Ep 5: Don Prophete | Constangy Brooks Smith & Prophete | Diversity | Business Development | Client Trends | Future of Law | Investing | Sports | Heroes | Languages | 50% Other
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I interviewed Don Prophete of Constangy Brooks Smith & Prophete, partner and practice chair of the firm’s Whistle Blower Group. Today we started out discussing some of Don’s story being a minority black man among a dominant white male industry. I asked him what advice he had for young minorities in BigLaw working up through the ranks and what advice he had for law firm leaders wanting a more diverse law firm. We then discussed his story and insights as a rain maker and business development professional. We also discussed what trends does his see in the legal industry and for the future of law. I then pivoted to questions more personal such as what are his hobbies, who are his favorite basket ball teams, who are his heroes, what does he read daily, what new skills is he trying to acquire and what is his current passion.
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As many of you know, we interview corporate defense law form leaders, partners and legal consultants. You are listening to episode number five of the Law Firm Leadership podcast.
Chris: Welcome to the Law Firm Leadership podcast, I’m your host Chris Batz with The Lion Group.
Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Don Prophete of Constangy, Brooks, Smith and Prophete. Don received his JD from Boston University School of Law, his Undergrad from Fordham University.
Don is a nationwide Trial Litigator representing large clients in complex employment cases. Don, you serve as Constangy’s Whistleblower practice group chair, in 2008 you were appointed as the chairman of the Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights and that was in conjunction with the White House. You were also nominated in 2002 by President George W. Bush, to be the General Counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC. And finally, among many accolades that follow you Don, you are the only known named black law partner in the history of the law firm profession of large to medium law firms in the United States.
Welcome Don to the Law Firm Leadership podcast, I’m delighted to have you as our guest.
Don: Thanks Chris, I’m delighted to be here, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today.
Chris: It’s really a pleasure to have you on the podcast, it’s an honor. Don, I have great respect for you, your journey as an attorney, your journey as a litigator and a rainmaker and as a leader among leaders in the law firm world.
I wanted to start off immediately and jump into the subject of diversity. You’re a black gentleman and you’re considered a minority and I want the listeners to hear some of your story of what it’s been like, being an attorney and working through the ranks of the law firm industry.
The Journey of a Black Attorney
Don: Well, I appreciate that Chris. My journey has been, in many respects, very similar to most lawyers and in some other respects, racially diverse black attorney it’s been different than the majority of individuals I guess, who ended up being partners or shareholders in large law firms.
So, as you mentioned, I graduated from law school, at the Boston University School of Law, then I took a Big Firm job out of law school and then what was a little bit different for me, is that after working in law firms I decided to try my hand and my opportunity in-house.
So, I served in-house for about five or six years at Sprint Corporation. I was one of the very first lawyers hired to basically serve as an employment lead for Sprint’s wireless division at the time in the mid-90s which is Sprint PCS which is still around today.
I did that for five or six years, I was promoted a few times. Then I left Sprint as Director of Labor Employment Law and then I decided to go back to the law firm; I felt that my skill set and what I had learned in-house really could serve me well as kind of a new wave of lawyers who were more in tune with the changing dynamic of the law firm and more in tune, meaning having served in-house, I had a different exposure about what clients wanted and I thought I could package that in a way that would deliver quality and serve as a progress to potential clients.
So, I did that and I again went to Big Firm and I led the labor employment law practice immediately at a large firm and then I opened the office after a couple of years of a labor employment law boutique and helped grow that boutique to national prominence. My role at that firm was, on the Executive Committee, my role was to help expand the firm’s footprint and to recruit lawyers. So, during my time at that firm I opened something like 15 to 20 offices nationally and I recruited dozens of lawyers.
Then, ultimately I ended up at Constangy, Brooks, Smith and Prophete, where I was very honored and privileged to have had the opportunity to join a firm that was in the midst of making some changes and wanted to add a team of very diverse, talented lawyers and suggested putting my name on the door to help with the firm’s transformation and expansion into the 21st century.
