High-end, high-powered, highly skilled and highly regarded are how peers typically describe the Private Client Department of the world's 20th-largest law firm, McDermott Will & Emery LLP. The 40-plus trusts and estates attorneys in this elite brigade represent some of the wealthiest families in the world and are regularly lauded by respected media.

But it may be the respect the practice group commands within its own organization that sets it apart. While some large law firms are downplaying, if not downsizing, their estate planning efforts now, McDermott is steaming ahead.

Last year, iconic international estate-planning attorney Henry "Terry" Christensen III of New York-a city where McDermott Private Client lacked a practice-became available. He was considering leaving the white-shoe firm he had been with for 37 years, where he was the senior estates partner and had many close relationships. It would take considerable initial and ongoing investment to bring Christensen to McDermott to build a private client group in Manhattan and then do the same overseas. So when he came aboard on August 1, 2007, with much fanfare and some mixed emotions, it said as much about where the department stood in its own firm's eyes as in Christensen's.

"Within a law firm, a department or practice group needs to be successful vis-à-vis the other departments in order to be able to grow or receive capital when necessary," explains Quentin "George" Heisler Jr., who headed McDermott Private Client for eight years until ascending to partner-in-charge of the Chicago office in 2006. "Our private client group is very strong internally, but I know lawyers at other firms who are not being permitted to build their groups because they're not deemed to be profitable enough."

Although Christensen left his old firm (and a very profitable practice) for reasons other than group size, he came to McDermott largely because of its history of commitment to estate planning. "Its roots meant a lot to me," he says.

The Firm
McDermott began as a tax law firm in Chicago 74 years ago. "We've always emphasized this area of practice," says Heisler, whereas the typical large firm was probably formed to provide corporate or litigation services. "We are different. From the day we opened our doors we attracted tax work and private-client work from wealthy individuals and owners of private businesses in the Midwest. From day one it was understood that this practice was a cornerstone of the law firm."

That day was February 2, 1934, although the story really begins almost exactly 21 years earlier. Ratification of the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on February 3, 1913, greatly expanded Congress's income-tax levying capabilities.
During the late 1920s, a young Chicago lawyer named Edward H. McDermott went to Washington to serve as assistant counsel, and subsequently chief counsel, to the Joint Congressional Committee on Taxation. "He really was right at the epicenter of the emerging tax code," Heisler says.

Then along came the Revenue Act of 1932. It significantly increased individual and corporate income tax rates and doubled the estate tax.
"Many years later, Edward McDermott recalled, 'We were somewhat experienced and much interested in the tax field and we hoped that increasing federal tax exactions might lead to some work in that area,'" Heisler chuckles. "I looked on McDermott Will & Emery and Hopkins & Sutter"-where Edward McDermott had briefly worked-"as the two leading tax law firms in the Midwest when I began to practice in the late 1960s. It was a special place for tax lawyers and estate planners."

Eventually the firm moved into law's more traditional areas, and the original tax practice fissioned into three parts: Tax, private client and employee benefits. Today eight departments make up the firm. Heisler's appointment as Chicago head thus further testifies to Private Client's internal stature.

The Practice
Some law firms employ a few estate planners simply to take care of whatever work clients of the firm's other attorneys might need-the CEO of a corporate partner's big account, for example. In these organizations, revenue generated by the estate planners is credited to other practice areas.