The practice of law has facilitated some of the most progressive social advances in history, and yet ironically its practitioners are guided by precedent and are notoriously risk-averse. This dichotomy is the space in which John W. Daniels Jr., chairman emeritus of the national law firm of Quarles & Brady LLP, has not only spent his career but expanded boundaries, driving the industry forward while simultaneously exalting its distinguished past. His ability to respect traditions while pursuing difficult changes is essential to understanding how he rose to become an award-winning national real estate expert and the first African-American in the United States to chair a national AmLaw firm.
Daniels, a Harvard law graduate who began his education in a segregated Alabama school, does not credit himself with breaking the glass ceiling on his way to leadership, but where others opened doors, he unflinchingly stepped through to explore what lay beyond. Daniels broke new ground as the first African-American to achieve partner status at Quarles & Brady and ultimately chair the firm. Throughout his career, Daniels has overcome barriers to progress through an authenticity to himself, old-fashioned hard work, and with patience in the knowledge that time and history are on his side.
As an attorney, Daniels has conducted an impressive career in real estate and corporate law, representing Fortune 500 entities, public pension funds, and some of the largest financial services entities in the nation. He has been recognized by his peers when elected national president of the prestigious American College of Real Estate Lawyers (and national secretary of the ABA Section of Real Property, Probate & Trust). Daniels became chairman of Quarles & Brady, a national full-service firm that today boasts nearly 500 attorneys, in 2007, shortly before the global financial collapse threatened the future of all businesses. Despite that, Daniels led Quarles & Brady through a fundamental transformation, shifting from the traditional model upon which most major law firms are built to a client-centric, business-minded organization that experienced unprecedented growth and earned Daniels recognition as a national leader among corporate law firms.
That measured, forward-thinking attitude is how he approached—and approaches—the power of diversity in the legal world, which has never been a problem to be solved, in Daniels’ eyes, but an opportunity. Diversity is an essential business advantage, which Daniels fearlessly leveraged before the issue gained traction across the industry. He saw the value of varied perspectives in a profession that places a substantial premium on agile thinking and creative solutions, while many other firms were still grappling with the political correctness of inclusivity. Indeed, despite the legal industry’s general “aversion” to change, Daniels was able to see the evolving perspective on diversity in the corporate world, practicing his personal mantra, “everybody counts, every day,” with egalitarianism and genuine sincerity.
Diversity and inclusion are now ubiquitous in business, and clients want to work with firms that understand and mirror their priorities. Lawyers may dislike change, but they dislike being wrong even more—as firm chair, Daniels recognized this impetus and moved Quarles & Brady forward as both a provider of elite legal services and an employer of the very best and brightest.
Daniels continues to champion empowerment and has found additional platforms from which to pursue change for the better. He is the board chair of the Greater Milwaukee Committee comprised of leading civic executives, and he is the non-executive chairman of Aurora Healthcare, Wisconsin’s largest private employer, with over billion dollars in revenues. He also hosts the annual Fellowship Open, a celebrity golf tournament that has raised more than a million dollars for urban youth initiatives. Of course, his most personally satisfying contributions to the future are those he makes in the roles of husband, father, and grandfather, building a world in which to flourish for his wife Irma, his son and daughter John III and Inez, and his grandson John IV.