Frederick Nance, a Cleveland-based regional managing partner at Squire Patton Boggs (HANDOUT).
Frederick Nance, a Cleveland-based regional managing partner at Squire Patton Boggs (HANDOUT). ()

Squire Patton Boggs announced Monday that Cleveland-based partner Frederick Nance will be the global firm’s next managing partner for U.S. operations, beginning Jan. 1. He will also become the first African-American partner to sit on the firm’s 12-person global board and six-person executive group.

Nance, 63, heads Squire Patton’s U.S. sports and entertainment practice, with a client roster that includes LeBron James—whom he’s represented since the basketball star was 17—and comedian Dave Chappelle. A Cleveland native, Nance has spent his entire professional life in the city, where he has been a leader in civic, cultural, and sports institutions.

He led the city’s Chamber of Commerce from 2006 to 2008, helped bring the Browns back to Cleveland, served as the football team’s general counsel from 2009 to 2012 (and remains outside counsel) and sat on the board of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

In his new role, Nance will help lead Squire Patton’s continuing efforts to integrate a 1,600-lawyer firm that was created two years ago when Cleveland-based Squire Sanders merged with the Washington, D.C.-based Patton Boggs. The combination produced a network of lawyers in 21 countries, and the transition has encountered a few bumps, including partner departures from the Patton Boggs side. Recently, the firm brought in former U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who will serve as a strategic adviser to clients.

The American Lawyer recently spoke with Nance about the challenges ahead. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What specific challenges does Squire Patton face?

The biggest challenge is what I call connecting the dots.  We have so many relationships, so much talent, so many different practices in so many different places—if we truly will realize the benefits of the merger, we’ve got to make certain that there is information shared internally. Lawyers as a species are not instinctively collaborative. We have to continue to incent behavior that is collaborative.

You’ve been a civic leader in Cleveland, which is on the upswing. What lessons from that experience can you apply to leading a law firm?

My practice has resided in the intersection between government, business and the economic development nonprofits. They don’t instinctively connect or communicate well, so somebody has  to facilitate that process. What I’ve done throughout my career is help to bring initiatives and projects to life by getting people from those very different sectors to understand each other and to make things happen

How can you use your experience with athletes and sports teams to help motivate lawyers?

It will sound like a platitude, but it’s real: Unstinting dedication to excellence is first and foremost. Relationships are important, market position is important, but job one is complete dedication to excellent client service. It is quality followed by quantity, with quantity meaning hard work. You can be very talented, but if you don’t apply yourself, you won’t get the outcome.

I tell this to law students—the coin of the realm when you’re a student and certainly as a new associate is your academic and analytic abilities. It’s your grades and your test scores. Eventually you realize that continuing to succeed and excel requires something else. The thing that starts to distinguish you and move you forward is in fact your interpersonal skill set. That’s more true now than it was when I started.  For some people that’s a pretty rude awakening.

One of your entertainment clients, Dave Chappelle, is now back in the news.

Yes, he will host “Saturday Night Live” next week. I’m working on a number of projects with him. I’ve been working with him about 11 years. I can’t really talk about the biggest project underway, but it will be public within a couple of months.

The irony is, he called me out of the blue. I get lots of calls from strangers, and I don’t return calls from people I don’t know. I’ve gotten calls from people who bought a bad mattress. When he first called, I didn’t call him back because I didn’t think it could be him. He called again, and my wife said, ‘Why don’t you call him back?’ We’ve been together ever since.

It’s still relatively rare for top firms to have nonwhite or women partners in senior management positions. How can firms improve their diversity?

Look at the firm’s most important client relationships. If there are no women and minorities involved in them, go to the person involved and say, over a reasonable period of time this needs to change. At least exposing women and minorities to those important relationships gives them the opportunity. They may grow into them, they may not. But doing that in a more systematic way, rather than letting it happen, is something every firm can do.

Big Law is lagging. It’s got a long way to go. Diversity is an area where Squire Patton can be a leader. We have women heading so many practice areas. [Jane Haxby heads the corporate practice for Europe, the Middle East and Asia; Caroline Noblet and Jill Kirila co-lead the global labor and employment practice; and Lisa Henneberry leads the global energy and natural resources practice.] Our five-person executive management group at the beginning of the new year will include me and [U.K. partner] Jane Haxby. That’s a differentiator, and our clients are looking for that.