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WORKING A Firm Commitment

How Don McCleary pulled Gardere & Wynne out of the ’80s doldrums-and showed Dallas a new way of doing business.
By Larry Upshaw |

LIKE MODERN PARENTS SCOLDING their errant children, economists and CEOs advocate “tough love” for those who would succeed in the downsizing ’90s. The head must guide decision makers; the heart has no place in this equation. Employees are threats to the bottom line; civic involvement, an expensive nuisance. Only by eliminating all excess can the fittest survive.

So how to account for Don McCleary? As managing partner of the Dallas law firm Gardere & Wynne, he refused to embrace this Darwinian theory when his firm emerged from the ’80s. Instead, he rescued the firm using kindness, charity, and civic benevolence.

McCleary’s ascendancy began in the late 1980s, when Gardere & Wynne’s revenues and profits-not to mention its morale- were down, down, down. Suddenly no one had the money to make deals; not oil men, real estate developers, or bankers. Without big deals requiring legal expertise, Gardere & Wynne-with its unbroken history of high-octane moneymaking-was a group of attorneys with little to do. The Dallas legal community sensed that a bunker mentality was settling in at one of the city’s top law firms, reducing its once-considerable influence. Would the firm go the way of several others that failed to survive the rocky ’80s?

“By the fall of ’91, it was time to see what kind of firm we wanted to be or whether we wanted to continue at all,” says McCleary.

At stake was the heart and soul of a firm. In its simplest form, McCleary explains, a law firm is merely a moneymaking engine fueled by legal talent and a shared vision. “Without income and common goals,” he says, “good people can find another place to work. “

One segment of the firm wanted to hunker down even further and just get to work. Instead, McCleary proposed a radical departure from business as usual: The firm should immerse itself in the civic life of Dallas and wait until the historic buoyancy of our local economy lifted all boats. Then, when recovery came, the firm would be poised to profit. He saw this as a natural way of enhancing revenue, ” and a lot more fun. More money, more fun. What more could you want?”

Not everyone in the firm agreed with McCleary’s vision. Any large law firm has its share of headstrong egos. “But no one had another well-thought-out plan of action,” he says, “and so they followed my lead.”

In an effort to broaden the talent base at the firm, McCleary instituted a progressive cultural diversity program, including an aggressive push to hire minorities and women. The firm’s Project Community Service began to offer matching funds when one of the partners dedicated his or her own money or time to a worthwhile cause. Projects ranged from those funding operations of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce to Habitat for Humanity in South Dallas.

Working to build morale, McCleary established the Gardere & Wynne Chorus, a 30-member choir of attorneys and staff who entertain at partners’ functions as well as events outside the firm. The group might not be mistaken for the Turtle Creek Chorale, but it serves a purpose in bringing together Gardere employees, from senior partners to mailroom workers, in a cooperative effort. He also initiated the annual Blue Chip Award, an MVP-type honor that recognizes staff members who have been instrumental in the firm’s rebirth. The first Blue Chip went not to a top litigator or rainmaker, but to the firm’s housekeeper.

McCleary, who had served on a number of city boards and commissions since coming to Dallas 20 years ago, stepped up his own civic involvement. He served on Chamber of Commerce committees and went along on economic development junkets designed to lure industry to town. He was appointed to the city’s board of adjustment, which grants zoning variances, and still serves as chairman of that board. During former Mayor Steve Bartlett’s term, McCleary conducted an exhaustive study of the city manager form of government for the Dallas Citizens’ Council. The short-term reason for the study was to find ways of diffusing tensions between Bartlett and then-city manager Jan Hart. Long term, the idea was to recommend changes that might include converting to a strong-mayor system of government.

Inside the firm, McCleary and his partners convinced several major rainmakers to stay on board. They also attracted attorneys who could bring business from other firms. And they expanded into Houston, Mexico City, and Tulsa.

And then McCleary set into motion Gardere & Wynne’s most ambitious project, the firm’s “sponsorship” of Ron Kirk. It began in February 1994 with a telephone call from insurance executive Tom Dunning, who had been considering a run for mayor.

“Tom told me he wasn’t going to run, that he was going to support Ron Kirk.” McCleary says. “I had never met Ron, but 1 knew he wasn’t a wealthy man and would need help from the business community if he was going to be mayor. I called Ron and asked him to lunch, and he’s such a charming guy that I offered him a job on the spot.”

