What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Tyrone Thomas
Tyrone Thomas is General Counsel at Doral Renewables. He has broad strategic and transactional experience within the renewable energy industry, having served as both Head of Legal at Plus Power, and Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Invenergy. Throughout his career, Tyrone has led diverse teams of professionals in connection with the development, construction, financing and/or divestiture of dozens of utility-scale energy facilities with a total value of over $7 billion. Mr. Thomas earned a BS in Urban Studies from Hunter College and a JD from the University of Illinois College of Law.
In the legal industry, every connection matters. This is especially true for lawyers of color and other underrepresented attorneys who know the feeling of being left out—and the feeling of finally being seen. Tyrone Thomas, General Counsel at Doral Renewables, credits his mentors with guiding him on his career path, and he does the same for young lawyers who reach out to him today. He joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about what qualities he looks for in the firms and attorneys he works with; how firms can demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion; and what makes a good leader. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Tyrone Thomas, General Counsel at Doral Energy. In addition, he’s the company’s anti-hunger advocate. He’s speaking to us from the Chicago suburbs. Tyrone has been on the podcast twice before, but he was with a different energy company. Today he’ll tell us all about his industry experience as well as his experience being a Black lawyer. Tyrone, welcome to the program.
Tyrone: Thanks for having me, Sharon.
Sharon: Glad that you’re here. Give us a synopsis of your career path.
Tyrone: Sure. I’ll keep it post-law school. I worked in private practice for a few years. I was at DLA Piper in the Washington, D.C. office. I am still involved with DLA Piper from an alumni perspective, using them and adding advice when I can. I was with a firm called Hanson Bridgett, in San Francisco down in the financial district. Then I was with a small firm in the Chicagoland area called Gould & Ratner. In each of those spaces, my work primarily centered on development, whether commercial real estate development, development of GSA leasing properties primarily leased from the federal government, healthcare development, and everything in between.
Then I moved over to a company called Invenergy that now is probably the number one, if the not the number two, private producer of renewable energy in North America. I moved over to them in 2014.
Sharon: What is the name of the company?
Sharon: Invenergy, all right.
Tyrone: I spent about seven years there, eventually leaving as the number two on their legal team. I was the vice president and deputy counsel. I had a wealth of great experience there. I worked on a ton of really interesting projects that were cool from a practical perspective, but also great for the world in decarbonizing the environment. Tons of great employees. There were probably 400 people around the world when I started and almost 1,600 when I left. I went from having zero reports when I joined to about 27 when I left. I got to watch the company grow as I was growing in my career in that space.
I then went to a really great standalone battery developer named Plus Power based out of San Francisco and Houston. It was a brief stint there because of Doral, where I currently am. It ultimately made sense to transition to Doral, where I’m general counsel and where I work with a number of folks who I worked with in prior years, including the CEO. We crossed paths in Invenergy for several years. It all just clicked, so that’s where I am currently. I was head of legal at Plus Power, and here I’m general counsel/corporate secretary. I’m taking on more and more of a compliance role as well.
Sharon: What is anti-hunger? That was on LinkedIn.
Tyrone: When I present on LinkedIn, I try to present not necessarily where I’m working, per se, but the entirety of what I’m doing in the professional space. Primarily what I’m doing is working in the legal compliance function. I’m doing a lot of work around governance. I sit on some boards, and I’m looking at some for-profit boards right now to figure out the best fit for me.
Then, I consider myself an anti-hunger advocate. I spend most of my time that’s not on family or professional matters volunteering or donating to organizations that try to combat hunger and food insecurity. I have sat on associate boards and executive boards of various organizations. I’ve sat on the Executive Board of Directors of Beyond Hunger in the Oak Park/River Forest area here in Illinois, which honestly is probably one of the best-run and better-funded food pantries in the Midwest—I would say probably in the country. The funding is a testament to the community it’s in, but it also gives them the ability to serve a lot of constituents and continually chase new opportunities to serve more or in a different way, because obviously just giving someone food is not a holistic solution. This is one of the few food pantries I know of in the country that has two dieticians on staff, for example. There are nutrition programs and things like that.
I also run a small nonprofit called Conversation for Six, which is intended to lower the informational bar to entry for people who want to get more involved in the hunger space. The idea was germinated off of feedback I got from individuals whom I was trying to nudge to give more money or to center some of their corporate giving campaigns on hunger. A lot of folks told me they didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand what these programs are, what some of these terms are. It’s not unique to the hunger space. A lot of nonprofits have to pick and choose who their audience is. They focus a lot on the audience that is preaching to the converted, because the converted are proven givers. They are going to give more and donate more. They’re going to evangelize, but what sometimes gets left out is the entry-level folks.
