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Lawyer Limelight: Jonathan Segal

By August 13, 2017Lawyer Limelights

Perhaps the first clue is offered by his fifth-grade teacher, who remembers young Jonathan Segal’s frequent objection that something was not fair. He thought a lot was unfair and argued a lot.

Besides liking to argue about fairness, Jonathan had a deep interest in business, to which he came naturally from his beloved grandparents’ candy store in New Jersey.  Later in life, Jonathan ended up working in another candy store for four years to help pay for college.

Together, those inclinations produced a Duane Morris partner frequently honored as one of the nation’s best employment counselors, including as one of the Lawdragon Most Powerful Corporate Employment Lawyers. Segal loves getting real about workplace interactions, parsing through: What are the motivations? What signals are being sent by certain behaviors? How can we improve interactions for the good of employees and business? How can we improve gender equity?

Those questions are at the heart of his advice to clients and his role as managing partner of the Duane Morris Institute. As near to his heart are his volunteer work in Holocaust remembrance and in animal rescue. Jonathan said that his experience of being in a family decimated by the Holocaust informs his world view. He also may have found the most productive outlet ever for the stress of the law, turning his sorrow over the break up of his prior law firm into a bond with older, homeless pets, whom he learned how to help by making them more adoptable.

As we’ve written many times, there’s a lot you can do with a law degree. And this story of employment law standout by day, and animal advocate by night is one that may help you rethink your troubles.

Lawdragon: Tell me a little bit about you growing up. What was your path to becoming a lawyer?

Jonathan Segal: I heard growing up from teachers starting in elementary school that I always was looking to either challenge something with which I didn’t agree, or argue something that I didn’t think was fair. I argued a lot. Too much.

LD: Even as a child?

JS: Oh yeah. I argued about not arguing. I’ve kept up occasional contact with one of my most wonderful teachers, from fifth grade. I think she was first person who told me I would end up a lawyer.

Sometimes the arguing was really speaking up. I grew up in a family where social justice was very important. There were no lawyers in my family. But, speaking up was what my grandparents and parents did. Speaking up was something that came naturally to me.

A lot of the areas where I would confront or challenge were social justice issues, where I thought there were inequities or inequality. When Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered, my   parents didn’t let me go to school. I am not sure if it was the day of the tragic loss or the funeral. I do know the best of my values come from my parents,

I was brought up in a family where making stands on significant issues in a proper way was important. I also was told I had strong verbal skills, and they were much better than my sports skills.

LD: Was there a particular reason your parents were motivated by social justice?

JS: I think the fact that most of my family was decimated in the Holocaust created in my grandparents and parents a strong belief in social justice, which I acquired. I am not comparing discrimination to genocide but we don’t need to wait for the latter to tackle the former. That’s why I think of myself primarily as an EEO [Equal Employment Opportunity] lawyer . I have a particular emphasis on gender equality and that reminds me of a story.

I can remember the phone ringing and someone saying to my mom, “Is the man of the house at home?” And, my mom saying, “Why are you asking for the man of the house? Why don’t you ask me?” Then my mom putting the phone down – I can visualize this, her hand on the phone – and saying, “Hank, I don’t know the answer to this, but I don’t want this person who’s sexist to know, so give me the answer!” My mom and dad both laughed but the message was clear: bias is wrong.

What I grew up with in terms of gender equality really affected me, because then when I entered the real world and I saw how much gender stereotyping there was, it kind of blew me away. My brother, sister, and I all got the same message at home: There’s nothing you can’t do because of who you are, and there shouldn’t be pressure to do anything because of who you are. That’s pretty lucky.

LD: You went to University of Pennsylvania for both undergrad and chose it for law school. Can you talk a bit about your education?

JS: In college I studied political science because I’m a political junkie. Now a disillusioned political junkie. I feel like I’m an endangered species, a moderate or centrist.

I chose Penn Law because, number one, I liked being away but close enough to be home. I would often have dinner with my grandparents on Wednesday nights. I still wear my grandmother’s chai and my grandfather’s ring. I knew that I would not have my grandparents forever physically and I wanted to have that time. But they are forever part of me. The other thing was I had always heard, and it was true, that Penn was rigorous without being brutally competitive. It was demanding, but I didn’t find the students cutthroat.

LD: Did you have notions about specializing in employment at that juncture?

