The National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) recently named attorney Leslie D. Davis as its new chief executive officer, succeeding Joel Stern. The longtime Chicago resident was a law firm partner and litigator at Riley, Safer Holmes & Cancila, Drinker Biddle & Reath, and SNR Denton (formerly known as Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal) before joining NAMWOLF. She is also a commissioner for the City of Chicago Community Development Commission.
NAMWOLF, founded in 2001, is a nonprofit trade association composed of minority and women owned law firms. Recently, Edward T. Kang, managing member of Kang Haggerty in Philadelphia, PA, and a law firm member of NAMWOLF, sat down with Leslie to discuss her career, what brought her to NAMWOLF, and the challenges she has faced in her life along the way.
Edward Kang (EK): Leslie, what led you to become a lawyer in the first place?
Leslie Davis (LD): I am a first-generation lawyer, and I did not have lots of examples of lawyers to watch or follow. I was a journalism major, and I covered the courts for The Daily Iowan at the University of Iowa. And when I was covering the courts, I sometimes recognized that I was getting so interested in what was going on that I did not have all the material for my story. I was really interested in what the lawyers were doing and that was the first time that I realized that I could actually be one of those lawyers. I could be doing trial work instead of just covering the trials. And that was really my first time even thinking that being a lawyer was a possibility.
EK: Did any of your other experiences growing up inspire you to be a lawyer?
LD: So, the truth of the matter is no. I really had a pretty great childhood. I was a Navy brat, and so we moved a lot. And I am an only child and an only grandchild. So, there was no absence of love. And there are only about seven people in my whole family, so there was not a lot of action. I was inspired to become a lawyer just by seeing the great work the lawyers were doing in the courtroom. Since that time, of course, as I became more mature and became an adult, I really understood the value of being a lawyer and how you could make real change, and the way in which you practice law can make a difference in the lives of other people.
EK: What was your favorite part of practicing law and your least favorite part?
LD: My favorite part hands down was trial work. I absolutely loved trial work. I was good at it, and I really enjoyed it because it was the culmination of all the hard work. From getting the complaint, spotting the issues, all the way to having 12 people listen to my arguments and rendering a verdict…that was an adrenaline rush. I felt great because I was helping clients solve problems.
The worst part was when, in some situations, I felt like my existence as an African American women lawyer was not as valued as my counterparts. My voice was not as valued, the expertise I brought to whatever the situation was not freely accepted. And so, in some regards, I saw the worst of people sometimes. There were many days when I had to look at myself in the mirror and remind myself that I am a great lawyer, and I do know what I’m doing. And my voice matters.
EK: Can you tell us some of your career highlights to date?
LD: There were a lot of great trials and that was a highlight. One of the highlights for me was not something that ended well. I had been involved in a criminal case with a criminal defense lawyer leading the team. It was a difficult case, with several eyewitnesses claiming our client was guilty. Everybody told me that we would probably lose but hope sprang eternal. I really wanted to win, and I really wanted to believe that we would win. The accused was a few years older than my son, and I saw how the defendant’s rough childhood impacted his entire life. Unfortunately, we lost—and I remember when the verdict came in and going back to the holding cell where he was crying and I was crying. Nobody else was in there, and the guard asked if I wanted to go in and I did. And as I held this young man, it was clear to me that I would be the last motherly touch that he would ever have. And it made me understand better that, the justice system doesn’t work the same for everybody. There are all kinds of social ills that can lead people to be in situations where the best lawyering cannot get them out of those unfortunate situations. It really made it crystal clear to me that I could do more in terms of helping young people: mentoring, doing things that really made a difference before kids ever get to a courtroom, or find themselves in situations where they make decisions that would lead to incarceration or death. So, that was a highlight for me because it made me even more resolved that as a lawyer I would do more than just fight over money. That I would use my voice and use my expertise, and use my effort, my skill, my desire, my passion, all the things that make me who I am, that I would utilize all of that in this profession. And I would do more than just what I was doing at that time.
EK: Leslie, talking about mentoring as it relates to the answer you just gave. Can you tell us some of your mentor/mentee experiences from the perspective of each side?
LD: One of my mentees recently became an equity partner at Jenner & Block. I met her, Precious Jacobs-Perry, on the first day of her summer internship. And from there, the relationship continued to grow and blossom. She was a great mentee. I learned from her what a great mentee looks like, by the way in which she kept me engaged and she was interested in what I was doing, not just a taker always asking for something that I could do for her. And I’ve seen her grow and develop. She became a mom while she was a partner, just as I had. She became an equity partner and she has two children, just like I do. She’s married. And I am just so proud of her because, one, I do see a lot of myself in her but I see more than myself in her. She has done extraordinarily well and I just really feel grateful to have had a small role in her success.
But I have mentored many associates and young lawyers over the course of my career. I have always felt that it was my responsibility, whether I was asked to be a mentor or not. If I was working with a young lawyer – and it didn’t just have to be a diverse lawyer—and I saw them making mistakes that I knew they could avoid or that I had made I felt compelled to help.
