My endless learning journey from public service to great law
First, you learn. Then you will learn more. Then you keep learning.
My lifelong learning philosophy is more than just a mantra: it’s the secret to success in any business. It has helped me as a lawyer in private practice, as a former Houston City Council member as the city’s first black comptroller and chief financial officer, as a speaker and as a mentor to various attorneys at the start of a career.
When I was in government as an elected official, I always considered myself a loaned lawyer. The city of Houston has time limits, so it was easy to recognize that an exit strategy should be executed. Learning all I could about a multi-level organization while serving my community gave me the best of both worlds. A return to full-time private practice was inevitable, but long overdue.
Throughout my career, I challenged myself to take on responsibilities in which I was not a recognized expert. To be clear, I’m not recommending anyone – myself included – to jump into new territory without any preparation. But my own professional experiences have demonstrated the value of balancing already learned skills with the occasional leap of faith.
In fact, whenever you take on a new role assuming you know it all, it almost invariably becomes clear that you still have a lot to learn. If you’re lucky, you’ll also immediately discover that there are people around you who are experienced, highly qualified and more than willing to teach you the intricacies of your trade.
Allow me to offer some personal advice drawn from my experiences in different times in my career.
A different journey—from solo practitioner to city council
After earning my law degree from Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law in 1996, I decided not to pursue Big Law, the associate-to-partner path followed by many of my classmates. Instead, I founded my own Houston-based company, which I continued to run as managing partner for 20 years.
I started as a litigator. But as anyone who’s started a business knows, you sometimes take the job that’s offered to you, at least in the early years. As my clients’ needs evolved and expanded, I took advantage of these opportunities by handling files with more experienced lawyers. It gave me the chance to build relationships with other lawyers and learn from them in order to gain additional knowledge and expand the range of services I could provide.
Over time, I have been able to successfully represent clients in commercial matters, real estate transactions and corporate compliance, as well as commercial and criminal litigation and other areas.
In 2003, I decided that in addition to practicing law and helping people for a fee, there were many people in my community I could help, free of charge, through the public service. After being elected to the Houston City Council in 2003, it soon became apparent that this position, along with my law practice, would provide another learning opportunity.
No elected official is an expert on all the subjects that will be submitted to him. In any given week, you will be asked to make financial and political decisions that affect the lives of thousands, if not millions, of your constituents. That’s when you learn how important it is to seek advice from trusted experts.
In some cases, you may need to take additional formal training to complete your qualifications. As chairman of the city council’s budget and fiscal affairs committee and as a member of the committees responsible for transport, infrastructure, housing and redevelopment, pensions and other issues, I have decided to pursue a MBA at the University of Houston. This new learning effort allowed me to marry formal concepts with the practical experience I gained in the government sector.
From Councilman to Houston City Comptroller
With this experience and knowledge in hand, I then successfully ran for the position of Houston City Comptroller in 2009 – and once again was able to do my job effectively by seeking the knowledge and guidance from my highly experienced team of 75 career city professionals, as well as over 10,000 employees from various other departments.
(An aside: We live in a time when it’s popular to downplay the skills, accomplishments, and contributions of people in government service. I mean officially: the people I worked with in the City of Houston and in other government entities are some of the most knowledgeable and skilled people I know. Their work may not always make the headlines, but we should all be grateful for what they do for us, day in and day out. after day.)
As much as I enjoyed my work for the people of Houston, I must confess that I missed practicing law full time. I really enjoy the variety of work I can do for my private clients, so in 2016 I made the leap from the public sector to the private sector.
A return to law and a mission for diversity
Despite the many differences between these two environments, one lesson I brought to my current firm, Jones Walker, is the value of diversity. In the public service, diversity is a given – people from all walks of life come together to do this important work. Now in private practice, my goal is to help my firm create and support diversity initiatives that have a meaningful impact.
I have found that diversity is just as important in delivering fair public services as it is in delivering top-notch legal services. Diverse opinions lead to better decisions, and better decisions lead to more meaningful and creative outcomes for customers and voters.
Diversity is much more than hiring. And while I will always argue that representation is important, even more important is whether the employee, associate, or executive feels welcome and included in the organization.
Inclusion is perhaps the most difficult part of the diversity, equity and inclusion equation to define, but in my opinion, it is the most important. Personally, I have pursued this goal by frequently inviting associates to participate in organizations in which I participate and I have participated in activities in which they are involved.
Importance of mentoring in my career
I was fortunate to have had some fantastic mentors while still in law school, including the Hon. Mary Milloy (retired), former U.S. Federal Magistrate Judge for the Southern District of Texas, and the Hon. Calvin Botley (retired), who was the first black federal magistrate judge to sit in the state of Texas. During my internship with these judges, in addition to learning how the federal judiciary works, I learned the importance of connecting people. They both went out of their way to introduce me to the lawyers appearing before them. These ties will continue throughout my political and legal career.
Also, what made Botley, Milloy and my mentors so special was that they reached out to me. Botley graduated from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and was a frequent lecturer there. During my freshman year in law school, he recruited summer interns, and I was one of many chosen. Botley had an abundance of externals and two of his colleagues had none. Milloy contacted Botley and I ended up releasing both judges. They both helped lay the foundation for my legal career.
Too often, as mentors, we follow the “Field of Dreams” approach. We think, “I’ve built my career, now they (the mentees) are coming. It’s up to us to reach out to our future professionals and leaders – it shouldn’t be their job to ask for our support and guidance. We know they exist. We know they need us.
It is often said that you have to meet people where they are. It is important for mentors to seek out high potential students and early career professionals. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it. People may not realize they need a mentor until they have had the opportunity to be mentored.
We need to look beyond the law schools, universities and colleges that are already “on the list”. There are nearly 200 ABA-accredited law schools and nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. There is no shortage of diverse talents. The two are not mutually exclusive.
And what will be the first thing that I will try to teach these young people? Never stop learning.
This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
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Ronald C. Green is a partner in the Corporate Practice Group of Jones Walker LLP. He advises clients on a wide range of issues, including public, project and bond finance, corporate governance and compliance, public-private partnerships and government relations.