Inside Joseph Tate’s Cocoon

Why clients feel safe there  

Published in 2008 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers — June 2008

While many high-profile criminal lawyers relish their 15 minutes of fame when their face is pictured in the newspaper or on TV alongside a superstar client, for Joseph A. Tate, one of the country's top antitrust and white-collar litigation lawyers, such publicity signifies something has gone wrong.

The reputations of Tate's clients, which include Fortune 100 giants, their CEOs, even the chief of staff to the vice president of the United States, are best preserved in anonymity. "My greatest successes never see the light of day," he says.

Tate is a partner at Dechert in Philadelphia. His roots in the city run deep.

He was born and raised in the suburb of Ardmore, where his father was a milkman and his mother "a mom." His brother is now a professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and of his two sisters, one is a judge in Delaware and the other a Ph.D.-holding Catholic nun. "For a blue-collar family, my parents did very well," he says.

Tate attended Villanova University, where he was elected student body president. Upon graduation in 1963, he chose to stay on for law school. "I had a real loyalty to Villanova for what it did for me while I was there," he says. 

Loyalty comes up often in conversations with Tate. From his hometown and alma mater to his high-profile clients and support staff, Tate has built much of his success on strong allegiances. After law school, he was offered a coveted job with the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. He stayed for four years, then returned to Philadelphia and Schnader, Harrison, Segal and Lewis, where he developed a white-collar criminal practice and forged relationships with his core clients, corporate behemoths including Pfizer, Israel Chemicals and FMC. In addition to assisting them with antitrust litigation, Tate helped them broker major corporate deals. "My practice is different than most trial lawyers in that the same cadre of clients has always accounted for 50 to 60 percent of my practice," he says.

When Tate left Schnader Harrison for Dechert in 1991, his clients followed. So did his legal team and support staff, including his assistant, Diane Thompson, who's been with him for almost 40 years. "One of the keys to my career has been the team around me," Tate says. "Diane is as smart as any lawyer I've ever worked with. I've had the same core legal team for more than 20 years. We call it ‘living in the cocoon.'"

"Even though I was a kid right out of high school when I first started working for Joe, I felt that he respected me," says Thompson. "I worked with him, not for him. And that's the way it is today. He believes that it takes a team to get the job done and never forgets to acknowledge everyone on the team for their hard work."

He takes clients into the cocoon so he can understand them and anticipate problems before they arise. "Before I start a case, I get to know the client, his business, his family, the people that work in his company," he says. "Then I can give them guidance—the type of guidance you don't bill for. The clients remember that you were part of ‘the family' that keeps them out of trouble."

Clients appreciate not just the attention, but the dedication to creative problem solving that only comes from deep knowledge. "Joe approaches a case with a total vision of how it might play out, but he is not bound by a script," says Robert L. Pratter, senior vice president and general counsel, PMA Capital Corporation. "He quickly adapts to unexpected developments."

Adds Joe Pattison, associate general counsel of FMC Corp., "I work with lawyers all over the world on all kinds of issues, but for the toughest problems, he is the one I call. Joe is the guy you want at your side when you step into the OK Corral."

There was no bigger gunfight than the one that faced his old friend Scooter Libby. Libby and Tate had won cases together at Schnader Harrison and, later, Tate helped convince Libby to run Dechert's Washington office. "Libby is a fabulous lawyer," Tate says. "When you work with people like that you develop a relationship that stays forever."

Despite their political differences—"he is an arch-conservative neocon; he calls me a flaming liberal Democrat"—Libby passed over Washington's top political lawyers and entrusted Tate to lead his defense when Libby was charged with making false statements to the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame leak scandal. "I think because of our prior relationship, Libby wanted somebody that wasn't only a top-gun criminal lawyer; he wanted somebody he had a lot of confidence in who wouldn't play for the press like some Washington lawyers might, someone who would do everything strictly in his best interest," Tate says.

Tate accepted the case—and the inevitable publicity. Then, halfway through the proceedings, Tate was sidelined with a staph infection resulting from arthroscopic knee surgery. He watched the trial at home, hooked up to an IV.

Even after Libby's indictment, Tate continues to defend his friend. "I do not think Libby should have been indicted. I think he was the victim of an overzealous prosecutor who was trying to make a name for himself. The whole indictment—and the whole circus surrounding it—was unfair and a travesty of justice. Now he did get a commutation—that's second prize to me. He should have been pardoned. I think he was screwed and I think it's destroyed a very good guy."

Tate's fully recovered from his infection and now spends his free time bicycling—as much as 50 miles at a time—around the homes he and Bernadette, his wife of 42 years, own in Bryn Mawr and Martha's Vineyard. In Tate's Philadelphia office there's a poster of Lance Armstrong with Tate's head pasted over it. It's an apt association: Although he's 66 years old, Tate has no plans for slowing down. And he hopes—for his clients' sake—you won't read about it in the paper.

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