On a steamy day in New York last week, Dan K. Webb, the chief counsel for the New York Stock Exchange in its case against Richard A. Grasso, its former chairman, was doing what $700-an-hour lawyers normally do – juggling a boatload of cases.
In the morning, he took a call from John F. Welch Jr., the former General Electric chairman and a longtime client with whom he sometimes talks three times a week. Earlier this year, Mr. Welch retained him to contest the publication of “Testosterone Inc.: Tales of C.E.O.’s Gone Wild,” a scathing account of the business and personal lives of four prominent chief executives, including Mr. Welch.
That night, Mr. Webb, who is 59, worked until 2 a.m. preparing for a deposition in his capacity as the lead counsel for Philip Morris in the government’s $300 billion lawsuit accusing the tobacco industry of racketeering.
Between those tasks, he plotted the Big Board’s legal strategy in its battle with Mr. Grasso, who has said that he plans to sue both the stock exchange and John S. Reed, the exchange’s interim chairman, in an effort to get $48 million in compensation that he believes he is owed. Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general, has sued Mr. Grasso, contending that the $139.5 million he has already been paid by the Big Board is excessive.
“I don’t have to work these hours, but if you stop doing this stuff you will stop being a great lawyer,” Mr. Webb said, sitting in a cramped, empty room of Winston & Strawn’s office in Midtown Manhattan.
Mr. Webb’s booming career at Winston & Strawn, an old-line law firm based in Chicago, epitomizes the rise of a new breed of superlawyers – versatile litigators like David Boies of Boies, Schiller & Flexner and Robert B. Fiske Jr. of Davis, Polk & Wardwell, who are capable of securing a divorce settlement for a client, compiling an investigative corporate report or making a hard-hitting courtroom defense for a corporation, a chief executive or a politician.
They are practicing trial lawyers, as distinct from such powerful counselors as Martin Lipton, who conceived of the poison-pill defense at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, and Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a former Washington lawyer who was a favorite of President Bill Clinton. Both Mr. Lipton and Mr. Jordan are known more for boardroom advice than for courtroom skills.
But agility in the courtroom is increasingly in demand as corporations and chief executives more often become targets for aggressive government prosecutors – not to mention estranged wives and muckraking authors. “There are only a handful of lawyers that operate at that level, and Dan Webb is one of them,” said Bruce E. Yannett, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York. “He can talk to boards as well as corporations, and he is not seen as someone who will just settle.”
Not that he always wins. The case that he says pains him most is one he lost in 1991. He was defending a judge, David J. Shields of the Chancery Division of Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago, against bribery charges. Mr. Shields was convicted and sentenced to jail.
“I was just devastated,” Mr. Webb said. “He went to jail and he was my friend. I have only one fear in life and that is failure. I make no bones about it; I don’t like to fail.”