WILMINGTON — Doneene Damon has always been laser-focused on the next step in life. Even when she was a young girl, she knew what her path would be — even if the only lawyers she knew at the time were on the “Perry Mason” show.
[caption id="attachment_218094" align="alignleft" width="375"] Doneene Damon, President Richards, Layton & Finger | PHOTO COURTESY RICHARDS LAYTON & FINGER[/caption]
“I used to carry my mother’s purse around and called it a briefcase,” Damon recalled with a laugh. “It’s still a funny story in my family, because no one can pinpoint anything that led me to want to become a lawyer. So I firmly believe it was part of God’s plan.”
Thirty years later, Damon now serves as the first Black woman presidentat Richards, Layton & Finger, Delaware’s largest law firm which handles corporate and bankruptcy cases. How she made it to the C-suite is part by design and part divine plan.
Growing up, Damon thought she would be a star litigator just like Perry Mason. But after one summer internship while she was studying at Temple Law School, she realized she did not like the adversarial nature of mediation. At the same time, business and corporate law grabbed her interest. Delaware, as the nation’s leading corporate law venue due to the state’s Court of Chancery, clearly was the place to be.
“When I joined [Richards, Layton & Finger] after graduation, they asked if I had a departmental preference. All I said was that I wanted to do transactional work. So where I am, I didn’t choose it. It chose me,” she said.
Back then in the early 1990s, there was a lot of concern about women “derailing their careers” to start a family. There were few women lawyers and fewer lawyers of color, let alone female lawyers of color. Damon learned how challenging it would be early in her career, when she was sent to New York to close a deal on her own.
Damon remembers the partners, all older white men, telling her to drop off documents like she was a messenger and they would wait for the lawyers to arrive. When final negotiations started, Damon remembers one partner “blew her off.” So Damon called her mentor and explained what happened. Her mentor told her to march back in the conference room and put him on speaker phone.
“He called the gentleman out, asking ‘Why are you giving my associate a hard time? She’s there to close the deal. You have to talk to her or the deal isn’t going to close.’ Then he hung up,” Damon recalled. “That moment I realized this would not be easy, and people were not going to expect you to represent these financial institutions. So you need to be able to hold your own.”
Of course, Damon also was challenged by raising her son while working long hours and her husband traveling all over the world for his position with DuPont at the time. But with Damon’s parents able to offer lots of help, the family made it work.
“I don’t believe in work-life balance because that implies the scale will even out at some point, and in my experience it didn’t,” she said. “It’s about understanding the ebbs and flows of change will come constantly, and it’s about managing it the best way that works best for you. And that may be very different for you than anyone else.”
Serving as the large firm’s president during a global pandemic, Damon and the partners have overseen a 100% remote office for the first time in its history. But Damon also noticed that it gave her a window into how other associates were dealing with the global crisis.
“Not only did we have to think about how to provide great customer service on a remote platform, our priority was what we needed to do to support our people,” she said. “I was doing one-on-one Zoom calls with people in the firm that I didn’t have a detailed conversation with before. With that opportunity to get to know each other on a deeper level, I would say we’ve become stronger.”
Leading during a pandemic has also shown Damon that good leaders need to show vulnerability and empathy.
“Leading is not sitting on top and pushing policies and decisions. It’s understanding the needs of the organization and working to pull it together with policies that can move it forward. But you can’t do that if you're not willing to be honest and have open conversations about what works and what doesn’t — or put yourself in the position of someone and understand their needs.”