James Goodnow of Fennemore: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a C-Suite Executive

Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated
Authority Magazine
Published in
12 min readApr 26, 2021

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Know what you are and what you’re not. Some leaders think they need to be experts in everything or — worse — project that they are. That’s dangerous. Rely on people smarter than you in your company to teach you enough to make decisions based on data you understand. I work closely with our finance experts, HR experts, marketing experts, and recruiting experts, and I do my best to empower them to be leaders who drive change. We coordinate and collaborate on vision, and we discuss decisions. But the best sign of a leader is allowing others to shine at what they do.

As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing James Goodnow.

James Goodnow is president and CEO of Fennemore, a 136-year-old law firm headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona. At age 36, he became the youngest known chief executive of a major law firm in U.S. history, nearly two decades after starting at the firm as a file clerk.

He holds his JD from Harvard Law School and a Bachelor of Science degree from Santa Clara University, where he graduated first in his class. Realizing that law school didn’t prepare him for the business aspects of running a firm, he earned dual management certificates from MIT, where he was an enrolled MBA student before pivoting to the University of Cambridge Business School in the U.K. to pursue a master’s degree in entrepreneurship.

During the height of the pandemic, while most businesses went into survival mode, Goodnow and his colleagues chose to act boldly, leading Fennemore through a merger with California-based firm Dowling Aaron. The combined firm now has offices in nine cities and is among the 250 largest firms in the United States.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

My dad was a lawyer, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. In college, I applied for a summer file clerk position at Fennemore, expecting that life inside a big corporate law firm would be an intense, cutthroat environment. My expectations couldn’t have been more wrong.

I was assigned to a workstation outside the office of one of the firm’s management committee members, Tim Berg. One day after Tim had a big victory in a case, he gathered the lawyers and legal professionals who worked on the matter for a celebratory lunch. Although my filing work didn’t impact the result, he came up to me and said, “You’re part of the team, James. Join us.”

At the lunch, Tim chatted with me about the law and the firm’s history. I couldn’t believe a successful firm leader like Tim would take time to talk to me. That lunch was one of those life-changing moments. I knew right then that I wanted to be a lawyer like Tim, and that I wanted to be a lawyer at Fennemore. To this day, remembering what an impact Tim’s actions had on me, every summer I take the file clerks to lunch to learn about them and encourage them to follow their dreams.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” I learned that when I was a first-year lawyer. Starting as a new attorney, I felt invincible. I’d been fortunate to do well in school and thought being a lawyer would be a breeze. Look out world, I’ve got this. When I had my first trial, I worked hard and made what I thought were some pretty compelling arguments to the jury. Evidently, they didn’t agree, and they ruled in favor of the other party. I lost the trial. I felt horrible — like maybe I wasn’t cut out for this whole lawyering thing after all.

That loss ended up being a catalyst to improvement — both as a lawyer and for myself. Sometimes you need to be humbled. Sometimes you need to learn there are other approaches. Sometimes you need to get punched in the mouth — figuratively, of course — to understand your vulnerabilities and where you need to improve.

To maximize your potential in the law, in business, or in life, you have to be comfortable with failure and know that it’s not the end of the process. It’s a necessary part of the journey, and it can take you to higher places if you learn from it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Sheryl Sandberg’s “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” We’re all afraid on some levels. But too often we let our inhibitions limit our thinking. We need to imagine the world and our futures without those fears to unlock our potential.

Taking on change in my profession can be tough. The law is literally built on precedent — looking backward to set the future. It can make taking on change a little scary sometimes. Yet our profession is in dire need of change.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?

Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury. It’s about principled negotiation. Many people believe negotiation is about hardline tactics and crushing your enemy. The truth is that those strategies are usually not effective — and they burn bridges. Fisher and Ury teach that building relationships and really listening are the keys to maximizing joint gain.

When we negotiated our recent merger, rather than take hardline tactics, we built genuine relationships over lunches and dinners. We learned about the other firm’s history, values, and culture. We were transparent, and they reciprocated. Once each side understood the other’s interests, we were able to find ways to structure a deal that works for everyone.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The firm is a remarkable fusion of rich history and leading-edge innovation.

For 135+ years Fennemore has helped create the rules and regulations that govern our markets while guiding leaders who’ve made an impact. In 1957, John O’Connor joined Fennemore and would eventually become one of its key partners. He met his future wife, Sandra Day, while they served as editors of the Stanford Law Review. When Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981, she relied on attorneys at Fennemore to help her prepare for her confirmation hearings. Once she joined the Court that year, Justice O’Connor hired Fennemore attorney Ruth McGregor as her first law clerk. McGregor would later become the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.

Today, Fennemore continues to drive change, albeit in new ways. Fennemore has invested in technology and the community through our Venture Accelerator Program. We identify leading-edge start-ups and provide access to a full suite of legal services while providing business guidance to help launch their enterprises. We defer legal fees while these entrepreneurs reach benchmarks that will ensure their long-term success.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

I would say, don’t follow in anybody’s footsteps. Make your own footsteps. You have to lead with your personality and strengths. Everyone has to draft their own playbook or they’ll fall flat on their face.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Coming into my role, many managing partners of other firms told me not to concern myself with subjects like marketing or human resources because “other people can take care of that.” I couldn’t disagree more.

