What do five-minute interviews, going broke on the first day of a fellowship in Nairobi, opening a high-end hosiery franchise, and being appointed to an international trade committee by the Obama administration have in common? They are all experiences that shaped the fascinating life and legal career of Craig Owen White.
Nurtured by his father and teachers to be curious, Craig knew he wanted to be an attorney at a young age. A fellowship after college sent him on a yearlong journey of self-discovery in Kenya and Ghana and cemented a pattern of listening and learning as much as he instructed.
After law school and several years as a corporate law associate, Craig and his wife opened a high-end retail hosiery business in downtown Cleveland to create jobs in the Black community. That experience shaped his work with the International Senior Lawyers Project in Africa, as well as an appointment by the Cleveland City Council to negotiate with the NFL to bring the Browns back to town. The current partner in charge at Hahn Loeser & Parks’ Cleveland office, Craig is also the chair of the Trade Advisory Committee on Africa to which he was appointed by the Obama Administration.
This Sticky Lawyer has left his imprint all over the world. Enjoy Craig's story.
Links from the Episode
John Reed: [00:00:00] If you had a superpower, what would it be? I’ve thought about that a lot. For me, it's time travel for a variety of reasons. First, the low hanging fruit. I'd jump back to 1980 and buy some Apple stock at $22 per share. I'd returned to high school and kiss that girl (who shall remain nameless) before I lost the chance, revisit a few poor choices in college, and I'd patch up a few relationships. But more importantly, I would get answers. Did certain people in history really exist and do all the things we've read about? What was it like to live in a particular place at a particular time? Like Mesopotamia—shout out to the Mesopotamians. In the future, will we have fixed the climate crisis? Will we live in space? What impact will I have made on those who knew me?
[00:00:52] I think about those things, and then all the movies about time travel come back into my head and I worry that something I do in another time will profoundly change things after that. I'll irreparably tweak the time-space continuum and start some weird butterfly effect. That's when I reconsider invisibility or flight as a superpower instead.
[00:01:12] The fact is every one of us matters in whatever time we occupy and beyond. An interest we have, a thought we share, a person we meet, one path we choose over another—all of these things come together for us, and we all have our own Big Bangs or series of Big Bangs that reverberate through our universes and make a difference on others.
[00:01:33] Today's guest knows a little bit about how small choices can cause seismic shifts across the globe. And I'm looking forward to speaking with him.
[00:01:42] Craig Owen White is the partner in charge of Hahn Loeser's Cleveland office and is the consummate business lawyer who has also been a lawyer in business for himself. More on that in a moment. Craig's outside general counsel practice and experience is extensive and impressive, and he's no doubt a Sticky Lawyer in that context. But it's his story, a story of a few chance encounters and right and wrong turns, that I want him to share today.
[00:02:09] Craig is the butterfly effect incarnate because things he may have thought inconsequential years ago in Northeast Ohio have since impacted the lives of lawyers and communities in South Africa and have also given him immense personal and professional satisfaction. Craig, welcome to the podcast.
Craig Owen White: [00:02:27] Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
John Reed: [00:02:30] Forgive me. I'm going to lead the witness a bit because I want to point you to specific moments in your life that set the stage for your later accomplishments. I hope that's okay.
Craig Owen White:[00:02:40] Sure.
John Reed: [00:02:41] So you were born and raised in Cleveland; you still live and work there. At seven years old, you had the opportunity to go to a Cleveland Browns football game. What happened?
Craig Owen White: [00:02:51] I was really blessed to be in a community where a lot of the fathers were also professionals. This was in Cleveland in the early sixties, and it was still a segregated community. My baseball coach, for instance, was a very accomplished lawyer, ultimately went on to be on the Ohio Supreme Court—Lloyd O. Brown. Another of the fathers who was around was a guy named Steve Chancellor who, at that time, was a senior staff lawyer for the Electric Illuminating Company located here in Cleveland. He and my father were friends and his son and I were pretty much buddies and best friends. My father had to work one Sunday, and Mr. Chancellor took Steve and I to a Cleveland Browns football game. And on the way to the game, he said he had to stop at his office to pick up some papers.
