Vol. 82, No. 5, May 2009
ilwaukee attorney John W. Daniels Jr. has a busy and varied life. But if one were to attempt to distill his life philosophy into just two words, it might come down to these: Everybody counts.
That’s a theme that runs through everything Daniels does, whether it’s working with his real estate law clients, or carrying out his management responsibilities as chair of Quarles & Brady LLP, or serving in numerous ways as a community leader.
“We all have things we have no aptitude to do, and I have a ton of those,” he says. “But one thing I have always had is a deep, ingrained feeling about people. I am fortunate to have that.”
Conversely, many would argue that the city of Milwaukee and the legal profession are fortunate to have John Daniels. The people at the National Law Journal would agree. In May 2008, they picked him as one of the “50 Most Influential Minority Lawyers in America.” He’s the only Wisconsin attorney on the list.
The selection criteria stated: “Merely holding a high office or position of authority was not enough; we wanted to identify attorneys who have demonstrated the power to change the law, shape public affairs, launch industries and get things done.”
Indeed, Daniels’s career shows he measures up to those high standards.
Finding the Right Fit
Growing up near 44th and Hampton in central Milwaukee, Daniels was the second oldest of eight children of working-class parents. He attended North Central College in Naperville, Ill., with his sights set on eventually studying medicine. A course in organic chemistry changed his mind, and he later diverted to the path he perhaps always was meant to follow.
“I was probably cut out to be a lawyer,” he notes. “Even as a kid, I’d go down to the courthouse and watch the lawyers. I was fascinated by the language and the ideas of lawyers.”
After finishing his bachelor’s degree in science and business in 1969, he earned a master’s degree in education at U.W.-Madison. That’s around the time he met a group of people from Harvard University who were striving to develop new ideas in educating disadvantaged children. Daniels liked their vision. He also noticed they held joint degrees in law and such fields as education or public policy.
For Daniels, that clinched the notion of wanting to become a lawyer. He got into Harvard Law School, where he earned his J.D. in 1974. He saw law as a “vehicle to do other things,” he says.
At Harvard, he took a course in commercial real estate law taught by Mort Zuckerman, a developer and later owner and publisher of the New York Daily News and editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report. “He was a real whiz,” Daniels recalls. “That course prompted my interest” in commercial real estate law.
Daniels realized this was an area of the law that fit with his natural inclinations. He’d always liked solving problems and pulling together the various pieces of a project.
As a corporate real estate lawyer “you get involved in a project,” he explains. “You see the bumps in the road. You have to deal with the challenges – whether they’re governmental or financial or people-related – and help put it all together.”
Over the years, he’s applied his skills to several real estate projects in his hometown: the Midwest Airlines Center, the Bradley Sports Center, the Grand Avenue project, and a large redevelopment project on the U.W.-Milwaukee campus, to name a few. He’s also advised many major corporations – General Electric, Kraft Foods, and Xerox, among others – on their real estate projects around the country.
After finishing law school, Daniels could have landed a job in any of several big cities, but two factors drew him back to Milwaukee. One was that both he and wife Irma had family members in Milwaukee. The other was meeting Mike Bolger, then with Quarles & Brady and now president of the Medical College of Wisconsin.
“Mike had the same interest I did: using the law to have an impact on the community,” Daniels says. “He persuaded me that if I came to Milwaukee, not only could I have a career in the corporate law world, but I also could do other things that were important to me.”
Daniels joined Quarles & Brady in 1974 and was the first African-American attorney hired by the firm – and, for that matter, one of only a few in Milwaukee at the time. He’s been with Quarles & Brady ever since, making partner in 1981 and joining the firm’s management committee in 1994.
In 2007, he became chair of the firm, which employs 450 attorneys and has its headquarters in Milwaukee, with additional offices in Madison, Chicago, Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., and Naples, Fla.
Looking back on the day he arrived at Quarles & Brady nearly 35 years ago, Daniels says he felt comfortable from the beginning. Being the firm’s first African-American attorney “didn’t faze me,” he reports. “For me, it was, ‘Hey, I like these people.’ I had this intuitive sense that I was going to be able to be what I wanted to be. That was important to me.”
The fact that he felt strong support from others around him from the outset has shaped Daniels’ career-long view that mentoring is critical to new lawyers. “Everybody needs support,” he says. “This perception that you can soar in your career without support from others is, first of all, a fiction and, second, it’s probably not the healthiest attitude in the world.”
