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Interview

Interview of Theophilus R. Nix, Jr.
December 22, 2010 to the Minority Counsel Conference Newsletter
Please click the grey arrows below to reveal the answers.

Q. Theo, lets start with your academic background before law school?

A. I went to Ithaca College as an undergraduate and majored in classical music and drama. My initial goal was to become an opera singer or a Broadway performer - not many folks know that I like to sing Italian arias, as well as German Lieder and French ballads. I did Shakespeare and Chekov plays for example. But I didn't want to wait tables for 20 years and live on the floor of a New York City apartment with 10 other folks (laughter), so I decided to go to law school as a back-up option.

Q. If memory serves from our conversation at the DuPont MCN meeting, you're a proud graduate of Howard University Law School. Can you share a few thoughts about your decision to enroll at the nation's first and oldest historically African-American law s

A. Going to Howard was the best decision I've ever made. I've made some bad decisions in my life (laughter), but that one was certainly one of the best. I enrolled at Howard Law School primarily for three reasons. First, it's where my father Theophilus R. Nix, Sr. went to law school. He graduated from the famous class of '54, along with 16 other classmates. This class worked closely with Thurgood Marshall on Brown v. Board of Education and all the companion cases that were filed across the country. Second, up to that point in my life, I had never been taught by any African-American teachers and never been in a predominantly African-American academic environment. At that time in my young life I simply wanted to be around some African-American folks. Third, Howard Law School is one of the premier law schools in the country. More African-American lawyers have graduated from Howard than any school in the world. It has a legacy like no other. I now have connections around the country because I am a Howard Law School graduate.

Q. It's incredible to hear that your father worked on Brown v. Board with Thurgood Marshall. Do you recall anything specific from Brown that had a particular impact on him?

A.

It was an amazing experience to grow up in my household at that time. And of course, Brown did have a major impact on my father. I remember many aspects about that case that deeply affected him, but none more so than the Kenneth Clark Doll Experiments that were conducted on the African-American children from the segregated schools. If you recall, those experiments demonstrated in dramatic and stark terms through videos that those kids preferred to play with White dolls rather than African-American ones, and associated the color "white" with being good and pretty, but associated the color "African-American" (their color) as being bad and ugly. My dad never got over that " it had a profound, dramatic and long-lasting impact on him. He was always haunted by the fact that these little beautiful colored children had been so mentally scarred by segregation to the point where they subconsciously hated themselves, and at such a young age. I think my dad's work reflected his desire to play a role in ending this mental sickness " this inferiority, second class belief system. Negative expectations become self fulfilling prophecies. You become what you believe. Tragically, I see examples where it still manifests itself today. Even among African-American professionals and among those with multiple degrees.

Q. Speaking of your dad's life work, can you talk about the cases he was involved with, other than Brown, as a member of the first generation of African-American civil rights attorneys?

A.

My father was the second African-American attorney admitted to practice in the State of Delaware; Louis Redding was the first. Attorney Redding worked with Thurgood Marshall when Marshall sued Delaware to integrate its schools on the theory that separate but equal had a detrimental effect on African-American children, i.e it created an inferiority complex. So it seemed kind of full circle with the Kenneth Clark studies. My father fought his entire life on behalf of civil rights and for African-Americans. In addition to his work on Brown and its companion cases, he was involved in the gamut of civil rights cases here in Delaware. He successfully sued the police department because they had no African-American officers and refused to hire any. He successfully sued New Castle County on behalf of the only all-African-American volunteer fire department in Delaware because the County refused to pay these firefighters the same money to serve their community as white firefighters were paid. He successfully sued the court system because there were no African-American folks in court: no African-American judges, no other African-American lawyers, no African-American bailiffs. Of course, the Delaware state courts didn't appreciate this lawsuit, so my Dad relied on the federal courts to get the victory. He also represented the African-American longshoremen. These folks had worked for 35-40 years on the docks, but would get fired right before retirement and lose their healthcare, retirement, and other benefits. My dad helped them collect the benefits that they spent their lives earning. He represented the great jazz singer Miss Sarah Vaughn and Thelonius Monk when the Delaware police arrested him for alleged drug possession when he was pulled over while driving into town in a white Rolls Royce with a very rich Caucasian female socialite. You can imagine how that would get attention in a place like Delaware at that time. Dad won both cases.