I fund the charity myself. The goal of Conversation for Six is not to raise a bunch of money; the goal is to educate. I hired some freelance writers beginning in the pandemic, and they wrote a bunch of articles on foundational concepts. What is SNAP? What is WIC? What are the summer school lunch programs? What’s the idea of a food desert? Why is that term falling out of favor? It’s all these foundational things that will help someone then go on and engage with more involved food scholarship.
We also point people to those organizations. So, if you need help or you want to help, we point to organizations. There’s a resource directory on the site that has organizations in all 50 states and some international organizations where people can either get help or give help, whether it be their time or their money. We’re a nexus to get people to direct-access organizations.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this. I spend a lot of time doing it. I’m currently in conversations about whether it makes sense for me to join some local government boards that are focused on hunger, whether I can add something of value there. It’s a passion. It’s something I carry with me separate and apart from any legal or compliance or governance-related work I do for pay.
Sharon: Let me ask you this. If you walked into an office and engaged a recruiter or a marketer and they said, “Hey, here’s a bunch of money. Go put it in hunger,” would that influence you?
Tyrone: You mean if I was looking to take a job and they were also—
Sharon: Or in marketing. Would it influence you in terms of having a better feeling—
Tyrone: You mean in terms of whether their client would be influenced by this? I would say no, and I’ll tell you why. In our space, corporate giving is table stakes. Everybody has corporate giving. Let me start off by saying that feels too much like a bribe to me, so I want to stay out of the gray area. Everyone has corporate giving. When I made the comment earlier about influencing where they center their corporate giving, that’s a very real conversation.
When I came out of law school, you still had to be in a suit every day, but you had a jeans Friday. They would pick a charity, and everybody would donate. Everyone would give $5 as their payment to wear their jeans, and it would go to a charity. A lot of the charities were not focused on what I considered some of the base problems that humans face. I wasn’t the only one there. I am certain other folks would try to push for certain charities, like “Can we give money to these anti-homelessness charities?” That was in D.C. and San Francisco, both of which have aggressive homelessness problems. “How about charities working on hunger? How about ones working on reintegrating people into the workforce or supporting unwed teen mothers? Can we put money there?” If we’re putting it somewhere anyway, and most of the people are giving the $5, $10, $15, that’s your table stakes. A lot of the people who made a lot more money would give $50, $100, but nobody cared where it went. They knew it was going to a good cause, and this is not directed money with conditions.
I want to direct it towards these things at the very lowest level of a hierarchy of needs. Candidly, if someone tells me they want to put a bunch of money in the hunger space, I would tell them you should do that. You don’t need me to do that; you should do that, and I’ll talk to you about it. I’ll point you in the right direction. I’ll tell you about organizations that are doing great work and that are poised to be able to take that money and use it. There are some organizations that are struggling with certain types of resources, human capital resources, for example, and they can’t adequately use a large donation. An organization that had a budget of $100,000 or $10,000 last year would not be able to spend $1 million in one calendar year if you just dropped it in their lap. They would probably spend six months with consultants on a strategic plan, which they should.
I can direct all those things. I can speak to those things. I can tell you what I would do with a big pot of money that needed to be given away. It could go to a lot of different organizations based upon who they serve and how it would be effective. It wouldn’t influence my decision to use a firm or not. It’s something I’m talking to everybody about. Sharon, when we turn off the recording, I’ll probably talk to you more about it later. I’m talking to everybody. With your corporate giving, you should fold in hunger because it’s such a basic need. Without it, you can’t really talk about these other types.
Sharon: Should a marketer or a decision-maker try to match you with other people who are Black?
Tyrone: It’s interesting because it’s not uncommon. The answer is no, but it’s not an uncommon question because you will interact with people. There’s a meme that goes around about President Barack Obama shaking people’s hands, and the handshakes are different based upon the cultural identity of the person he’s interacting with. He’s going down a receiving line and everybody’s getting a different handshake. I think sometimes what people see is there’s a very small number of African Americans in the legal field, and there’s a much smaller number of African Americans in the legal field in positions of power and leadership. Candidly, because there’s such a small percentage, a lot of folks know each other or know of each other. It’s not because the person is a statistic. We still see this, but we saw this 40, 50 years ago in terms of women in the workplace. The few people who were there made an effort to reach out to other women; they made an effort to reach out to other people of color and mentor them and ask, “How I can I help?”
Back when I was coming out of law school and I had no business to steer anyone’s way, and I had no particular connection with a lot of the folks I was reaching out to for informational interviews, a lot of folks didn’t respond. I’m not going to knock them for that. But there were people who were doing very well and were very important, who were general counsel and CEO and managing partners, who were African American. They made a point to reach out to me, a 24-year-old, and say, “How can I help?” I’m not going to mention who, but I was at dinner with someone who has had a very prominent position and career, an African American probably in his 70s, a couple of weeks ago. It was a broader dinner, but he was there. We were at a table. We were talking, and he was a leader for someone who had been a mentor to me. I found out he had mentored that person 20 years before that person was a mentor to me. So, there is this small universe of folks who are trying to provide help that they themselves maybe didn’t get.
