Top-notch Bodman chairman honored for his leadership excellence

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By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

The Detroit Free Press – in association with Pennsylvania-based research firm Workplace Dynamics – recently announced its 2011 Top Workplace Awards, where law firm Bodman LLP in Detroit placed among the Top 15 Midsized Employers in Michigan.
However, the accolades don’t stop there.

Bodman Chairman Ralph E. McDowell was honored with a special leadership award, where he was recognized as the most confidence-inspiring leader of any midsized company in Michigan. When surveyed – and it was an anonymous survey, which freed people up to say whatever they wanted, according to Bodman spokesman Tony Allegrino  – Bodman employees expressed a tremendous amount of confidence in McDowell’s leadership abilities.

“Well, obviously, we were extremely pleased. This is the second year we’ve been a top workplace. This is an anonymous and blind survey, so people can say whatever they want and it stills comes out on the positive side,” said McDowell, 51. We’re very, very pleased – obviously – that people are happy with what’s going on here. We don’t think it’s an accident: We work hard at it in a whole variety of respects. It’s quite an honor. Of course, I was very personally honored to see that they’re pleased with me in terms of my leadership.”

A 1983 alumnus of Kalamazoo College, where he has an undergraduate degree in political science, McDowell has been a practicing attorney for more than 25 years. He graduated magna cum laude in 1986 with a juris doctorate in law from what is now the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. It was there he met Nancy Glen, his wife of nearly 23 years, whom he jokingly referred to as “a recovering lawyer.” The couple lives with their three children in Huntington Woods.

“As far as I could remember, I always wanted to be an attorney . . . It was where my interests were. It certainly wasn’t a family issue; my family was very blue-collar. It was really the track I set out on when I went to college. I really didn’t stray from that. I went right to law school from college… I was afraid if I didn’t go to law school immediately, I wouldn’t go back to school, so I wanted to push through,” he explained.

McDowell’s entire legal career has been with Bodman, starting in 1985 when he was an intern. Upon graduating from law school in 1986, he became a junior associate.

His areas of expertise include the automotive manufacturing industry, commercial bankruptcy, and debtors/creditors rights.
Other awards and honors include being listed in The Best Lawyers in America 2012 under the category of Bankruptcy and Debtor Creditor Rights/Insolvency and Reorganization Law and Litigation-Bankruptcy, as well as in the 2011 edition of Chambers USA: America’s Leading Lawyers for Business under the category of Banking & Finance: Bankruptcy. One of the 100 most highly-rated attorneys in Michigan, McDowell was named as a 2012 Top Lawyer by DBusiness magazine in Detroit.
When asked what makes him an effective leader, McDowell gave his definition of leadership.

“I think it’s important for the leader to set the overall tone and goals of the organization in terms of the kind of place we want to be, the kind of business we want to be, the kind of  atmosphere we want to have. And also to assist, manage, and carry out the strategic goals in terms of growth and professional development of the practice, and to assist all of the practice groups with their endeavors regarding client development and service,” said McDowell.

McDowell directs the credit for his leadership abilities to his mentors and peers. He learned plenty from previous Bodman chairmen Larry Shulman and the late Dick Rohr – whom he called a “true force in the legal community” and led Bodman for 25 years.

“We have a great group of attorneys here. On a more senior basis in terms of folks who are no longer with us, a gentleman named Al Wortley was a tremendous mentor and friend to dozens of lawyers here at Bodman. Of those still here, two people who stand out are Bob Diehl and Dave Hampstead. They’ve been leaders here in the firm for many years – they’re on the executive committee – and great mentors,” praised Bodman. “I have fantastic peer support… the folks who are my contemporaries, such as Dave Larsen and Kathleen Hickey (both of whom are members, the equivalent of partners at Bodman).

We do a lot of things together and by consensus. They’re right-hand people in terms of assisting me on any number of topics. I can always bounce things off of them and get great ideas and different insights.”

Given the bleak economic climate in Detroit, much less the rest of the United States, McDowell stated he has been lucky to inherit the mantle of leadership of Bodman when the firm was doing well financially.

“I was extremely fortunate with the leadership role models I had. Not only were they great role models for me, they were wonderful shepherds of the firm. In other words, I inherited the leadership when we were in a very good position business-wise; financially, we’ve always managed our business well,” he said. “We have weathered the downturn very well in terms of our business. We have that as a starting point, so that helped a lot. We certainly did some belt-tightening and things like that along those lines; we were in good shape to start.”

McDowell continued: “It’s not completely dire in terms of our industry, so keeping people focused on what I call the blocking and tackling – making sure people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing in terms of servicing clients – we’ve managed to do well and we continue to do well; we’re very stable. I think that people are inspired in the sense that we have continued to do well, while others haven’t necessarily. We still have some optimism. As I told people, I’m an optimist by nature and pessimist by training. There’s still some optimism in terms of the legal practice and in terms of the region. It certainly can be looked at in terms of a shrinking pie – there has been some issues of consolidation and adding people and trying to keep the revenue growing at a high level.”

McDowell’s colleague, Larsen, a 1987 alumnus of the Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, NC, has known him and worked with him for nearly 25 years. They started out at the firm together as junior executives. Ever since, they have worked together on various committees.

“For 25 years, Ralph has taken an interest in other people in the firm – everybody at every level,” Larsen said. “He has managed to maintain a relationship with everyone who works here in every office for the whole 25 years. He’s been doing that continuously long before he was the chairman. What that’s done has created a tremendous amount of trust and confidence in Ralph and his decision-making because of his genuine interest in other people. It comes very naturally to him, it’s not work for him; he’s one of those people who does that easily and naturally. He’s very kind, very honest, and his interest in people has generated a tremendous amount of confidence from everybody who works here.

Larsen continued: “He’s just got a great touch with people, he has good judgment, and he’s a good decision-maker. But – again – his strength is his genuine interest in others and the trust that results from that. It’s easy to get people to change their behavior if they trust you; it’s very hard to do it if there’s any animosity or mistrust, but he’s able to get people to do what he needs them to do by their faith in him and his leading by example – he’s a very hard worker. And that’s very important in a law firm. This is not something that sprang up recently with him. His leadership (awards) is really the result of what he’s been doing here for 25 years.”
 

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