Since becoming chair, he spends even more time focusing on creating the right working environment in the firm. “One of the key things I have to do as chairman,” he explains, “is to make sure that every person here, no matter what his or her job title may be, feels personally empowered in this organization. If you’re going to be a different kind of organization, you have to understand the value of people.”
Still, Daniels acknowledges that grasping this concept requires lawyers to abandon some traditional ways of thinking about the legal profession and how to run a law firm.
“I don’t want to criticize lawyers, but for some reason there’s almost an embedded presumption of hierarchy,” he says. “I don’t subscribe to that. I’m not saying structure isn’t important. What I’m saying is that a structure built around getting the best out of people is the more effective structure.”
That type of people-centered approach creates a climate in which teamwork and collaboration can flourish, Daniels points out. Both are essential in today’s law firms, he contends, given clients’ complicated problems.
“In the old paradigm, you have some person sitting at the top who pulls all the strings,” he says. “But the reality now is that when you’re dealing with clients’ issues and complexities, [the answers may come from] somebody who just finished law school, who isn’t 60 years old like me, but who has thought about a technology issue that would drive a solution I would never consider.”
While Daniels views teamwork and collaboration as the working modes of choice, he emphasizes that they don’t just happen on their own. “The only way you get teamwork and collaboration,” he says, “is if people feel comfortable in their own skins. And they can’t fake it, either.”
It all circles back to the “everybody counts” philosophy Daniels has held his entire life. If law firms want to succeed in today’s world, they increasingly will adopt this line of thinking, he believes.
“We’re in business to service our clients,” he says. “But we’re also in business to create an environment that places a high premium on people. I think that’s the model going forward because that’s what people want. That’s what my kids want [he has two grown children, John III and Inez], and I listen to that.”
Theory into Action
Daniels’s accomplishments as an attorney, locally and nationally, are only part of his story. He’s also built a strong reputation as someone who cares deeply about Milwaukee.
Various awards and honors have recognized his efforts for the city and its people. The Outstanding Community Leader Award from the Thurgood J. Marshall College Fund and the Humanitarian Award (to both John and Irma) from the St. Francis Children’s Center are just two examples.
From a personal perspective, one honor he’s especially proud of is having the Boys & Girls Club in his old neighborhood named after him. “I believe it’s the busiest Boys & Girls Club in the state,” he says. “I grew up about 10 blocks from it. When I go there and see the kids, I can almost see myself walking in there 50 years ago.”
He also takes special pride in the people he works with at Quarles & Brady, whom Daniels describes as “a group of people who feel a personal commitment to me as an individual.” It means a lot to him, he explains, when they invest time and energy in community programs that matter to him.
“There’s a lot of that here,” he notes. “People will walk into my office and say they’re taking a vacation day to go volunteer. They don’t have to do that. Whether they’re lawyers, partners, legal assistants, clericals, or secretaries, they feel invested in some of the stuff I’m involved in. That’s a reflection of how they perceive what I’m doing, and that’s the most satisfying part to me.”
One well-known event that Daniels founded and chairs is his annual Fellowship Open golf tournament. The name signals his intent. “What I like about it is that we get people from all different ethnic backgrounds out there,” he says. “There’s a lot of isolation in this community. Any time you break down that isolation, people start to think differently” about each other.
Still, Daniels points out, there’s an abundance of golf tournaments that raise money for various causes. He wanted his event to differ in a couple of key ways. For one, he aims to help organizations that often get overlooked in typical community fundraising efforts.
“In other words,” he explains, “the Y is going to run just fine, no matter what. But then there’s this guy out there who is organizing some youth program that he’s been doing for 30 years, taking money out of his own pocket. Nobody knows who he is; he’s not the guy standing up at a civic event. We try to pick organizations like that.”
The other key difference is in how the actual tournament day unfolds. At most such events, celebrities and others show up, swing their clubs, raise some money, and go home. “But I wanted the participants to meet with the kids and visit with them,” Daniels says, “so they have more of a personal engagement with these kids.”
With that chance for personal connection, the kids feel involved, even honored, at the event, Daniels says. For most, that kind of contact with successful people, of diverse backgrounds, is otherwise unheard of in their lives. “I think sometimes people who have more assets don’t understand how hard it is for kids like these to dream,” he says.
Clearly, Daniels is well aware of the opportunities life has given him. And he’s never forgotten one of his major reasons for wanting to become a lawyer in the first place: to make a difference in his community.
“My theory is if you have the ability to make changes,” he says, “you need to use some of that capital. What’s it worth if you don’t use any of it? Nothing.”