JS: So much of my life has been influenced by mentors, and some of them have been teachers. One of the two areas I was interested in was employment law. I had an amazing labor law teacher, Robert Gorman. He made labor law come alive, which piqued my interest. I think unions once served a valuable purpose. Today, I see more negative than positive. Still, when a client has a union, I enjoy making the relationship work for the client’s benefit.

Also, growing up and seeing discrimination and knowing how intolerable it was increased my interest. I thought, “Wow, if I could work with corporations to mitigate a legal and moral wrong, that also would inure to the company’s benefit, being that discrimination’s also bad business, that would be cool.”  I guess saying cool isn’t so cool.

By the way having anti-Semitic hatred carved into our childhood home before we moved in still stays with me. Bad things happen; good people try to stop them.

The other area I thought about was health law, because I found the public policy considerations very interesting. What ended up pulling me more toward employment law rather than health law was again mentors and I’m always grateful for the mentors in my life. When I started out at Wolf Block, Jim Redeker and Phil Garber were my two primary mentors. I am sure others had as good but no one had better.

I litigated for seven years early on, so I am a recovering litigator. I am grateful that I understand litigation so I know how things in the work world play out in the litigation world. But I don’t miss it … ever.

LD: Were there cases or issues that stand out in being formative, both for your career and your desire to move more deeply into prevention, counseling and guidance?

JS: I often saw two things. One was that management gets sued because the manager didn’t have the courage to confront the employee, until one day the manager would say, “Well now I’ve reached my limit.” It was unfair. It may not have been illegal, but it was unfair. It’s easy to make an unfair treatment claim into a discrimination claim by arguing: I was treated unfairly because of my: you insert the protected group. It’s easy to say to managers, “Well, you need to give employees feedback,” with the goal being for the employees to improve. The challenge for me was: How do you drill down to deal with this psychologically?

It’s not one-size-fits-all and I still find today, when I deal with executive teams, that understanding the window through which they see the world is really important. For some, their window is cost, For some it’s time. For some it’s a concern you’ll be seen as weak if you don’t confront. For some, if you’re a really respectful person, it’s not respectful to not give the employee the chance.

I also saw some inconsistencies. I don’t think people wake up in the morning and say, “I think I want to be inconsistent today.” What would happen is they would let things go, or they would act one way if they were friends with the person, another way if they weren’t. Was it unconscious bias?  It may have been that the inconsistency was a product of unconscious bias. At the time, I didn’t know the term unconscious bias. Today, I spend a lot of my time bringing to executives conscious awareness of unconscious bias and what are the emotional triggers that it may be happening in the moment. I also deal with how systems can create the predicate for bias.

LD: Can you give me an example of how this might work in practice at a corporate employer?

JS: They may have a manager who assesses, “If I over-evaluate, I get to keep the employee. If I give the employee a bad evaluation, then I may need to terminate them earlier than I want to. And there’s a headcount issue so I’m going to be worse off. Therefore, I’m going to over evaluate and then when the headcount issue goes away, I can terminate the employee.”

As the lawyer, I try to drill down and say, “This isn’t a biased person. This is an artificial rule on headcount that’s resulting in inflated evaluations to keep people. Then, when the artificial rule goes away, they want to make a change. The evaluation is used against them.” That to me is systemic. It’s not a biased rule, it’s a bad rule that results in behaviors that make legitimate actions be perceived as biased. It requires problem solving and figuring out how you deal with it. I love business; I hate dumb rules just as much.

LD: Can you talk a bit please about the inspiration for the Duane Morris Institute, which offers training and guidance from a business perspective to HR and related professionals?

JS: I love the business of business. I think most people do have pretty decent intent. As a lawyer, if you don’t understand business, you’re worthless. For me, one of the most important things was to recognize that businesses need to run, and my job is to help companies achieve their goals and mitigate risk. For example, maximizing diversity and inclusion is not just a legal issue, it’s a business imperative. Study after study show that the more diverse your leadership team the better you do. But getting there is deceptively complex. With laudable goals, some employers still violate the law or take unnecessary risk. You can get there but you need to be thoughtful in how and not just assume the goal justifies the means. I love being a business advisor and one of the core areas is eradicating gender bias where we can.