[00:03:56] And we went up to his office and I sat on his desk, and I asked him, what did he do? And he explained to me that he was a business lawyer and what that meant. From that moment forward, I was sold. That's what I want to do. So that's really how I started on this path of being a corporate business lawyer at seven years old or so.
John Reed: [00:04:16] What did he describe to you that resonated with a seven-year-old that that was going to be your life's journey?
Craig Owen White: [00:04:23] He talked about process and about how he kept things in order for people. By framing the issues and understanding what the concerns were, bit by bit he could change and effect outcome. And I took it to mean that he could basically make a difference in the world. And that's what I wanted to do is to try to make a difference.
John Reed: [00:04:45] You told me earlier that you are a curious person and that you learned to embrace curiosity. Where did that come from?
Craig Owen White: [00:04:53] I think it really came from my relationship with my father. We were very, very close. I was one of five kids. I have two older brothers and two younger sisters. And so, I was the middle child, which I think impacted me as well. No natural allies. And so, I spent a lot of time with Chipper the dog, and also talking with my father. And my father just encouraged me to ask questions. As we drove along in the family car or whatnot, I just asked a lot of questions and he just sort of taught me to be curious, ask questions, discover. Don't live your life in a silo. And I remember he told me, I think it was an old Latin or Greek saying, that fortune favors the brave. You have to put yourself to some degree at risk if you're going to be curious but that's okay.
John Reed: [00:05:45] Is that something you were able to channel in your elementary school years and in your high school years? Were you that kid in the classroom that was asking all the questions all the time, keeping the other kids from leaving when the bell rang?
Craig Owen White: [00:06:01] No, I was pretty quiet in class, but I would seek to buttonhole the teachers after class and ask them questions. It was a healthier environment in schools back then where the teachers really got to know their students. And one teacher in particular, an English teacher, had given us an assignment and said, "How did you think the book should end?" And I said, "I didn't particularly like the ending of that particular book." And the teacher said, "Well, the author is still alive. Why don't you write to the author and tell them what you thought about the book and about the ending?" And I did, and I got a response back and that just started a lifelong a desire to contact people and share thoughts with them and something that I still do today.
[00:06:51] Over the years, especially early on I would make an offer to people that I just wanted five minutes of your time, I would meet you anywhere and at any time. And the number of people who took me up on that— Andy Young, Jesse Jackson, James Orange; I mean, it was phenomenal. Just by putting yourself out there, you'd be surprised at the folks that you've run into. And it's not just exclusively famous people. It's just people that we find interesting. Some of the most impactful discussions I've had have been with taxi drivers in places that I've visited, or just people that you meet and have a random conversation with at a museum or in a park.
John Reed: [00:07:34] You did what every curious person graduating from high school should do, and you pursued a liberal arts education in college, but with an eye on law school. What was your major?
Craig Owen White: [00:07:44] Political science and political economics. I would read a lot and back then I would listen to things like sermons and whatnot, but I loved history. And so, I just read a lot and questioned a lot and dreamt a lot.
John Reed: [00:08:00] You had this vision of being the business lawyer since seven years old? After college, was it right to law school?
Craig Owen White: [00:08:06] No, actually, I was fortunate. In my fourth year at Williams College, we were approaching graduation, and everybody was thinking about law school, and I had already applied to a number of law schools and fortunately I got into a few. But I found this program called the Watson Foundation, which is the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Foundation, and the founder of IBM, that selects 24 students a year to go on a year of self-journey and self-discovery. I happened to be listening to one of the speeches by Martin Luther King called the Mountaintop Speech. Most people remember it for the end of the speech, but I was really touched by the beginning of this speech. Dr. King talked about a storm warning, and he named a number of cities. And I thought, why did he pick those cities? Maybe it was just random, but why those cities? Maybe there was something. So, I wanted to go to every one of those cities.
[00:09:10] I wrote a proposal for the Watson Foundation of studying the provision of low-income housing, a comparative study between Nairobi, Kenya, and Accra, Ghana. I picked them because Kenya was a long-time Western ally, very developed economy in Africa, and Ghana at the time was the poorest country in Africa, and it was a non-aligned nation. Housing economics was something that I had studied as my political economics specialty at Williams. So, I wanted to see how those two communities sort of operated, but it was in that space. He talked about people gathering in Kenya people gathering in Nairobi. And I thought why Nairobi and not Dar es Salaam? Why Accra as opposed to Lagos? That guided the formation of the thesis about the self-study. And I was fortunate enough to be selected to do that. And so that was my first trip to Africa.
