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Collegiality, Civility, Service: Gemstones in a Lawyer's Life
An Interview with Doreen S. Davis


by Nancy L. Hebble

Winter 1999, Vol. 62, No. 4

To understand Doreen S. Davis, it helps to understand emeralds. An emerald is a precious gem, sometimes more costly than diamonds. On the Mohs Hardness Scale, an emerald is an eight, somewhat softer than a diamond, which at ten is the world's hardest substance. Since ancient times, gemologists have oiled natural emeralds to fill in their inclusions and to improve the stone's color, lustre and depth of beauty. This process gives the gemstone its Le Jardin, the look of tiny tree branches that comes from flaws and stains inside the stone. Ultimately, Le Jardin makes each emerald unique.

Like the emerald, Davis' life has been filled with inclusions, the little brown marks of hard times and bad breaks growing up that made her strong, but not so hard she can't feel compassion for others. Colleagues say this is particularly evident in her successful national labor and employment law practice, where she concentrates in National Labor Relations Board litigation, union negotiation and employment litigation. Today at 45, she's a partner and chair of the firm's labor and employment law department at Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads LLP.

A graduate of Penn State University and Temple University's Beasley School of Law, Davis has now filled in all of her own inclusions and the result is the precious gemstone of her family life-she has a husband and mate, Robert J. Simmons, who is both humble and proud to say that they have a very solid marriage, and a daughter, Samantha, 9 ½, who they both say is the joy of their lives.

As she succeeds to the leadership of the Philadelphia Bar Association as its 73rd Chancellor, Doreen Davis will be wearing her favorite platinum ring set with a large emerald-cut emerald at the center and surrounded on both sides by smaller emerald-cut diamonds. She says she wears it as a reminder of where she's been and where she has yet to go. Davis has served as the chair of the Young Lawyers Section and of the Bar's Board of Governors. Now, with this unique wealth of organized bar experience having enriched her life, she wants to add lustre to the lives of all Association members by championing a new era of collegiality, civility and service for the nation's oldest chartered metropolitan bar.

Excerpts from a recent interview follow:
Q: Why did you want to become Chancellor?

A: I wanted to become Chancellor since the early 1980s when I was involved with the Young Lawyers Section. That's when I became acquainted with all of the wonderful things that the Bar Association does, both for its members and for the public. And the more I became familiar with the workings of the Bar, the more I wanted to lead the Association. I thought I could bring some fresh ideas and new perspectives to the job.

Q: What's your agenda going to cover?

A: First and foremost is to try-as much as any one Chancellor can-to talk about and hopefully encourage lawyers to return to civility in the practice of law. This is a big issue to me because I'm convinced that the lack of civility in our profession is what leads many lawyers to be dissatisfied with being lawyers. Most people do not relish constant conflict, unpleasantness and nastiness. And when you encounter them every day in what you do for a living-litigating in court or just in day-to-day dealings with lawyers representing parties on the other side-it wears you down. It seems a lot of people feel that practicing law isn't fun anymore. And I think this lack of civility is one of the main causes.

Q: Why is this of particular concern to you?

A: I'm a labor and employment lawyer representing employers, and the labor and employment law bar in Philadelphia is a rather small one where all of us know one another and see each other repeatedly in cases. Labor and employment law, especially on the labor side, is an area of practice where the parties involved in the disputes-the employer, the employees or the union-are parties who have to work together every day. The day after the dispute is resolved they have to go back to work together. So, I think I bring a different perspective to the civility issue. The parties in the disputes that I'm involved with do not have a scorched-earth agenda, where one side has to be annihilated and the other side walks away a winner. We look for solutions that let both sides walk away, save face and continue to get along. Because of this, I think we treat each other in a manner that's a little different from the way parties are treated in other types of disputes. I've always made it a hallmark of my practice to treat the attorney on the other side of any dispute with respect and consideration. Most of the people who practice in my area of the law do this, but I know from other lawyers that this doesn't always happen outside of this realm. I think our little labor and employment law bar could serve as an example of what I'm talking about with regard to civility. How you treat people is how they will treat you.

Q: Any other reasons for the dissatisfaction that can you identify?

