Washington Lawyer

Meet the President: Sidley Austin's Tim Webster

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2015

By David O'Boyle

Tim Webster began his term as the 44th president of the D.C. Bar on June 16 when he was sworn in at the Celebration of Leadership: The D.C. Bar Awards Dinner and Annual Meeting.

Tim Webster. Photo by Patrice Gilbert.

Webster is a partner at Sidley Austin LLP where his practice involves civil and criminal environmental matters, including challenges to government action and defense of enforcement matters, as well as regulatory advocacy and related compliance counseling. Before joining the firm, Webster worked as a trial attorney in the Environmental Enforcement Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, a position he held for seven years.

Webster originally was hired at the Justice Department by then-Section Chief John Cruden, who later served as Bar president himself. Years later, Cruden suggested Webster seek the position of the Bar’s pro bono general counsel. In 2004 Webster was appointed by the D.C. Bar Board of Governors for what was traditionally a two-year term. He was asked to serve two additional terms, providing legal advice on a variety of issues related to the Bar’s core mission and representing the Bar and its employees and affiliates in a wide range of litigation until 2010.

Webster is a graduate of Carleton College and received his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. Following law school, Webster clerked for Judge John P. Wiese of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Tell me about your upbringing and your background.
I was born in New York City, but my parents moved to the District of Columbia when I was one year old, so I have limited New York credentials. I can say I lived in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though.

We moved here so my father could take a job as an assistant U.S. attorney in the District. My wife says that I don’t technically meet the definition of a “native” because I wasn’t born here, but I lived here from year one on through my entire adolescence. 

Do you have any siblings?
Yes. I have a younger sister. She lives in Chicago and works for a research group affiliated with Northwestern University Hospital.

What was it like growing up in the District of Columbia?
I had a great experience. D.C. has a lot to offer to a kid. It was a little too warm in the summers, perhaps, and back then central air conditioning was not as common as it is now, but it bothered us less.

D.C. has gone through an amazing transformation in the last 40 years. It really was more of a sleepy government town back then. And downtown used to be dead at night and on weekends, but now there are many vibrant areas that are bustling at all hours. But above all, it was then and is still now a majestic city, filled with so many museums and monuments and other attractions.
When did you first become interested in the law?
After college I took two years to work before deciding to go to law school. During that time, I had a very interesting job at the Justice Department as a nonlawyer.

I had been interested in environmental issues in college, and I knew I wanted to do something in that area, but I didn’t know exactly what. Back then, in the mid-1980s, the environmental arena was still relatively new. The first Earth Day had only been a decade earlier, and a lot of environmental statutes had only been enacted during the previous 15 years.

I recognized more broadly that a majority of the most influential players in the field were lawyers. They weren’t all practicing as lawyers, but they were lawyers. I realized that becoming a lawyer would be the ideal way to form an environmental career.

What kind of work were you doing at the time?
I worked for Roger Marzulla who was then the assistant attorney general for what was called the Land and Natural Resources Division (now called the Environment and Natural Resources Division). I would accompany him to speeches and other events, and I was in a position to see almost everything that came through his office and to learn about all of the major issues of the day. He was very influential in my career path, and I thank him and his wife, Nancie, for their support. I’m proud to have them as constituent D.C. Bar members now.

I also worked with the division’s policy shop on various projects under another influential lawyer, Anne Shields, who was herself the recipient of the Bar’s Beatrice Rosenberg Award for Excellence in Government Service.

On the whole, the job gave me a great perspective from a high level on the leading environmental policy and legal issues, at least at the federal level.

So you went into law school knowing definitively that you wanted to practice environmental law?
I knew both what and where I wanted to practice, which was back at the Justice Department.

During law school I was a summer associate at Sidley, which I enjoyed. If you take the long-term view of recruiting, it was a success story. It just took from 1990, when I was a summer associate, until 1999, when I finally left my job at the Justice Department, to come back to Sidley.

Why did you choose to attend the University of Virginia School of Law?
When I came back from college to work, I didn’t yet know that I wanted to go to law school, but I was encouraged to live in Arlington, Virginia, to obtain state residency just in case. UVA is a great school, and it’s also where my father went to law school.

Qualifying as a resident makes such a huge difference. I was looking at American Bar Association statistics on the cost of law school recently. One of the biggest problems for young professionals is the huge debt burden they face upon graduation. What families can afford to pay for not only four years of college, but also three years of law school at $40,000 or $50,000 per year? Attending in-state provides a tremendous advantage.

Do you think that there is anything the Bar can do to help address the rising costs of law school tuition and the debt burden for young lawyers?
The short answer is no. We don’t have any authority in that area.

What we can do is try to provide the community of lawyers with opportunities through the Bar to bring members together, to help facilitate connections, and to help members build the skills that they will need to be successful.

Were you intently focused on environmental law throughout your law school career or were there other subjects that interested you?
I mostly focused on administrative law and litigation, which are critical to the practice of environmental law and many other areas.

Courses like federal courts were very interesting to me because they helped me to understand the big picture. When you’re practicing in the District, and your practice ranges from administrative agencies to district courts to appellate courts, you need to know how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. I figured that I would learn the subject matter later when I actually began practicing law—and I was right.