[00:10:05] Talk about self-discovery and curiosity. You were not allowed to enroll in the program, and you were not allowed to have anyone in that country sponsor you. You had to do this all on your own. And so, I spent six months learning Swahili, trying to learn Swahili, the basics at least. And then I left with a one-way ticket, landed in Nairobi with my plan. And by the end of the day, I was broke. I had taken a guitar with me. I didn't know how to play the guitar, but I figured, I didn't know anybody in Africa. I'd spend a year learning how to play the guitar. I had to sell the guitar a few hours after the landing because I’d given away all my money. Beggars would come up, you know, they told me their story and I gave them five bucks, not realizing that that was a month's worth of income in Kenya at the time.
[00:10:58] So that night, I'd been taken in by this person who found me literally wandering in Nairobi. It was an incredible lesson for me because I spent six months on Plan A, on how you're going to survive in Africa for the year. Within, I think, eight hours or so Plan A was clearly not viable, and I had to come up with Plan B by sunrise. But I did, and I was able to stay on the African continent. I completed the first part of the study in six months in Kenya, meeting a number of people, and really having my faith in humanity amazingly shored up because a number of people were just incredibly nice, strangers who took me in and taught me about African society and whatnot. And then I left there, and I went to Ghana and was fortunate enough to meet people along the way, a lot of Peace Corps workers. I had deferred admission to law school, so at the end of that year, I came back, and I started my studies at the University of Virginia for law school.
John Reed: [00:12:03] What did you take away from your experience in Kenya and Ghana relative to your path of becoming a lawyer. You step foot on the UVA campus to start law school—how is your perspective different than when you were still at Williams thinking about what was next?
Craig Owen White: [00:12:21] The first thing is you survived for the year on a continent, but no one knew you. And you had to rely upon yourself, and you had to rely upon other people and become a judge of situations and of the people, very, very quickly and understanding the disastrous consequences that could occur if you chose wrong or misjudged. So, I came back quite competent in my ability to survive and to deal with difficult and unfortunate situations.
John Reed: [00:12:54] And you didn't give out $5 bills to any of your other students.
Craig Owen White: [00:12:58] Uh, yeah!
John Reed: [00:13:00] Okay, good. Good. I'm gonna fast forward a little bit and ask you, what is the International Senior Lawyers Project, and how did you come to be involved?
Craig Owen White: [00:13:09] The ISLP is a nonprofit based in New York, but it was started by two senior lawyers out of D.C., designed basically to help support the rule of law and equitable economic development around the world. It's akin to Doctors Without Borders, but lawyers. And from that simple sort of vision, they began recruiting senior and retired lawyers from many of the major law firms in the United States to provide pro bono services to folks, to governments around the world, and also to NGOs around the world, again, in support of the rule of law and equitable systems.
John Reed: [00:13:56] But you didn't discover it as a senior lawyer. Where in your legal career did you come across the ISLP?
Craig Owen White: [00:14:02] Once again, it was just a sense of curiosity. I was reading probably about 10 or 12 years ago, 15 years ago, maybe, I think I was a young partner at the time. But I was reading my alum magazine from UVA and there was a story about the ISLP and one of our UVA faculty members was talking about a project that he had participated in in South Africa along the lines of the rule of law.
[00:14:29] And I called him up and said, " Hey, old dude, can I be of assistance? I can do desk research and that sort of thing. And he said to me, "How long have you been practicing?" I told him a number of years, and he says, "You know, you may want to look in the mirror. You're not as young as you think."
John Reed: [00:14:49] What a slap in the face! "Dude, I'm trying to help you here. Don't insult me."
