All in a Day’s Work
As a lead attorney with Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel’s family law practice, Bob Whitelaw makes every minute count
by Sharen Nocella

It’s 5:30 a.m. and the day begins for Bob Whitelaw. As he has done for the past 40 years, rain or shine, he walks 20 blocks to work. He is one of the first to arrive at his pristine Center City office, which overlooks City Hall, and he begins to respond to the 200 to 300 e-mails he receives daily that require his attention.  

For four decades, Whitelaw has been one of Philadelphia’s leading family law attorneys, but that’s only half of it: The 68-year-old Whitelaw is also managing partner of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP, a position he’s held for 28 years while still managing a heavy caseload of his own. Obermayer is a full-service, Philadelphia based law firm with more than 100 attorneys, one of the largest firms in Pennsylvania.  

In 1970, Whitelaw was hired as an estates attorney when Obermayer had only 18 attorneys. Because the estates practice was waning, 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. Today, thanks to Whitelaw’s leadership and initiative, Obermayer is one of Philadelphia’s preeminent law firms and has one of Pennsylvania’s largest family law practices.

“I don’t know where he finds the time to do everything he does,” says longtime friend David Rasner. “He really spends his days wisely.” Rasner, a successful family law attorney himself, met Whitelaw decades ago when they faced each other in court. “He really is the epitome of a Philadelphia lawyer. He is a gentleman, articulate and a problem solver, not a problem maker. When we were young we fought it out in court and gained a mutual respect for each other. Today, when we are on opposing sides we work together to arrive at a realistic resolution for both sides.”

Whitelaw has been named in Best Lawyers in America from 1995 to the present and was named as the “Philadelphia Best Lawyers Family Lawyer of the Year” for 2010. He has consistently been named as one of the “Ten Leaders of Greater Philadelphia Matrimonial and Divorce Law.” He has been named to the Pennsylvania Super Lawyers list as seen in both Philadelphia magazine and Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine for more than a decade. He was also listed as one of the Top 100 Philadelphia attorneys and Top 100 Pennsylvania attorneys.

A self-described “straight shooter,” Whitelaw prides himself on being direct and honest.  After 40 years, he has heard all the stories, so nothing surprises him anymore. He isn’t interested in representing someone who wants to persecute his or her spouse. Through his experience he knows that it is in everyone’s best interest to work toward an agreeable solution. Perhaps his success as a divorce lawyer is due in part to his own experiences. When he was barely 30, his ex-wife took their two young children back to Cleveland. “It’s painful, I know,” Whitelaw says. “It’s one of the reasons the tissue box is in my desk.”

Thoughtful and intense, he’s also generous and free spirited—and, unlike most senior attorneys, he has preserved his wickedly dry sense of humor. Whitelaw believes there is more to life than work. “I tell all the young attorneys I work with that it is very important to have a hobby, to work with a charity and to make sure you take time off,” he says. “I believe it is good for the soul and helps you not be one dimensional. It really helps you be a better lawyer and a better person.”

In addition to being an in-demand family law attorney, Whitelaw’s career accomplishments are rivaled only by his work to help others. He has proven himself as a success by growing his practice and his law firm. If you ask him what he is most proud of, however, his response is “being a Big Brother.” In the early 1990s, he was asked to sit on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters. “I didn’t feel right sitting on the board without being a Big Brother. I felt that is where my time would make the biggest difference in someone’s life.” And it did. Since then, he has been a Big Brother to three young men and has helped lead Philadelphia’s chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters. “I felt I helped my ‘little brothers’ stay off the streets and make something of themselves,” says Whitelaw. “I consider that to be one of my biggest accomplishments.”

During his career, Whitelaw has been an active and contributing member of the legal community. He is a fellow with the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. He is also a member of the Family Law, Litigation and Probate sections of the American, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Bar Associations and the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association. He was president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (July 2011 to July 2012) and is a former vice president (July 2008 to July 2011) and secretary (July 2007 to July 2008).

It’s 6:30 p.m. and the day is winding down for Whitelaw. He returns to his office, after spending the day in court, to respond to his e-mails and voicemails and to tie things up.  Then he begins his trek home, stopping along the way to meet his wife and finish the day together.

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Photograph by Jeff Anderson