You then clerked for Judge John Wiese at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Tell me about your experience there.
That was a terrific job. Although it might have been interesting to see some of the guns and drugs criminal cases that the U.S. District Court handles, the reality is that I was not going into that kind of practice.

The Court of Federal Claims handles most civil claims against the government for money damages, so you have two elements that aligned very well with what I wanted to do next. One is government-related litigation, and the second is civil litigation.

Every case involved the Justice Department. Every case involved issues of federal statutes and the construction of federal law. From that perspective, it was an extremely useful building block for what I wanted to do next.

You then went on to become a trial attorney for the Environmental Enforcement Section at the Justice Department. What kind of work did that entail?
That was civil enforcement that primarily related to what you would think of as the major pollution control statutes—the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Superfund law. It was often big litigation involving many parties. 

Do you have a favorite case from your time there?
One highlight was United States v. Allied Signal Corp., et al. It involved a stereotypical hazardous waste dump in southern New Jersey with a 50-acre pond full of used oil and other material.

Back in those days, they collected used oil from various sources like garages and just dumped it into a holding pond. They would recycle it if it was cost-effective to do so, but it wasn’t always cost-effective.

Imagine 50 football fields full of nothing but used oil, with hundreds of parties that had sent material there over a long period of time, and a lot of different people who had operated the facility.

Piecing together what happened historically, and who was potentially liable for cleanup costs, was a real challenge. For a young lawyer, it provided a great cross-sectional overview of a mega-case. I was involved in virtually all stages of the case from just after it was filed all the way through to the end. It took five or six years until it was finally resolved in a large settlement. I’m told the cleanup still continues, almost two decades later.

How did your move to Sidley Austin come about?
I knew that I wanted to go back to private practice at some point. I was originally going to stay at the Department of Justice for three or four years. At the three- or four-year mark, I was having a lot of fun, so I thought I’d stay another year. Then another year became another year.

Finally, as I was getting into my seventh year, I realized it was time to move on. Coincidentally, one of the senior associates in the environmental group at Sidley was leaving for the government. I knew I wanted to return to Sidley, and it was perfect timing.

How did you cope with that transition and the differences between working at the Justice Department and at Sidley Austin?
The transition was very interesting. Private practice is quite different from government practice. Clients expect that you know everything about everything for the rate that you’re charging. But even in the environmental area, it’s impossible to know everything.

You have to adapt. Keep in mind that my wife and I had a one-year-old daughter at the time, and within another year we had another daughter. So I was both learning and juggling.

In terms of amusing stories, there were a couple of clients who thought I was a spy for the government during the first couple of months I was at Sidley. They would say, “Hey, you talk too much like you’re a Justice Department lawyer.”

I rapidly learned the right lingo, and I came to do quite well.

How do you manage work-life balance?
People talk about work-life balance as if it’s a right. I think it’s more of a myth. It is extremely difficult and there is no one solution. Making it all work involves priorities and resiliency.

I have three priorities now: family, the D.C. Bar, and Sidley. It’s partly a matter of being willing to go without all the sleep that you would want to have. Otherwise, it’s just arranging priorities. Family has to come first, the D.C. Bar has to come first, too, sometimes, and clients come first (or think they come first) all the time, but they’re willing to work with you when they know you have something else that’s pressing.

Did you ever consider going into solo practice or a small firm setting?
I did not. My father is a solo practitioner. I think there’s something to be said for truly being your own boss. That sounds great.

But being a partner at a large law firm brings with it an aspect of being your own boss, because fundamentally, you work for clients. There is firm bureaucracy, of course, but I don’t report to someone else on an organizational chart, I report to the clients.

The great thing about the large law firm setting is the breadth of high-level work, meaning precedent-setting, high-profile cases in a wide array of areas.

Who has served as a mentor to you during your career?
A number of people have. I already mentioned a few early influences, Roger Marzulla and Anne Shields. Another is former D.C. Bar president John Cruden. John hired me into the Justice Department out of my clerkship. I worked for him for several years there.

He was also the one who got me interested in seeking the position of general counsel of the D.C. Bar. He has been instrumental at various points of my career and was also very supportive of my candidacy for president.

Here at Sidley, I have worked closely over the years with David Buente. David formerly held John Cruden’s job at the Justice Department. He used to be the chief of the Environmental Enforcement Section in the 1980s. It’s been great to work with him and so many others at Sidley for the past 16 years.

How important do you think mentors are to lawyers at all stages of their career?
I think they are very important because it’s hard to have a sense of perspective without talking to somebody else. If you sit locked up in your office all the time, you don’t really see the broader picture or have a forum to discuss issues and concerns.

But you can’t force a mentorship. You can assign mentors, and sometimes those relationships work, but the best mentorship relationships develop organically.

How did you first become involved with the D.C. Bar?
It was through my role as the Bar’s pro bono general counsel. I had been a member for a long time, but I had never formally participated in any Bar committees or activities before 2004.