As it relates to me being mentored, for sure, I have had the benefit of having mentors. I don’t think I understood at the time that the people helping me were mentors. Back when I was a young lawyer, there was not as much conversation about mentorship versus sponsorship. And so, there were just some people that I took a liking to, and they took a liking to me, and it worked out well. Not every mentor was African American or was a woman. I spent the majority of my career at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, which is now Denton, and I have had many sponsors and mentors who invested in me when I was an associate and moving to partnership. I’ve even had mentors who were not lawyers. I credit my now late secretary, Mary Sarver, in a huge way with a lot of my early development as a lawyer. When we met, I was a young lawyer: no children, not married. By the time she passed, I was 15 years into marriage, two kids, a successful lawyer, and a business developer. Mary was one of the people who helped me understand very early that it’s not just lawyers that you can learn from, but that people like her, who had been in a law firm setting—for 20 years when I met her—have a lot of knowledge and could guide me in ways that maybe other people may not have been interested in doing.
EK: Leslie, I agree with you about your view on mentorship. It transcends beyond just the profession or age, it can take place anywhere anytime and that can have a tremendous impact on your career and life. Let’s talk a little bit about NAMWOLF. What did you know about NAMWOLF before joining the association?
LD: I knew that the folks who were involved in NAMWOLF really loved the organization and found it to be extremely helpful. I knew that NAMWOLF was a connected, tight group, and the meetings and interactions between the law firms and the corporations were a big, important part of the organization. They had skilled and wonderful lawyers, many of whom came from large law firms and decided to go out on their own, and now are in a minority or women-owned law firm.
EK: What was the primary driver that led you to take the position as CEO of NAMWOLF?
LD: I felt like there was more that I could do to make a difference. I had been practicing law for over two decades, and I’ve always known that there was more to my career than being a practicing lawyer my whole career. When the opportunity came along, it all seemed to be right. It was an opportunity to continue to develop relationships and help minority and women lawyers but in a different yet meaningful way.
For years I’ve been doing many of the responsibilities this position brings—business development, connecting people, ensuring that minorities and women are getting the utilization they deserve, having a seat at the table, and partnering with other organizations. The only difference is I had been doing that for myself, for my partners, or for my firm.
I’m advocating now on a much bigger platform across the country for all of the NAMWOLF firms. And we’re over 200 firms in 43 states, giving me the opportunity to talk about how utilizing NAMWOLF firms bring about the kind of diverse perspectives and great outcomes that our clients all want.
EK: Talking about this job, what do you see as the greatest challenge?
LD: I see one of the challenges of this job being that since NAMWOLF firms tend to be smaller, some corporations don’t understand that NAMWOLF law firms have the expertise, client service, and deep relationships to handle their needs. Our firms handle complex matters and are experts—many of them are true experts in their practice areas. When you’re looking to hire a minority or women law firm, you are not looking for some group of people who are less talented, less educated, less capable. On the contrary, you’re looking at people who I admire, with the skills and the strengths who have decided to practice law in a way that is better for them, their families, and their livelihood.
EK: Leslie, what is it like starting this new, major undertaking during a pandemic?
LD: I’ve been joking with people – I could be a hologram! This whole process and almost all of my interactions have been virtual. I would have preferred meeting people in person, but it was just not possible. Luckily, I’ve been meeting with our firms virtually, and they have all been very warm and engaged. So, it hasn’t been hard, it’s just been strange making this transition virtually.
EK: Last year, we saw some major and significant events. Such as events relating to George Floyd, COVID, and the political climate. How have these events of last year changed our mission at NAMWOLF for better or worse?
LD: I don’t think that the events have changed the mission. The mission is clear: to promote diversity in the legal profession by fostering successful relationships among preeminent minority and women-owned law firms and private/public entities. So that mission has not changed, but what I can tell you has changed: the desire and the zest for corporations and governmental entities and others to really get in the game.
I’ve had over 100 meetings already with corporations since I started! And this isn’t me cold-calling, this is either corporations who have already been a part of NAMWOLF who want to do more, or folks who have heard about NAMWOLF and were thinking about it and are now ready to engage. And some corporations and agencies who didn’t know anything about NAMWOLF but recognized that their company or their organization are not as diverse as they want or needed to be have inquired about NAMWOLF firms. I see a vigor and sense of urgency to be doing the right things for the right reasons in the right ways.
EK: Joel Stern recently retired as NAMWOLF’s CEO after seven years. Do you envision your approach to this position differently from Joel?
