In this episode of Partnering Leadership, A. Scott Bolden, Managing Partner of the Washington, D.C. office of Reed Smith, talks about his background and history, failures, and successes that led him to make a real difference.
What motivated Scott Bolden to practice law
Tips for aspiring leaders to achieve success
Events and setbacks in Scott Bolden’s life that made him value humility
Scott Bolden embracing his failures to become a better leader
Leading for a better future
Scott Bolden’s aspirations of leaving a legacy fighting for justice and equality
Also mentioned in this episode:
Charlene Drew Jarvis, former council of district of Columbia
Connect with A. Scott Bolden:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I hope you're enjoying these conversations as much as I am. I am learning so much from the different leaders that I have the honor of interviewing on the Partnering Leadership podcast. This week, I have a chance to share with you the conversation I had with Scott Bolden. Scott is the current managing partner of the Washington DC office of Reed Smith and was former at large member on the executive committee of the firm.
He's been nationally acclaimed as an attorney. He's a political commentator. He gets involved in discussing race politics, law on CNN, Jake Tapper, Rachel Maddow show. Scott does it all.
He has also been former chairman of the DC chamber of commerce, was the chairman of the DC democratic party and has been very involved in various organizations around town.
He's also involved with his college, Morehouse college and Howard law school where he's an alumni and a distinguished one at that, having won awards at both of those institutions. So I can't wait to share the conversation I had with Scott. Make sure to share this podcast with a friend or a colleague, partnering leadership.com. And when you get a chance, especially on the Apple podcast, put a rating and review, and I personally really appreciate that.
Now, here is my conversation with A. Scott Bolden.
Mahan Tavakoli: Scott Bolden. Welcome to Partnering Leadership
Scott Bolden: Thank you for having me. I'm looking forward to our discussion.
Mahan Tavakoli: Tell me, whereabouts did you grow up, Scott? And how did that impact who you became?
Scott Bolden: I grew up in Joliet the first 18 years before I went to Morehouse college. And then later the Howard law school. And, I grew up watching my dad try cases all over the state of Illinois. And, it was not only a great influence on me. The first time I saw him, I tried a case in Southern Illinois where he and I were the only people of color in the courtroom in the late sixties.
I knew that that's what I wanted to do, to try cases and to defend the defenseless, and to really follow in his footsteps. And so I developed a passion for it, watching him try cases and even watching him hear cases as a judge later.
Mahan Tavakoli: That's magnificent Scott. And that shows why you ended up becoming so successful in the practice of law.
What are a couple of parts of your journey that you found most significant in your growth as an attorney?
Scott Bolden: I am the most accidental lawyer, a partner at a big law firm, perhaps in the history of big law. I grew up watching my dad try cases, as I said, but my goal was to go to law school, go to New York, to be a prosecutor, to learn how to try cases.
I was going to go back home to Joliet, probably Chicago, cause Joliet was way too small for me. And to try cases, have my own firm, just like my dad. Maybe run for office at some point in time and then have a life of law and politics, and kind of, operate and just influence and make my community better at the intersection of politics and law.
That being said, I still tried to do that, but what happened was I left New York. I was scheduled to come to deal with the DOJ for a position at the civil rights division. There was a hiring freeze. This is under Bush one. There was a hiring freeze. My first wife was a scheduled DC appointee on the Bush one work with Jack camp.
And so I spent the first six months in Washington in 1991. I was unemployed. I was watching Bewitched and the Flintstone and to figure out I had like 50 trials. I tried 50 cases in New York, and whatever reason I was just taking my time, once the hiring freeze was on. I bused tables at the Marianne out on poops Hill run road.Many people know where that is. I wash cars in Rockville, Maryland, not using my law degree at all. I mean, in fact, I'd done my law degree down because I couldn't find a job on the legal side, but whatever reason, I just thought I was taking a break from everything that didn't sit too well with my first wife.
And so, I did these odd jobs during the week. It was an incredible, incredibly educational and incredible educational experience for me because my resume didn't say I was part in three jurisdictions. And that I had tried 50 cases. I was just an average Joe. However you define an average Joe busing tables and washing cars.
