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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Stephen J. Dannhauser

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-04-04

At 6 a.m. most days of the week, regardless of where in the world he is -- and Stephen J. Dannhauser travels widely -- the chairman of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, one of New York's elite law firms, springs out of bed, dons a track suit, and runs for four or five miles. When Mr. Dannhauser is training for marathons, the mileage increases.

"Five marathons," he said over lunch, with a quiet but clearly proud smile. "I've taken part in five marathons."

It seemed to the reporter that "marathon" could also be aptly used to characterize Mr. Dannhauser's legal career. He's been at Weil Gotshal for 30 years, ever since he graduated from Brooklyn Law School with honors in 1975. For the last 16 years, he's run this firm of 1,200 lawyers and 1,400 other employees as its executive partner; he was given the title of chairman in 2002.

On Mr. Dannhauser's watch, the 74-year-old firm has expanded from its headquarters in the General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue to 20 locations around the country and overseas. Its shingle now hangs in Austin, Boston, Brussels, Budapest, Dallas, Frankfurt, Houston, London, Miami, Munich, New York, Paris, Prague, Providence, Silicon Valley, Shanghai, Singapore, Warsaw, Wilmington, Del., and Washington D.C.

"We've transformed the firm," Mr. Dannhauser said. "No question about it."

That transformation has pushed the firm's annual revenues beyond $1 billion. It has generated institutional relationships with major players such as Citigroup, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (now part of Credit Suisse First Boston), Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch. It has meant representing business giants such as General Electric's Genworth Financial, Procter & Gamble, and Verizon Communications. It has involved advising ExxonMobil, and United Health Group.

In all this, Mr. Dannhauser hasn't confined himself to the role of master strategist and rainmaker.

"I am a hands-on person," he said. "At heart, I'm an old-fashioned lawyer. I like to participate in the development of business -- and remain personally involved in matters of importance to our clients."

This disposition has led to his playing a leading counseling and crisis-management role in a number of major corporate restructurings, including Chase Manhattan Mortgage and Realty Trust, Drexel Burnham Lambert, Frontier Airlines, Global Marine, Inc., Guardian Mortgage Investors, and International Harvester Company.

His title and position, of course, make him the ueber-attorney in a company that has, in Mr. Dannhauser's words, "high-charging, achievement-oriented and academically gifted" lawyers. But his sensibility is that of an umbel.

"I've learned to sublimate my ego and help others succeed," Mr. Dannhauser said. "The enduring reputation of a law firm such as ours is predicated on team work."

His management style is inclusive. He learned that from his mentor, Harvey Miller, the acclaimed lawyer who was with Weil Gotshal for 33 years; and from the legendary Ira Millstein, also with the firm. Both Mr. Miller and Mr. Millstein marked Mr. Dannhauser as a potential firm leader early in his career; they offered him the firm's top job in March 1989. He accepted the offer that October after extensive discussions about how he could enhance the firm's practice and influence.

Mr. Dannhauser emphasized that his inclusive leadership style meant inviting a diversity of opinions.

"I like to listen, I like vigorous debate, I like to get various points of view, I am available to my staff," Mr. Dannhauser said. "But I also believe in using a targeted approach. I am a decisive person. To succeed in New York, it takes incredible energy, vision, teamwork, focus and discipline."

"I know there's a very sophisticated marketplace out there, and perceptions are very important -- you're constantly sending out signals to the community about your skills and record," Mr. Dannhauser said. "I know that you're not even in the game if you're not technically competent. So in terms of identifying market needs and providing a high degree of skills, our law firm can compete with anybody. But it's the people part of the equation that tips the balance in your favor."

Essentially, that means Mr. Dannhauser must pay special attention to two elements: cultivating and nurturing relationships with clients and potential customers; and developing in-house talent to ensure that Weil Gotschal flourishes in its wide-ranging offerings that include mergers and acquisitions; bankruptcy law; corporate restructuring; private equity, which accounts for 20% of the firm's billings; capital markets; regulatory work; and intellectual property, which brings in 10% of annual revenues of Weil Gotshal. (Mr. Dannhauser doesn't use words like "billings" or "revenues"; his choice is "production.")

His firm, the chairman said, doesn't simply present its clients with various options. "We provide judgment on what course of action to take, and why," he said. "That sort of judgment is critical. It is also appreciated by clients."

Servicing the firm's clients, to be sure, needs to be a primary professional obligation for Mr. Dannhauser. But he's also driven by another dynamic -- public service and humanitarian work. He's raised funds for the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund, Boys & Girls Harbor, Inc., the National Minority Business Council, and the Police Athletic League, among other organizations.

What motivates him in all this?

"My late father, Frank, was a great inspiration about giving back to society, about helping the less fortunate," Mr. Dannhauser said, recalling his modest background as one of four children raised by a court clerk and his wife, Irene, in Nassau County. "I still remember a subway ride when my father gave one of the two nickels he had in his pocket to a homeless person. That kind of example has to have a major impact on you."

That humanitarian filament weaves conspicuously through the Dannhauser family's DNA. His wife, Beth -- a childhood sweetheart to whom he's been married for 32 years -- developed a volunteer program called "Compassionate Touch" at Cabrini Hospital in Manhattan, and at other institutions. It involves using touch, music and aromatherapy oils in easing the anguish of terminally ill patients. The youngest of the Dannhausers' three sons, Jess, is similarly engaged in public service for the city.

Tonight at the New York Hilton, Stephen Dannhauser -- along with Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, and Kitty and Jim Fassel -- will be given the Fire Commissioner's Humanitarian Award, one of many honors he's received over the years. He may or may not narrate the following anecdote that he told the reporter, but it will surely be on his mind.

Some years ago, on the night before Jess Dannhauser was off to Duke University, he told his mother: "We've got to find a way to keep Dad alive a long time so that one day we can start an orphanage."

Maybe, the reporter thought, maybe that's really why Stephen Dannhauser gets up at 6 o'clock in the morning and runs for his life.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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