There’s a high likelihood that if you put me in front of someone in the legal space, I might know them if they’re African American because there are so few. But if I didn’t, that wouldn’t influence me. When we’re talking about law firms, private legal providers, those of us who are interested in diversity and equity and inclusion—as I am—we’re beyond that surface-level engagement. It’s great if you have someone and they’re the right person to put in front of me. That is great because you are showing me something, but beyond that, who’s going to work on my matter? What are your broader numbers? Not just what are your numbers—I think, again, that’s surface level—but where are you going, where have you been?
If you’re a firm of a thousand people and you have 12 African Americans, we want you to acknowledge that’s not a good number. Two, I’d love to know where you were last year, the year before and the year before. Did you go from zero to 12? Did you bring in one group? Was it a slow burn? What’s your plan going forward? How do you want to integrate folks into the business? What’s your plan? There’s recruiting, but what about advancement and retention? Who do you have in the partnership? Who do you have as income versus equity party? Who do you have on management committees? Who do you have leading offices? All of those questions are fundamental to understand what the firm does.
I know firms that do a lot of great work in this space, but the people who do the work I need are all white men over 55. That’s fine because I know the firm itself is doing a bunch of work. The fact that the people in the room with me, who I’ve become great friends with, are not representative of the firm’s push for diversity isn’t an issue, because the firm can come with their receipts and say, “Here’s what I’m actually doing,” and it’s enough.
Sharon: I can’t say I’ve been in this situation. It’s been a long time, but it used to be that there was tokenism. I remember being in meetings where everybody was, like you said, over 50, except for maybe a woman.
Tyrone: And they didn’t get to participate in the meeting.
Sharon: Right. No reason to be there, just to show their face. Let me ask you: did your ethnicity influence your decision to leave private practice and go behind the desk?
Tyrone: A little. It wasn’t the only reason, but it influenced it a little bit. The work we do as lawyers is incredibly important work, but it is work that oftentimes is very difficult to blend with any creativity the lawyer has. As the managers of the guardrails, it’s not incentivized in our industry to take risk. We understand and we report on risk, but it’s always incentivized not to take risks. Let me be clear: there are tons of people who do take risks, including people who are taking their firms to the next level. But on the individual contributor level, it’s not incentivized.
When I saw friends, colleagues, folks who were in the commercial space, they seemed to be able to incorporate their creativity in what they were doing. They seemed to enjoy what they were doing. I think the essence of what they’re doing comes through more because they work for a longer period. Sometimes on a transaction, when I bring in outside counsel for project financing, it’s 90 days from start to finish. I may have someone on my team working on that same project for three years. They know that project. It’s 200 landowners on a wind farm in the middle of some beautiful county in Nebraska. We know everything about those landowners that they’re willing to let you know. We remember the stories they told us about who owned the land before them and who owned the land before that person, typically in their family, and what their grandchildren are going off to college to do. You know them. You know this person doesn’t like that person, so if we do a dinner to celebrate all the people who are part of the project, don’t sit them next to each other. All those things add a little vibrancy, and they keep away the monotony with the work you’re doing.
When I got into private practice in-house, I was chasing a little bit of that, “Let me find more entertainment in why we’re doing what we’re doing.” I found it in this space, and I never looked back. I’ve been incredibly excited. That’s not to say that’s something I don’t hear lawyers talking about in private practice, but it was something I saw less of in private practice. I saw so many people in the in-house world talking to me about the why. They really understand the business and the business concepts, which is also very attractive to me—and still is, being able to take the hat off sometimes. I joke about it. “I’m not here with the lawyer hat on. Nobody get freaked out. I’m just here.” I was on a call this morning, “I’m just here to listen. I’m not here with the lawyer hat on. I’m going to be on mute. Don’t mind me.” I’m doing that from a quasi-commercial standpoint as well, because my involvement in the matter is going to inform strategy. It’s not about legal risk. It’s going to inform executive strategy going forward. That flexibility is really interesting to me. It keeps my days interesting. It keeps me from wanting to hang it all up and go do something else.
Sharon: That was going to be my question. Does the excitement keep you attracted to the industry? There’s so much new stuff going on in energy today.
Tyrone: It does. The excitement keeps me attracted. Candidly, it’s also the people. When you’re working on financing commercial office buildings, for example, there are a lot of interesting individuals. There’s a lot of interesting information you learn about the building, its tenants, its neighborhood, its owner, its prior owner. But there’s nothing like the partnerships—which is really what they are—we do with rural communities around the world in this industry. For my company, primarily in the U.S., there’s nothing like those partnerships. There’s nothing like truly doing what transactional law is supposed to be, which is where you’re finding a space where both of us want something and we can get it, and no one walks away feeling like they’ve lost.
