Doneene Keemer Damon, a partner at Richards, Layton & Finger in Wilmington, Delaware, has won more awards than she can count on two hands for her leadership in both the legal community and the community at large. This year, she won the prestigious ABA Jean Allard Glass Cutter Award, presented annually to an exceptional woman business lawyer who has made significant contributions to the profession and the ABA Business Law Section. Shortly after that, the National Association of Professional Women honored her as the 2015–2016 inductee into its VIP Woman of the Year Circle. Doneene is a nationally known leader on issues relating to statutory and common law trusts. When she made partner in 1999, she was the first African American to make partner in a major Delaware law firm.
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This year, you won the prestigious Jean Allard Glass Cutter Award. Can you elaborate on receiving this award?
To say I was surprised is an understatement. I was sitting in the Business Law Section luncheon, and because I was moderating a CLE panel on success strategies for women immediately afterward, I was very focused on getting ready for the presentation. I heard the description of the winner, and I’m not sure exactly when I realized it was me. But at some point I thought, “Oh, my God. That’s me.” I looked up and people were looking at me. I felt the blood drain out of me because I was so surprised. It was wonderful and, I have to say, one of the most touching moments, because, quite frankly, I hadn’t thought of myself as having been involved long enough or as having done enough to warrant being considered for the Glass Cutter Award. It is a true honor.
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
I always wanted to be a lawyer, and that is not an exaggeration. I would play dress up when I was very young and pretend I was a lawyer. I would carry my mother’s handbag around and pretend it was a briefcase. Once I was old enough to understand what I was watching, I was glued to the television when a lawyer show came on. I don’t know what prompted it. There were no lawyers in my family and we didn’t know any, so I have to believe that it was just my destiny.
As an undergraduate you focused on accounting. Were you considering that career path?
I was. My parents were very supportive of my going to law school, but they always cautioned me and said, “You want to be a lawyer now, but you might change your mind. Or you might decide that there’s some other career that you’re better suited for.” So I always believed in having a plan A and a plan B. Accounting was my plan B. My thought was if, for some reason, I decided a career in the law wasn’t for me, I could become a CPA, have an accounting job, and be perfectly content.
You specialize in statutory and common law trusts. How did you find this practice area?
I did not find it; I always say it found me. One unique thing about Richards Layton is that associates are asked to specify three areas of preference in terms of their practice areas. I knew I wanted a transactional practice, but beyond that I didn’t really have a preference. When I came to the firm as a new associate, I asked for a transactional practice and basically asked the firm to put me wherever there was a need. They put me in the Corporate Trust Group of the Business Department, and it’s been a wonderful fit.
Does your background in accounting help you as a lawyer now?
It absolutely does. I had no idea how much of a help it would be. I have a transactional practice where I focus primarily on financing transactions, such as securitizations and project finance. Having an accounting background, understanding business, being able to read and understand financial statements, and really being able to drill down has helped me tremendously, because it gives me yet another avenue to add value for my clients.
You’ve been in this area of law for a while. Are there new issues that you are grappling with compared to, say, even 10 years ago or five?
Absolutely. I knew nothing about structured finance and securitizations when I came out of law school, but I quickly learned that it is a driver of our economy and a factor in just about everything we do. The securitization area hit the spotlight and took a turn after the economic down cycle in 2007–2008, and as a result, a lot of regulations came out, including Dodd-Frank and a host of others. We are still in an environment where regulations continue to emerge to try to address potential gaps and problems. The Volcker Rule is a big one for us. Reg ABII is another big one.
Each year we find ourselves trying to understand the regulations and the impact they’ll have on our clients. It’s interesting because my practice has taken a bit of a turn. I used to say that I was a purely transactional lawyer. I did deals. While that’s true, part of my practice now involves what I would describe as more of a consulting or compliance role.
You’ve been with one firm your entire career, 23 years. What are the benefits of having such a long relationship with one firm?
There are a number of benefits, but none more important that having the respect of your colleagues and being able to make a difference. I think it’s essential that you like what you do and you like the people you do it with. I tell people all the time, if you wake up in the morning and you dread getting dressed to go to work, that means there’s a problem and perhaps you should consider a change. I’m lucky and blessed to say that I’ve never had a day when I dreaded going to work, and the people I work with are phenomenal. I’ve learned from some of the best lawyers around. By being at the firm for as long as I have, I know my colleagues and they know me. I believe they respect me and what I do and. I am very involved in various firm committees and my opinion matters.
You’re on your firm’s diversity committee. What have been the most effective ways to increase diversity at your firm and then in law firms, in general?
Diversity is a challenge, I think, for every firm. For different reasons, every firm struggles with it. Here in Delaware, one of the issues that we deal with routinely – and this is not unique to our firm – is getting talented, diverse individuals to come to Delaware and retaining them.
Delaware has a very sophisticated legal practice, but it’s a small state and Wilmington is a relatively small city. So the cultural and social components of getting people here are always a challenge. One of the things that’s been most effective, quite frankly, is going back to the basics: finding the most talented lawyers and then making a real, concerted, and honest effort to help them develop both personally and professionally, so that they become part of the culture of the firm. That’s how you’re able to make a real difference, in terms of diversity. I think one of the most important things is supporting them and nurturing them in their development.
You’ve been very involved in helping women and minorities secure positions on boards of directors. What are effective ways to accomplish this?