So, as you see from that description, very similar to many Big Firm lawyers, a little bit different with in-house practice interspersed in there.
Why Employment Law
Chris: And Don, for you, when you were in law school, what gave you the desire to go into employment law? What was your own personal story growing up as a black man?
Don: Yes, that’s a fair question. So, when I was in law school there were two primary factors that started me thinking about employment law as an area that would be well suited for me. One, I took a couple of employment law classes and I found it fascinating, I loved the subject matter and I found it to be very relatable as a black person. Two, as a black person I thought that I would bring diversity and value to an area of law that was, at the time, you have to remember I graduated from law school in the early 90s and at the time it was all white males, well that may be an overstatement, it was primarily white males who were defending racist discrimination cases for very large employers throughout the country. So, I viewed myself as a quantity that was not only necessary but needed in the profession at the time.
Chris: It sounds like you felt a void for an employer or employees to be heard?
Don: Yeah, I’ve had the good fortune of having great timing in life primarily, a little bit of planning but again I thought at the time that the marketplace was virtually all white male, some white females, but virtually all white male. A very small number of racially diverse lawyers were in large law firms and because there were so few of us in large law firms, there were even fewer of us in an area where you would think that large employers would naturally benefit by having diverse high-end premium lawyers defending their cases to juries.
It always shocked me, even after getting in law firms, how large companies, small companies, any employer would stand up in front of a jury in a nasty racism discrimination case with a panel of white lawyers. It seems almost counterintuitive to me to tell the jury that, “No, we don’t discriminate, but everybody in our company is white, even our representation is white.” So, it always appeared to me that that was a strange way of approaching a very difficult situation. So, I wanted to be there to provide some resources.
Advice for Diverse and Minority Attorneys
Chris: I wanted to ask you Don, with your story, I think it can be very inspiring, knowing that luck played a role in it, you were intentional about what was taking place. What advice would you give newly minted JDs or associates or junior partners who are minorities or just diverse lawyers, women, you know, working up the ranks within Big Law, what advice would you give them?
Don: Well, look, here’s something I have to be candid about and I try to be very, very candid with anybody that I have relationships with about the legal profession. The legal profession has been a great, great profession for me. It’s allowed me to have a very comfortable lifestyle, but for a racially diverse lawyer the legal profession continues to be difficult, it continues to be uneven, it continues to have etched in it a vestiture of long time discrimination. So, what advice do I give? It’s not a question of would I give, this is advice that I give every day. I try to mentor as many racially diverse associates within the firm, in other firms and coming out of law school as possible, because there are no real resources, there’s not enough numbers in large firms of racially diverse lawyers to really mentor these individuals.
So, the advice I give is the same advice that at some levels I would give any associate. Go to a law firm, be prepared and if you’re not prepared then you’ll fail and preparation means a lot of things, it means being prepared on the file, it means being prepared on individual relationships with the lawyers, it also means being prepared by working beyond what is expected.
So, if you want to be a good associate, then you have to be serviceable to the partner. Being serviceable does not mean simply meeting deadlines on briefings, it means starting to think like a lawyer as early as possible and starting to think about next steps; what are the next steps that will be required in this case? And placing yourself in a position where you have addressed the unmet need of the shareholder or the partner or the unstated need of the shareholder or the partner very early on, so the partner always knows that you’re on top of that and you’ve made life easy for him or her.
If you can go ahead and establish yourself in that space early on, then you become a very, very desirable resource to that partner, if the partner doesn’t have to challenge you about everything, if the partner sees that you’re engaged or you’ve already started thinking about next steps and you’re way ahead of it and you know all the details of the file, then you are going to be a resource to that person and they are going to want to work with you, hopefully regardless of race.
So, that’s the advice I give. I also give the advice that this is a brutal profession for racially diverse lawyers. We drop out of the profession at a very, very quick rate and high rate and largely because we find misfortune and practice of law. So, I say to them that, “I want you to identify a mentor internally or externally and to stick with it. You have to keep hitting the rock as many times as you can because no one knows when the next hit is going to split the rock. Don’t give up. Don’t let either existing or perceived biases drive you out of a law firm profession and find a way to find success there and let me help you in any way I can.”
