Doing the right thing: Lessons from Phil White
Krista Lourdes Akiki | Friday, February 21, 2020
I have come to notice that our society increasingly values charisma over personality. We are constantly trying to prove to the world we are bold, assertive, capable. Yet, as Susan Cane so gracefully says, “The best talker is often times not the best leader.” This distortion that drives our group dynamics and collaboration has sidetracked ambitious men into envying the material possessions that this world has to offer. Aristotle once believed that “ambitious men are more envious than those who are not,” as they are always going after the blissful illusions of reputation, power, wealth, connections, luxury.
Recently, I had the great opportunity to meet a very successful lawyer who embodied most, if not all, of what I hope I’ll grow to become. When he showed up at our 8 a.m. Principles of Management class (my professor will be mad at me for calling it Principles of Management instead of Principles of Leadership), I was expecting another quite successful guest who would outline his professional successes and frame them within a few tips he could come up with for college students.
Phil White was far from that. Listing his accomplishments could have taken the entire 75 minutes, and yet, he chose to focus on three important factors: service in the legal field, doing the right thing and the stigma lawyers face.
As he went on in class, his words reminded me of this quote I like by Anne Lamott: “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”
So, on a Wednesday morning, I met with Phil White at Duncan Student Center and interviewed him for this column.
Krista: Could you please just start with a brief description of what your professional path has looked like?
Phil White: I spent most of my career as a construction and infrastructure lawyer. I obviously started out wanting to do something different. I first graduated from NYU with an economics degree, and I never thought I wanted to go to law school. But then I did, and I believed I just wanted to go to a small town and write wills. I ended being drawn to big New York firms and life just took me in the direction of being a construction lawyer. I ended up being the head of the infrastructure and development group at the largest firm in the world.
K: Usually people don’t associate service with law. How do you think the legal field actually embodies service?
PW: Well, I think lawyers are service professionals. That’s their job: to help other people accomplish what they want to accomplish. Your job is to take care of others’ desires and not so much your own. There’s also the element called the rules of lawyering ethics: you have to put your client’s interests above your own ones, especially your financial interests. Essentially a lawyering job is to serve others and society.
K: How would you define service?
PW: Very simple. Just working for others.
K: You mentioned the stereotypes that people immediately think of when the legal profession is brought up? How do you react to this?
PW: I think lawyers have become unpopular. They are often seen as money-centric power people. This is right about some people, just as it is in any other field. To counter that, I have a rule in the house: no lawyer jokes. I don’t tolerate them especially from people around me. How I react will differ based on the power dynamic in the moment, but I always somehow say something about it. At the end of the day, if they did kill all lawyers, there would be no justice in the world.
K: What do you think is a healthy corporate culture?
PW: One that embraces diversity and not only talks about it. Everyone has a point of view and a story — it’s important to acknowledge that and also foster respectful discussion. If you’re in a position where you have to make decisions, you need that kind of input. Ideas come from all sorts of places. A corporation needs diversity in recognizing the value of ideas and people. Second, ethics and good boundaries are also crucial. You have to follow the rules. Some things are just not right. This doesn’t mean you can’t change the rules. I have spent a lot of time trying to change the rules. But recognize that changing doesn’t mean violating.
K: What is your take on networking?
PW: Do it. Do it all the time. I hate to say it, but the truth is who you know is actually more important than what you know. Knowledge is with no doubt crucial, but networking is what gets you to the diverse discussions and opinions, the effective problem solving, the great opportunities … Most of what you want to accomplish can be done through networking. Certainly, in my life it has been the greatest driver of success.
K: Some people believe that in law, the thin line between ethical and unethical has been blurred. What do you think about this?
PW: There are different ways of looking at lawyers, For some lawyers, the goal is to get as close to the line as possible without crossing it. It’s about doing everything and anything that you can do. I believe lawyers have a duel responsibility: identify the lines and counsel clients. Unfortunately, we often deemphasize the role of counseling in favor of the other. But lawyers have to blend these two roles and tell a client, “You could legally do that, but you probably shouldn’t.”
K: How can one create change?
PW: One step at a time. I have gone through quite the evolution with this. I used to love giving big speeches thinking they would incite people to change. I don’t know if I’ve ever changed someone’s mind through a speech, yet alone someone’s behavior. True change is about modeling the behavior. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Big corporations or firms change because you come up to individuals and personally connect with them and try to convince them that change is needed. With a speech, they may say it’s great, they may even feel inspired, but once it’s over they will go on and about with their tasks and do what they’ve always been doing.
Krista Lourdes Akiki is currently part of the Mendoza College of Business. Coming from Beirut, Lebanon, she always enjoys trying out new things and is an avid travel lover. She hopes to take her readers on her journey as she discovers new lifestyles and navigates new cities. She can be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter @akikikrista
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.