Tell me about your experience as the Bar’s general counsel.
It was an interesting job. When I ran for president, a lot of people would say, “You were general counsel. You must know where all the skeletons are hidden.” That’s partly true: I developed an understanding of how the Bar functions at a level that’s very different than even Board of Governors members understand, because I had to defend various Bar programs or individuals in court.

The role involves litigation and general advice on a wide variety of Bar business-related issues, not only for the headquarters office, but for both the Office of Bar Counsel and the Board on Professional Responsibility as well.

The most intense part was the litigation. Like all litigation, it can be all-consuming for certain periods of time.

What benefits do you get out of your service to the Bar?
You get a great opportunity to participate in the Bar community. It’s also neat to have the experience of doing something different that expands your horizons through Bar service.

You have been working closely with Immediate Past President Brigida Benitez on D.C. Bar 2020, the new strategic plan. Tell me about your experience with that process.
It has been fascinating. While the Bar had engaged in strategic planning before, this time we went to extraordinary lengths to reach out for feedback from the membership. We sent out a survey to all members and received, from what I understand from survey professionals, a high response rate. We had responses from approximately 2,500 individuals.

We then hosted 21 focus groups with judges, Board of Governors members, sections members, government lawyers, private practice lawyers, large firm lawyers, and small firm lawyers, among others, to try to get a handle on what our membership wants. We asked them about their opinions of the Bar, their needs, and what we could do to better serve them over the long run.

The results have been very interesting. The most poignant result for me is that there are many people who are looking for a broader sense of professional community. People are looking to try to connect, and they can best do that by getting out of their offices and becoming involved, whether it’s pro bono work through the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, participation in a Bar section, through a Bar committee, or through many of the opportunities that exist with other community organizations and voluntary bars in the District of Columbia. That’s in part what people seem to be looking for.

Working harder to provide that sense of community for our members will go a long way in terms of helping and strengthening the legal community.

What are your key initiatives for your term as president?
They fall into three categories. The Bar’s strategic planning process was an intensive process. It took virtually all year, but that’s not even half of the work. The rest of the story will include implementing the lofty concepts from the strategic plan into programs and changes within the Bar.

My first focus will be the implementation of the strategic plan for the Bar and a parallel one for the Pro Bono Center, both of which were adopted in June.

Second, I will assist with the ongoing Global Legal Practice Task Force, which was started last year by President Benitez and is chaired by former president Darrell G. Mottley. I will help to bring this project to fruition.

Finally, I have set in motion two related projects to assess the D.C. Bar’s sections. We have a lot of people who attend our Continuing Legal Education Program courses, many people who participate in Pro Bono Center activities, and a large group who volunteer their time for our committees and our Board, but the single most significant touch point for members is our sections.

We have 20 sections with 24,000 memberships. In terms of fostering a sense of community, the sections are going to be our greatest opportunity.

I would like to do an inward- and outward-looking review of sections. I have asked Michelle Bercovici, the chair of the Sections Council, to form a working group to collect data from the sections related to how the overall experience could be improved.

I also have asked Philip Lacovara, the chair of the Leadership Development Committee, to assess the current sections leadership structure to determine whether there are any changes that his group would recommend as an indirect way to further enhance the value of the sections.

What experiences from your career can you draw from during your term?
First and foremost, having been general counsel of the Bar for six years gives me a tremendous amount of insight into how the Bar actually operates and what goes on behind the scenes. Also, my experience from private practice has provided me a lot of opportunity to develop management and leadership skills. My experience leading large projects and managing the people who are involved in them, while juggling the competing demands involved in litigation, will serve me well as Bar president.

What are the biggest challenges you expect to face during your term?
The Bar and the profession as a whole are at a unique period. The legal profession is changing. That sounds trite because it has always been changing, but we appear to be at a crossroads of waning interest in the profession from young adults and substantial pressure from outside forces.

Last year the enrollment of first-year law students was at the lowest level since 1973. That year, the population of the United States was 110 million less than it is today, not to mention the fact that a candy bar cost 10 cents.

Furthermore, according to the ABA, only about 60 percent of the class of 2014 law school graduates had full-time, long-term legal jobs that require a law license a year later. That leaves a lot of graduates without the legal jobs they worked so hard toward.

There are great pressures on the profession from internal and external forces, including client pressure to adopt alternative fee models and globalization. There are a whole lot of technological solutions that are coming into play, too.

The big law firms keep getting bigger, the rates keep getting higher, yet there are a lot of unemployed lawyers out there. There’s a lot of pressure to develop other ways of practicing law and providing low cost services.

Frankly, we don’t meet the needs of those who cannot afford lawyers. There’s also a huge gap in the so-called “low -bono” arena, which former Bar president Andrea Ferster focused on.

Considering all of the different challenges facing the legal profession, the biggest is determining where the profession will go from here.

What are your hobbies and what do you do when you need to unwind?
I enjoy photography and woodworking. I’m relatively handy. I have an entire basement full of power tools. They beckon me, but they are rarely visited these days.

I love travelling. I’m truly proud to have been to every one of our 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, although I have not been to Guam and the other Pacific territories.

I think we have an incredible country with a great diversity of natural resources and other interesting places to visit.

E-mail David O’Boyle or follow me on Twitter at @d_oboyle.