Diversity Advice for Law Firm Leadership
Chris: That’s definitely golden wisdom Don, and I appreciate your vulnerability in that. Don, to law firm leaders, who’s our main audience, what advice do you give them with their desire to bring more diversity into their ranks?
Don: That’s a good question, you always ask excellent questions by the way Chris and thanks for that. Here’s the thing about diversity. Diversity is an intrusion on the comfort level that has been established historically in the law firm. So, basically what you have is, you have a system that has been highly white male dominated, that the white males will say has worked well for them, right? So diversity and the notion of diversity is truly an intrusion where you can ask someone or a lot of people to do things that have been inherently inconsistent with either their personal interest or the way they’ve conducted themselves.
So, I approach diversity with that understanding and when I discuss diversity with anyone, I’m not one who sees this notion of creating diversity with rose colored lenses, it’s difficult because you are moving someone’s chains and you’re going to see resistance, either aggressive resistance or passive resistance. The passive resistance may be the worst, the aggressive resistance, you know where your pockets are and kind of maybe mediate or create a situation that’s doable for everybody, but the passive resistance is a difficult one, where the lawyers will publicly say that they’re in line with diversity but they’re not, they like the status quo and they don’t really want to do anything differently and don’t really think about diversity as important.
So, from that platform is where I operate, that people don’t really, as a general proposition, want to have their chains moved and diversity is a very drastic movement of someone’s chains.
So, if law firms want to be successful with diversity, they have to take diversity seriously and by taking diversity serious it’s got to be more than, “Well, my client says I have to have some racially diverse lawyers on the firm, so I’m going to go ahead and populate a couple of racially diverse people to meet the quota that my client needs and then I’ll keep churning them through and that’ll look good.” That’s not successful diversity.
So, diversity really has to start at the top of the law firm, it has to start with the CEO, it has to start with the big rainmakers, it has to start with the high-end administrators. That is where it starts and then it’s got to be pushed in a way throughout the law firm that makes people comfortable and understanding that there’s going to be a lot of pockets of resistance and discomfort with this diversity option.
You have to create expectations and the expectations have to be more than just purely saying, “Hey, what are your numbers? Are you making the numbers?” But that means nothing, the expectation has to be made from success matrix. What is the success level? What is working, what is not working? How can we transfer that success from this office to that office, from this resistant process to this very compliant and engaged process? Etc., etc.
So, it’s a very complicated area, it requires a lot of thought, a lot of commitment and it has to be more than just somebody saying that they like diversity because it’s the politically correct thing to do or say.
Chris: And it seems as though it’s something that has to come from the heart versus the head, would that be accurate, or have you seen people who just really try to push through and make it happen?
Don: Well certainly, I think there are some folks in the legal profession who are genuinely, genuinely interested in diversity and we believe that diversity makes the workplace better, creates a better product and we’re engaged in this concept.
All the research, independent research that has been done by the big consulting firms and the big think tanks, all those have shown that a racially and gender diverse workplace is more productive, more prosperous, right? So, if you work from that standpoint as that being a truism, then diversity is something that we all should be highly desirous of having in our workplaces, because if nothing else, you make more money in a workplace that’s highly diverse, you are more valued in the marketplace and you generate better ideas, but that is not necessarily the way that most or even many lawyers feel and there’s been this kind of bastardization of the diversity concept where folks say they’re engaged in diversity, they are in a very rote manner instead of a very engaged manner and a manner that’s going to deliver great results versus a manner that’s going to deliver a checking of the box of, “Yeah, we’ve met this requirement for this client.”
So yes, I think there’s a strong level of passive resistance and I get it.
Chris: Yeah, certainly an important, sensitive subject, not just in the legal industry but in the United States today.
Don, I wanted to ask you a question around something that I know you’ve been known for and continue to be known for which is rainmaking, just those client relationships. I wanted to pick your brain and share what you feel comfortable with, about what is working for you in rainmaking today?