It was awful too, by the way. I was awful at both of those jobs. So I always, the guys in the hotel and restaurant business, the guys at the car wash. They never will know why I tip them so much. I do. I tip them extras cause I've been there. That was a long time ago. That was some 30 plus years ago.
But I tip them extra now because I was so bad at it. I got fired from both jobs. And the other thing was that I got treated. Let's just say I knew enough about employment law and labor law to know that I was being abused at this process. But like my colleagues, I felt I was powerless. Because had I raised my voice, and started talking about the law. Either no one would have believed me or I would have looked at the gig. But I had no legal job, so I kept quiet for my own reasons. But those are tough blue collar positions and the men and women that do them just go through quite a bit, actually. And I just, I feel for them. But they'll never know because I used to be there.
I would bring home a hundred dollar check or $200 if I had worked overtime. And then, whatever tips I could get, it was a great motivator for me, to go back and start practicing law again.
Mahan Tavakoli: It sounds like you had a lot of memories. You have a lot of memories. You don't want to go back to those days, but a lot of lessons you learned besides the fact that you don't want to do those jobs ever again. What else did you learn from having to do those blue collar jobs before then you transitioned to practicing as an attorney again?
Scott Bolden: Using my mind and my brain is far less onerous. Sometimes more difficult, sometimes not. Sometimes less difficult, but my true passion, whether I took a break from or not was trying cases, practicing law. The reason I called myself an accidental partner at a big law firm, now managing partner, is because in a million years, my dad could not fathom me doing what I'm doing now. Practicing law, very hard billable law rate, generating millions of dollars in legal fees because when he came along the opportunities for people of color, African American lawyers, simply wasn't there. I remember when my father, when I graduated from Howard law school, I told my dad while we were walking off stage that I chose this profession to be just like him.
I remember him whispering to me and telling me a known certain time that my goal should always be to be better than him. And I thought it was strange that they would say that, cause I thought he was the best, He said, “Oh, I'm the best. But you have the best opportunities ahead of you, do not waste them”.
And like any father to any son. Whatever race, creed, or color. I realized then that our parents want us to be better than them. And that it's okay to want to be better than them. No matter how high or successful or how much money they make or don't make, he was a civil rights activist. He was head of the NAACP.
He had a huge impact on the desegregation of schools, and hospitals, and restaurants during the mid sixties and late sixties, in our community, if you will, Joliet, Will County, Illinois. And so, I keep that story handy because whenever I'm having a great day, or not so great day in big law, I remember that he did not have those opportunities. And that I owe him, and my Howard law professors, and my Morehouse political science professors, a debt of excellence.
Not just standing on their shoulder, but every day. I need to think about excellence. I need to think about achieving. I ought to think about making a difference. And that really motivates and drives me on a daily basis.
There's really nothing else to it other than of course, needing to pay bills. But, I really do. And I tell young people and then lots of mentees that I've had over the years, that the first beginning of those first start to success is believing in yourself. Having a love Supreme, a Supreme love of self, and to be focused to have your game plan. But at the base of every game plan you have for achieving success in whatever profession you choose. There's got to be thinking, and striving, and believing in excellence every day. Every day you get up. Every day I get up and I think about excellence. And whether I'm excellent that day or not in the courtroom or with my law partners at Reed Smith, I manage a hundred of them, whether I'm not my best with clients, at least every day I'm striving for.
And it manifests itself, not just through my overall success, but my daily success. Even if I'm not excellent, if I don't achieve what I want to achieve, it is self-motivating that I go back the next day. I'm always thinking about success, and excellence. And I'm always thinking about it on a daily basis.
And I've always thought that that kept me. At the top of the law game, whether I fail or succeed on any given day. But I gotta be thinking about it because that's the bucket. That's the space I want to be in, what I want to be known for, as excellent in practicing law and representing clients, obtaining great results.
And obviously we bill a lot, and so we get paid a lot of money at a big law firm. But with that, comes with the demand of excellence too. And so I'm just excited about my thirty year career. I've been doing law for 35 years, 30th Reed Smith. And I just, I'm blessed if you will. I never take the full plane for my success because I know how special my career has been, and I want others to draw from it. But I'm humble enough and I'm not known for humility, but I'm humble enough to know that I did not do this by myself.
A lot of family support, and a lot of support, in God, from God, and my faith. I've got to give those three or four people, if you will, a credit. And I fully get that every day, I'm thankful.