A: There are two main causes for lawyer dissatisfaction, I think, with the first being the lack of civility. The other is the inability to juggle work life with personal life, for those of us who have families and for those of us who do not. This area is where the hours and the increasing demands on the profession come in. I'm hoping during my year as Chancellor to at least begin the debate and to start talking about legal workplaces that have managed to allow their lawyers to balance their professional and personal lives. I hope to showcase some of the best practices in Philadelphia law firms or other legal workplaces, as an example for all. By placing this attention on these firms I believe they will receive some advantage in recruiting, since it will serve to increase the level of awareness on the part of people that are looking for places to work.

Q: What else is on your agenda?

A: Well, I want to continue the fine work of Ed Chacker and some of the other former Chancellors who have put at the front of their agenda a dedicated funding stream for legal services. I hope it comes to fruition in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania through an add-on to the annual attorney registration, because I firmly believe it's every lawyer's obligation to contribute to legal services. Some of us are better able to give than others, but we can all give at a certain level. The level that is being talked about is $50 a year for each attorney in the annual registration fee. It's included in the cost of getting your license re-newed. This would guarantee a funding source for legal service agencies, and hopefully, they wouldn't have to go around begging every year. We must make sure that these agencies have enough lawyers who are trained and know the issues, know the clients and know how to handle the cases. They simply cannot go on having their continued survival hang in the balance each year.

Q: How are you working to get this instituted?

A: The proposal that passed the Pennsylvania Bar Association house of delegates is to increase the continuing legal education fees, but we're attempting to work with the state bar and with the Supreme Court to use the license renewal fee as the mechanism rather than the CLE fees. Many lawyers feel that CLE already costs more money than it should. We think that the license renewal is the better place to assess the fee since it demonstrably shows the legislature the commitment of the lawyers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia. It answers the question, "What are the lawyers themselves doing about funding for legal services?"

Q: Are there any more issues on your agenda?

A: Well, I believe that the issue of the multidisciplinary practice of law is one that the Philadelphia Bar Association is going to face during my tenure. Contrary to the popular belief that this issue just affects large law firms, it may, in fact, affect even more dramatically and more quickly sole practitioners, attorneys in general practice, estate attorneys, real estate attorneys and others.

Q: But realistically, what can be done at this point?

A: Well, I think a lot can be done, although I do think it's a fait accompli in terms of all the multidisciplinary practices already out there offering legal services. There's no question that is happening even as we speak. However, I think we have to protect the core values of our profession-the attorney/client privilege among them. We also as a profession have to be flexible and respond to the changing world in which we find ourselves. Clients are in a one-stop shopping mode. It's up to us to try to retain our core values, and at the same time control the practice of law wherever it occurs.

Q: Beyond your plans for next year, do you have any broader concerns about the Bar Association or the profession itself in the new millennium?

A: Yes, and it is that the Philadelphia Bar Association has to continue to be relevant to our members' everyday practices. There are so many demands on a lawyer's time. It's becoming increasingly difficult to practice law because of the level of service required by clients, the demands of the workplaces in which we find ourselves, and the simple economics of the practice of law. The Bar Association should provide some value-added services to members, and I'm going to be working very hard to deliver those services that members say they want from the Bar Association. Now, we can't provide everything-I don't think members want a discount on their dry cleaning to come from the Bar Association, for example. But insurance programs should be competitive, which they are. Many lawyers, solo, small practitioners and big firm lawyers, already get their insurance through the Bar Association because it's a good deal. All of the services that we offer through the Bar's Web site should be up-to-date, user-friendly and helpful to the lawyer in practicing law on a day-to-day basis.

Q: Are you talking about helping big firms or are you talking about mid-size and sole practitioners, specifically?

A: I'm talking about all of those groups. I think we should be the haven for the sole or small practitioner who's looking to upgrade his or her computer system, to pick out billing software, to learn how to construct a Web page or to have a link on our Web page to their site, to get access to discounted legal research on-line and other on-line services. My vision is to try to provide services to all members of the Association, regardless of what type of practice they have.

Q: Can the Bar Association really help the large firms? They so often seem so self-sufficient.

A: Yes, I think there are a number of ways. Already we are doing it through our Web page and our Home Court Advantage where we provide a place for large law firms to recruit new legal talent to Philadelphia, and, as I mentioned before, the insurance programs are an important benefit, not only to large law firms but also to sole and small practitioners. I know many large law firms that purchase their partner insurance through the Bar Association.

Q: Day to day, how do you handle the competing demands of your life as a top labor lawyer, a wife and a mother?

A: I manage it by using a lot of makeup under my eyes, hair color, and the support of a huge network that involves first and foremost my husband, a full-time nanny for my daughter, and the support of my many partners and associates at Montgomery, McCracken, Walker and Rhoads.