Business Development Advice from a Chief Rainmaker
Don: You know, first you and I have had this discussion Chris, I hate the term rainmaking because I think the term implies this magical, charismatic ability that only some of the blessed have and I don’t believe that to be true, so that’s why I hate ‘rainmaking’. So, if you don’t mind I’m going to refer to it as business generating.
Chris: Please do.
Don: So, my view of business generation is, it’s one that has progressed from the first day I started doing business generation to today, but the one thing that has stood strong and fast is that the concept of business generation starts and ends with the concept of relationships and that’s what business generation or rainmaking or whatever you want to call it, is. It’s no prodigious, magical ability. The person who is able to generate business is the person who’s able to generate relationships, genuine relationships within the marketplace.
So, anyone who wants to improve their ability to create business opportunity needs to improve their willingness and desire to generate and improve their existing relationship with the marketplace or within the marketplace.
So, I spend a large amount of time talking to my relationships, talking to my perspective relationships, talking to clients about what it is that they look for, what they want and developing relationships, but what I really spend most of my time doing is trying to figure out what is the unmet need of my relationship. Frequently clients talk, they talk around what’s going on in their workplace, but if you listen carefully you can hear what is not being met by their current lawyers or by the current way things are being done.
So as a good potential business generator, you have to start listening well and spending a lot of time trying to figure out how you can assist your perspective business relationships with their unmet needs. That creates loyalty, that creates partnership, that creates bond and that’s how you really create business.
There’s no such thing as the person born to be a business generator. What people don’t really realize about me is, I have a strongly introverted personality. It’s been very difficult for me to become a person who is more gregarious and goes out and creates these business relationships, but that’s been part of my development, I have to step out of my comfort zone to develop my business opportunities. So it requires, for many people, the willingness and the ability to step out of their comfort zone.
Chris: And Don, for you, have you always been a relational individual or is it something you’ve had to grow into and learn how to do?
Don: No, I had to figure it out. I had to grow into it. Look, no one has failed at business development more than me, I want to be very clear about that. If anyone believes that business generation and again, this magical skill and that people who have a lot of business today, that it just happens, that’s not true. I’ve failed more than anybody I know because I had to figure out what it was that makes, or that created lasting business relationships. That doesn’t just come out magically as a young lawyer you know, and as a racially diverse lawyer, I didn’t have any real direction, I didn’t have any real people I could go to and have a very private and a very detailed conversation about, “How do you do this?” I had to figure it out on my own and I failed a lot and then I finally figured out that the real magic lied in relationships.
Chris: So knowing that you don’t carry a magic wand with you to develop instant relationships, what are some tips for those that are wanting to figure out how to be better developing client relationships, any advice around that?
Don: Yeah, I always say it’s like working out or drafting a brief. For instance, if you’re going to be somebody who wants to get into shape, you’re a little overweight, it’s like if you’re a woman you want to look like Beyoncé, if you’re a man you want to look like whoever, the Rock I think was named the most sexy man in the world this year, so you want to look like him, if you go and talk to either of them they will tell you that they spent a certain amount of time, every single day working out. They don’t simply work out when it’s convenient, they don’t simply work out when they have excess time, that component is completely built into their program because they understand that there’s no such thing as binge working out that gets the results that one wants for their body.
Well, it’s the same thing for business developing. Most lawyers fear it and they don’t know how to approach it. Well, here’s the first step, the first step is you have to build a business plan. Anybody who thinks that they’re engaged in business development without a strong blueprint that they work and tinker with weekly, is fooling themselves. They’re just kind of going around, they’re just working out, they’re just binge working out, right?
