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Doneene Damon, President of Richards Layton & Finger

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The obvious first question when interviewing Doneene Damon has to do with the number of “firsts” on her resume, the most recent of which is becoming the first African-American woman to be elected president of a major Delaware law firm; Richards Layton & Finger.

Damon admits to a range of emotions about a resume that summarizes what most people would call a groundbreaking career.

“It’s exciting on the one hand. It’s also a little bit disappointing, and it’s also somewhat overwhelming,” she says. “It’s exciting because there have been so many firsts, and I feel fortunate to have had such a phenomenal career and to be in the position that I’m in. But I have to say it’s a little disappointing at the same time because you would think that in 2019, this would’ve happened long before now. It’s also a little bit overwhelming because I feel a tremendous responsibility to help others succeed in the same way. And I also have a fairly huge responsibility not to have any negative blemishes that might taint those who might succeed me.”

Consider the other awards and recognitions, including: 

• 2015 Jean Allard Glass Cutter Award from the American Bar Association, presented to “an exceptional woman business lawyer who has made significant contributions to the profession.”
• National Diversity Council Leadership Excellence in the Law Award (2014).
• Delaware Barrister Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award (2016).
• National Association of Professional Women’s VIP Woman of the Year Circle (2015-16).
• YWCA Trailblazer Award.
• Chambers USA, The Best Lawyers in America, Super Lawyers.
• Savoy magazine’s Most Influential Black Lawyers.
• Current Chair, Christiana Care Health System Board of Directors.

Despite the prestige of some of the awards, she barely pauses when asked if there’s one that makes her most proud.

“I have to honestly say I am most proud to been elected by my partners to serve as president of the firm,” she says. “And I have to say I’m most proud of that because knowing that my partners respect and trust me to serve in this capacity, that to me is the most rewarding feeling. And it’s not just about me, it’s about the firm. And I think that’s what really makes it special.”

Not surprisingly, the wide-ranging interview edited for length and clarity, started with the topic of diversity.

How have things changed since 1999, when you were the first African-American attorney to make partner at a major Delaware law firm?
I think that the change that we’ve seen is that the numbers of diverse lawyers in the incoming classes in the Delaware law firms has increased. So the pipeline itself has increased, and we’ve been able to watch those young lawyers grow and become elevated to partner. So that transition has become great.

Do you think there’s also been a change in attitude among the historical makeup of law firms across the country and in Delaware?
Probably across the country, but I will tell you, Peter, one of the things that has been so wonderful about Delaware, there has always been a focus on diversity among the Delaware law firms. The challenge has been really trying to attract diverse talent, both on the recruiting side and then to retain them because you’re surrounded by some very large metropolitan areas, where the large law firms in New York, Philadelphia, and D.C., are also looking for diverse talent. So that competitive landscape is a bit of a challenge. But the Delaware law firms, since I was a summer associate here back in the early ‘90s, have always been committed to diversity. 

How is your firm doing keeping good people or attracting people from other firms?
There’s always some rate of attrition with every law firm. We are very focused on professional development of our associates, and I’m 100% convinced that one of the things that makes our law firm attractive is the fact that we invest in our people. 

The focus on professional and personal development for the attorneys is critically important. And I think one of the reasons why our associates come to work with us and stay is because we do invest in them. That’s not to say that you don’t occasionally lose really great talent to other Delaware law firms, or to other jurisdictions, because you certainly do.

Our philosophy always is, when someone leaves to go to another firm, you still want them to leave having had a wonderful experience and to have great thoughts about the time you spent with us. 

How does that approach impact recruiting?
It’s wonderful, in terms of recruitment. It’s also wonderful in terms of referrals. It’s not uncommon for alums of the firm to refer business back to us, because they did have a good experience. And I think that’s what you ultimately want.

What happens when your three-year term is over? Retirement?
We are structured very differently from a lot of firms. Unlike other law firms where the managing partner steps away from his or her practice, we don’t. I will continue to do my securitization transactions. I’ll continue to grow my practice while I’m serving as president of the firm. The ultimate goal is when my three-year term is over, I will not have lost my practice during that period of time. It’s really a nine-year commitment because you serve three years as executive vice president, three years as president, and then three years as immediate past president. And that three years as immediate past president is really to work with the president to help them transition, to provide some historical perspective, and quite frankly just to be a resource to them.

As you start this three-year term, what will success look like?
I am 100% focused on professional development internally at the firm. We have a very robust development program already, but I’m looking at how we expand that. What are the additional skills and developmental traits that we need to focus on with respect to our associates at every level within the firm, whether they’re a first-year associate who just joined us, or a ninth- or tenth-year associate who’s been with us for some time?