Mahan Tavakoli: And what brilliant insights, Scott, you have been tremendously successful and tremendously impactful in your career.
So that's great advice for aspiring leaders, to try to strive for that excellence that you have worked on for all these years. In addition to your law career, you have also been significant with respect to our community, giving back to the community and having an impact in the community. What has driven you to that end?
Scott Bolden: My mother, who narrated my journey to manhood. I learned to be a man from my father. and I always say my mother narrated that journey to manhood. She would often say that no matter how successful, and she's not, she's no longer with us. She died at the early age of 57 suddenly. But she still lives in my heart, of course.
And I certainly talked to her every day, like all of her sons do. She would always say that, if all you're doing is making money, and living a great life, then you're only living 50% of your life. The other 50% is giving back, and making sure you lead this community, your community, the broader community and what have you, that if you're not leading that in a better place, if you're not impacting it in a powerful and positive way, then you're only living 50% of your life. I've never forgotten that.
Obviously going to Morehouse college, a training ground for leadership for African American men, from all over the world and then Howard law school, the Mecca, historical black colleges and the laboratory for the civil rights movement in the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies. And even now, that training ground for service and leadership is just really a part of my DNA. I had that growing up of course, but I've really structured it and accentuated these two institutions of high academically learning. And so I really don't see it as much of a choice, in the matter whether it's impacting politics, community, big law, the industry, leadership is a calling.
We're all called to leadership. It's how it manifests itself and how we choose to manifest but it's not always easy. In fact, it's difficult. But to speak up, to speak out, to share my voice, to share my views of the world, that those follow it, whether I'm doing media, political analysis, legal analysis, but just being active in my community, I'm not afraid to share my voice, because I believe in what I say, I believe others believe in it.
And I think others can not only learn from it, but they can teach me about how to be a better person, but also a better leader. I've always been open to that because in Washington, let me tell you something. I practice law with and against some of the greatest lawyers of our time. I do, it's right here in the academics, the diplomats, the elected officials, the power base of the White House, and the Senate, and the house. A lot of times we take for granted what a powerful city this is, or on play or, or future state, if you will, it’s powerful. And they're multitalented people here who are just great leaders and we learn from each other, we pull from each other and then we lead with each other. We do, and so the opportunities are endless here and I've always loved living in Washington because of those factors.
Mahan Tavakoli: And you have been tremendously successful again, in all aspects of life, Scott. Looking at it though, have you had setbacks in your career that have taught you both humility and how to be a more effective and better leader and person?
Scott Bolden: None that I claimed. Next. I told you I was working on my humility. I didn’t say I was there yet. My buddies watching this, and will say, “Are you kidding me?” You know what’s interesting? Humility and humbleness certainly are powerful, personal characteristics we should all have.
In litigation, and trial work, and the law game, it's perceived that I believe it, to be that you can be a gentleman, but to express humility or humbleness, doesn't always reward. It should. You know? And so I always chuckle when my friends say,”Scott, we gotta work on your humility.”
I’ve met great mentors and still hang in there with me. But you know, it's hard to shift buckets after a while. And so oftentimes I don't, but I should, and now I'm working on that, but one of my greatest setbacks, and something that humbled me in a very positive way, in 2007, I ran for office, after heading up the DC democratic party and the DC chamber of commerce.
And gosh, I was so ready. I always wanted to run for office. I always wanted to serve. I always thought that I could govern and lend my ideas and leadership to public service and, the voters of Washington, DC it was citywide at large. The voters of Washington decided that they really wanted me to practice law, not lead or govern.
And I did not reject their notion. I accepted humbly. They had no choice in the matter. However, I will say this, around that time, that humbled me, around that same time after the election. I took three or four months off from the firm, really thought about doing something else because I was so disappointed.
My 19 year old daughter who was six months pregnant, came into my life. I had never met her. Did not know she existed in that way. And that was tremendously humbling. And I put those two together because I wrote about finding my daughter. The piece in the Washington post magazine, you may have seen it, years ago, it was called, Becoming Shayla's father. And it was a fearless piece. Probably was the most authentic piece I've ever written. And I do a fair amount of writing now but I was authentic about it and I talked about my successes, my failures, I talked about my fears. I kind of just wanted to, in a cathartic way, clear what people were saying, doing, and even the doubts about myself.