So, it takes a lot of time, sitting down, figuring out who your relationships are, figuring out what their business is, figuring out where they’re located. Then it takes time getting to know them, genuine time, not just going for the first time to meet with them and saying, “Please send me your business.” You have to get to know them, know their business, know their needs, know, most importantly, their unmet needs, okay? And you have to do this every day. This has got to be part of your daily activity. It cannot simply be, and I hear this all the time, “I am so busy now, I don’t have time for business generation or business development.” I get it, lawyers are extremely busy and hard workers and the first and foremost is, you have to do good by your client. But, if you don’t spend a couple of hours a day, every day, and a meaningful number of hours a week, every week, and a ton of hours a year, every year, then you’re not prepared to be successful in business development.
Chris: So, is the analogy of a farmer sowing seeds appropriate in this situation?
Don: That’s even better on how to achieve it, if you will. Yes, you have to plant seeds and then you have to nurture the seeds, right? You’ve got to make sure that the brown is… I’m a city boy, I grew up in Harlem, New York City and it’s roughly based on what I believe is the process of growing seeds, if you will, or plants, but I have seen soil in a chemistry class at college and high school.
So, you plant your seeds, you get the most fertile ground and your fertile ground is the most fertile potential business relationships. The seed is, you start engaging in the relationship slowly. Then you water the relationship, meaning you continue to engage and look to fulfill the unmet need. You provide sun for the seed, which means that you continue to grow the relationship through providing quality and providing resources to your potential business relationship and then like a plant, the seed grows and develops and then you’re in the path of that.
Chris: I’m a business developer myself and I just greatly respect the hard work that’s required for it and I think you’ve explained it very well. There is no magic formula, there is no magic wand, it just is continuous focus, discipline and not giving up and it sounds like that’s really what you were sharing.
Let me transition. With business development comes client relationships obviously, and in client relationships, I know you interact with some really key large employers across the United States, what trends are you seeing with your clients today?
Client Trends Observations
Don: What I have seen is that there is a trend going on in large corporate legal departments of bringing work, low-end work, low-level work back in-house. So, I think that the general counsels and corporate in-house legal leaders are faced with tremendous financial pressures and tremendous pressures in justifying their existence as a cost center, so general counsels and other legal leaders are looking at ways where they can streamline their expenses, outsource really more the high-end work that’s difficult to do in-house and look for ways to minimize exposure to the vagaries of the profession. Budgetary certainty is a magical thing for them, they want budgetary certainty and there’s actually a few ways you can accomplish that and one of the ways is getting low-end work in-house and send the high-end work outside and also look for more flat-fee.
The other thing that I’ve seen a lot of, is that in-house law departments are starting to make use of business analytics at a higher level than I’ve ever seen, and by that I mean that they have begun to utilize the services of folks like the high-end consultants and to tell them what is the value of certain work, what are the analytics, how can we get certain things done cheaper, how can we move things around? And they’re even hiring in-house business analytics people to count numbers.
So what they are looking for now, for law firms, they’re the equivalent resources for the law firm, they want the law firm to be able to churn out analytics for them and provide them value by doing that and provide them cost certainty.
Chris: So, how is that affecting you Don? I can imagine immediately that associates may not have as much work, but how is that affecting you?
Don: Well again, a super question. It affects me in the way that I just lose more sleep at night. I don’t sleep very much as it is and I sleep even less when I hear that clients are that sophisticated and not because I think it’s a bad thing, I actually think it’s a fantastic thing that clients are more sophisticated and understand these numbers better and understand the business reality, but it’s because I’m not certain whether we, a law firm, are completely prepared to be as sophisticated as our client in this regard. Law firms have just been traditionally run the same way and have used the same practices etc., etc.
So, lawyers have not been at the forefront of the converting high-end technology and all of those things, to the law firm profession. So, our firm, we’re pushing hard on the analytics point, we’re becoming a very, very strong leader of flat-fee and providing resources for clients that they want, but we can do better and we need to do better. It’s not only up to the leadership right? The leadership gets that. Look, you have to convert the lawyers that have been doing the same thing the same way for 30 years, but the lawyers who have been doing the same thing the same way for 30 years, must be wanting to be converted. So that means that they have to start thinking in the same way that the client does as well, otherwise there’s a disconnect between the top, the middle and the bottom and we’re not providing the full level of service and the full level of certainty and quality that are clients are requesting.