One of the most effective ways has been giving women and minorities what I call the foundation to be successful. As I mentioned, I learned pretty quickly in my practice that the understanding of business I possessed from my accounting background really proved to be beneficial. I also learned that there are a whole host of lawyers who don’t have that background. When you’re looking to put people on boards, it’s critical to make sure they have that foundation. I was involved for many years in CLE programs, teaching the basics of accounting. The matching principle is also really important. You have to be able to identify the right person for the right position, because not everyone is well suited for every board.
What advice do you have for younger lawyers on how to build a book of business?
Networking is key. It’s more than just showing up at a cocktail party and having a conversation with someone for 10 minutes. It’s making an effort to get to know people wherever you go. When you go out to lunch and you’re introduced to someone new, try to get to know that person a bit better, go to social functions where you’re better positioned to meet others, get more involved in legal organizations, like bar associations, where you’re better positioned to meet other lawyers who may be able to refer business to you.
The second component is finding out how you can add value for your clients. It’s about giving them a reason to want to send you business. You do that by learning their business, spending time with them so you can develop a relationship and providing them with information that’s meaningful to them in what they do, so that they see that you’re not just another lawyer, but you’re a lawyer who understands their business, and you bring value to them.
When someone asks you to give a lecture or speech, and you have the freedom to choose the subject matter, what do you like to talk about?
I am very passionate about diversity. Whenever I have an opportunity to talk about diversity – how to address the issue, what firms should do, what people should look for – I get excited about those opportunities, because we all have an obligation to really try to do better when it comes to diversity issues.
I also love what I do. Whenever I have an opportunity to talk about structured finance, I get excited about that as well, because there are so many changes on the horizon. One of the things that I like to share with people is that no two deals are alike.
You’ve been involved with the ABA over the years. Why is the ABA important to you and what’s been the value of this involvement?
My first introduction to the ABA came when I was a very young associate. I attended an ABA Business Law Section meeting with a partner at my firm, and I initially thought, “Great, I’ll get CLE credit.” But I saw very quickly that there was real substance coming out of those committee meetings. I knew that for me, as a young associate trying to grow my career in what could be a very difficult practice area, developing relationships with the people attending these meetings was valuable. And because I was so involved over the years, I now have great relationships and friendships that have grown out of the ABA. It’s also become a source of business for me.
You’re on the Board of Trustees for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Why did you choose this group and why is it important to you?
Diversity and civil rights are issues that are important to me. As an African American woman, it’s always been a part of me and my family. My husband and I are passionate about these issues and have raised our son to be so as well. As African American professionals, I believe we have an obligation to try to get involved and do what we can when it comes to issues of civil rights.
You’re very active in the community. How do you make time for all of this?
It is not easy. I have a very active practice. I have a family. We are originally from Philadelphia. When we moved to Delaware, we knew that we were going to start a life here. My husband and I made a commitment that if we were going to be part of this community, we were really going to be part of it. And if we were going to raise a family here, we needed to be involved with organizations that could make change. You can’t sit back and complain about things if you’re not willing to help fix what’s wrong and make the community better.
You’ve received so many awards, so much recognition. Is there a most meaningful accomplishment that you’ve achieved in the general community? In the legal community?
I’ll share this with you only because it was lost on me initially, but I quickly began to understand the significance of it. I made partner here at the firm in 1999. The day after I made partner, I came into my office in the morning, and it was decorated with flowers and balloons and streamers. On my door was a banner that said, “Congratulations on being the first.” I kept thinking, “I’m not the first woman partner. The first what?” A woman from our general services group gave me a big hug and said, “We’re so proud of you for being the first.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “You’re the first African American.”
I wasn’t just the first at the firm, I was the first African American to make partner in a major Delaware law firm. At that moment, I thought, “Oh my God, it’s 1999 and I’m the first African American. That’s pretty sad.” But my second thought was, “OK, that means I have some work to do. How am I going to change things?” It was an “ah-ha” moment for me.
In terms of the community, I’ve been involved in so many different things, it’s hard to identify just one. When I agree to sit on a board or get involved in an organization, I don’t do it lightly. I always have the mind-set that if I don’t think I can make a meaningful contribution, I don’t want to do it.
You served on a merit selection panel to help select one of Delaware Federal District Court magistrate judges. What insights were you able to bring to that group, based on your background and experiences?
You look at someone’s professional background. But for me it’s always a bit more than that. It’s the intangibles. What do they think about the community they live in and the community issues? How involved have they been? Are they focused on issues of diversity and how those issues can impact individuals and cases? Because someone who is blind to those issues will not be a good person to be on the bench. I’m very focused on the position that judges in our community hold. It’s a position of honor, of respect.
What do you do for fun?
I love to travel. It was really important to us that we travel and expose our son to as much travel as possible, both domestically and internationally. You name it, we’re ready to go!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I recently have had a number of conversations with young lawyers: some male, some female, some minority, some not. One of the things that I have come to learn about myself and that I find very important to talk to young people about is finding your passion. The legal field is such an important place for society as a whole. Whether you decide to practice corporate law, bankruptcy law, elder law, or whatever it may be, we can make a difference. I hope that the track of my career and what I do in the community show young people that it’s important to be involved. It’s important for us to be visible. It’s important for us to go at everything we do with vigor and conviction.
At the end of the day, I hope people think of me as a person who has tried to instill a level of conviction and vigor in young people, so that they’ll embrace this profession the way that I did.
Thank you so much!