Q: What's it like on a regular basis?

A: Well, it's not always easy. I have a number of very loyal and very good clients for whom I try to deliver excellent service. I also am, and want to be, a very important part of my daughter's everyday life. Technology helps me maintain this balance. I have a car phone and a cell phone and a fax machine and a computer link to the office. I have a Palm Pilot. I find that clients these days really do not care where you are when you deliver the service to them. If they have a question or a problem or an issue, as long as you return their call and give them the advice they need, they don't care if you're returning the call from your daughter's gym meet or from the third-grade play or the Halloween Day parade. What's important is that I get back to them.

I also have a husband who is a labor lawyer and who does virtually the same job that I do. That's a tremendous advantage because he's very understanding of the demands of what I do and my time away from home in strange hotel rooms with strange men negotiating contracts. He understands because he has to do the same thing. We do not both travel at the same time. My excellent administrative assistant/secretary, Jenny Sacca, keeps me organized in balancing all these things. She handles my schedule, does a wonderful job with my clients in making sure that they feel that they will get to me. And our daughter Samantha's nanny, Sue, is very flexible. She helps us out and stays when we need her to stay. She makes sure that Samantha gets where she needs to go and that she also gets the support and love that she needs when we can't be there.

Q: Does your daughter have a hectic schedule too?

A: Samantha has almost a busier schedule than we do. She's in fourth grade. She is an excellent student and an accomplished athlete at this young age as a member of a competitive gymnastics team called the Mannettes.

Q: Do you and your family ever get out of balance?

A: Oh, sure we do. I do. Then I find myself trying to replenish and recharge the batteries and spend the time that I didn't spend.

When we don't have a lot of social or Bar Association commitments, for example, we may just decide that we are going to stay home the entire weekend. We watch TV together, cook together. And also, we all take naps to rejuvenate.

Q: What's the best thing about being a woman lawyer today?

A: I'd say that it's the opportunities that are available. I think they're unlimited because I find tremendous client acceptance of me as a woman. In fact, in my particular area of the law I find clients may even prefer to have a woman representing them and believe it to be an advantage. I also think that since not many of us are in positions of power, in our law firms or legal workplaces, that the opportunities for leadership and for rising to the top are out there.

Q: What's the worst thing?

A: Being underestimated because you are a woman. Although I have to tell you that now that I've been practicing for twenty-one years, it doesn't happen much to me anymore. But I still think in some circles with some clients, people do have a tendency to underestimate what women lawyers are capable of doing. To me, I turn that into an opportunity because I always feel that I'm going to be able to show them that I will do more than what they expected. I view it as a challenge to do so.

Q: Did you always want to be a lawyer?

A: Yes, and for almost as long as I can remember. But I did not know any lawyers the entire time I was growing up. Until I went to law school, I'd never met a lawyer.

Q: Then how did you know about lawyers?

A: In fiction, but not in fact. And the first lawyer I knew in fiction, the lawyer who really was the example to me and led me into the profession, was Carson Drew, Nancy's father. I have been an avid reader my entire life. As a girl, I devoured the Nancy Drew books. After I had been reading them for a while, I started to wonder why Nancy herself couldn't be a lawyer. But still I was very impressed with Carson Drew; the fact that he was a lawyer and what he did seemed like a profession that was very honorable, noble, learned.

Q: So, you didn't think one way or another about being female, you just thought it was natural that Nancy Drew could be a lawyer?

A: She worked so closely with him. I couldn't understand why in the books she didn't want to be a lawyer, or that the books didn't deal with her trying to become a lawyer too.

Q: How old were you then?

A: Eight.

Q: So, all through your teen years you continued thinking that you wanted to become a lawyer?

A: Yes, but I didn't really know how to go about accomplishing that. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who encouraged me, but she didn't really know how to accomplish it either, although she always told me that if you work hard enough and you try hard enough you can achieve whatever it is you set out to do. I have five brothers and sisters. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I went to college with the intent of going to law school, and it was there that I formed my desire to be a labor and employment lawyer. I was a labor studies major and learned a lot about the labor movement and labor management relations. I decided that was the area that really held the interest for me.

Q: What attracted you to that?