Q. What do you think your dad would say about the state of diversity in the legal profession today, particularly as we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision?

A. I actually talked to him about this around the time he became sick, so I have a good idea of what he would say. First, he was glad to see the number of African Americans admitted to the Delaware bar. But he was concerned that most of these lawyers were not pursuing enterprises that would create generational wealth for themselves, their families, or their community.

Q. What exactly do you mean when you say generational wealth?

A.

To create generational wealth for yourself, your family and your community, you cannot take money from someone else. If you look at the most financially successful African-American professionals and business people in the country today, the vast majority of these people are self-made - they created their own businesses. The music industry is illustrative because there you have a generation of young, African-American entrepreneurs who launched and manage their own studios, production companies, clothing lines, perfumes, and branding, etc., while hiring people from their community. Look at many of the hip hop singers. They have started their own businesses and thereby, with the help of God can control their own destiny. For example, I first spent a weekend with Russell Simmons in my home before he started Def Jam Records and became a multi-millionaire businessman, he was telling me about his vision. He believed he wouldn't make it in that industry if he worked for someone else. Movie producer Tyler Perry is building a studio in Atlanta where he will make his own movies, and continue stories with inspirational messages. He has hired African-Americans who are interested in the movie industry and teaching them the business and the craft whether it's behind the scenes or as actors. That's generational wealth creation. Don't get me wrong, I know that a lot of us have done well working at various companies and firms, and for other businesses and maybe blessed and content with their lifestyle. When you establish your own businesses, however, you help create institutional and sustainable wealth for you, your family and for your community. You invest in it. That's what my dad wanted for his community - to give them an opportunity to create generational wealth. And he lived it: He started his own law practice. But he took that concept further. He used the only local African-American dentist. He hired the only local African-American architect to design his house in the City. Not the suburbs. He hired an African-American contractor to do work on his home. In doing so, my dad felt he was a proud member of, and contributing to, a cadre of people in the community who started their own thing, and who supported each other. Those people in turn would hire him for legal work. It was a real and substantive network of professionals who worked with each other and as a result generated sustainable businesses who hired African-American workers. This was important to him because his greatest fear was the notion that all of his efforts (and that of the great civil rights leaders, including a plethora of lawyers across the country, most from Howard Law School) in ending segregation may have somehow had the opposite effect of diminishing the wealth of the African-American community. How? Because so few got the opportunity to become successful, while the vast majority have remained largely shutout from the real wealth, power and societal privilege. Just look at the statistics for young African-American men who graduate from a four-year college and compare them with the statistics for young African-American men who have been incarcerated. The numbers are staggering. What's more, the few who do "make it," e.g., those who attend law school and become successful attorneys, seem to focus more on joining and succeeding at Caucasian-male-owned firms than they do on starting their own firms. Different strokes for different folks. So my dad's view would be: Why use all your energy chasing these big law firms and working 10-plus years in the hopes of possibly making partner (which statistically speaking is difficult), when that energy could go toward creating real generational wealth for yourself, your family and your community? He really believed that when you do this you have the opportunity to chase your passion and not your pension. My dad wanted to see more young, beautiful and gifted African-American lawyers go out and create their own firms and businesses. I have coined that concept with the phrase, "Stop Chasing the Bus".

Q. What do you mean by the phrase "chasing the bus"?

A.

This is a reference to what happened during integration, when African-American high-school and grade-school students were bused to suburban schools and Caucasian children were bused to inner city schools that were located as long as one hour outside of their communities. Even worse, many of the Caucasian teachers who taught at those schools did not want to teach them, the parents were agitated, and the communities in which those schools were located were in a hostile environment for the African-American students. This led to a generation of African-American youth who graduated feeling insecure, inferior if you will, and who were not as well educated as their Caucasian counterparts. They even didn't know who they were, where they came from or their fantastic history. So the phrase "chasing the bus" applies to people of color and ethnicity, who chase financial wealth, power, privilege and connections from others and not realizing that they have the power within themselves to get all of those things if that is important to them. And they run after the bus all their lives and never really catch it. This is a biblical maxim. The Bible says to expand the place of your tent. We have to expand the level of our thinking in what we can do for self and where we can go. A God-given vision will keep you going when nothing else will. Losers see failure while winners see beyond it. I believe we must have a relentless quest for personal and professional growth for ourselves, our families, our children and our communities. When we chase that bus we don't fulfill the destiny God has for us. The struggle is proof that we haven't been conquered. Failure isn't final.

