Williams & Connolly was celebrating its 50th anniversary year when the “The Post” debuted in theaters in 2017. Steven Spielberg’s vision of Old Washington featured Tom Hanks as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham, struggling to decide whether to print a cache of the Pentagon Papers.
Absent from the carousel of lawyers tussling with the newspapermen on screen was Edward Bennett Williams, the Post’s longtime lawyer and Williams & Connolly’s legendary co-founder. Before his death, Bradlee said he and Graham relied on Williams’ advice in green-lighting publication over other lawyers’ timidity. But Spielberg saw no scene for “The Man to See,” a moniker bestowed on Williams by biographer Evan Thomas.
The Man to See was invisible in Hollywood. The exclusion caused “real disappointment” and “a furor among some” of Williams & Connolly’s senior lawyers, according to Williams & Connolly then-chairman Dane Butswinkas. Most of the firm’s current lawyers never met Williams, who died in 1988, and the firm was entering a period of transition from the founder’s proteges to the next generation. But Williams’ presence still looms large at the Am Law 100 firm’s single office, in the Edward Bennett Williams Building in downtown D.C.
Last year, Butswinkas still chaired the firm, Kevin Hodges was managing partner, and men were in the majority on the firm’s executive committee. In 2019, none of those things remain the same.
“Our view about business models and the future is, if you continue to be the best at what you do, people will call on you,” Butswinkas said in an interview last spring.
Still, the firm’s leaders insist Williams & Connolly has no plans of expanding its geographical footprint beyond the capital. The digital age has made it easier for clients anywhere to interact with the firm’s lawyers remotely, and the firm continues to operate from its single home base.
That—and the firm’s continued commitment to being a litigation-first firm—puts Williams & Connolly in rarefied air among Am Law 100 firms. Jeffrey Lowe, Major, Lindsey & Africa’s managing partner in D.C., said Williams & Connolly’s success amid the rapidly changing legal environment is a credit to the firm, but he wonders if it is a sustainable model.
“The question becomes, is there still a place for that in the world going forward?” Lowe said, noting, “there’s no doubt they’re definitely considered a pre-eminent litigation shop.”