We have folks who own land, and that’s their primary asset in a lot of these rural communities. They join these rural communities in large part because this is where the needs are for additional generations. For wind and solar specifically, it’s where a lot of large, undeveloped land is—undeveloped in terms of buildings. Land exists where you can stitch together the type of footprint you need for project: five, 10, 12 thousand acres for a solar project; 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 80 thousand for a wind project. You’re not using all that land, but you need buffers and a variety of other things.
When you go into these areas, these are agrarian communities. These are folks who have a lot of land. It’s their principal asset for a lot of folks. It has been in their family for several generations. They want to lease or grant an easement. They do not want to sell because they’re thinking 30, 40 years down the road after that project has gone out of operation. That’s still their land. It’s going to stay in their families, and it can go to their kids or grandkids. They’re thinking in that space.
So, you come in. You understand this is their baby. This is a part of the family. It’s a part of their heritage, and they have areas of it that, for one reason or another, they allow you to use for a certain price because it makes sense to them. They can’t farm it, or they are farming it and they’re just making ends meet on this crop. This crop is a loss leader. Or in some areas it’s rocky and they can’t use it, or they just don’t have the resources or the inclination to put it to a certain use. They’d rather put it to a different use, and you come in and say, “Look, I’m going to build this thing. This is going to be good for your community in terms of energy and hopefully bring prices down. It’s going to be good for the world and for our future generations,” which is what a lot of folks there are thinking about. “It’s going to be value-creative to you, and you’re not going to have to do any of those other things you typically had to do to achieve that value.” They think, “I would pay people. I would prep the land. I would buy seed. I would put it in. I would use all the herbicides and the pesticides. I would then have to pull it out. If I had a bad crop and I lost it, I’ve got the insurance. I can just make the money and then go focus on something else.” When we do that, you see that the human element is front and center.
I have met so many landowners. I’ve heard so many interesting stories. I’ve eaten at people’s kitchen tables. I have really gotten a feel for the human element of what we do. Similarly, I’ve seen operating facilities where we hire people from the local community—obviously, because they can drive to work—who are working at those facilities. At Invenergy, many of the people they hire happen to be veterans who could transfer a lot of the skills they got in the military. It’s so interesting to see that ecosystem. It’s not just an address. It’s a part of a community. It’s a piece of an infrastructure that now exists in that community.
Sharon: Is it selling against somebody, or is it convincing them to go from the loss leader crop to letting you use the land? What are you trying to do, exactly?
Tyrone: Sometimes there’s what people call a land battle, which is when there are several different developers, maybe not all renewable, who are trying to get use of the same land. Sometimes you’ll see these narratives in the paper about people taking farmland out of production. You’re not really competing against the existing use. It’s the same way that people who put up cash-for-houses signs on the side of the road are not really competing against homeowners who want to stay in their home. But you take the call because you’re interested, the same way any of us do when a recruiter calls.
Texas is a perfect example, but you see it throughout the Midwest and the east and everywhere else. In Texas, it’s very obvious a lot of times. You’ll see landowners who have hunting ranges on their land. They’ve got oil and gas activity. When they’ve got solar, they’ve got natural energy via thermal. They might have some battery storage. They’ve got people farming. They’ve got people ranching. They’ve got a dairy operation. This is their asset. They’re making use out of this land. This is their right as the owners of that property, within reason, depending on zoning and laws: to make whatever use of it makes the most sense for them and future generations. That’s really what it is. This person is farming soybeans because soybeans made sense. If all of a sudden, Levi’s came in and said, “I want to put you in my rotation of cotton farmers,” that person would look at the numbers and say, “Oh, maybe this makes more sense. Maybe the soil could support it.”
That’s all we’re doing. We’re saying, “Look, we’re looking to take up a certain amount of land in this area. We want to talk to you about what that looks like.” There are some people who say, “I want to keep farming my carrots, but what I’ll let you do is run these underground cables along the edge of my property by the road to connect someone over here that wants panels.” That’s what participation can look like. Maybe you’re just a buffer between us and the road. You’re planting a crop which is a visual barrier to whatever’s happening with the actual industrial facility. You’re what they used to call in the industry a setback parcel. There’s nothing happening on your land, but you’re part of the project. You’re getting some amount of money for being part of the project and agreeing not to develop anything else in that area. It really is just a conversation with the landowners who would like to participate and at what level.
Then you start to zoom out and see the tableau. “O.K., we’ve got a lot of people that would like to participate at a level that allows us to place panels over here. There are people who don’t over here, so maybe we can place them over here. Maybe there’s a way we can run some cabling here because that’s all these people want to do.” It’s a continual negotiation and renegotiation with the community to ask what the community will tolerate. All of these people are neighboring landowners. They have to be, so you have the rights to get from where you’re generating it to where you’re interconnecting it and sending the energy into the grid.