Q. What are your thoughts on the issue of diversity in the legal profession?

A.

I think we can reach diversity from a couple of fronts. One is getting attorneys or color and ethnicity into these firms. But I agree with my father that it is more important to get us to have enough belief in ourselves to start our own firms. My dad did it over 50-years ago and created something special for him, his family and his community. And so did a lot of others in his generation. We need more attorneys to follow this model. We also need to seek advice from some elder African-American attorneys, those in my father's generation for example who went out and did it on their own. We need to tap into this knowledge stream, which is something we rarely do. So my position is that even though I'm in favor of and enjoy seeing more attorneys of color and ethnicity at these Caucasian-male-dominated firms, I'm more intrigued by the possibility of having more of these folks set up their own shops.

Q. That's interesting. Why a premium on minorities starting their own firms?

A.

Honestly, I came to this realization recently, after attending a bar association meeting last summer for predominantly African-American attorney members of the Pennsylvania bar. For much of the meeting, I sat there and listened to a number of African-American attorneys express their frustration at the pace of diversity in the profession and the paucity of African-American lawyers at these firms where they practiced. These lawyers complained incessantly and bitterly about things like being passed over as a partner or promotions, about not having opportunities to work on plum assignments, and about not being invited to firm social events, golf outings, sailing trips, dinners at private clubs, skiing at a resort like Aspen for example at least compared to their Caucasian peers. These venues are where deals are made, networks are developed and money is made. As a result, they felt isolated, undervalued, disenfranchised and disenchanted with their careers. I'm telling you, the frustration among these lawyers was palpable - I felt it. But as they spoke, I sat there thinking here we are (collectively as African-American attorneys) "chasing the bus" again, despite the fact that every single attorney in the room was undoubtedly talented and educated and possessed a wealth of legal expertise; yet no one was talking about actually driving and owning their own bus - i.e., creating and managing their own firms. Then I started thinking about what we can do to help make it possible for not only African-American attorneys, but also women and other attorneys of color and ethnicity, to be in position to stop "chasing the bus" and create something of their own.

Q. Care to share one?

A.

Absolutely. I've been giving this issue a lot of thought, but haven't crystallized my thoughts on paper, so this is the first time I'm sharing them. I started thinking about the contractor-subcontractor relationship that we have in the construction industry, and about how city and state governments across the country have used this relationship/model successfully to increase diversity in the construction industry. Back in the day, you had a number of big-city mayors who awarded construction projects to companies that agreed to subcontract a percentage of the work to minority-owned firms. This arrangement was mutually beneficial: the minority-owned firms received much needed cash flow to help support their businesses and more importantly, gained much-needed experience in handling that type of work. And the majority owned firms who complied with the mandate received highly coveted and lucrative city and state contracts. It became a partnership of mutual financial convenience. Now take this concept one step further and you have what transpired in Atlanta, Georgia, a great example of what can happen when a powerful entity, whether it's a city, state, law firm, company or any organization, sets into motion policies that are designed to economically empower a different kind of community. There are more African-American millionaires in Atlanta than anywhere else in the country. Do you know why? Because of the vision of one forward-thinking mayor: Mayor Maynard Jackson. In the 1980's, when Atlanta's airport was about to undergo a complete renovation, and developers were building projects, Mayor Jackson mandated that no work would be done on the airport and no other projects could be built unless African-Americans were hired at decent wages on the project, and not unless African-American businesses received a percentage of the vendor contracts to run businesses inside the airport. I have a good African-American friend who received one of the first vendor contracts at the airport. This guy managed to run a successful airport kiosk for many years, and later parlayed the profits from that kiosk (as well as the business savvy he gained from running it) to launch numerous businesses throughout Atlanta and elsewhere, including other airports while employing hundreds of African-American workers. He is now a multi-millionaire many times over. And there are many others like him who took advantage of the same wonderful opportunity and created generational wealth for themselves and their community. Thanks to that one mandate by Mayor Jackson, Atlanta remains to this day ground zero for the largest concentration of African-American generational wealth in the US today. It's a remarkable story.