While it’s not unusual for law firms to subsidize the activities of their attorneys who run for office, Gardere & Wynne had never done it before. Kirk only recently had declared his candidacy, and most of the people at Gardere didn’t know the man. Putting his own credibility on the line, McCleary sold Kirk to a skeptical partners’ group. In effect he was saying: Let’s hire, and handsomely compensate, a man who will, if elected, spend only a fraction of his time on the firm’s business.

McCleary believes that adding Ron Kirk to the firm’s roster was one of his shrewdest business moves, even though fears of conflict of interest preclude Kirk’s involvement in many legal matters. “People want to feel they have access to power, and with Ron in the house they feel close to that power.”

Today, the fruits of McCleary’s labors are plain to see. The firm now has 10 minority attorneys-partners and associates-and the number of female attorneys has increased from 42 to 60 since 1992. Gardere & Wynne is Dallas’ second largest law firm, with 239 attorneys, and one of the 100 largest law firms in the country. Profits are up from four years ago more than $100,000 per partner and annual revenues have increased to more than S75 million, almost a 12 percent jump over the previous year.

SHORTLY AFTER THE HIRING OF RON KIRK, flush with success, McCleary learned that he has AIDS. He had been tested several times before, always with negative results. But his energy level, legendary in the firm, had begun to wane. Then came the news.

McCleary is reluctant to discuss his illness. When he became the firm’s managing partner, he says, he made a covenant with his law partners that his lifestyle would never become an issue. McCleary is not what he calls a “poster child” for any social cause. What’s important to him is the law firm.

“The way I’ve lived my life has nothing to do with my performance here in the firm,” he says. What does matter, he says, is the profoundly compassionate way people have reacted to his illness. It’s the opposite of the story portrayed in the movie, Philadelphia, supposedly based on a real-life incident. The main character in that film, a gay attorney played by Tom Hanks, was fired by his law firm when they discovered he had AIDS.

In fact, Gardere & Wynne gave its top award, the Excalibur, to McCleary-only the third recipient in the firm’s 87-year history- for contributions to the firm and the community. He was lavished with praise when he collected the Kuchling Humanitarian Award last spring at the Black Tie Dinner. The award was given by the Dallas chapter of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian political organization in the country, for his effort to fight discrimination. The same month, McCleary was given the Jurisprudence Award from the Anti-Defamation League for his support of cultural diversity. Gardere attorneys filled five tables at the event.

“There is a true respect for Don in the business community,” says Tom Dunning, who has known McCleary since he started with the law firm in 1975. “Don’s a hands-on manager who was willing to make rough decisions.”

For months after learning about his illness, McCleary simply denied-to himself and others-that he had AIDS. But failing health quickly made him understand the need to make some important decisions. Last year, McCleary turned over the reins at Gardere & Wynne to Larry Schoenbrun, a 30-year veteran of the firm.

Following in the footsteps of McCleary, Schoenbrun notes, is not an easy task. “You don’t find people with the drive, vision, and spirit of Don McCleary. He makes you feel pretty inadequate because of all that. It was his ability as a manager and his qualities as a person that made people believe in him and the firm.”

McCleary says that, surprisingly, some of the most heartfelt expressions of condolence have come from people in the firm whom he believes are politically predisposed to look at AIDS victims with disfavor. “It just tells me that when people know and respect you- when you put a face on this disease-discrimination and animosity fade when they see that you are sick.”

Dunning has been pleasantly surprised that in the button-down atmosphere of Dallas, in the conservative milieu of a large law firm, “When confronted with the issue of AIDS, it has been shown to be a non-issue, except for concern for Don and his health.”

McCleary still serves what Schoenbrun calls “a significant management role” at the law firm when he is not taking part in the myriad therapy sessions for people with AIDS. He admits that one day he is hopeful and the next he is just too tired or angry to care.

“Don McCleary lives for the firm and for the city of Dallas,” says Cynthia Hollings-worth, head of Gardere & Wynne’s appellate law section. “Some lawyers just want to practice law and do nothing else. Don showed us all that you can do the right thing for your community and that can be good for business.”