Sharon: So, it’s not really selling as much as a negotiation. You must get calls from recruiters every day. Do you look at the diversity of the equation that comes into this before you even talk to anybody?
Tyrone: Where I would work myself?
Tyrone: I do, but—this going to sound odd, but I think of an organization where I sit, especially as I’ve gotten later into my career and I’ve been in more leadership experiences, and now being an executive of the company, I look at them differently than the organizations I’m hiring. Part of that is because I have some level of control over increasing diversity or the implementation of a diversity, equity, inclusion program.
When I’ve led teams, they have often been the most diverse teams in the company. I’ve had a hand in that, and it’s been very intentional. Not in terms of quota and picking individual people, but I’ve been very intentional in setting up the opportunities for that to occur from a recruiting perspective. It’s making sure we’re reaching out to a broad enough universe of people so you’re not just tapping existing networks of people, because a lot of these friend groups tend to be very homogenous, and you need to spread that out. I’ve successfully gotten very diverse candidate classes for particular positions. We’ve been able to go through the process to find the right person. That person is a white man sometimes; it’s a white woman sometimes; it’s an Asian woman; it’s an Asian man; it’s a Black man or Black woman. It’s a variety of different people, but I’ve been able to get to that point by implementing a lot of the tools I’ve picked up over the years listening to other people who spend all their time steeped in work around diversity, equity and inclusion.
It obviously doesn’t end there. We’ll get the person in, but if I’m part of the organization, especially if I’m an executive or in a leadership role, I can come in and take a little more ownership over turning that ship. It’s something I’m always going to be interested in. You’re never going to put together a committee on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at a place where I work and not have me on that board. Similarly, you’re not going to start a corporate giving or matching program and not have me in that room talking about hunger. For third parties, however, I have no control over what they do, so there I’m just looking for other people who are doing that work.
Sharon: What if you had a lawyer in private practice who really wanted your business or wanted to get into the company? If they say, “Hey, you wouldn’t believe the diversity and equity program we have here,” would that sway you compared to somebody else who might call and say, “Can I come talk to you?”
Tyrone: That could sway me, but in the sense that I’m going to want to do more vetting. We talked about this in a prior discussion. There is a mechanism for choosing counsel. As with everyone, there’s obviously an inherent bias. People we’re already using are going to be first in line for potential new scopes unless there’s a strategic reason not to. When you’re at small companies, there’s always that issue of we have too many eggs in one basket; we need to diversify our providers—this is consultants and attorneys as well—and we need to have two or three people, at a minimum, that do this type of work on our small bench. You don’t want to get more than that. It becomes unwieldy.
In that case, if I’m adding someone to the bench, I might strategically say, “I’ve got four more deals coming by. We’ve got someone we’ve been working with who’s been really good to us. I’m going to give that person at least two of those deals. For the other one, I’m going to try to find someone else and be proactive about diversification.” In that case, I might start looking. Who else does this type of work, does it well, has the right people, has the right bedside manner, doesn’t have conflicts? I’ve been doing this long enough. You know who the other side uses. You know who the banks use, so this person will be conflicted out of representing you directly. It could potentially be a direct conflict. In those circumstances, I have a list of folks who I know do good work around diversity, equity, inclusion at the firm, who do good, professional work, and who I happen to like as professionals.
They’re not all people of color, and I haven’t worked with them yet. I haven’t used them yet. For a long time now, I’ve had a list in my head of people who are—I don’t want to say next in line, but are on a list. “O.K., I’ve got one of these types of opportunities. I need to find someone who’s outside of the fold.” I made a call to someone who had shifted firms a couple of months ago for a potential opportunity that’s coming up. I did it well in advance. This was a person I had worked with in the past, a really great lawyer, a partner leading a group at a very, very large firm. I reached out to him. It turns out he’s leaving that firm for another big firm. I will use him in the next 12 months. I’m certain of that, probably a few times.
But I’ve got that list. It’s rolling around. People join that list, to your point, by reaching out and saying, “Hey, here’s what we’re doing that’s great. Let me talk to you about it. There might not be an opportunity today.” Those are the good reach-outs. “There might not be an opportunity today but let me get to know you. Let me talk a little bit about what we do. Let me tell you who else we’re working for and why we can be value-creative for your business.” For a lot of us, the last thing you want to do is absolutely need someone and not know where to go. So, there’s always a list rolling around of great firms and great lawyers at those firms. I say to myself, “I’m going to figure out a way to use this person or to make a referral to someone who needs to use them,” because they’re doing what I consider to be the right things.