You know, we all have doubts. We're all , at various times, having inferiority complexes that we either ignore, don't listen to, and I'm no different. But authenticity, integrity, and speaking and thinking became my nature. And it came from that election law. It came from me finding my daughter and facing my failures as an absentee father, regardless of blame and fact and what have you. But it really made me a better man. It made me a better father to my other two daughters. And the three of them wound up in Atlanta at the same time. They grew up together, even though their oldest sister was about 10 years older plus.
And, I'm so proud of their relationship. And their friendship. And my granddaughter is now a freshman at Stevenson college outside of Baltimore, Maryland. And I go and get her and spend the weekend with her, with my family, me and Erica, and Cole, my bonus son and my second wife. And it taught me to appreciate family.
At an incredible level that I never valued. You know, it was always money, business and politics. But humility, and facing your demons and being authentic and having integrity about it, is more powerful, along with faith in God, more powerful than any money or business or political situation I've ever been in.
And so I'm still at the intersection of money, business and politics and the law. No doubt about it. But I choose to be there, with value in my family and valuing what I've learned from my failures. You know, for me every success, and I've had many, following every success has been failure for me. And following every failure has been success.
I don't look forward to the failures, but nothing ventured, nothing gained and leaders are going to fail. But when you're successful, and you change the life of others around you in a powerful way, it's hard to forget about that. And even when you fail, I learn more from my failures in business law and politics than I do from my successes, that's a much longer discussion, but I really embraced those philosophies and I just don't fear failure anymore.
I used to, I wanted to be that perfect lawyer, a perfect business leader. I want to keep that mask on that we all wear, and taking it off was not only liberating, and freeing me up to be fearless, but I think it made me a better leader and a better human being. We'll see, I'm still evolving.
Mahan Tavakoli: And Scott, you can tell your friends that you truly have that humility and that authenticity, and this example that actually shows it, that you have faced up to these challenges and you have become all the better for it.
Scott Bolden: I hope so. I certainly hope so.
Mahan Tavakoli: Scott, if you were to give advice to young, aspiring versions of yourself, you know, when you wind back and think about yourself at Morehouse, or even when you went to Howard law, what advice would you have to that young Scott Bolden?
Scott Bolden: Well, the sky's the limit and you've got to think like that. You've got to have doubts, believe in yourself. One of my mother's other favorite sayings, she's on my mind today for some reason, but, she would say, “Don't ever allow someone else to define who you are. It is a powerful emotion to keep with it. Your self esteem, your love of self. Don't ever delegate that to anyone else. It's too powerful”.
And secondly, or lastly, I would say another one of her favorite sayings was to not to hate. That hate is too important of an emotion to waste it on someone that you don't like.
We let that sit in for a minute. Let that sink in.
It's very true. And it's not a spiritual saying, it is really, but it really isn't. Hate is too powerful an emotion in the human condition to waste it on someone you don't like. What's she really saying is that, when you say you hate somebody, you don't really hate them. You may not like them, but if you're going to say you hate somebody, my goodness, they’re right there with the devil. And very few of us, even our enemies, even our haters, and God bless them too. Deep down, we don't hate them. We may not like them. But in Washington, relationships are forever for me. You gotta be careful about who you label as your enemy, because there are no permanent friends or enemies. There are only permanent interests and who you fight with the first five years of your life, they may be on the same side of the issue and another five to 10 years. Be careful.
Mahan Tavakoli: Beautifully put, beautifully put. Now, when you think about obviously your parents had a significant impact on your thinking. You've talked about your father. You've talked about your mother.
Are there any other role models or leadership sources that you have looked at that you've gained from over the years that stick in your mind?
Scott Bolden: There were a lot of black partners at big law firms who have worked with me and tried to mentor me, and I've listened to them. But I charted my own course. I looked at their success, great lawyers who happen to be African-American. They're my partners at Reed Smith, who were not necessarily African-American. I stand on all of this show and I'm not going to start naming them cause they know who they are because I will leave someone out because of my memory, or my brain fog.
