My Never-Ending Learning Journey From Public Service to Big Law

Nelita Collins

First, you learn. Then you learn some more. Then you keep on learning.

My philosophy of ongoing education is more than just a mantra: It’s the secret to success in any endeavor. It has helped me as an attorney in private practice, as a former member of the city council of Houston as the city’s first Black controller and chief financial officer, as a public speaker, and as a mentor to early career, diverse attorneys.

While serving in government in an elected capacity, I always considered myself a lawyer on loan. The city of Houston has term limits so it was easy to recognize that an exit strategy would need to be executed. Learning all I could from a multi-layered organization, while serving my community, gave me the proverbial best of both worlds. The foray back to a full-time private practice was inevitable, yet eagerly anticipated.

Throughout my career, I have challenged myself to take on responsibilities for which I was not a recognized expert. To be clear, I am not recommending that anyone—myself included—jump into new territory completely unprepared. But my own career experiences have demonstrated the value of balancing already-acquired skills with the occasional leap of faith.

In fact, whenever you take on a new role assuming that you know everything, it almost invariably becomes clear that you still have a lot to learn. If you are fortunate, you will also immediately discover that there are experienced people all around you who are highly qualified and more than willing to teach you the fine points of your job.

Allow me to offer some personal advice from my experiences in various points in my career.

A Different Path—Solo Practitioner to City Council

After earning my law degree from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in 1996, I decided not to pursue the Big Law, associate-to-partner path followed by many of my classmates. Instead, I founded my own Houston-based firm, which I continued to lead as managing partner for 20 years.

I started as a litigator. But as anyone who’s launched a business knows, you sometimes take the work that’s offered, at least in the early years. As my client needs evolved and expanded, I took advantage of these opportunities by working cases with more seasoned lawyers. This provided me the chance to build relationships with and learn from other attorneys to gain additional knowledge and to expand the range of services I could provide.

Over time, I was able to successfully represent clients in corporate business matters, real estate transactions, and corporate compliance, as well as commercial and criminal litigation and other areas.

In 2003, I decided that in addition to practicing law and helping people for a fee, there were many people throughout my community I could help, for no charge, through public service. After being elected to the Houston City Council in 2003, it soon became clear that this position, along with my law practice, would provide yet another learning opportunity.

No elected official is an expert on all of the subjects that will come before them. In any given week, you will be asked to make financial and policy decisions that affect the lives of thousands, sometimes millions, of your constituents. That’s when you learn how important it is to seek out trusted, expert advice.

In some cases, you may need to pursue additional, formal education to add to your qualifications. While serving as chairman of the city council’s Budget & Fiscal Affairs Committee, and as a member of committees responsible for transportation, infrastructure, housing and redevelopment, pensions and other issues, I decided to pursue an MBA from the University of Houston. This new learning endeavor allowed me the opportunity to marry formal concepts with the practical experience I gained while in the governmental sector.

From City Councilman to Houston City Controller

With this experience and knowledge in hand, I then ran successfully for the position of Houston city controller in 2009—and once again, I was able to do my job effectively by seeking knowledge and guidance from my highly experienced staff of 75 career city professionals, as well as the more than 10,000 employees in various other departments.

(An aside: We live in a time when it’s popular to diminish the skills, accomplishments, and contributions of people in government service. I want to go on the record: The people I worked with at the city of Houston and in other government entities are among the finest, most highly qualified people I know. Their work may not always be headline grabbing, but we should all be grateful for what they do for us, day in and day out.)

As much as I enjoyed my work for the people of Houston, I must confess that I missed the full-time practice of law. I truly enjoy the variety of work that I can do for my private clients, so in 2016 I made the leap from the public back to the private sector.

A Return to Law and a Mission for Diversity

Despite the many differences between these two environments, one lesson I brought with me to my current firm, Jones Walker, is the value of diversity. In government service, diversity is a given—people from all walks of life come together to do this important work. Now in private practice, it is my goal to help my firm as it creates and supports diversity initiatives that have a meaningful impact.

I have found that diversity is just as important in the equitable provision of public services as it is in the delivery of top notch legal services. Diverse opinions lead to better decisions and better decisions lead to more meaningful and creative outcomes for clients and constituents.

Diversity is about so much more than hiring. And while I will always argue that representation is important, even more valuable is whether the employee or partner or executive feels welcome and included in the organization.

Inclusion is perhaps the most difficult-to-define part of the diversity, equity, and inclusion equation, but in my mind it is the most important. Personally, I have furthered this goal by frequently inviting associates to participate in organizations in which I participate and I have participated in activities in which they are involved.

Importance of Mentoring in My Career

I was fortunate to have had fantastic mentors while still in law school, including the Hon. Mary Milloy (Ret.), a former federal U.S. magistrate Judge for the Southern District of Texas, and the Hon. Calvin Botley (Ret.), who was the first Black federal magistrate judge serving in the state of Texas. While interning for these judges, in addition to learning the workings of the federal judiciary, I learned the importance of connecting people. They both went out of their way to introduce me to the lawyers appearing before them. Those connections would continue throughout my political and legal career.

In addition, what made Botley, Milloy, and my mentors so special was that they reached out to me. Botley is a graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and was a frequent speaker there. During my first year of law school, he recruited summer externs and I was one of several chosen. Botley had an abundance of externs and two of his colleagues had none. Milloy reached out to Botley and I ended up externing for both judges. They both were instrumental in helping lay the foundation for my legal career.

Too often, as mentors, we follow the “Field of Dreams” approach. We think, “I’ve built my career—now they (the mentees) will come.” It’s up to us to reach out to our future professionals and leaders—it shouldn’t be their job to ask for our support and guidance. We know they exist. We know they need us.

It is often said that you have to meet people where they are. It is important for mentors to seek out high-potential students and early career professionals. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it. Individuals may not realize they need a mentor until presented with the opportunity to be mentored.

We need to look beyond law schools, universities, and colleges that already are “on the list.” There are almost 200 ABA accredited law schools and nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the US. There is no shortage of diverse talent. The two are not mutually exclusive.

And what will be the first thing that I try to teach these young people? Never stop learning.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Ronald C. Green is a partner in Jones Walker LLP’s Corporate Practice Group. He counsels clients on a broad range of matters, including public, project and bond financings, corporate governance and compliance, public-private partnerships, and government relations.

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