I’m all over these in-house things where people are looking for a lawyer who does this or that. I’m part of the ACC. I’m part of the National Association of Corporate Directors. I’m part of the LCLD alumni because I was a fellow there. Then there are friends. People will always reach out and say, “Hey, I need this. Does anyone know a lawyer that does X in this geographic location?” When I do, because I know that person’s elevator pitch and they’ve been rolling around in my head, I’m like, “How can I help this person advance what they’re doing because I like what they’re doing?” I immediately will either use them myself, or I’ll reach out and respond. I’ve referred countless people. I’ve been in the room with GCs of Fortune 100 companies who were like, “Hey, can I ask you question?” I’ve made that referral and people have been happy with that.
I’ve similarly had people I don’t know in some organization I belong to send an email saying, “I need someone that does this type of work in Alabama and Mississippi.” There’s a firm down there called Butler Snow that does great work in energy and infrastructure and other things in Alabama and Mississippi. A perfect example. I had a question the other day, and I shot out a note about who would want to use this firm, who they should use, whom I’ve used and whom I like, and hopefully they reach out. That happens all the time.
Sharon: Are you often in the position where you might look in a directory, or do you not pay attention to them? Do you look at directories or badges or Super Lawyers?
Tyrone: I look at them every year. I look at Super Lawyers. I look at Chambers. I look at the Legal 100—is that it?
Sharon: Yes, I think that is one.
Tyrone: I look at other ones. I get all those magazines. I look at all of them because our profession is large. It’s small compared to certain other professions, but there are thousands and thousands of lawyers. People are shifting practice groups, and people who were previously not as visible for one reason or another later become visible. So, I’m always looking at those things because, again, the table stakes is that you know what you’re doing. You have the right expertise. You have the right bedside manner. You’ve got the right rates or ability to be flexible when it’s called for. Sometimes it’s not. Then are you the right person, are you doing the right things, do you fit with the ethos of the company? It’s not just me as the procurer of legal services. Do you fit with the ethos of the company? There are people I like personally and I think could do the work, but they, for example, have done certain work that politically I cannot align with our company given what we do. You just can’t do that.
I’m not using one of these firms, but during the 2020 election, there were certain firms that were front and center on some fairly spurious legal challenges. I knew of folks at other companies who were discussing whether or not to cut ties with some of those firms. A lot of stuff happened in Pennsylvania. I’m from Philadelphia. I have a lot of friends in Philadelphia, and I know people at firms; I know people at companies that are headquartered there—our current company is headquartered there—or were doing work there who were using some of those firms. That was definitely a discussion. I’m not going to say everybody did it. I didn’t follow up on it. I definitely know from news reports that a variety of folks did drop those firms. I know some people who left those firms. I can’t mention them in particular, but I know one person who reached out because they wanted to leave that firm. I was able to put them in touch with someone who was looking for someone, and they were able to make a transition. This is an extreme example, but those types of things do happen.
Those types of things happen across the vendor spectrum. Every once in a while, there are clients where there is a case conflict that just doesn’t make any sense. There are people in this world who spend a lot of money lobbying to get rid of renewables or kill projects or get rid of incentives at the state level. I’m not necessarily going to work with lawyers who spend all their time representing those folks. It’s an easy example. I had a lawyer once reach out to me about a conflict I didn’t know about. She presented the conflict, which she thought was a nothing burger. It turned out she literally represented the folks who killed another project my old company had done in that same jurisdiction, but she’s like, “The representation is over, so it shouldn’t be an issue.” Obviously, we didn’t use this partner or their firm, but those are the types of things that come up and will influence the hiring decision-making process.
Sharon: I’m curious. It’s an out-of-left-field question, but I was looking last night at the board of Doral—is it Doral Energy?
Sharon: I was intrigued because you mentioned you had just come from Israel, and I saw that it was a heavily Israeli and Jewish company. I just wondered if they wanted somebody in the States. Do you feel like you’re outside?
Tyrone: That’s a good question. As a Black man in America in the corporate space, I am almost never in a room where I’m a majority. That’s just a baseline. So, with this company, I never felt like I was outside; I never felt other. The story of Doral Renewables is we’re a U.S. company which started as a JV with an Israeli company of the same name that is now publicly traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. They do a bunch of work in the solar, hydrants and some other spaces in Israel and Europe. They really didn’t have a footprint in the United States. Our company started as a joint venture with our CEO, Nick Cohen, who is not Israeli, but who I worked with. He and I worked together at Invenergy years ago. He’s a serial entrepreneur, we’ll call it. He’s had several other companies in the energy space that were ultimately successful, and that was my siren song. Nick and I remained friends and stayed in contact, and ultimately it made sense for me to join this company.