A: I knew a lot about the labor movement from both of my parents. My father was in several labor unions with several different jobs, but spent a large part of his life working in the anthracite mines outside of Wilkes Barre as a United Mine Worker. Also, for a period of time, he was an over-the-road truck driver and was in the Teamsters Union. My mother was in the Textile Workers Union and worked in a textile factory. Through them I heard a lot about labor unions and what they did for working people. I was interested in the labor movement and labor management relations, and that's what led me to my major at Penn State.

My first job out of law school was as a field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Philadelphia where I worked for a little less than a year. Then I joined the labor and employment practice at Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell and Hippel. I was working with my labor law professor, Tom Felix.

Q: Has he been a mentor to you?

A: He's been an excellent mentor to me. It started out in law school where he was my professor and teaching me labor law, then he took me under his wing when I was a second-year student. I have practiced labor law with him for more than twenty years and we have been in three firms.

Q: Did he practice law and teach too?

A: Yes. He always practiced law full time but taught law school at night, and that's why I was able to have him as a professor. He is a great role model and teacher and exposed me to clients. In the beginning I had some difficulties convincing clients that a female labor lawyer could stand up to unions and represent their interests. But Tom stood up for me and told them that they should give me a try and they would be happy with the results. We used to say that that's exactly the way it turned out-that once I was given the opportunity, the clients always seemed very satisfied with the results I achieved and the way in which I represented them. But it was really because of Tom's urging that I even had the opportunity to do certain things for clients. Without that they might otherwise have said, "I don't want her. She's a woman. She can't be strong or tough enough to do this job."

Q: Did you have any other role models or mentors?

A: My mother was a tremendous role model as a working mother, one who was really forced economically to work and to raise a family at the same time. She raised six very successful children and did so under extreme adversity. She was a battered spouse and suffered many things because of an alcoholic husband, but she always held it together for our family and encouraged all of us to really go for our dreams and achieve what we wanted.

Q: Sometimes lawyers say that they don't read much after they complete the reading necessary to keep updated in their practices. But you've said many times that you're an avid reader. What kinds of books do you like best, beyond the law books?

A: Reading, I find, is one of my best outlets for relaxation. I really enjoy popular fiction; it does not have to be classic literature for me to enjoy it.

Q: Biography or mystery?

A: I read some mysteries. I like legal thrillers. I love Lisa Scottoline's books, Scott Turow's books and John Grisham's books. I've read them all-probably within a week of their coming out. I do like the legal thriller genre, but I also enjoy just about any kind of popular fiction. I read almost everything that appears on the fiction best-seller list.

Q: Will readers see this and say how does she find the time to do that?

A: Maybe, but I read at night before I go to bed. When I travel I like to read on airplanes. And when I go on vacation, it is not a good time to me unless I read a book a day. That's how I judge my vacations.

Q:What about your naps? And sightseeing?

A: I'm a quick reader.

Q: Does it drain away the stress of everyday life?

A: It's a complete outlet for me to forget the world we're in and be transported. Books have always transported me to a different kind of place and time. When I was growing up, I was reading as a means to really expand my world. Our family didn't travel; we didn't go on vacations. I've learned about other places in the world by reading. I've learned about what other people's lives are like by reading. Where I grew up, we were all pretty much alike. Nobody was very wealthy. Our parents were all working people, kind of struggling along to put food on the table, clothes on their kids' backs and make ends meet. I didn't know any world other than that. But I learned a lot about the outside world through reading, and today I continue to transport myself this way. This is an important habit that I've tried to instill in my daughter.

Q: How's that working?

A: She's a very good reader, and Robert likes to read, too. Samantha has always seen us read and knows that we place great importance on it. I started reading to her before she could possibly understand a word I was saying. Books are her absolute favorite gifts. One of our favorite activities together is to go to bookstores and to the library to get books. I get very insecure if I don't have a stack of five or seven books that I haven't read yet by my bedside. When the pile goes down I have to go acquire more books; I just cannot be without them.

Q: In your experience, what's the most important quality a lawyer can have?

A: Lawyers must be honest, ethical and true to their word.

Q: Would you expand on that?

A: Credibility is extremely important in practicing law, and it's one of the things that I have tried throughout my whole career to establish and maintain. I hope that I've been successful. It's an important quality that I look for when I recruit lawyers for our firm, when I deal with other lawyers, and when I talk about lawyers.

Q: Do you have any requests for ideas from the membership?

A: Well, I'm always interested in hearing from the members as to how we can help them in their everyday practice. I certainly pledge to them that I will do whatever I can to make the Association responsive to their needs and to represent the Bar to the outside world in a manner in which our members can be proud.