Craig Owen White: [00:14:55] Right. And he was very kind, he invited me to go with him to South Africa to meet with the Black Lawyers Association down there over this course that they were teaching called the Commercial Law Training Course, which was designed basically to build the skillset of lawyers of color in South Africa in the wake of apartheid. If you recall, Blacks in South Africa couldn't engage really in any meaningful economic activity. So, there were no Black-owned businesses. Now in the post-apartheid era, the decision was made to try to build capacity of Black lawyers to be able to help and support the creation of Black economic institutions and businesses.
[00:15:37] I went with him, and I met some people there and I sat in on the course that was being taught and they ultimately asked me to be involved as an instructor. And I did that for a couple of years. Then a few years later they asked me to be on the board of the ISLP. I went on the board, and I started getting more and more involved. At the time, I was on the American Bar Association Section on Business Law's Committee on Corporate Laws, so I had quite a bit of background with respect to corporate governance, and also economic development. And so, I was able to use that skillset in redeveloping and re-imagining the course that we were connecting with the South African Black lawyers.
John Reed: [00:16:22] What did the program look like when you made your first trip to South Africa with your former professor? Did you see a problem with it that it needed to be reimagined?
Craig Owen White: [00:16:32] All the lawyers who were going over were incredibly, incredibly well-intentioned, and incredibly bright. I mean, these were the best corporate lawyers in the United States. And they were taking that knowledge and imparting it over in South Africa. The problem was that it was, there was a disconnect in it assumed people had been basically practicing law and engaged in business at a very, very high level for a number of years, and that just wasn't the case. The recipients were incredibly bright lawyers over in South Africa. These are just incredible, incredible lawyers, but they had never been exposed, particularly to a Western style of capitalism and our markets, and how business is done, and what it's all about. I realized that what we needed to do was start at the very beginning.
[00:17:22] I discovered that if you want to become an expert at something, the best way to do it is to teach because you have to distill from a wealth of information, instead of just doing a data dump. You have to distill what are the important elements. Because you only have a certain amount of time to try to deliver this. And so, you can't deliver everything at one time, you have to teach the person how to build a framework. And that's where I started understanding that's how you have to approach practicing law, if you want to be effective.
[00:17:58] The other element is you have to make sure that you're actually communicating to the person you're teaching in examples that they can relate to. I would spend a lot of time learning elements of South African culture or Southern African culture and incorporating those into the teaching to make the point. And suddenly, you'd see the eyes just brighten up and the light go on. And they realized that they knew more than they thought they did because the general principles that we talked about, particularly about risk, identifying risk, pricing risk, allocating risk in a business deal, and then why we're doing what we're doing in the business deal to document it and enforce it, but also the responsibility of a lawyer to oversee the profession to make sure that it remains ethical and honorable and that people can rely upon the law.
John Reed: [00:19:02] It sounds like it went from lecturing to actual teaching.
Craig Owen White: [00:19:06] From lecturing to teaching to living. As we would take these lawyers from the United States and from Canada and occasionally from the UK and bring them over, we would stress to them that they are going to learn as much as they were teaching. They couldn't come over with this attitude of superiority. This was a two-way street and if we're doing it right, they're going to come back incredibly enriched and a stronger lawyer in their practice and that they would be forever changed as well.
John Reed: [00:19:38] It sounds like the mission was better served by this new approach. It's one thing to teach the elements of a contract or something like that. And I'm, I know I'm being incredibly pedestrian. But when you are going over and above and you are tailoring it to the culture, the community, the economy as it existed then, that was the aim of the ISLP.
Craig Owen White: [00:20:03] This was not a skills course. There was nothing more rewarding than getting a letter or an email from someone who had taken the course that said, "You've changed the way I think about the law. And you made me realize that I could have fun with this as well. And I can express my passion for society and for doing the right thing in my practice."
John Reed: [00:20:25] I was going to ask you if you heard from your students over the years.
Craig Owen White: [00:20:29] Oh yeah. And we stay in touch. Like I said, nothing could be more rewarding. Even here in the United States, I've taught at the local law school as an adjunct professor, and I also mentor a number of lawyers, both in our firm but also in our community. And so, when you get a note that says they made partner somewhere, or they started their own law firm, or in some instances they chose to leave the active practice to do something like teach or to be an entrepreneur, it's really sort of rewarding.
John Reed: [00:20:59] Are you going to be getting back to South Africa any time soon?
