934 after practicing law for eight years. In 1951, he was elected mayor of Philadelphia—the city’s first Democratic mayor in more than 60 years. In 1956, he was elected to the United States Senate, serving for 12 years.
Arlen Specter practiced with the firm from 1956–1959. Leaving to serve on the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (the Warren Commission), he was elected District Attorney of Philadelphia in 1965, returned to Dechert as a partner in 1972 and was elected to the United States Senate in 1980.
Veteran litigator Leonard Garment became a partner in the Washington, D.C. office in 1996. Prior to that, he served as Special Counsel to President Nixon, advising him on crises ranging from the Middle East to the armed occupation of Wounded Knee by members of the American Indian Movement to Watergate. He later represented Reagan officials during the Iran-Contra hearings, and Judge Robert Bork in connection with his Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
Several Dechert lawyers have gone on to become U.S. district court judges for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, including three who are currently serving: Norma Shapiro, the firm’s second female associate when she was hired in 1956 and its first female partner in 1973; Chief Judge Harvey Bartle III and Mary A. McLaughlin.
Andrew Levander joined Dechert’s New York office in 2005. A former federal prosecutor, he is known for representing high-profile Wall Street companies and executives. Levander is currently Chair of the firm’s Policy Committee.
Renowned trial lawyer David Bernick joined the firm’s litigation practice in New York in 2013. Among Bernick’s high-profile victories are the acquittal of W.R. Grace & Co. and three of its executives before a Montana jury in a landmark environmental prosecution brought by the U.S. federal government. The W.R. Grace case is believed to be the largest criminal environmental prosecution ever.
Known today as Dechert, the firm has numerous top-ranked practices and an impressive global footprint. Dechert lawyers represent major players on the world economic scene in headline-making matters requiring deep expertise, commercial judgment and relentless client focus.