It’s been a great partnership with the Doral Group in Israel. One of the other passive investors is Migdal Insurance, which is the largest insurance company in Israel. We have strong ties to the Israeli market. A number of board members are in Israel and are from these companies which are large investors and backers. We recently did a deal with Apollo, which you’ll see in the press release. There’s a board member from Apollo that’s now part of our board, which is very exciting. The early backers of the company were largely out of Israel, so that’s a strong representation you see on our board.
They’ve been amazing partners in what we do because especially at the Doral Group level, they do what we do. That understanding is critical because you can have conversations without the need for in-depth explanation. Everyone’s working with the same baseline information. We were actually in Israel to discuss business and to do some celebrations of the Apollo/Bank of America deal that was publicly announced. I went over to take part in that and to have some discussions. A lot of folks from Israel are here. Periodically we’re there just making sure we’re maintaining a relationship. Even though people are distributed all around the world, we’re maintaining some level of face-to-face contact fairly regularly.
Sharon: Do they ask you for referrals? If they might not know somebody in the Midwest, let’s say, and they need an energy lawyer, would they ask you for a referral?
Tyrone: Technically no because it’s part of my role. I’m going to find the person and put them in the slot. But if someone else, for whatever reason, was trying to find a lawyer separate and apart from my scope, they would come to me, whether the Midwest or otherwise. The benefit of what I’ve been doing over the last several years is I know a lot of lawyers doing what needs to be done in and around the renewable energy space and the traditional energy space. Some of it has nothing to do with energy. Some of it is in the private finance space; some of it is in the trade and controversy space dealing with importation. I know a lot of lawyers doing this work. I have sat through a lot of pitches. I have a done a lot of deals with folks.
Again, I have gone to the trade shows and gotten recommendations, met people, interacted with them, but over time, I’ve developed a good list of folks who I know do this work, notwithstanding conflicts and/or retirements, which have been hitting me lately and making me feel old. Some of my favorite people have retired with a clear successor, but notwithstanding retirements and conflicts, I could tell you who you should be using, who I would say is tier one, who I would say is tier two, and who I would avoid. I’ve worked with legal service providers who ultimately did not give good service or who broke certain rules, sometimes around soft conflicts, so I could give that information as well to someone who’s looking for it. “Here’s who I recommend. Here’s who I know nothing about. Here’s who I would not recommend,” without going into any detail, of course.
I’ve got a wealth of that information, so people will tap me for that, especially because what we do is often done in remote areas of each state. I can tell you where to find a lawyer in southern Mississippi just like I can tell you where to find a lawyer in northern Saskatchewan. I can tell you who they are, what public deals I know they have done, how to use them and how not to, and where their expertise ends so you probably need to bring in a different firm. Those are the things I’ve had to learn over the years, so I share that pretty freely.
Sharon: Do you mentor pretty freely? If I’m a new lawyer and I’m a person of color and I say, “Can I talk to you for 10 minutes or 15 minutes or a half-hour?”
Tyrone: I’m almost always going to say yes. These days, that scheduled time might be several weeks out, but I’m almost always going to say yes. I always try to take the coffee. I always try to take the phone call. I don’t oftentimes take the dinner or the drinks from people I don’t know, but part of that is because I’ve got three little boys. I live in the suburbs. I’m not often in the city. I have a home office that I work in, so I’m not going to disrupt my daily family routine very often, but coffees, phone calls or meetings like that, I do those all the time. I’m happy to do them. I love when people refer folks, largely because it’s something a lot of people don’t have time to do or won’t make the time to do.
I still remember doing an ungodly number of reach-outs to people, which is the advice we got from our career office in law school, and the number of people who actually responded that I didn’t know, that I didn’t have any connection to. Almost none of them were people who did not have some prior experience with being left out or not necessarily getting the attention evenly. So, I’ll try to do that until I can’t do it anymore. I’ll always take the phone call. I’ll chat with folks. I’ve mentored some people in a more formal way, either way through the ACC Diversity Mentorship Program here in Chicago or through other mentorship programs at work or an internship program or things like that. There are other people who have just been put in touch with me, and we’ve kept an informal cadence.
There’s one guy right now who is at a firm. He worked for the government. I was the mentor for him informally, I think, several years ago. Now he’s a midlevel associate at his firm. I was at an event and someone, the head of a group, said to me, “I’m having a hard time hiring lawyers in this practice area”—this person was a person of color—“I’m not finding anyone. I’m definitely not finding anyone of color,” and I said, “It’s funny you should say that. I was just looking on LinkedIn the other day and saw an update by this person.” I gave the details, and they were like, “We should talk. We should absolutely talk.” Actually, I have the card of the person I was talking to sitting on my desk. I’m going to reach out to the lawyer first just to see if he will be interested in starting that conversation, but they happen. Those of us who do that mentorship—and I know you know this—we remember. We remember all these people. That’s why the elevator pitch is so important because it’s so memorable. I can’t remember everything, but I remember that tiny, little piece that allows me to think of you when opportunities come up, and I can try to make connections as necessary.