And I’m very excited about starting a wellness initiative here. We all know that the legal industry is full of stress and anxiety. You can’t hide it. It is what it is. And I think it’s important for all of us to understand the environment that we’re practicing in, to understand what our own personal triggers are for stress, and quite frankly to learn tools to manage that so that we can be a far more productive and happy in our careers. And if at the end of my term I’ve been successful in introducing that, I will view that as a win.

What’s different today than what you might’ve focused on in the area of professional development in the past?
When I started practicing almost 28 years ago, you literally lived by FedEx deadlines. You knew that you were going to receive a mid-morning delivery of FedEx boxes with documents that you needed to review and mark up during the course of the day. And you knew the FedEx deadline was at 7 p.m., and your markups needed to go out the door to go back to deal counsel. Well the practice of law is vastly different now, with the advent of technology, email, it’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s continuous access. So you don’t really have a chance to walk away from it.

I think that requires a new skill set. It requires you to really know how to prioritize and organize, how to be efficient, how to be responsive in a way that’s not all-encompassing. 

You’re the largest firm in Delaware, well-known everywhere, doing a lot of national and international work. What’s the biggest challenge you face?
In a nutshell, you just described it. I think our biggest challenge is our past success, to be quite honest. We need to navigate the day-to-day operations of the firm in a way that addresses new delivery models for legal services, and increased expectations from our clients. And we need to do so in an environment that is forward- thinking. And quite frankly, the goal is to make sure that the future of the firm is just as distinguished as our storied past. So I think our success is quite frankly our biggest challenge.

What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned from a parent, a teacher, a coach, that’s had an impact on the work you’ve done?
The most important lesson I think I’ve learned from a teacher is that it’s not always about getting an A. I was a very good student and a straight-A student for a very long time. And I remember the first time I didn’t get an A, I was very upset. And this one professor said, “It’s not about the A, it’s about the knowledge you acquire, and how you apply that knowledge that really matters in the long run.” And that stuck with me, and that’s actually something that I’ve instilled … My husband and I instilled in our son. So that was a very important life lesson.

And I think the most important thing I learned from one of my mentors here at the firm is that even in the face of adversity, you have to have confidence in yourself, and do what you know you can do. 

Lightning Round: Doneene Damon

• What’s the question you wish more people would ask themselves? Am I being honest with myself?

• Tell me about the first experience in your life when you realized that you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful. I attended Catholic elementary school. My parents had already enrolled me in Catholic high school. I explained to my parents that I wanted and needed a different experience in high school. I was able to educate them on a college-preparatory all-girls high school — Philadelphia High School for Girls (aka Girls High). They listened to me and understood my logic. That is when I knew with the right information you could educate someone to see and think differently.

• What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? In one way, it was from a family friend who suggested I take a speed-reading course, and boy was that helpful. I had never even thought of it. But that’s come in handy on more than one occasion. (In the bigger picture), it’s ‘always be true to yourself and your principles and you will never have any regrets.’

• What’s the pebble in your shoe? Emails. I probably receive 500 or more emails a day. It’s not an exaggeration. So my biggest challenge is managing that email traffic without allowing it to consume my day. Luckily I have a great assistant to help me with that.

• What do you see more clearly — individual details or big picture — and how does that impact your management style? I see both – you must understand the big picture to understand what the end goal is but you must also focus on the details in order to determine the right path to achieve that goal. I listen, analyze and evaluate and then make decisions that are in the best interest of the firm and its clients.

• What do you hope people say are saying about you? I hope people say I’m a nice person because at the end of the day that’s what really matters. It’s not about what you’ve been able to do with your career, and it’s not about what position you’re in. It’s about are you a genuinely nice person and have you left that impact on people? And at the end of the day, that’s what I hope people say about me.

• Why is your best friend your best friend? That’s a great question. Honesty and loyalty. So I’m a firm believer that being a friend is an honor. You’re not just an acquaintance, you’re a friend. And being a best friend is the highest of honors. That’s the person who should be able to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. So it’s that honesty, that loyalty, and that sort of ability to have honest conversations, and know that, that person always has your best interest in mind.

• Who is that person? My husband. I’m lucky. I really did marry my best friend and it’s wonderful.

• What social group were you a part of in college or law school, that had an impact on the choices you’ve made in your life and career? It’s a similar group for both At Saint Joe’s, I joined the Black Student Union. And at Temple, I joined the Black Law Student Association. Each organization was important in my life because I met some of my closest friends, and they’ve had a positive impact on my life since meeting them. But both organizations also confirmed in my mind the importance of having a group of people to support you, and who you support, and where you share sort of a commonality. Sharing that diverse perspective, and supporting one another, and being able to relate to one another. I would have to say those are the two, hands down.

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