I had the honor after law school of working for Judge Norma Shapiro. She was the first woman to be appointed to the Third Circuit. She was on District Court, the first woman in 200 years. A lot of women talked about what an honor it was to be mentored by her as a woman, I’m really honored to say my first mentor and role model was this remarkable woman. I watched how she looked at cases. I learned that not every injustice is illegal and not every injustice is bad motive, But I also saw illegality. I also saw double standards. I saw how people responded to her versus the male judge next door. Until she passed away last year she remained a mentor and friend.

LD: Talking about your love of business, can you tell us what kind of business your grandparents had and if it influenced your love of business?

JS: My grandparents had a candy store at one point. They were immigrants who worked really hard. I also was fascinated by business because, I have to acknowledge, maybe it’s good and bad, I don’t like failure. I’d say, “Why do some make it and some don’t?” I would see it in my clients. Why are some of my clients doing well and some not. I began to do more reading on leadership competencies that were critical, such as agility. What were rules-based organizations versus values-based. I always found it interesting to understand two organizations that on paper looked the same, but one worked and one failed. Another part of my job I love is gently weaving leadership competencies into compliance training.

So the Duane Morris Institute carried forward what started as the Wolf Block Institute because people wanted training. The training was on employment, HR issues – legal issues but with a business focus. That to me is critical. There were legal issues but the focus has to remain business. It’s got to make sense in the business world. How do you weave in the concept? Sometimes I’ve seen lawyers come up with things that are a way to comply with the law. I’m thinking, “That’s great. All I have to do is get my PhD and study for two years after I get the PhD, and I’ll be able to maybe ask my first question.”

For me, the question was how do you come up with a practical approach? It drives me crazy when I read the articles that say “Embrace failure.” I don’t think we should all embrace failure. Have a “come celebrate my failure” party? But I think we need to do more to encourage prudent risk taking by lawyers who are developing and remember that, with clients, there is no such thing as risk avoidance — it’s all about managing risk with eyes wide open. Sometimes doing nothing because of the fear of the risk is the biggest risk. You can’t just tell a client there’s a risk. Duh. That’s why they are calling you!

LD: What are some of the practical business lessons you offer, through which you weave legal awareness?

JS: On a personal level, we all have opportunities to grow. I learned a great deal from my clients. One of the things I think is so important, maybe because I have a lot of therapists in my family and circle of friends, is really listening. If you’re starting to think of your answer while the person’s talking, you’re really not listening. Really listening to what they’re saying, listening with a third ear to what they’re not saying, paying attention to how they’re saying it.

But we need to more than counsel on basics.  We need to guide on how to respond in the moment. Every HR person knows, I hope, that they should tell their managers to report to them any complaints, harassment, discrimination, or retaliation. But, are they telling managers what to respond in the moment? If not, they may say things like, “Really, that doesn’t sound like him,” or, “That sounds just like her,” as opposed to, “Thank you for coming to me. We take this very seriously.” Really getting into the moment, not into the theoretical or just the “This is what you need to do.”

Another lesson is that employment issues don’t live in a vacuum, so we don’t either. There are times when there are investigations that could end up with criminal liability. So, we’ve added programs with a lawyer who deals with white-collar defense. I’ve done programs on social media for healthcare with a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) lawyer on what doctors can and cannot say on social media. We did something on cybersecurity where the privacy issues and the HR issues intersect.

LD: Fascinating. Do you get into issues of gender equity?

JS: Yes. Yes. Yes.  I am a big Sheryl Sandberg fan but I have been writing, speaking and working with clients on gender issues for 20-plus years. We’ve had programs on what are some of the barriers to the advancement of women and how companies could empower women. I’m putting together now a program for 2018 on male allies. What can men do? It’s not enough to say you support gender equality. That and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee. Actually, half a cup of coffee.

So, what do you do when you’re in a meeting and the leader says, “Nice job, but two men before you have said the same thing.” Where are there double standards when a woman is being assertive and people are describing her as abrasive or aggressive? If you say nothing, you’re condoning it.

I don’t think you can be a passive bystander. How can men do it? You don’t want to rescue someone, which is re-victimization. So, you have to be thoughtful about not saying, “Well, when you did that, you took away her idea, you just now hit her again.” You can say: “Great point that you and Rachel made.”

LD: Can we talk about some of your outside interests, especially your work with animals and especially older animals?

