Robert Johnson, Partner
Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer
Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer, P.A.
The Solomon Group LLC.
Pamela: Hi, my name is Pamela DeNeuve, and I’d like to welcome you to Lawyer of the Week
We’re very pleased this week to have our distinguished guest, Robert Johnson.
Let me tell you a little bit about Robert.
Robert is a social engineer, committed to using innovation to address community issues. He is also a “lawpreneur,” combining his insights from business and law to create original and profitable enterprises.
With over 25 years in global management, risk assessment, crisis management and dispute resolution, he utilizes his experience to address economic development issues in under-served communities worldwide.
Mr. Johnson is the Managing Partner of The Solomon Group, LLC; a Social Enterprise management-consulting firm that provides business management, individual, community and organizational transformation.
He provides business brokerage, merger and acquisition services, franchise consulting and franchise development through his firm, TransWorld Business Advisors of Chicago. Additionally, Robert is a partner and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Quintarios, Prieto, Wood & Boyer, P.A., the largest minority and woman-owned law firm in the country.
Previously, Mr. Johnson was the Franchise Relationship Officer and Ombudsman for McDonald’s Corporation’s Central Division. He was an advocate for the McDonald’s System providing leadership to strengthen the relationship between McDonald’s and its Owner/Operators.
He was also responsible for resolving conflicts between the Company and its Owner/Operators and represented the Black McDonald’s Owners/Operators.
Prior to assuming the role as Franchise Relationship Officer, Robert was responsible for the management of McDonald’s $55 Million a year Worker’s Compensation program for all of the domestic corporately owned restaurants. Mr. Johnson created the department in 2006 and implemented programs that saved the corporation over $60 million dollars.
Mr. Johnson is an expert in risk assessment and reduction. He led McDonald’s Tort Litigation Practice Group and provided advice and counsel to senior management relative to cost reduction strategies, crisis management, customer relationships, brand protection and media in the US, Europe, Australia, Latin America, Canada and Asia.
As a compliment to his legal and business experience, Mr. Johnson is skilled at addressing diversity and social responsibility issues.
Mr. Johnson was a member of the McDonald Diversity and Inclusion faculty and traveled the country to address diversity issues and to teach Black Career Development and Intercultural Learning and continues this work through The Solomon Group.
Mr. Johnson sits on the board of Legal Prep Academy and is Executive Director of the Minority In-House Counsel Association. He is a recipient of the 2009 Chicago United Business Leaders of Color Award, the 2008 Council on Legal Education Opportunity Legacy Diversity Award, the 2006 National Eagle Leadership Institute —
And it goes on. [laughs]
Pamela: Robert, so glad to have you here. Thank you for being our Lawyer of the Week.
Robert: Thank you. This is quite an honor. Thank you. I appreciate it Pamela.
Pamela: Well, we feel very honored to have you, and so happy to hear about all the wonderful work you’re doing about diversity, which is a really important issue now.But let’s start at the beginning of our Lawyer of the Week questions.What made you decide to become a lawyer?
Robert: The reason that I chose to become a lawyer had a lot to do with my background and my upbringing in a little small town called Ford Heights, which is right outside of Chicago. As you and I were speaking about earlier, it was at the time, and probably still is, listed as one of the poorest suburbs in the nation.
I saw a lot of things that I thought were unfair, and I saw a lot of disparity, and I always believed that lawyers could make change and that they could bring about positive changes in society, and that was really the impetus for me wanting to become a lawyer — is that I wanted to be able to help people.
So that was really where the idea started, and that’s really my view of what lawyers should be.
If I could quote Charles Hamilton Houston, he talked about — “as a lawyer, you are either a social engineer or a social parasite.”
So I chose the former rather than the latter and wanted to really try to do all that I could to change those things that I thought needed to be improved upon.
Pamela: That’s just really wonderful to hear, Robert. And just could you walk me through a little bit. I know the area because I grew up in a neighboring community.
Being in this community, what are the things that you had to do to rise up to become a lawyer so that you could make the difference in the world that you’re making? What are some of the things you had to overcome or do?
Robert: Well, unfortunately, as I said, Ford Heights, although it’s only about 30 miles away from probably one of the richest neighborhoods in America, the Gold Coast of Chicago, it is truly The Tale of Two Cities. I think poverty and drugs and crime were quite prevalent in that community.
But I must honestly say two of the things actually that helped me rise out of that community.
First was family, and then my friends. I had an amazing group of friends. There are about five of us that came out of that community that we’re still tight and very close to this day. We talk about those times, and, actually, that’s where the term “Lawpreneur” came from.
The five of us started our first business, probably, when we were eleven or twelve years old, teenagers. I’ll never forget, there was this late-night infomercial by Carlton Sheets, one of those no-money-down real estate programs. And you buy these tapes and they’ll teach you how to buy real estate without any money. And the five of us scraped up $300 to buy these tapes, and we got them in the mail and listened to them, and quickly realized that you do need money down to buy real estate.