Craig Owen White: [00:21:03] I hope to as travel restrictions ease. We have been doing our teaching by way of web. I do that primarily these days in Zimbabwe and in Zambia and we've had strong participation. And I'm really grateful for that, but nothing replaces actually being there.
John Reed: [00:21:22] We're going to take a short break, but don't go too far away. When we come back, Craig, will tell us about how his experience in South Africa led to other international opportunities. Stay with us.
[00:23:18] And now back to our guest.
[00:23:20] I'm delighted to be talking with corporate and international trade advisor, Craig Owen White. Craig. I want to talk with you about something near and dear to all of us, especially you. And of course, I'm talking about... socks. Let's go back to the early years of your law practice. You were advising businesses on legal issues, but what business experience did you have and where did socks come into play?
Craig Owen White: [00:23:46] The first seven or so years of my practice. I was doing corporate law as an associate at a large international law firm. And I was what I would call a legal technician. I knew the law and I thought I was pretty good at it. But I lived in the community here in Cleveland and I really wanted to try to make a difference. And at that time one of the things I really wanted to do was to create jobs within the Black community and also give people an opportunity to have management experiences and positions because it was just sorely lacking.
[00:24:28] There was a very, very large development in downtown Cleveland going up at the time; it was called Tower City. And this was a mega retail project. I decided that I was going to put my money where my mouth is. And instead of just lecturing and telling people about economic development and whatnot, I decided to open a franchise store in that complex. I researched all kinds of different franchises and ultimately found this small franchise called Socks Appeal, which was high-end retail hosiery. I had to build the store out of what was an old train station, and we were a few doors down from Brooks Brothers. I was the consummate deal lawyer. I love doing deals. And so, it was just a really fun deal to do. We got it done with an SBA loan of $200,000. It was a term loan, which I personally guaranteed. My wife, who was pregnant at the time, was going to be the store manager, and away we went putting this all in place. That's when I discovered that it's one thing to do a deal. It's another thing to run a business.
John Reed: [00:25:36] Did you leave the practice to open the store?
Craig Owen White: [00:25:38] No.
John Reed: [00:25:39] Okay. So, you're practicing while being this entrepreneur,
Craig Owen White: [00:25:42] Right, and also being on boards of directors of a state college and a number of different community organizations. We were really stretched thin. But it was just exciting to actually create an opportunity. We ended up hiring about ten people to work at the store, even though it was a pretty small store. I did that for essentially five years. We opened a second store out in the suburbs at one of the tony shopping centers. So, we had the two stores while I was still practicing.
[00:26:11] We weren't large enough to have professionals so my wife was sort of general manager of the stores, and I would do the bookkeeping and whatnot. But I quickly, basically, literally went broke after five years, and we had to close the stores. I made a decision that I wanted to be a full-time lawyer, again, as opposed to in retail. But what it did, it opened my eyes to the relationship between what I was doing in negotiating business provisions, and the real world of when you own a business.
[00:26:48] Now when I was giving my clients advice, it was from a position of empathy, not lecturing, because I knew what it meant to put my name, put my mortgage, on the line. To lose money, to have that intimate chat with the people from the IRS or the state tax authorities. That was my first understanding really about the connection between what it is that we do in business transactions and the real world, of how this really works when vendors don't pay you or when employees quit, or when employees have problems. And it also opened my eyes to the financing. This was many, many years before predatory lending was really in the lexicon. To give a person a loan, a term loan for $200,000 without a line of credit? That's a recipe for disaster and we found it quite easily.
John Reed: [00:27:45] Do you think that your experience as a sock mogul, that you were, better informed your re-imagining of the ISLP program as well because you knew what it was to be the business owner? You could explain it to your students there, you could teach rather than lecture because of this experience that you had?
Craig Owen White: [00:28:08] You are all of your experiences, and I've been really blessed to have just a wide array of rather unique experiences. When the Cleveland Browns left, I was tapped by Cleveland City Council to represent the City Council in negotiations with the NFL and bringing the Browns franchise back to the City of Cleveland. I had to learn the business of sports. I was asked by the governor to be on the board of trustees of Central State University, at the time a historically Black college that was going through enormous financial problems. And within a couple years I was on the finance committee. And so, I had to learn the business of historically Black colleges and the challenges that they face. All of those things started to come together and realizing that a lot of times people call us in to solve problems, but usually it's with interdictions as opposed to coming up with solutions.
