Fred Nance has built a career on resolving conflict

Fred Nance grew up in Cleveland during a time of great social unrest. It was the late 1960s and riots raged against the slow pace of civil rights development. The assassinations of Sen. Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inflamed tensions, even in Nance’s neighborhood.

That’s when Nance decided what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“I was 12 1/2, about to turn 13,” Nance recalls. “I remember seeing the National Guard and Jeeps rolling down the street with machine guns mounted on them that were close enough for me to reach out and touch. There were soldiers with bayonets. My initial inclination toward the law was based on a desire to achieve social justice and eliminate this feeling of powerlessness and helplessness that was rampant in our community.

“That’s when I first decided I wanted to be a lawyer and I never wavered from that point on. Obviously your perspective evolves as your life experience evolves and you get exposure to more information. But that’s where it started.”

Forty years later, Nance, global managing partner at Squire Patton Boggs, is one of Cleveland’s premier lawyers. He has an office at Key Tower that overlooks FirstEnergy Stadium, which he helped get built through his negotiations with the NFL to fill the hole left by the Browns after Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore in 1995. The firm has more than 1,500 lawyers in 47 offices across 20 countries and is one of the 10 largest law firms in the world.

Nance climbed the ladder at Squire Patton Boggs through his ability to step into tough situations and broker peace.

“I’ve made a career of bridging the gap between the realities of the public sector and the business focus of the private sector,” Nance says.

“Business executives and politicians are like Mars and Venus. They speak entirely different languages and need an interpreter. They need someone who walks in both worlds in order to bring them together under difficult circumstances. That’s something I’ve been able to bring to the table as I cross back and forth between public and private.”

A proving ground
While the urban riots of the late 60s were a distant memory when Nance joined Squire Patton Boggs in 1978, there was still plenty of tension in Cleveland. The city was headed into default and City Council President George Forbes, a client of the firm, was being put on trial for alleged misconduct.

“He and six other African-American councilmen were indicted,” Nance says. “I don’t think we were African-Americans back then. We were Afro-Americans. We were black folks. That was a highly celebrated trial. It became the first televised trial in the history of Ohio. Because we were successful in that case in getting all the charges dismissed, I developed some positive relationships with a number of people around town who were interested in that matter.”

It paved the way for Nance to play a prominent role in some of Cleveland’s most volatile legal disputes in the years ahead. He continued his work as a trial lawyer doing a lot of securities cases and situations where one company was trying to take over another and more relationships were formed.

“Ultimately, there was a guy named Charles Clarke. He was the head of our firm’s litigation group and became a very close mentor and friend of mine,” Nance says. “It was 1991 when then Cleveland Mayor Michael White needed a little help. He came to the firm to work with Charles since Charlie was the top trial lawyer in town. Charlie, as we affectionately called him, took me aside and said, ‘I’m the past. You’re the future. I believe you can connect with this young African-American mayor.’”

Soon, Clarke would schedule meetings with the mayor and not show up.

“He would send me in his place,” Nance says. “Mike White is a very demanding, very capable, very sharp guy. At first, it was a bit challenging, but it worked. It clicked, we connected and we got the matter disposed of. Because he came to trust me, he took me from being a trial lawyer to being a deal guy.

“All sorts of issues were percolating around his administration. You may remember he was very much a doer, sometimes meeting some resistance and some challenges. I ended up being a person he relied upon to handle some of those sensitive matters.”

Nance played a pivotal role in ending a federal desegregation order for the Cleveland Schools and bringing the beleaguered district under mayoral control. He helped negotiate a deal with Continental Airlines, which has since merged with United Airlines, to build a new concourse at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. He then brought years of fiery debate between Cleveland and Brook Park to an end by working out a deal to create space for a needed expansion of the airport.

“Mike White picked me, (Brook Park Mayor) Tom Coyne picked his negotiator, Michael Climaco,” Nance says. “We engaged in secret talks in coffee shops, in each other’s homes, different places, hotel lobbies for a period of months. Ultimately, we struck a deal that ended the airport wars. Part of that deal included buying up hundreds of homes in Brook Park that could be utilized for airport expansion. We even changed municipal boundaries. We traded territory as part of the deal.”

Operate with integrity
Through everything he has done, including the leadership role he holds at Squire Patton Boggs, Nance has always come back to integrity.

“People have to believe that you have only the best interest of the institution at heart, that you aren’t playing favorites, you don’t have a personal agenda,” Nance says.

“You also need to have the vision of where you want to take the organization or where the organization is trying to go. You need communication skills because you have to share that vision. The further up the food chain you go in any organization, you need emotional intelligence. Expecting you to do things just because I told you to doesn’t cut it anymore.”

There will also be times, Nance says, that as a leader, you will have to ask people to do things they don’t want to do.

“You have to ask people to make sacrifices and look at the long term sometimes and not just focus on the short term,” he says. “It’s a combination of skills where first you have the integrity, where people believe you’re asking them to make a sacrifice for a legitimate reason. You have to have the communication skills to explain it to them and then you have to have the ability to get people to undertake challenges in a way that will move the organization forward, collectively, without necessarily seeing in the short term what’s in it for them.”

Nance’s pride in what Squire Patton Boggs has become is evident. The firm has a presence in virtually every corner of the world and can address a wide range of issues for its clients. In addition to his trial work, Nance provides counsel to celebrities like comedian Dave Chappelle and NBA superstar LeBron James.

Nance first became acquainted with James during his high school years in Akron.

“This woman walks up to me and says, ‘I have a teenager who needs your help.’” Nance says. “I thought, here’s another pro bono project. His name was LeBron James. I didn’t know who he was. I quickly learned. He was still in high school at the time and I’ve been with him ever since on a whole series of adventures of seeing him go from a life of pretty abject poverty on the one hand, but obviously almost superhuman talent, ability and focus, to being probably the most recognized athlete in the world with a whole consortium of different business interests and a foundation that is literally impacting thousands of kids all at the ripe old age of 34. It’s just amazing.”

The work continues
The pursuit of social justice and a better way of life for the underserved in Cleveland continues to be a focal point for Nance.

“We’ve got large portions of our community, particularly the city of Cleveland proper, where some are not graduating from high school, let alone a post-secondary degree,” Nance says.

“There are people for whom the fear of being left behind is very real. The challenge for our public officials is not just improving the educational system, but figuring out how to connect people with whatever level of education they have to the new economy.”

Much progress has been made in recent years in Cleveland, progress that Nance admits he didn’t always see coming.

“The notion that you could come downtown at night and see people pushing baby strollers and walking their dog, that’s never been true. But it’s true now,” Nance says. “We can’t convert the office buildings along Euclid Avenue into apartments fast enough. There are still waiting lists. I also believe Cleveland, finally, statistically, is experiencing a brain gain.

“We have college-educated young folks who want to live downtown and be part of the community. That’s all to the good. There are any number of developers who are showing an interest in not only developing downtown Cleveland, but to an extent, our neighborhoods.”

Nance can only smile when he thinks about the path his life has followed. He now leads a firm that has a presence in virtually every corner of the world and is recognized as one of the best at finding a path forward when it seems impossible to do.

“To operate now where I have colleagues in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, all over Europe, it’s such an evolution of what was a Cleveland institution,” Nance says. “You don’t hold all those disparate pieces parts together without strong leadership from a guy like Mark Ruehlmann, our chairman and CEO. It’s pretty exciting to see all this having started as an inner city kid watching the National Guard go down the street.”

Takeaways

  • Show your strength, but focus on collaboration.
  • Understand the importance of emotional intelligence.
  • Never stop trying to get better.