Robert: But that really was, I think, the beginning, that we all wanted to do better. And we supported each other. And we protected each other. So we were able to navigate through some of the things that unfortunately started as traps for others and prevented them from being successful.
I don’t think that we were any smarter or our parents loved us more than anyone else’s parents in that community. But we had each other for our support. And we were fortunate and we were able to zig with some others zagged, unfortunately. And we were able to navigate through the community.
Pamela: Wow. You know what comes to my mind is you formed your own mastermind group.
Robert: That’s a great way of saying it. Yes. We still support each other in that same way. They say iron sharpens iron.
Robert: We were able to really push each other in a friendly but still competitive way and brought out the best in each other.
Pamela: That’s wonderful. Well, what will you say are your biggest wins and your biggest challenges?
Robert: I think the biggest win for me, from a professional standpoint, was during my stint at McDonald’s. Being able to — First of all, there aren’t many African Americans that work for a Fortune 500 company, particularly as a lawyer.
So to be a corporate lawyer there for 14 years — First of all, to have them as a client and then get asked by the company to come and join the law department, and then to be able to have some success there and to also do something most lawyers aren’t given the opportunity to do, to be an entrepreneur within the legal department and creative department that ultimately saved the company as you alluded to earlier, over 60 million dollars and become a profit center and then be able to take that and go over to the business side and have success on that side.
I think from a sheer just being able to check off the boxes of things that I wanted to do — that probably on paper is the greatest thing that I have been able to accomplish. But it’s not the thing I’m the most proud of, ironically. I’m actually proud of what I’m doing now, which is I created an economic model called The Social Determinants of Wealth, which is taking all of the things I learned at McDonald’s around franchising, particularly when I worked as the company liaison to the black McDonald’s Owner/Operators.
I saw that franchising has created more minority millionaires, and McDonald’s has created more minority millionaires than any other company in the world, and created an economic model that I’m implementing here in Chicago to try to address the wealth disparity that exists in under-served communities, by creating entrepreneurs through franchising and developing the businesses that exist in those communities, and the franchises to provide economic opportunity for those who came from conditions similar to my own.
Pamela: Wow, those are amazing, amazing accomplishments, and the fact that this isn’t your accomplishment, it’s like your accomplishment that you are helping others to break through the glass ceilings or to move past their barriers and giving the knowledge that they otherwise would not have had the opportunity to learn. That’s really great.
Robert: I think particularly now, given the climate that we have in this country where there is so much division, and so much malice, and such adversarial politics and dialogue and attitudes, I think that being able to try to provide solutions that are non-partisan and that are really focused on the needs of the people, because there is a gap. There’s a growing gap between the “have and have-nots.”
It’s not really a gap, it’s a chasm. And there are many folks that are being left behind, and in many respects, through no fault of their own, looking for opportunity.
I think that if, again, as a lawyer, someone who’s been privileged to learn about a lot of programs, processes, and options that others may not have learned or had access to — to be able to share that knowledge, I think is a responsibility that we all have. And I’m just trying to do my part to contribute to that knowledge base that helps other folks be successful.
Pamela: That’s wonderful. No what would you say are your biggest challenges as you try to proceed forward with those goals?
Robert: The biggest challenge I think is, unfortunately — and this is par for the course for lawyers but it’s par for the course for society as well — and that’s the status quo.
A lot of folks… As lawyers, we talk precedent, which is really just upholding the status quo, making small incremental changes on something that was done previously. And unfortunately our society works in that way to a large extent as well in that it is not flexible and is not really geared towards trying to make massive change in a short amount of time.
And that’s why the term “disruption” is such an appropriate term for what I think needs to happen in our society. It’s happening in some industries, but it really needs to happen in a lot of other places and particularly in these under-served communities — What is the disruptive model that we can use to change the trajectory of the lives and the situations of folks who have been left behind?
We’ve seen it in a couple of industries where like Uber and Airbnb, where industries are upended in a matter of years. What if we could do the same thing as it relates to poverty? As it relates to literacy, as it relates to the lack of access to health care, or food insecurity, or homelessness? Where are the folks that are using those same type of disruptive tactics to address societal issues?
So that’s the challenge that I want to dedicate the latter half of my life to, is to try to be a disrupter in those things that truly need to be disrupted.
We may not have needed ride share; we may not have needed AirBnB — who knows. The world may not have necessarily been less better off if those industries hadn’t been disrupted. But I truly believe the world will be better off if we could disrupt homelessness, if we could disrupt poverty, if we could disrupt illiteracy, if we can disrupt food insecurity, in a world that’s rich as ours, there’s over 8 million children that die because of food insecurity. That’s something like 16,000 kids a day.