JS: My passion for animals came a little later in life. When I was much younger, a friend asked, “Can you take care of my mom’s cat? She has to go in the hospital for a number of weeks and my sister and I are both allergic.” I was like, “No, I don’t like cats.” Within three days I didn’t want to leave the house because the cat and I were best buds.

There were a couple of things that influenced me. One, sometimes people say animals can’t speak. Sure they can. We just can’t understand them. What they can’t do is fend for themselves. And there is cruelty. One day, I watched a wonderful person doing pet store adoptions from the Montgomery County SPCA [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals]. Twelve years later, I still volunteer doing hands-on adoptions. I joined the Board, too.

I go in as often as possible, sometimes every week, sometimes more. I do my best if there are animals that are extremely upset, if they’re depressed, if they’re older, to try to convince people to adopt them. If someone says to me, ” I want to adopt a kitten,” I might say, “I understand that, but would you mind holding this cat for a second?” Then they go, “Oh, how old is this cat?” And I say, “Do you love the cat? He’s three.” To thine oneself be true: I push very hard because lives are at stake

There is a great expression in the rescue world: Who rescued whom? When Wolf Block was collapsing, and I’m not judging people, a lot of people were going out drinking. I would go to the shelter and try to spend extra time with the animals, because I felt this dissolution of Wolf Block was a tragedy for all the staff that got hurt. I could not stop that, but I can rescue this animal’s life. If people see a dog in a cage who is scared, they’ll be less interested in adopting him. If they see that dog playing on my lap, they’re more likely to take him home. If they see a cat in a litter box, that’s not appealing. If they see me lying on the ground and that cat licking my face, it’s more appealing.

LD: What other type of work do you do in the legislative area, including to help animals?

JS: I do a lot of legislative advocacy work in the business world for business groups to try to get sensible regulations. I believe extreme regulation and no regulation are extremely wrong. I look at the FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act], which is a large part of my practice. Values are great; the regulations, unacceptably complex, complex-plus state law. I love working at the federal and state level on public policy issues to find the middle . In particular, I love the Society for Human Resource Management. It changed my life in so many ways.

In the course of business public policy, I find issues involving animal welfare so important. There are bills that would create registries for abusers. Can we agree on that if nothing else? I hope to spend more time on animal advocacy in the legislative area when I have more free time. I also will return to litigation to go after animal abusers.  Abusers should pay…big time.

And animals do so much for people. I am passionate about giving vets a chance to serve again. Animals can help vets with PTSD. It’s just remarkable.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is, “Until one has loved an animal, part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” I can’t say that money is irrelevant to me, or I’d be doing full-time work with animals. Money is a factor. Even though I love what I do, this feeds my soul in a way that makes me feel stronger and better and it gives me more resilience when I come in to fight the battles to do it in a hopefully respectful and strong way.

LD: Jonathan, as we’ve talked, I think I hear a few friends with you. Would you mind telling me their names?

JS: I just was at a client so I am now at home. Scotty is on my lap right now as we’re talking. His brothers Finny and Larry are near him. A client told me how calm I sound. Need I say more?

LD: Once you have a cat or two cuddle up with you, and never leave your side, you know they’re not aloof. They’re just challenging you.

JS: That’s right. But, you know what? I’m going to tell you an interesting parallel. Loving a cat in some ways isn’t different from a client. With a cat you need to go into their world and understand them before they will love you. Whereas, other animals may love you no matter what.

With a client, you really need to go into their world, understand their business, understand their culture, understand their people, understand their finances. And when you go into their world, I think that’s when you develop the relationship. To me what’s great about employment law is not only that you’re dealing with people, but you also get to deal with people long term. In litigation when the case is over, I would miss that relationship. What I love about doing counseling with strategic planning is it’s a long-term relationship.

LD: Any other passions outside of work?

JS: Life is not all work.  I need fun and love to have fun with clients.

I still mourn the last episode of Mad Men. I was mad about that show. It was great fodder for many blogs I wrote, too. While the Mad Man era came to an end, the Springsteen era is still going strong.  I cannot wait until the next concert.  I will see Fleetwood Mac and Paul McCartney to get me through the wait.

LD: Anything else?

JS: Thank you for this incredible recognition. It means a great deal to me.

I also want to thank my colleagues at Duane Morris. I am on so many great teams. Very fortunate.