But I've taken a little bit from each of them, whether they believe it or not. They'll see later that I really did listen to them. But for me growing a multiple, multimillion dollar law practice nationwide now, I really believe name recognition was really important. I used to say to them and myself, If I really am the best trial lawyer and litigator in the world, and you got to believe in yourself to believe in yourself, then how somebody's somebody gonna call me if they have a problem, if they don't know my name? And I got a lot of different answers.
I mean, lawyers at big law firms are typically very conservative. They avoid the press and the limelight. I was very different. I ran to the limelight, and I was comfortable in that limelight. I was comfortable with the press because it was a pathway for me to success. You know, sometimes my critics would say, “The press is just using you, Scott.”
And I said, “Maybe, I'm using them too, a fair exchange has never been larceny.”
You remember council member, Charlene Drew Jarvis said that to me when I was head of the chamber of commerce when we were passing some regulatory legislation that was very difficult to get passed. She said “A fair exchange has never been larceny.”
I love that saying, and I love her too, for that matter. She's like a political godmother to me, and so many of us. But that's one of her friends' sayings, and I remind her of that whenever I was with her, and we both get a chuckle out of it, but I took something from everybody, including those who were not my supporters or those who were my critics.
I took something from all of them. I believe in keeping your critics close, you can learn something from them. Don't reject your critics outright, cause they're talking about what they see and feel and hear, and you can disagree with them, but keep them close. Cause you can learn best from your critics, not from your supporters.
Mahan Tavakoli: And you have, Scott, rather than following anyone else's path, you have set your own path, which is a big part of your success over all these years. Obviously, you're way too young to be thinking about legacy. I know you have many more years to go.
But, If we reflect back on it, years from now, decades from now, what would you like Scott Bolden's legacy to be both within law, within this region? What would be your legacy, Scott?
Scott Bolden: To be considered one of the best to have ever done it, in the law, in business and even politics. I still do a lot of political stuff. It's just behind the scenes now. So to be the best, to be respected for my work, and my legacy of leadership that I left not just to the region, but this country.
And I'd also like to be remembered for leaving the region in a much better place. Whether it was passing a regulatory legislation for what we used to call, what I term the dirty dozen which were the 12 most anti-competitive business regulations in the country that was 20 plus years ago. We're still trying to get it right. But, we passed a lot of good legislation for that.
My political support for leaders in this region, whether it's volunteer, or advice and counsel, or financial contributions, and then being a real trailblazer at Reed Smith, being one of the first lawyers of color to be managing partner of a really important office in the firm, to being an excellent lawyer who happens to be African American has served on the executive committee worldwide. And with this higher level of consciousness that law firms and corporate America is finding in regard to Black Lives Matter, and George Floyd, and creating ratio equity, action plans.
I think it's timely, and my work may have been the precursor to that. But I'm going to continue to participate in it. Because this is what so many of us, who have been fighting for so long. My work's not done, it's just getting started. And this is the good part, This is the good part. We're going to lock arms with our white brothers and sisters now. And we can move forward together. I have no doubt about it. I welcome their consciousness. Don't get me wrong. I have no negative energy. I got nothing but positive energy. Cause now I got, my white brothers and sisters moving forward with me.
You're on the front line out here, demanding justice. They're in corporate America, demanding equality for us. And as my grandmother used to say, now we cook it. We can't let this moment pass. We cook it now, we cook it. And if we let this seminal moment pass, then we will have failed each other.
I know they don't want to fail African Americans, and they don't want to fail me, and I certainly don't want to fail them. Now that we have the highest level of consciousness, and the strength of all Americans behind us, we've got to take full advantage of it. We've got to take full advantage of it and whatever your race, creed, or color is, we welcome you.
We lock arms, cause we're only going to change it, and make America better together. So now we move forward. You got to love that, man. I love it. I love it. I think we can get it done. I'm excited about it. And I'm locking arms with as many business leaders as I can to say, let's get it done. Let’s get it done.
Mahan Tavakoli: You have been a trail blazer, Scott. And in this last couple of sentences, I hear a challenge you're throwing down to everyone that this is the moment for us to lock arms and really change the environment. Make a real difference.
Scott Bolden: That's right, and the dialogue. We need a national dialogue on race relations.