There are things that, if we have our collective will, and we have the right people who are looking to innovate around these things, I think we can make a difference. And we can save lives, and we can really be each other’s keeper, which I think is what we’re called upon. What I try to advocate is that we all are stewards of humanity. We all are entrusted with each other, and have a responsibility to each other. But unfortunately
that is the challenge, is that we have become so myopic in our views and so focused on our own needs and our own wants that we’ve forgotten our responsibility to each other.
Pamela: Right. So really, truthfully, you’re talking about interrupting a way of thinking, that people are deeply asleep going about their normal way of living.
Robert: Absolutely. I’m not advocating socialism or anything in any regard, but I think there is a way to do good,
and do well by doing good. And if we look at the problem from that perspective and motivate people to do well by doing good, it could disrupt some of these issues that we have persistently faced over the decades.
Pamela: So now, tell me why is diversity… I think you’ve answered a little bit of it, but why is diversity in the legal profession very important to you?
Robert: That’s a passion of mine, because as I said, I became a lawyer because of the inequities that I saw that exist and I think justice is not blind. It is reflective of the folks that are making the laws, that are enforcing the laws, that are writing the laws, that are arguing on behalf of those who are impacted by laws.
So diversity is important because it makes for better decisions; it makes for better outcomes. It is something that I think is necessary in our profession. We are the least diverse of the professions. We lack doctors, people in finance, you name it; lawyers are the least diverse, and have the greatest impact on everyone’s life. Obviously, doctors play a role, but you don’t get sick every day. Laws touch you from the moment you’re born to the day that you die, and every moment in between.
Our ability to shape those laws and to impact the fabric of our society is unique as it relates to other professions. So, unfortunately, the lack of diversity creates outcomes that I think are less than desirable, and don’t create the best outcomes. So it is my goal to try to increase diversity within our profession, and even for as long as I’m here, I will advocate for the inclusion of different perspectives, different peoples, and different ideas that can make this world a better place.
Pamela: Our next question, Robert, is — what legacy do you want to leave in your law practice?
Robert: The legacy that I would love to leave in my law practice is the creation of a new generation of lawyers that are focused on social justice.
We had the Civil Rights Movement, which had its successes. I think the next area of focus — not to picket away from civil rights — but to also include social justice and social entrepreneurship, creating a cadre of lawyers who are focused on, as I said earlier, doing well by doing good. That they make a living and they seek to make a living.
And I think that’s very consistent with the way millennials approach ideas about what needs to happen in our society. They’re very focused on trying to make a positive contribution. And I think that if I could have any role in creating greater avenues for them to be able to get engaged civilly and socially, from an entrepreneurial standpoint, to again address some of these societal ills that are unnecessary and have long lived past their prime to address and come up with innovative solutions to tackle those problems that would be the greatest legacy that I think I could possibly leave. If I could create folks that have that fire and that desire to disrupt those areas in our society that need to be disrupted.
Pamela: Yes and I’d have to say you’ve already done a lot just by your existence and just by your coming up — I want to say, coming up from the ashes and creating what you’ve created through McDonald’s and through your law firm and through your own firm. You’ve already created something great and I know you’re only going to continue to do so.
Robert: Yes, we started this program or should say this movement here in Chicago that we call “Unleash and Launch.” We launched it back in May, sorry March, where our goal was through using the social determinants of wealth model to unleash the talents and passions and dreams of a 1,000 black entrepreneurs and launch a 1,000 black businesse over the next five years.
Robert: Well that’s the other legacy or the manifestation of that legacy is that we’re trying to unleash the talents of 1,000 black social entrepreneurs and launch 1,000 black social enterprises that can address some of these issues.
Pamela: Wow, that’s really amazing. That’s really ambitious.
Can you name one thing that you like to do to manage your stress levels with all that you’re doing?
Robert: Absolutely. I have become a student of meditation lately. Actually, there’s a book by Russell Simmons, who many know is really heavily into meditation and yoga, and I read his book “Meditation Made Simple” and downloaded it the app and every day I start my day with at least ten minutes of mindfulness. I think it truly has helped.
And it’s something that I encourage, and I’ve actually tried to encourage other friends, and my son in particular, to practice it as well, because I definitely think it has a ton of benefits, both physical, mental and spiritual. These three — physical, mental and spiritual. So that and exercising on a regular basis, trying to hit the gym.
Then traveling when I can, not just for work, but to sit in front of a body of water if at all, and let the sun — I’m a worshiper of the sun, so if I can incorporate those three things on a fairly regular basis then that’s what keeps me sane.
Well, Robert, thank you so much for being our Lawyer of the Week. You’re very inspirational to all of us. Keep up the good work.
To our audience out there. We appreciate your joining us, and we’ll see you again next week.
Robert: Thank you.
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