Top Cleveland lawyer shares his perspective on being a top-notch dealmaker
Fred Nance has spent four decades bridging the gap on some of Cleveland’s most high-profile deals. Whether it was getting a new NFL franchise for Cleveland after Art Modell took his team to Baltimore or brokering a deal with Brook Park to expand Hopkins International Airport or lifting a desegregation order in the Cleveland Schools and bringing the district under mayoral control, Nance was front and center at the negotiating table in each instance.
He uses a mix of analytical skill and emotional intelligence, as well as an uncanny ability to quickly assess and respond to complex variables, to bring potentially explosive conflicts to a peaceful resolution.
“A lot of trial lawyers believe my primary tool is to bludgeon the other side into submission,” says Nance, global managing partner at Squire Patton Boggs. “Eventually I realized that while you have to have the apparent ability to do that so if push comes to shove, you can revert to that approach, you also have to have a feeling, an ability to empathize and see things from the point of view of the person on the other side of the table.”
When Nance arrived at Squire Patton Boggs in 1978, the firm had about 190 lawyers in three or four cities. Now it has more than 1,500 lawyers in 47 offices across 20 countries around the world. His dream to make a difference has been realized.
“The reason why I selected litigation and trial law as my specialty was I didn’t expect to last here very long,” Nance says. “I assumed that when I got discovered as a charlatan and kicked out on the street, that I would need skills that would permit me to put food on the table. If I had trial skills, I could hang up my shingle and make a living. That was the extent of my vision at the time. That was 40 years ago and I’m still here.”
In this edition of Master Dealmakers, Nance talks about the craft of dealmaking and shares the lessons he has learned to get things done under difficult circumstances.
The evolution of a dealmaker
Analytical skill is critical. Any lawyer that is going to be successful has to have the basics of the ability to analyze a situation in great detail. But interpersonal skills tied with those analytics are very important. These days, I think people characterize it as emotional intelligence. It’s very important if you’re going to be able to undertake and make deals that are going to move the community forward.
The art of dealmaking is very different in the public versus the private context. In the corporate world, it’s about one thing: Economics. Trying to find a fit so what I want to sell, you value at least as much if you’re trying to buy it. That’s an economic analysis. There are some of the same interpersonal skills that come into play. But dealmaking in the public sector is very different and dare I say, much more complex. Dollars and cents are always important. But in the public environment, the ultimate client is the community. The community values not only the cost of something, but the quality and the service that can be provided. There are many more stakeholders. It’s more three-dimensional, or maybe seven-dimensional chess because you have to take account of all these different interests.
Where on the Venn diagram do the circles overlap? Stand in their shoes, understand what it is they are trying to accomplish and then figure out where is the win-win. We can get what we need to get this done and on the other side, the people who are opposed or only want part of what you want to accomplish or have a different set of objectives, how can you help them meet some of their objectives and achieve yours? That requires a level of emotional intelligence where you can connect with people in very difficult circumstances, get them to see the constructive side of things and get the things you need without becoming confrontational.
Don’t get me wrong. Your ability to do that has to start with an apparent ability to fight and wage war successfully. But once people know you have that skill set, what you also bring to the table is the fact that I’m going to listen to you, understand what your objectives are and figure out a way to come up with a win-win.
It sounds easier than it actually is to do.
Restoring the Browns
We became the first city in the history of professional sports to be awarded a new franchise before the old one actually left. So Art Modell took his team and moved it to Baltimore. Ultimately, [Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White] and then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue became interested in trying to negotiate a resolution. Needless to say, we also went to court and got some injunctions based on the unexpired term of our lease. Tagliabue commissioned his first lieutenant, a guy named Roger Goodell, and the mayor commissioned me to be the lead negotiator on the deal.
Over the course of about six or seven months, we would meet episodically in different places around the country because the league would hold meetings in different NFL cities. That’s where we would negotiate. We would go to that city and negotiate during the breaks. I might get Roger from 8 to 9:30 a.m. and then I’d get him from 2 to 3 p.m. and then from 7 to 9 p.m. I spent a lot of time along with my colleagues from the city law department sitting around in nice places waiting to get another 90 minutes or two hours with Roger. That process went on and ultimately we struck a deal.
Mayor White kept a very tight rein on how those costs were controlled. He also monitored how the stadium was built and how we handled the inevitable cost overrun claims that come from a major project like that. We brought it in on time — and only slightly over budget.
The Last Word
Why am I able to get along with so many different kinds of people in stressful times? No. 1, I’m one of six children and I’m right in the middle. My dad was a blue collar worker and we had to stretch financially to do all the things he accomplished with my mom. That included putting all six of us through college and graduate school coming out of the inner city of Cleveland. Also, being an African-American in primarily Caucasian institutions your whole life, you either develop those skills or you won’t survive. You put all that together with trial skills and exposure to a lot of different people, because I was working at a place where stuff happens — and opportunity followed.
How to reach: Squire Patton Boggs, https://www.squirepattonboggs.com/en/