Chris: Was that kind of high-level information that’s coming to clients and kind of almost what I’m hearing is a clarion call to law firm leaders to keep pace with their clients, what’s your advice to large law firm leaders to small corporate defense boutiques, what do they need to be doing or thinking about to be a firm of the future.
How to be the Law Firm of the Future
Don: I think if law firms want to be the firm of the future, then they need to start emulating the companies of the future. Now, what do I mean by that? Again, law firms, lawyers as a general proposition, are terrible business people. Our clients, those of us who represent these big complicated and these medium sized companies and these emerging companies, are working with some of the best business thinkers in the world, right?
So here’s the disconnect, you have the best business thinkers in the world creating efficiencies, technology, etc., at the highest-end level and then you have a profession that’s still doing things virtually the same way that it’s always done things. I think the only real difference that I’ve seen in the 25 years that I started working in a law firm is that, if I recall correctly, the first day I started in a law firm, I did not have a computer on my desk and then magically a computer appeared about a few months in. That’s the only major change that I can tell you I’ve seen in the legal profession.
So, if we want to be the law firm of the future then we have to emulate the companies of the future. We have to do the same thing that Google does, that Apple does, that Target does, those types of companies. They spend a lot of time on what? On development. They develop profit, that’s where they spend most of their time. Even before sales. They know that they can’t sell unless they develop a product that’s different in the marketplace, that’s top-end, that’s efficient, etc., etc.
So lawyers, what we have to do, we have to start using technology to develop product and develop people.
The other thing is, what do clients do? Well they understand pricing very well. Law firms are terrible at understanding price, we’re still doing the hourly rate thing, you’ve got lawyers that are doing $1200 an hour and you have a system that promoted inefficiency, the more you bill, the better.
So, what do we have to do? We have to create a sales and a pricing point that is comfortable for the masses and the masses being the masses of clients out there who need that.
Then, we’ve got to cut cost, we’ve got to cut fat. There are companies that are now doing remote employees, using remote employees, they’re doing hoteling, etc., etc. Law firms need to do the same, we’ve got to start thinking outside the box. Do we need partner-sized offices? To the very least start thinking of going to a single-sized office. What else? Let’s spend all of our money on high-end technology, not offices. Let’s also start thinking of hoteling, with offices that work better. What technologies will be useful to the firm, but most importantly will be more useful to the client? Those are the things that we should be looking at.
The other thing is privacy, technology related to privacy and confidentiality of document retention. It is really sad that companies came up with these increased protocols and measures for creating confidential portals etc., etc. This is something that law firms should have been leading on. Law firms should have created these incredible portals for their clients and started selling that to their clients saying, “Look, we have better security than any other business in the world.” But sadly, this has had to be implemented outside-in. It’s the client that started saying, “Hey, we need these better portals because you guys are lagging behind the industry.” So we’ve got to be smarter thinkers from a technological standpoint.
Chris: I appreciate your sobriety Don, as you’re reflecting on this and knowing what is needed for law firms to be a law of the future.
I want to pivot and go personal and I do this with each one of my interviews. You and I know each other a little bit and I wanted to hit on a hobby and I know you have an interest in an activity and investing. I’d like to hear a little bit about that.
Don: Yeah, you know, I remember when I was a young kid, I was about 13 years old and my mom said something that for some reason it got etched in my mind, she said, “Son, you will not really get to know and understand who you are and yourself until you’re about 40 years old,” and I thought that was the most ridiculous thing that I had ever heard at the time, right?
Chris: Sounds like wisdom.
Being an Entrepreneur and Venture Capitalist
Don: Right, but so profound in retrospect. So, I love the legal profession, I love most of it. One of the things I love, I love trial work, I love the challenge of finding solutions for clients and I love building the firms, I love the recruiting and opening new offices, I love that stuff. But, it’s not until I became roughly 40 that I started understanding that at heart I am really an entrepreneur and my approach to the legal profession has been subconsciously entrepreneurial and that’s what I like the legal profession, is it allowed me to be an entrepreneurial at a certain level. So, as I got older I realized that that also transferred entrepreneurialism outside of the legal profession.
