During our fascinating and revealing interview with former Drinker Biddle & Reath Chairman Jim Sweet, we discovered a man shadowboxing with retirement, while engaged in sharing his 46 years of legal practice − including 32 at Drinker Biddle − in creative and valuable ways. Jim chaired Drinker Biddle’s litigation department, helping to build it into a national practice. Under his stewardship as Chairman of the firm, Drinker Biddle nearly doubled in size and opened a number of new offices. The firm also added new practice groups and developed a national reputation, most notably in defense of class action litigation lawsuits for pharmaceutical companies and the protection of intellectual property.
Today, Jim’s main calling is serving as Executive Vice President & General Counsel at Westminster Theological Seminary and he “moonlights” as a consultant, advising law firms on mergers, strategic planning, compensation system review and restructuring, management of high performers and leadership coaching. He also puts a fine point on business development and practice management issues and conducts retreats for firms in those areas. Jim has been profiled in the The Legal Intelligencer and often is called upon to comment on trends in the legal marketplace.
The Early Years
A 1967 graduate of Wheaton College, Jim knew the draft was inevitable, so he joined the Navy and served on active duty for two and half years. He began his service in Naval Flight School in Pensacola but developed vision problems just short of completing flight school. He was reassigned to the Pentagon, where he was in charge of the contracting and testing of several experimental weapons systems for the Navy. When faced with a 48-hour deadline to determine his next step, Jim accepted an honorable discharge from the Navy to pursue law school instead … but not before going on the adventure of a lifetime.
Jim and his wife, Joyce, missed the opportunity for a real honeymoon because he was in the Navy when they got married. With active duty behind him, they decided to drop everything, put law school on hold, buy two around-the-world tickets and take off. They made it halfway around the world and decided to work in Australia to replenish their funds. Joyce found work as a teacher in a high school for immigrant children and Jim became an assistant registrar at La Trobe University in Melbourne. The couple made the most of their nine-month “honeymoon” in the Land Down Under.
Finding the Path and Committing to It
Resuming his pursuit of law school upon their return to the United States, Jim and Joyce moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, where Jim enrolled in William & Mary Law School. Following a clerkship in Pittsburgh and law school graduation, they moved once more – this time to Philadelphia. His job search centered on research in the hardcover Martindale-Hubbell legal directory − one of the few available resources at the time. Jim earned several offers with prominent law firms, including Drinker Biddle. He reached out to the one lawyer in Philadelphia he knew and asked him which offer to take. His friend said “Drinker Biddle & Reath – they’re the best,” and the rest is history.
When he was hired by Drinker Biddle in 1973, Jim was the firm’s 50th attorney in its only office: Philadelphia. During his second year, the firm celebrated its 125th birthday – it has been a source of pride for Jim to be part of a firm with such a rich history. He had the opportunity to work with a number of Drinker’s most storied lawyers, including Lewis Van Dusen, Henry Sawyer, Robert Ryan, Patrick Ryan and Raymond Denworth, Jr. – who helped pave his way from an associate to a partner, to head of the Litigation Group and ultimately to Chairman of the firm, a position he held for five years.
During his time at Drinker Biddle, Jim saw many positive changes and helped establish significant growth. Jim and senior leadership expanded Drinker Biddle’s business through key acquisitions that broadened the firm’s geographic footprint, making it the firm of choice for large global companies. Jim counts this strategic growth among his most significant accomplishments during his tenure with the firm.
One day that will always loom large in Jim’s memory is September 11, 2001. Drinker Biddle had an office on the 89th floor of the World Trade Center North Tower. With the partner in charge of the New York office operating as the hub of email communications via his BlackBerry, Jim, along with others at the firm, spent a harrowing 14 hours making sure all lawyers and staff had made it out safely. Jim recalled, “Several of them walked down all 89 flights before the building collapsed.” As chronicled in an article in The American Lawyer, before midnight, all 16 employees were accounted for and safe.
Expanding and Evolving
Through all the crises and the routine days during his time with the firm, Jim learned that managing people is critically important. Throughout his career he has spent a great deal of time managing people and perfected his art along the way. Regularly walking the halls, stopping in to see people to find out how they were doing and seeing if he could help are just a few of the ways Jim made himself accessible and a better manager. He had a goal of visiting every office at least once a month.
Expanding the skill set he developed at Drinker Biddle, following his retirement from the firm in 2005 Jim joined Westminster Theological Seminary, and in his 13 years at Westminster has served as Vice President for Advancement, Provost, and currently Executive Vice President & General Counsel. Jim is part of a leadership team of five that reports to the President of the Seminary. They are in charge of creating and overseeing the strategic plan for the Seminary. As General Counsel, Jim recently completed five years of work on a redevelopment plan for the campus. He also is responsible for the Seminary’s copyright, employment and all other legal work.
In his role with Law Practice Consultants, Jim has coached law firm chairs and managing partners and individual lawyers and advised on law firm mergers, strategic planning, compensation system review and restructuring, management of high performers and leadership coaching. Jim also conducts retreats for firms, focusing on practice group and firm business development. He speaks frequently about law firm issues for organizations such as the Law Firm Leadership Summit, the Law Firm Leadership Conference and continuing legal education programs. Currently, Jim also is a fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar and is a member of the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States.
A Life Well Played
When he’s not working, Jim likes to play golf (though not very well), listen to classical music and enjoy time with family and friends. His all-time favorite golfer is “The King,” Arnold Palmer, who is known for accumulating 92 victories over his 46-year career and setting numerous records. Similar to Jim, the late, great golfer was a successful businessman who influenced those who followed in his footsteps. When asked what his dream job would be Jim said, “I’d be a professional golfer by day and a musician by night.”
A noble goal, but during Jim’s chairmanship, Drinker Biddle added more than 100 lawyers; opened up offices in Chicago, Wilmington, San Francisco and Los Angeles; moved into the Am Law 100 for the first time; and increased profits per equity partner from $360,000 in the 2001 Am Law 100 to well over $500,000 in 2005. He also spearheaded the integration of 111-attorney Shanley & Fisher, while making several key acquisitions, including the March 2001 addition of venerable 16-attorney intellectual property boutique Seidel Gonda Lavorgna & Monaco and the 2002 additions of the San Francisco and Los Angeles offices. Jim credits the late Jack Michel for being instrumental in the acquisition of the Seidel firm and Wilson Brown for being instrumental in the opening of the Los Angeles and San Francisco offices. As for retirement, somehow we get the feeling that Jim isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
But for now Jim enjoys traveling and spending time with Joyce and their many friends and playing a little golf. He also enjoys seeing his busy children and grandchildren. Some of Jim and Joyce’s favorite destinations are France, England and Italy. With two sons in New York and a daughter in Boston, Jim cherishes the time he gets to spend with his family.