Competitive by nature, John W. Daniels, Jr., 59, would have liked to star in the Green Bay Packers backfield, but admits his current occupation suits him fine. As the chair of Milwaukee-based law firm Quarles & Brady, LLP, since September and a successful entrepreneur to boot, Daniels, who specializes in commercial transactions, has been able to channel his affinity for a challenge in a variety of areas. Though he downplays the significance, he was the first African-American attorney hired at Quarles, and according to American Lawyer, the only one in charge of a Top 200 firm in the nation. On Jan. 28, Daniels took time to sit down with Wisconsin Law Journal reporter Jack Zemlicka to discuss the challenges of overseeing a national firm of more than 400 attorneys, plans for expansion and what impact the real estate market has had on his practice.
WLJ: You were appointed chair of Quarles & Brady last September after the unexpected passing of Patrick Ryan. How has the transition been?
John W. Daniels, Jr.: The transition has gone extremely well. The management of the firm had actually initiated a succession plan in the early part of 2007, even though this happened in unfortunate circumstances. I’ve been involved with management of the firm for 15 years and was fully willing to be involved in senior management. I was sort of the interim chair, even before September, serving as a spokesperson for the law firm.
WLJ: What is the biggest challenge in overseeing a national law firm of more than 400 attorneys?
Daniels: I approach this as much as a business person as I do as an attorney. My focus is to be a client-driven law firm. That means our organization from top to bottom has to be focused on the things our clients really need and want.
WLJ: With six offices in four states, are there strategies the firm has for expanding its practice areas geographically?
Daniels: I think that our firm has been fortunate in that we’ve had the ability to be in markets where we are significant contributors, both legally and in the community. Our goal is always to find communities where we can replicate that. Should opportunities open up, we’ll certainly look at those and we intend to grow.
We have serviced the needs of our clients internationally, particularly in China. That’s not to say we are going to open up a Chinese office right away, but we have deep skill sets in that area.
WLJ: Are there specific practice areas in which the firm has planned expansion?
Daniels: We think we have particular strengths in the corporate area, for example, in project finance. If you see people building large projects where tax and real estate and finance all intersect to make it go, we feel we’re growing in that area of the law.
WLJ: As the first African-American attorney hired by Quarles in 1974 and the first chair of an American Lawyer Top 200 Firm, do you consider yourself a role model for minority attorneys in the area?
Daniels: Quite honestly, I wasn’t even aware that I was the first African-American lawyer in the country to have a role like this. That’s not really my business focus. I have a real commitment to using the law as a vehicle to grow business and make communities better. My focus is on using my role in the firm for that purpose. If we create an institution where everybody feels included, that will offer opportunities to people.
WLJ: As a practitioner in commercial real estate transactions since you joined the firm, what is the biggest change you have seen in the field?
Daniels: The most interesting change is that real estate has gravitated more in the direction of sophisticated corporate business, whereas historically people thought of real estate as totally local. The securitization of real estate, the growth of large rates and developers and looking at real estate much the same way as people look at other financial vehicles and having a need to understand that is the biggest change I’ve seen.
WLJ: How has the volatility of the lending market impacted commercial transactions?
Daniels: I would say clearly people are being more thoughtful, which is great in terms of choosing the best places to apply capital. It’s been terrific for our firm, because we’ve always catered to clients who are rigorous about the due diligence.
I think the sophistication of the real estate market, generally, has made the issues that we are dealing with now, much more complicated. You can’t compartmentalize law anymore. Business and law intersect now and the people that get it, really get it. The law firms that get those people first are going to have a huge competitive advantage.
WLJ: What is the most unusual transaction you have handled?
Daniels: I can’t identify the city, but working on a project that involved bringing retail, office, residential and hotel all to a downtown area that for 15 years had not seen a trophy project was exciting for me. You don’t get those every day.
WLJ: You and your sister built one of the largest minority-owned restaurant franchises in the country, V&J Foods. How do you balance your responsibilities as an attorney with those of being a businessman?
Daniels: My experiences have given me a perspective on how you drive the business equation. Those are extremely helpful in my practice and developing the strategy of the firm. I just think that like anything else, if you have a set of [business] experiences that complement what you do as a professional, it just makes your advice to clients a lot more realistic.
WLJ: V&J operates more than 100 Burger King and Pizza Huts nationally. How often do you taste test your product?
Daniels: (Laughs) Well, that’s a very good question. I’m more of a business advisor and my sister is the operator, so I leave all operation decisions to her. I’m running a law firm. You try and run a world class operation, but sometimes you have a little bit of fun with it.
WLJ: In addition to your legal and business obligations, you are a member of numerous organizations in and out of the legal profession. Where do you find the time?
Daniels: That’s the question my wife asks. Honestly, I do things that I really enjoy. Like the youth activities and seeing if I can bring opportunities to kids though sports, which I really love as well, so it’s a natural fit. As a professional in a community, you have an obligation to be a real part of that community.
WLJ: You joined Quarles & Brady right out of law school, but had you not chosen a legal career, what profession might you have chosen?
Daniels: I would have been a businessman. I think probably a real estate developer, but instead I just advise them. Do I wish I could have been the halfback for the Green Bay Packers? Yes, but instead I’m the chairman of a law firm.