As my leadership style has evolved, I’ve come to appreciate understanding the firm’s pieces and how they interconnect. I can’t outsource the finances; I need to understand them myself. I need to know what moves the needle to effectively do my job. That doesn’t mean micromanaging. We have an exceptionally brilliant C-Suite team, and we devise strategy together and set goals that are complementary. My job is to ensure there is consistency in the goals, and then the smart people can implement them.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Perseverance, resilience, and a desire to learn are qualities I try to apply to all aspects of my life. Before the pandemic, we saw a great opportunity to merge with a firm in California. We were perfectly aligned and knew that the strengths of each firm would lift us to new heights. A lot of firms would have stopped when the pandemic hit. We listened to each other, trusted each other, and persevered.

During the pandemic, it took a lot of trial and error to recalibrate workflows, activate technology, and engage with clients in new ways. We stumbled more than a few times, and we came back with a new understanding that resilience would take us through. We’re still recalibrating constantly. For me, learning never stops, and I try to instill that mindset within our team. Lawyers often think they know everything, but I know that the moment we stop learning, the competition will eat us alive.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?

In my role, I have to see the big picture — what the firm can be and what we can do to make that a reality.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

There’s a perception that being a CEO is glamorous. It’s usually not. Most of the job is being at the epicenter of extremely difficult issues. It can be mentally demanding and unrelenting in its pace. I’ve always said the highs are higher and the lows are lower — and it’s those highs of a strategic win or hitting a key objective that keeps you going.

What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Coming into a leadership role and thinking you can just start telling people what to do is a rookie mistake. You have to understand the organization first and how it works. To do that, you need to do a lot of listening, and that’s where new leaders often fail. You need to spend the time to understand the landscape, fears, nuances, and politics. Then you have to work within that framework to cause change.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

One-on-one interactions that nobody sees are vital to the success of a great company — yet they’re highly underestimated. Although it can feel like an inefficient use of your time, you need to understand the individuals who contribute to the company’s success. As humans, we need to be heard and know that our voice is part of the decision-making process no matter where we sit in the hierarchy. If you understand and validate the people who work for you, it will help drive them to give the company the best versions of themselves.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. The classroom won’t prepare you for the job. Lawyers tend to believe that law school prepares them to understand legal concepts and that if they are good lawyers, they will be good at everything else. This is not true. Being good at the law may help you write good legal motions, but it doesn’t prepare you to run a business. Effective leadership is about listening, motivating, communicating a vision, and so much more than you’ll learn in a classroom. This is picked up by working with great mentors and training yourself how to be strong in many areas.

2. Don’t manage from crisis to crisis; make a plan. The pandemic has thrown most businesses into reaction mode, but if all we’re doing is reacting, we’re not building toward a new future. This past year has completely altered work culture in law firms and other businesses. So, companies need to formulate a new vision and specific short-, medium-, and long-term plans that will make them resilient enough to adapt to whatever challenges occur in 2021 and beyond.

3. Tradition is a blessing and a curse. Tradition brings stability, connections, loyalty, and institutional knowledge. But tradition also brings a predisposition for doing things the same way they’ve always been done. There’s a reason nearly 90 percent of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 are gone from the list. New players with better ways of doing things come along, while others hold tight to traditions. We must drive a culture of innovation, constantly bringing and adopting new ideas, or we will get stale and be passed by.

4. Get out of your bubble. In any industry, we tend to listen to other people in our industry. We can be lemmings, all doing the same thing. Sometimes the best ideas arrive when we get out of our world and look at other fields. I regularly go out of my way to pick the brains of business leaders in manufacturing, technology, health care, and other industries. The ideas they have about innovation and growth management are unique and give us a chance to distinguish ourselves.

5. Know what you are and what you’re not. Some leaders think they need to be experts in everything or — worse — project that they are. That’s dangerous. Rely on people smarter than you in your company to teach you enough to make decisions based on data you understand. I work closely with our finance experts, HR experts, marketing experts, and recruiting experts, and I do my best to empower them to be leaders who drive change. We coordinate and collaborate on vision, and we discuss decisions. But the best sign of a leader is allowing others to shine at what they do.

In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

Culture starts with understanding why we are in this profession and why we serve the clients we do. Great leaders always think about the “why” of decisions. “We’re doing it because we’ve always done it that way” or because “everyone else is doing it” is never an acceptable answer. Answering the question of why requires carefully listening to your teammates, understanding your organizational culture, and being a student of the market.

At Fennemore, we communicate with each other regularly and integrate fun with work. Many of our internal meetings start with a game to get the juices flowing. We then share outcomes and action items through videos, graphics, and written communication. Our lawyers and staff have fun working hard, and their motivated attitudes shine through in their interactions with clients.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Change requires vision, passion, grit — and often no sleep. Every person needs to find what moves them and where they can have the biggest impact. In my life, I’m focused on raising awareness about kidney disease and chair the board of directors for the National Kidney Foundation of AZ. I was diagnosed with a treatable form of the illness in 2013. Thankfully, with the help of good doctors, I made a full recovery. Others aren’t so lucky. With a simple screening, medical professionals can detect and treat kidney issues early — dramatically improving long-term health prospects. (People can learn more at Kidney.org.)

How can our readers further follow you online?

Twitter: @jamesgoodnow

Linked-in: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jamesgoodnow/

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated
Authority Magazine

Entrepreneur, angel investor and syndicated columnist, as well as a yoga, holistic health, breathwork and meditation enthusiast. Unlock the deepest powers