So, I started a group, a venture capitalist group of 10 African American men, very successful in various careers, from CEOs of business to high-end executives and we invest in a variety of industries, including real estate, including technology etc., and other than my kids it’s been the most satisfying accomplishment in my life. So I really enjoy that very much, that’s my hobby.
Chris: That’s excellent. With hobbies comes generally sports too. Tell me about teams you root for.
Preferred Sports Teams
Don: Well, I am highly biased about the teams I root for, in different ways. So, I am a very strong Minnesota Viking fan in the NFL, for a couple of reasons. One, because my dear friend has been the CEO of that team, Kevin Warren, so I am biased in that regard and they are also a client of mine. So I’m very biased because I love to invest with my clients and I love to see my clients do well.
From a non-relationship level, I have been a San Antonio Spurs fan for a couple of decades or more now and I am a huge, huge Spurs fan, I travel a couple of times a year to San Antonio to go and watch them and if I happen to be in a city on business where they’re playing and I can grab a couple of nice seats, I will.
The reason I like them is because of the team’s complete dedication and ethos to ‘team’. It’s, no one superstar on the team is bigger than the team concept, and I love that. It’s not to say that there aren’t superstars on the team, there are, but they’ve all been wed to the concept of, you truly win championship when you are fully integrated and can trust one another and there’s the general team concept that goes beyond everything else, and I love that, and that’s the approach I’m trying to promote in the law firm with the lawyers I work with.
Chris: Donald, going into something again a little more personal, I wanted to ask, who are your heroes, who’s inspired you to be the man that you are today?
Don: Well, I have kind of… my heroes fall in different times in history. So, let me start by saying Frederick Douglass is someone that I always admired greatly and deeply, simply because he was a very strong promoter of black sufficiency and blacks at a time of slavery embracing education, embracing ‘we can do it ourselves’ approach to life. I love that and he was a brilliant guy, far ahead of his time.
I’m a very, very big fam of Martin Luther King. He’s been someone who I’ve watched and read about very extensively in my life. In fact, my son is a very big fan of Martin Luther King, he has pictures of him in his room and I think that derives somewhat from my admiration of him, that he’s naturally been inclined towards that way as well, so I’m proud of that.
Then there’s the more up to date heroes and I have to say this and it surprises a lot of people, one person who is my hero is Jay Z. I’m a big lover of hip-hop, he’s a phenomenally talented individual, but I love the fact that he is a rags to riches story, at a very high-level and premium-level, he’s a guy who’s been in jail who is now going to the White House and having dinner with the President. He’s created product, he created a company out of sales from the back of his car. So that entrepreneurial spirit coming from one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the city of Marcy Projects, existing through that, conquering it, using skill and using intelligence and devotion and hard work to succeed. Those things I marvel at and I view them very highly.
Then certainly lastly, Barack Obama. A lot of people would point to the fact that that’s interesting because I’m a republican, yeah, I am a black republican but I admire that guy enormously for the elegance, for the intellect, for the grace, the class and the way he conducted himself as President and the things that he brought as the first African American black president in the history of the United States. It was not easy but this guy and his family and his dog, his girls, his wife, never skipped a beat, never did anything to embarrass themselves, their family or their country. He was, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of the first black baseball player in history. People did everything to prod him, to hurt him racially etc., but he remained a phenomenal human being and whether you agree with his politics or not, he’s still somebody I have a high level of admiration for.
Chris: Absolutely, he’s definitely a gentleman of class and he will be missed. Don, thank you for that list, it’s definitely a really powerful list of men.
Don, for you, how are you consuming content these days, it seems like any attorney has definitely got to be a content consumer, what are you consuming, how are you doing it, books, newspapers, podcasts, what does that look like for you?
Preferred Content Consumed
Don: Well, I read your content religiously.
Chris: Thank you.
