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John W. Daniels featured in article, “Minority Powerbrokers Q&A: Quarles & Brady’s John Daniels”


Law360, New York (March 02, 2015, 12:35 PM ET) -- John W. Daniels Jr. completed his six-year term of service as chairman of Quarles & Brady LLP in October 2013 and is now the firm’s chairman emeritus. During his tenure at the firm’s helm, he led it through a fundamental transformation, shifting from the traditional operational model upon which most major law firms are built to a client-centric, business-minded organization.

Formerly the national president of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers (and national secretary of the ABA Section of Real Property, Probate & Trust), Daniels has established an impressive career in real estate law, representing Fortune 500 entities, public pension funds, and some of the largest financial services companies in the nation. He has played a significant role in some of the most complex real estate redevelopment projects in America.

Daniels continues to be a champion of diversity and education. He is the board chairman of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, spearheading the “Milwaukee Succeeds” initiative to reinvigorate the public schools system, and he hosts the annual Fellowship Open, a celebrity golf tournament that has raised nearly a million dollars for educational programs and initiatives.

As a participant in Law360’s Minority Powerbrokers Q&A series, Daniels shared his perspective on five questions:

Q: How did you break the glass ceiling in the legal industry?

A: To be fair, although the ceiling was pretty opaque when I entered the profession, I didn’t have to be the pioneer who broke through it. Remarkable lawyers like Bill Coleman, in the corporate area, and Dennis Archer, in corporate firm leadership, were really the guiding lights in terms of how to transform the profession. Not only are they obviously brilliant practitioners, invaluable in providing magnificent service to their clients, but they have two key attributes that every great lawyer should have, which are so valuable that they ostensibly cause the glass ceiling to be voluntarily withdrawn rather than broken through:

1. Authenticity that transcends political correctness or diversity initiatives, including a commitment to serve all people and not just those in one’s immediate sphere of work or authority.

2. Broad life experiences, which enable one to weave a richer tapestry of advice, adding multidimensional perspectives to complex legal issues and therefore more or new or even better solutions to client challenges.

Coleman and Archer, and others like them, inspired me and showed me the path forward, and while it’s certainly easier said than done, I simply moved onward and upward from there. Of course, it was necessary for Quarles & Brady to be an organization that was open to diversity; that being the case, breaking the glass ceiling was merely a matter of working hard and emulating my role models, to the ongoing benefit of my firm, and letting time take its course. Lawyers are susceptible to the same prejudices and preconceived notions as anyone else, but they are hardwired to respond to evidence, and no glass ceiling in a law firm can withstand the evidence that diversity is just plain good for business.

Q: What are the challenges of being a lawyer of color at a senior level?

A: Perhaps the main challenge of being a leader of color is to put it aside and manage it by exception, rather than allow it to define you as an authority figure. Any person, of any background, who has been in law firm management quickly comes to appreciate that the real challenge of leadership is the constructive empowerment of one’s colleagues. A legal workforce is, almost by definition, an unusually intelligent and perceptive demographic group, which is to say that lawyers quickly distinguish leaders who bring a personal agenda to their role from those who have a fundamental mission to maximize others’ effectiveness. In other words, being a champion of diversity because it’s important to the entire organization is one thing, and being a champion of diversity because you are an individual of color is another, and most lawyers can quickly tell which kind of champion you are. Understanding how to navigate in an environment in which you are viewed as someone legitimately interested in helping the entire firm is absolutely essential in the legal profession.

Q: Describe a time you encountered discrimination in your career and tell us how you handled it.

A: I don’t think it is any secret that any lawyer of color who has practiced for any length of time has had to confront racial issues that his or her nondiverse colleagues have not. Fortunately, the most obvious forms of this are in decline, but make no mistake, the softer forms of resistance to inclusion are still there. For me, the important thing is to handle these challenges in a way that may involve some personal sacrifice but also entails the broadening of the profession — I overlook the slight and treat it as an opportunity instead. For example, when I first became chairman of Quarles & Brady, I visited a number of our offices, most of which I had already been in and out of for at least the last decade. However, as I signed in at the visitor’s desk during one of those visits, a building security guard evidently found it impossible to believe that I was the chairman of the firm. By his conduct, his suspicion was clear, and he communicated his concern to some of our staff people. Now, the opinions of a random security guard were not essential to the performance of my duties, but having the respect of my staff was; therefore, my focus was on navigating what otherwise was an embarrassing situation by treating the incident as a non-issue and concentrating on making my staff understand who I am and how, as a leader, I am most interested in them and not some extraneous challenge to my authority.

Q: What advice would you give to a lawyer of color?

A: Only to continue what Bill Coleman and Dennis Archer began: be authentic and add value. Time is on your side, even if society may be too long in catching up.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase diversity in its partner ranks?

A: The legal industry is a little difficult to understand if you don’t fully appreciate that the profession, while providing some of the greatest advances in our society in terms of legal rights of people, also has at its base an initial resistance to change and perhaps even improvement — successful attorneys tend to be risk-averse, while successful businesspeople are risk-tolerant or even risk-prone, and cultural change can be upsetting if not disruptive for everyone. While I love the profession, I still recognize that lawyers by instinct and training tend to overvalue their influence on the business enterprise, and they are excessively risk-adverse. Thus, they can understand what’s good for the firm and still fail to immediately embrace it, and hold back the firm by imposing their well-engrained reluctance to change on the business decision-making process.

In the case of advancing diversity as an industry cultural imperative, as with invoking many other fundamental transformations, navigating the endemic norms of the profession and understanding its limitations in terms of assimilating profound change is the key. One of the things that you have to understand is that you have to skate to where the puck is going to be. So here’s where the puck is headed: Clients really want lawyers who understand their role in the greater business world, and who have a more rationale appreciation of the multifaceted aspects of legal and business realities, and that includes the ubiquitous presence of diversity in every professional sector. In other words, don’t try to sustain the profession through traditional norms, but find the place where the clients are and join them there, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. This opens a real opportunity for lawyers of color, because diversity is here to stay, and those who fail to acknowledge it are not going to find enough clients that want to work with them. It’s not just a moral issue, it’s a matter of survival.