Bob Whitelaw has been one of Philadelphia's leading divorce attorneys for four decades, but that's not the half of it: While many in divorce law are independent practitioners, the 66-year-old Whitelaw is managing partner of Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel, a Center City firm with more than 140 attorneys; he leads by 70-hour-week example. Further, while thoughtful and intense, he's also generous and free-spirited - and, unlike most senior attorneys, he's preserved a twinkle of mischief. Whitelaw himself is at a loss to explain his career path: "Honestly, there was nothing else for me to do when I got here." Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Whitelaw went off to Amherst College, a veritable funhouse for young scholars. Whitelaw, a reader, enjoyed every minute of it. "100-200 pages a night. Law school was easy and boring in comparison." (He switched his major every year, "depending on the quality of a department's spring trip.") Whitelaw went on to Penn Law, his long hair and motorcycle fitting well into the late 60s landscape. His instincts for action blossomed. Law school "was a lot of theory but not particularly practical - I was so bored I felt like I was in a job punching a clock. Clients want to get from A to B, and that is what I wanted to help them do."
The Obermayer firm, then with 18 attorneys, hired Whitelaw as an estates lawyer, just as the firm's bread and butter, estate and trust law, was waning. "All the clients were moving to Florida. There was nothing to do." Not one to stew, Whitelaw took a divorce case, and then another. In the process he convinced the firm to take divorce law seriously - all while steering the growth of the firm and becoming its key decision-maker. ("Second-fiddle isn't my style.") His success in divorce law may stem in part from his own experience: When he was barely 30 his ex-wife took their two young children back to Cleveland ("I wore out two cars driving on weekends").
Whitelaw today (he remarried 30 years ago) truly is one of the examples of character in Philadelphia: Since the early 90s he's been a mentor (Big Brother) to three young men and has helped lead Philadelphia's chapter of Big Brothers & Big Sisters. (Being a Big Brother "gave me a chance to see shoot-'em-up movies because my wife wouldn't go," he jokes. Of course it's more personal: "If I have a choice between sitting in a three-hour charity board meeting or going to a Sixers game [with one of his 'sons'] it's a pretty easy call. I knew I was making a difference in a person's life.") Today a box of Kleenex sits in his desk drawer for clients, just in case: "Men use it as much as women." His 12-hour days still begin at 6:30am - "I don't like sitting around." He and his wife, a successful real estate broker, live about 20 blocks from his office; the daily walk "clears my mind." They are inveterate travelers.