Don: I say that will full, genuine forethought, in that I think you have some of the best content out there. You and I have had many business related conversations, you’re one of the best minds out there in the legal professions.
So, I like to be the dumbest guy in the room and you know, my teenage son who’s 16 now, said to me the other day when I said that to him, said, “Dad, that can’t be very hard for you. That’s not really a challenge for you to be the dumbest in the room,” and I said, “Very funny!”. So, I like to be the dumbest guy in the room because I love to learn from others. I learn from everybody, I learn from kids, I learn from the folks that clean my office, I learn from my partners’ clients, I love that. So, one level is people, I listen to people and I pick and choose the lesson.
The second thing is I’m an avid reader of newspapers, so I read three papers every morning around 4:30 in the morning, before I get up. I like to have different perspectives; I read the Wall Street Journal, I read The Times and I read Bloomberg and for sports I’ll read USA Today, but I also read some of the front page on that as well, but less.
I also love books. I’m not a person who reads books related to fantasy or novels and things like that, I like books that are based on historics or books that are based on personal development. So, books like Good to Great, Blank, those types of books I love and I have them all over my shelf.
Then I have autobiographies, everything from Barack Obama, biography from Frederick Douglass to anyone that I find interesting because I think there is so much to learn from these very successful people.
Chris: Yes, I just appreciate your humility Don. I think the best teachers are the ones who are also the greatest learners.
You’re investing, you’re an avid reader, what kind of new skills are you trying to acquire now?
New Skills Acquiring
Don: At my late age, so I speak French fluently, I speak French Creole fluently, I think I speak English fluently. So I am no in the process of acquiring my fourth language which is Spanish. I’ve been spending a lot of time self-teaching, just by reading and by traveling and when I travel to Spanish speaking countries I try to immerse myself completely.
So, at this late stage in my career, I am trying to spend a lot of time developing new language skills. Give me another 18 months, I think I’ll be pretty fluent and then I’ll move to Italian. The Latin based languages are easier for me because French, Spanish, Italian, they’re very similar, so I think I can get those three down.
Chris: That’s exciting, that’s great. Then as far as another question, what are you passionate about today Don?
Passionate About Today
Don: Well, that’s a heavy question. Let me say, my passion, my primary passion is my family. So, I love them, I don’t spend enough time with them because I travel so much and I’m frequently working, but they’re my passion.
The other thing I’m really passionate about right now, as I’ve discussed with you is, building my law firm or helping to build my law firm. I continue to expand. My goal right now and it is also the goal of our management at the firm, but I think I’m pushing the envelope a little further, is to create this national law firm platform where racially we will be 50/50, 50% white and 50% other. It’s never been done but I want to do it at the highest end of the market, because I want to acquire premium players in the labor employment law industry and I want to bring them under one umbrella and I want 50/50. I want it to look like New York City on a warm sunny day when you walk down any major avenue, you hear people speaking Arabic, you hear French, you hear English, you hear Spanish, you hear African dialects and languages, you hear Jamaican, you hear all kinds… That is the world for me, that is the world that is and that’s the world that I’d like to see at Constangy, Brooks, Smith and Prophete and I think we’re going to do it. It’s going to take time but we’re going to do it at a very high-end and we’re going to do it successfully. So that’s my passion.
Chris: Yeah and I believe it, I know if you say you’re going to do it, it’s going to happen. That’s an exciting vision.
Don, last question, stealing this from Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace, in five words or less, what is your job or what do you do?
Don: Now you know it’s impossible for any lawyer to say anything in five words or less, you know that. Let me try, I think, what do I do? I lead, I inspire, I develop business and relationships.
Chris: So, that’s about seven or eight words but that’s really close and I like close.
Don: The other thing is lawyers are lawyers because they can’t count, they didn’t do well in math. So there you go.
Chris: So Don, anytime I get a chance to talk with you it’s always an honor and a pleasure and I really appreciate your time on the Law Firm Leadership podcast.
Don: Well, it’s been my real pleasure, thank you for having me.
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