Q. I see where you're going with this, Theo. But just explain how you see all this being applied to help increase diversity in the legal profession?

A.

First, I think it is important to recognize that the legal profession is by it its nature a very conservative and risk-averse profession. And the industry typically deals with the financial and power elites in this country, which are entities that attorneys of color and ethnicity have historically been cut off from. Unfortunately, this deters attorneys of color and ethnicity from launching their own firms as (1) they typically lack the clientele to cover and generate sustainable billable hours, (2) they typically lack the resources or the expertise to compete with the major firms, and (3) they don't have the networks to become a major player in the area where they work. But the beauty of the contractor-subcontractor model is that it addresses both those concerns while creating an environment in which attorneys of color and ethnicity-run firms could thrive. Here's how: The starting point is through an entity in power like Mayor Jackson for example, but here we're talking about a client (a city, a state a company, an organization) delivers a mandate. A municipal entity like a city, for example, could require that its bond related work be outsourced to a law firm where the predominant attorneys are of color or ethnicity. That firm would get a law firm that does bond work and subcontract a portion of the work to it. But that law firm would have to teach the attorneys of color and ethnicity how the bond work is done. The attorneys of color or ethnicity would be able to bill its office costs like rent, phone, electric and a portion of other business expenses it has. The next time a city or state has bond work it would then be able to hire the law firm of color and ethnicity directly. That law firm of color and ethnicity would then hire other associates to do that additional work thereby building its firm. It now has an area of expertise that it developed with the help of the city or state. Likewise, a private entity like a corporation could require the law firm that handles its litigation to partner with and send a percentage of this work to a litigation law firm of attorneys of color and ethnicity. This client-driven partnership between predominant owned law firms and law firms of attorneys or color and ethnicity would cultivate the same mutually beneficial financial relationship that we saw in the construction model: law firms of color and ethnicity benefit by receiving billable hours to cover the financial burden of starting up or running a law firm while learning how to handle that type of work; the majority law firms benefit by receiving more work from the corporate entity as a result of implementing this type of diversity initiative. Then the law firm of color and ethnicity would be hired directly by the corporation. Frankly, I think this model is an easy sell. And here's why it would work: the legal market is ripe, and I should think hungry for, law firms of color and ethnicity. We are living in a more diverse and global environment and economy. We live in an America whose racial demographics change every day from Caucasian to other ethnicities. Corporate America is not shielded from this trend: today, there are more women and professionals of color and ethnicity ascending to positions of power than ever before. My sense is that given these developments, now is the time for those with a vision to get there early and launch premiere law firms of color and ethnicity. The model that I discussed above can help them get there, and also help them avoid "chasing the bus".

Q. Understood. Along those lines, what role or responsibility do you think minority in-house attorneys should have in directing outsourced work to qualified and competent minority attorneys, at either majority or minority-owned firms?

A.

By the way I really hope we can stop using the word "minority" one day. To me it's derogatory and degrading. I am nobody's minority. That's why I have been using the language throughout this interview, "attorneys of color and ethnicity", or "ACE". Changing minority to ACE is more positive to me. Anyway, I can't speak for anyone other than myself, so I'll tell you what I try to do. I keep the business cards that I collect from attorneys of color and ethnicity that I meet at various conferences. That way, if I'm ever in a position to send out work, or know someone, I will reach out to those attorneys first. I'll do this even if the attorney of color and ethnicity doesn't have the expertise that I'm looking for. I will go through him or her to find me the right person at his/her firm. And if possible, I will encourage two things. First, that the attorney of color and ethnicity gets credit from his/her firm for the work that comes through me. Second, if the work is the kind in which the attorney of color and ethnicity specializes, I want him or her to be given the chance to do some of that work. This helps ensure that he or she learns and gains experience, thereby increasing their worth to the firm. If I can help it I want to avoid the situation in which the attorney of color and ethnicity is just a pass through, because that does not get that attorney to where he/she needs to be.

Q. Ok, Theo. Here's my last question: Are we ever going to see you grace a Broadway stage, singing an Italian aria? You know it's never too late.

A.

(laughter) You know what, like an old prize fighter, I sit around some days and think "Man, I could have been a contender." I could have been on American Idol. I still sing a mean Italian aria in the shower!! But really to be honest it is only in my dreams these days. And that's where it will have to stay for now.