Sharon: So, you find them also on LinkedIn. Besides that lucky meeting, it sounds like LinkedIn has been pretty significant in what you’ve done.
Tyrone: It’s good to see things like this. In this case, I saw this person had an updated work anniversary or something like that on LinkedIn, so they were top of mind. I think LinkedIn is great for that. It’s also great for people being able to get a snapshot of what you’re doing professionally. I can’t tell you the number of times I hear, “Do you know such and such?” and someone pulls up their phone and pulls up LinkedIn and they’re like, “I don’t think so,” and I’m like, “This person did this and this,” and they’re like, “Oh yes, I think I do.” They’re connected to you, or they’re connected to someone else who’s connected to you. You start to see that LinkedIn is very useful for the core function it was created for all those years ago. I find it still very useful in that space.
Sharon: Having a written a lot of this stuff and believing some of it and not believing others, it says you are a proven people person, or something like that; you’re a proven leader. Can you give us examples of what that might be?
Tyrone: Sure. We don’t have enough time to get into all the details, but you know I know that managing people, which is an obligation, is more administrative and is different from leading. Leadership in and of itself can be dotted-line leadership and straight-line leadership. Dotted-line leadership is what happens when there’s a roomful of arguable equals, and someone walks in and stands up and just starts talking and leading the discussion and everyone else. That person is leading in that space. I’ve led teams that are cross-functional teams. You’re working on a transaction and legal needs to tie it all together. You’re bringing all the elements to the table, but you’re there to tie it all together. You’re there to run it through the mill of risk and to engage with the other side. I’ve done that a lot through my career.
Then I’ve done more traditional, straight-line leadership as well, where I’ve led people. I’ve been in people leadership. I’ve had teams of one. At the largest it was 27 direct and indirect reports. In those contexts, I think about those people. I think through my own gaze, about where I’ve had good leaders and where I’ve had bad leaders. Largely the bad leaders center for me, because it’s a good rubric of what not to do. A lot of time, they’re bad in very acute ways, which is easy for you to identify and say, “Well, that thing should be on the no list.”
I pride myself on being able to build teams and deal with interpersonal issues with those teams. Anyone who has ever worked for me has had a meeting I forced them to sit in where they talk about their career; where I tell them I don’t care if you leave here, I care how you leave. I don’t care that you leave. My expectation is that your career, unless you are literally at the end of your career—not that you’re a certain age because you can work until you’re 90 if you want—is that your career is probably going to extend beyond the four walls of this organization. What I want to understand is where you want to go in your career because I want to help you figure out what you need to do to get to that next step, what other skills you can learn here. How can we marry that with the scope I need from you here, so we’re doing double duty and we’re not putting you in a position where you have to choose, where you have the tyranny of the “or” here. You’ll be able to “and.” Then whenever you’re ready, I tell people, “If you come here and you do a good job, I’ll be your reference. I’ll write your recommendation.”
I had someone the other day that used to work for me a few years ago reach out because he needed a recommendation for a new job he’s going to, after the job he left working with me to do. I was happy to give it. I called up the folks and gave what I thought was a glowing recommendation because it was deserved. That’s a part of it. I like that because it’s true, and it also disarms a little bit. It gets people to be a little open. I like to be frank with folks. We are not a family; we are coworkers. We can use the term family, but I don’t mistake my family for this. That doesn’t mean we can’t be jovial. It doesn’t mean we can’t be supportive of each other. It doesn’t mean we can’t all get along in a way that gets the work done very well and makes this a relatively enjoyable experience for people 75% of the time.
When I do that, I find you get openness from the people you’re leading, but you also get a willingness to follow. When you’re in a position where you need to lead, either because you decided to or because the organization decided, it’s critical to get people who are willing to follow. I think some of that comes from being human. I think some of that comes from explaining where they’re following you. I’m not blindfolding you and taking the kids to Disney. I’m telling you why I’m trying to do something, what I’m trying to do to get there. Even if you don’t think it’s the right thing, you know I’m earnest in what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to accomplish. So, you’re going to dig in and participate and help me get there.
That’s something I’ve done now for several years, and it’s something I didn’t come up with on my own. I learned from bad leaders as much as from great leaders. The LCLD Fellowship Program is an amazing program with a ton of resources on leadership. I read constantly on the subject. I’ve taken courses on my own dime on leadership, a master class and other things to try to home in on certain areas. I think it’s so important. It has such an outsized impact on people’s day, a large part of your day, and the energy you take home. It’s such a large part of your life in the working years.
Sharon: It definitely is. Tyrone, thank you very much. I really appreciate your time. I greatly appreciate it.
Tyrone: Thank you for having me.
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