LD: Joel has different experiences than I have had, so I can imagine that there will be some things that I may see differently or do differently. But I am not into change for change’s sake. There are a lot of things going really well: programs, relationships, partnerships, and all kinds of initiatives that were put in place during his leadership. But I do think I bring a unique perspective; I’m an African-American woman who was a law firm partner for many, many years. Obviously, Joel has a different profile. I think that part of what I bring to this role is just a different understanding of what some of the challenges and issues may be for our law firms. I would love to work myself out of a job. It would be fantastic for me to be able to say, “There is no need for NAMWOLF. Minority and women-owned law firms, and LGBTQ law firms are being highly utilized. We are all on one accord. Everybody is in sync and being treated fairly and included and equity is here.” But, as you know, we are not there yet. NAMWOLF still has an important role to play in increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession. My background experiences give me a great lens by which to focus on the ongoing work needed to accomplish our goals.
EK: My firm has been a NAMWOLF member for the last five years. We learned something new each time we went to the annual meeting, or the business meeting. What would you tell a new, incoming law firm to the association as to what they might expect?
LD: You get out of NAMWOLF what you put into it. It is clear to me already that there are many firms who are very engaged, and they are part of practice area committees or networking and/or cross-marketing efforts or being a board member, and they are getting the full benefit of what NAMWOLF has to offer. It may take some time to find your fit or get to know people in corporations or other firms but business development usually takes patience. NAWMOLF is no different in that aspect
EK: Leslie, what have you learned from your first few months on the job from conversations with both member firms and corporate counsel?
LD: I’ve learned a lot. I have met with over 95 NAMWOLF firms already—and what I’ve learned is that people have a great affinity for NAMWOLF. They love this organization and have been helped by it in many ways. I’ve also learned that members want to see that the work continues in a very robust way and they want to see us continue to grow and improve.
I’ve also learned we still have to get more information out about NAMWOLF. We have to keep reminding people that NAMWOLF is here to help meet the legal supplier diversity needs, and moreover that we’re not selling diversity. We’re certainly not asking anybody to forgo relationships that they have nurtured and are working on. What we are asking is that everybody recognizes that diverse teams get better outcomes and that if you don’t have a diverse team and if you want to have better outcomes for your clients, then NAMWOLF is absolutely a great way to ensure that.
EK: How do you identify the companies that are sincere in wanting to improve their diversity as opposed to those who may just be box-checking?
LD: It’s the blessing and the curse of having been an African American woman in these environments for over 20 years. I have been in those conversations, in those meetings, a part of those efforts where it was clear that this was a check-the-box kind of thing or a window-dressing exercise. And so, in that way, I rely on some of my instincts and discernment to understand who is serious and who is not, because I have had both good and bad experiences with DE&I (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion). But the truth of the matter is, beyond that I can tell you that lots of the people who have been reaching out to me are sincere, because they already have plans, policies, and procedures in place and they are ready to increase their engagement, or they have outlined their goals and are ready to partner with NAMWOLF. When I see corporations and agencies talking in very real terms about timelines, metrics, and data, and wanting to ensure that they are doing all the things they can on their end to move the needle—those are the kinds of things that give me hope and that make me feel like this is not just box-checking.
EK: So you’re married with two children, can you tell us a little more about your family?
LD: Yes, I’m married and my husband is in educational sales. NAMWOLF celebrates its 20th anniversary in October, and that’s my 20th year wedding anniversary as well. I have two children. My son is 17, he’s an elite basketball player and excited about having just finished his junior year in high school and looking at college prospects. And I have a 15-year-old daughter who is also fantastic—she’s a singer, dancer, strong academic, and her class student council president. And so, family life is busy and exciting. I also have the support of my mother, father, and mother-in-law. I feel extremely blessed.
EK: Who is your favorite kid? You don’t have to answer that!
LD: So I’ve got a favorite son and a favorite daughter. I was an only child and an only grandchild, so I was the favorite! I spread that “favorite” kind of love to them both.
EK: Great answer. What do you like to do in your free time? And what is one thing that might surprise people to learn about you?
LD: Currently, my “spare time,” is spent watching a lot of sports. My son is a basketball player, and my daughter now plays softball, so sports is really important in our household. We’re Bears fans and White Sox fans, so there’s a lot of sports in our house. I also love to travel, to explore new places. The pandemic was difficult because I’m somewhat adventurous and really do like to travel.
As for what might surprise people to learn about me, people might be surprised to learn that I am a leadership coach. They might also be surprised to hear that I worked at Court TV during the OJ Simpson trial. I got to meet all of those great lawyers: Johnny Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Robert Shapiro, etc.
EK: I have a final question. What is your favorite legal movie and why?
LD: Oh, my favorite legal movie! I don’t want to be cliché but the reason why I’m going to say this one because I laugh hysterically every time I see it–my favorite is My Cousin Vinny.
EK: That’s mine too. I think it has the most realistic courtroom scenes compared to other movies.
LD: Every time I see it I laugh like I never saw it before. It gives me the same amount of laughter every single time. I can’t say the same for any of the other legal movies that I’ve seen.
EK: Leslie, thank you for your time. I look forward to seeing you soon—live and in-person—at the next NAMWOLF Meeting.