John Reed: [00:29:07] I'm going to go back a little bit. Because of your ISLP experience, because of your corporate experience, because of your very successful and impactful law practice, you garnered the attention of a certain presidential administration to serve in another international role. Maybe you can tell us about that.
Craig Owen White: [00:29:27] I was again, blessed to receive a call from the Obama Administration and asked me to be on the Trade Advisory Committee on Africa (TACA), which is a congressionally mandated committee that was designed to advise the United States Trade Representative on matters of US policy with sub-Saharan African countries. There are about 45 of them. But I said, "Well, I don't know much about trade." They said, "Well, that's the point. We'd like to get somebody in with a different perspective. Just tell us what you think and what you see." I came on board with them, and after the first four or five years, I was reappointed, and then they asked me, would I chair the Trade Advisory Committee, and I've done that for the last few years. My term actually expires in March.
[00:30:27] Africa is largely overlooked with respect to being a trading partner and strategic partner and that we need to do more to help strengthen develop ties. It's in our interest, but it's in the world’s interest for a strong and economically viable Africa. There are 20 of us on the committee, people who are very committed to the cause of developing an effective, strong rule of law and equitable economic development throughout Africa. And so that really dovetailed with the work of the International Senior Lawyers Project, which by the way, is celebrating this year it's 20th anniversary.
John Reed: [00:31:07] Craig you practiced for many years at Hahn Loeser, which has a lot of attorneys. I understand that you have an unofficial title at the firm —professor. So, tell us a little bit about that.
Craig Owen White: [00:31:18] I think it's incumbent upon us in the legal profession to teach, particularly with the new generations coming, and to really underscore why we do what we do as a profession. There's been a lot of talk over the last decade or so about lawyers need to think more about this as a business. And we do. Obviously, there are disciplines that we have to observe, but we never can lose sight of the fact that this is a profession. I tell the younger folks here you can make a good living practicing law and go to bed hopefully with a clean conscience that you're trying to help make things better. If you want to pursue making a lot of money, be a consultant or do something else that’s outside of the profession. But most of the people that I know and associate with really see it as a calling and a responsibility. And part of that responsibility is again, teaching the next generation of lawyers.
John Reed: [00:32:17] Craig, I am grateful to you for your time and for sharing your journey. And if this law thing doesn't work out for you, I think you would be a fantastic teacher. I'm sure our community of listeners will want to learn more about you and the ISLP and some of the other organizations you're in. So, we'll be sure to put that information in the show notes. Craig, thanks for being with me today. I really appreciate it.
Craig Owen White: [00:32:41] I enjoyed it. And I just wanted to leave with two thoughts. One is, if I remember my Swahili correctly, "Mapambano yanaendelea lakini kwa pamoja tutashinda," which means "The struggle continues, but together we'll be victorious." And, of course, Go Browns.
John Reed: [00:32:56] That's right. Go Browns. Craig, thank you so much, again.
[00:33:00] And thanks to all of you for your curiosity and for tuning in today. If this is your first time listening to Sticky Lawyers, I hope you'll download other episodes wherever you get your podcasts. You can also visit stickylawyers.com, where you can view episode transcripts, see additional information about our guests, and recommend a standout attorney who might be a future guest.
[00:33:24] If you're a Sticky Lawyers regular—a Stickler—isn't it time that you tell your friends, family, and colleagues about the podcast and give us a rating and review on our website, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Podcaster, or elsewhere? Just a suggestion. You know, if you have a minute or two. It'd be nice. That's all I'm saying.
[00:33:44] Until next time, I'm John Reed and you've been listening to Sticky Lawyers.
Partner-in-Charge, Hahn Loeser, Cleveland
Craig Owen White serves as Partner-in-Charge of Hahn Loeser’s Cleveland office and guides established and growth-oriented companies through mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, enterprise governance, and financing and licensing issues in the United States and abroad. He has particular experience serving as primary outside corporate counsel to business enterprises.