- ABA’s Women Rainmakers present Leslie D. Davis. Here to discuss promoting diversity in the legal profession.
Leslie D. Davis is the CEO of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, (NAMWOLF), a 501(c)(6) nonprofit trade association dedicated to promoting diversity in the legal profession by fostering successful relationships among preeminent minority and women owned law firms and private/public entities. Honored by several professional, academic, and community organizations, Leslie is recognized as a highly successful trial attorney, connector, and mentor. She’s also a respected leader, experienced advocate, logical strategist, transformational leadership coach, and sought-after speaker. She’s a tireless champion for equity in the legal profession and dedicated to supporting the needs of both the legal field and the broader community.
With over two decades of experience, Leslie started her career in a quasi-legal role at Court TV after earning her J.D. from the University of Iowa College of Law and her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in journalism and mass communication from The University of Iowa. She moved to a small insurance defense firm and then to a small minority-owned firm before making the jump to midsized and large firms.
Leslie Davis (LD): I’m committed to applying my multi-level background of law firm experience as a knowledge base to ensure that NAMWOLF firms are getting more business.
LD: First and foremost, you have to understand that you are always networking. In private practice, everything you do has the potential to lead to new business. If you think there are moments where you're rainmaking and moments when you’re not, you aren’t serving yourself well; because anytime you interact with another person, you are making meaningful connections. It’s a chance for them to get to know you on a new level, an opportunity to provide them some assurance that you are the one they want to work with. You’re a problem solver and you can get the job done because you have a passion for it. Some of the business that I have gotten over the years came from places I never expected.
LD: I’ll tell you about the first piece of business I ever landed; and I tell this story because it still warms my heart. Don Hubert, may he rest in peace, was a very well-known trial lawyer in Chicago. When I was an associate, we were having a casual conversation at a Chicago Inn of Court event. He was giving a presentation and he asked me to help with it. Of course, I said yes, he was Don Hubert, and I was glad he was taking time just to chat with me. We had a great time with the presentation, and I did a good job. Afterwards, he said, “So, you helped me out, now what can I do for you?” I didn’t know what to say so he asked me about my goals and told me that if I was going for partner, I needed a plan.
I said, “Well, I want to, I just don't know how I'm going do that when I’ll be having my son soon. I’m probably going to get overlooked because I’m having a baby.”
Then, he asked, “Is that okay with you?” Of course it wasn’t ok with me. “Well, what are we going to do about that?” he continued. I told him that the only thing that would set me apart is if I can bring in some business. “Well, then, that’s what we need to do,” he replied.
He invited one of his clients to meet with me and literally just said, “Look, Leslie has this expertise, I've seen her in action, she wants to make partner and she’s going to need some business to do it.”
Right there, on the spot, the general counsel said “I would do anything for Don Hubert. If I need to send you business to keep Don Hubert doing my work, I will send you business.” And she did; I was flabbergasted. It was a good piece of business, and it was noticed at my firm. I made partner and it didn’t matter that I was pregnant, I had business and the other associates didn’t. After that, a lot of things fell into place, just from being involved, doing a good job, and naming the goal and the need.
LD: NAMWOLF firms do a great job of “staying in their lane.” They know their expertise and they provide great service in those areas. Large firms tend to say that they can do it all, anything to make sure business doesn’t walk out the door. I mean, the truth is, if you’ve got 1,000 people in your firm, you probably do have someone with some experience in almost every practice area, but it doesn’t mean you have a high level of expertise in all areas. NAMWOLF firms don’t do that, that’s what makes them special. They are up front about what they do extraordinarily well, and then they are happy to make introductions to other NAMWOLF firms who have expertise in another area a client might need. They understand that when you do what you do best and knock it out of the park and build referral partnerships that brings in more business long-term. I love that about the NAMWOLF firms, they do a great job of helping bring other NAMWOLF firms into the fold with clients who need other services. They are helpful to their clients and one another without competition.
LD: I would tell them that there’s nothing wrong with being a woman. When I was younger, I tried to be like the guys and do what they did, connect in the ways they connected. I remember being on a trial team with all men and they had a habit of cursing a lot. I thought I’d jump in and say a few curse words to try and be like them.
A partner of mine, an older white male, pulled me aside and said, “You know, you don’t have to try and be like us. You are special just how you are, that’s why you are on this team, because you bring something special. If we wanted somebody who was just like us, we would've got another guy that's just like us. It's great having a woman on the team. We are the ones behaving badly, so I’m going to pull them to the side too and tell them we need to knock it off.” That’s exactly what he did, and it was great advice for me.
From there, I never really tried to be what they were. I would invite my clients to do things like go to the spa, or the movies, or take our kids to the zoo together, activities that were geared more towards women. I’d also invite the men to come, sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t, but I never tried to fit the “male mold” again, and that has worked very well for me.
Also, there’s no shame in the fact that, at times, women have needs that men don’t. I remember when I was trying cases and I just had my son. I was the only woman, and the breaks were too short for me to pump. I tried to be discrete and just ask if we could take a little more time, everybody was kind of like, “Well, no, we’re trying to get this over with, so, no.”
Finally, I had to just come out and say, “we have to take more time so I can pump, otherwise I’m going to start leaking in the middle of this trial.” You should have seen the horror on their faces, they were mortified.
Then, they were all like “Oh, oh God, how long of a break do you need? Go for it.” From then on, it was, “Whenever Mrs. Davis comes back, that’s when we resume.” Trying to be coy about it made me seem like I was stalling, but when I came right out with what the need was, they understood. Trying to mask it doesn’t help.
There were also times when I would be away, out town, and my husband and mother would be there with the kids. We had a rule for times when I was in court or meeting with clients. If it was an emergency, they were to call me two times and hang up. On the third ring, I would answer, no matter what.
One time I was in a huge deposition with at least 20 defendants, and it was my turn to question the witness. We had been sitting around for days and it was finally my turn. Then, of course, I see my phone ring once and hang up, twice and hang up, and I’m praying it doesn’t ring again and hang up. I’m thinking “Please don’t let it ring a third time because I’m going to have say that I need a break and room is going to erupt.”
Sure enough, it rang the third time, I had to take it, and I found myself in a room full of very unhappy people, mostly men. I made it quick and when I got back, I said, “I apologize, but I had to take that call. It was my son, and he knows that if he calls me two times, I’ll answer on the third.” Everybody seemed to understand even though they were slightly annoyed. I was glad I took the call because it was an emergency…not life threatening, but my child needed me, and I needed to respond.
As a woman, you have to take your space and stand in it. That’s what makes you special and different, you don’t have to pretend to be something other than what you are. I think you’ll find that people appreciate and respect you for holding that space.
LD: It’s an honor to share some of what I’ve learned over the years. I wish that I would've taken the time to ask more questions when I was a young lawyer. It would be nice to bottle up all the things that I’ve learned over the years and turn back time to be that 25-year-old Leslie again. If she knew then what I know now, she would be unstoppable.
I sometimes hear people say, “You have to make all of your own mistakes in order to learn.” I don’t believe that. Yes, it’s human nature and you will make some mistakes, but you don’t have to make ALL your own mistakes. If sharing my experience helps even one person, it’s all worth it.