I talk about none of us born with the racism gene. So why do we have systemic underlying racism. It’s because generations of kids are being taught this in their environment. God forbid at home, but unfortunately at home, because none of us are born with these racism genes and other than the pigment of my skin and the pigment of your skin, that's really the only difference.
And so, locking arms and going forward this national dialogue, whereby we are free, and tolerant, and forgiveness accountable, but we need to have this dialogue. We live in two worlds, one black, one white, and that's really our biggest problem. Even well meaning people that don't look like you and me have grown up with this privilege and this sense of superiority. Now that's okay. But you're not giving up anything. If you don't look like me, you're not giving up anything, to share and to empower me. And so to make that walk towards equality, you're not giving anything up, okay? I'm not angry as a person of color. I'm not going to go back 400 years and blame you. But I will blame you if you get a chance to fix it with me and we don't fix it.
Oh, that's the message. Any other message? I can't support because I can't do it without you, my brother, I can't do it without people that don't look like me and together we have the power to change it, and that's what I'm going to be about, and that's what I am about. And moving forward, we've got to take advantage of this moment.
Mahan Tavakoli: Scott, you started out with the conversation that you looked at your father after graduating from Howard law and saying, I want to one day be as good as you and your father told you. No, you are going to be better. And what you're doing is living up to that expense that your father had set by striving for excellence, which you've done throughout your career and making sure our world, our community, is all the better because of you standing on the legacy and on the shoulders of people like your father, that fought battles in their time. Now we have battles to fight in our time.
Scott Bolden: Growing up with my father, there were a couple of things that, well, when you're marching and protesting, and picketing. I grew up in a very Afro-centric home. I mean, the civil rights movement and he was a lawyer and head of the NAACP. A couple things that lead me to this issue of locking arms and moving forward together is we were not allowed. No matter what we were called at school, or in marches, negative comments, phrases, the N word, while we were on the picket line, we were not allowed to hate anybody because of the color of their skin.
We were not raised to hate people that don't look like us no matter what they said, or did, or whatever their philosophy was, because my mother and father were very clear. Me and my brothers and sisters, that what we were fighting was bigger, better and brighter than all of us. And we were fighting for justice and freedom and equality. But if we hated someone that didn’t look like us because of the color of their skin, we were no better than them.
And the depth and substance of our fight will be hollow. And so explaining that to young kids, and she did it in a very basic way, we would just to the point where we would be criticized, or we would be chastised, or even disciplined if my mother and father saw any of that even in our private discussions at the house. And so, that forms the basis of this.
The other thing was as activists of a lawyer and civil rights leader as my father was, lawyers and judges that didn't look like him, respected him a great deal. They were Republicans, but he had a way about himself where he demonstrated strengths. Demonstrate it, he spoke the truth to power.
They may not like what he said, but they could work with him and when they couldn't work with them, he would litigate the issue with them. I mean, he was just a powerful presence, of intellect, authenticity, integrity, presentation. He was very believable and very persuasive. And those two aspects of his life for a while kind of confused me because if you're fighting, you know, the other side that doesn't look like you, you can lapse into those spaces that we weren't allowed to go into. And obviously, as I got older, I really understood it.
It was difficult for him sometimes, he would come home and complain and yell and scream, and my mother and he would have significant arguments about the civil rights movement, where are we going to follow the philosophy of Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King, where we're going to mesh them together. Like most of us really deeply believed after a while. And then when volts were killed, where do we go from here? And so I've been seeped in the civil rights movement, man, and, the equality argument, the racial equality discussion and philosophies for most of my life, for 50 years, I'm 58.
And so my thoughts on this have been baked in over those 50 years, starting with my mother and father. And God bless them because I think it's made me a better lawyer, but a better human being. I work with my white counterparts, whether we're on the same side or not.
In litigation as well as I do with people that look like me. And it's a real blessing because I learned that from my parents
Mahan Tavakoli: And you're carrying on the torch beautifully for their legacy and for impact.
Scott Bolden: Yes. Thank you very much.
Mahan Tavakoli: On behalf of everyone that listens to Partnering Leadership podcast, Scott. I really appreciate finding out a little bit more about your background and your history, and I'm inspired as you lead the charge for a better future for all of us, our kids and their kids. Thank you very much, Scott Bolden.
Scott Bolden: Thank you. We're going to do it together, man. Bye bye now.