What It Takes

Karl Racine's legal moves

By Avis Thomas-Lester

Karl Racine's rise to managing partner at one of Washington's most prestigious law firms started with his family's decision to flee Haiti and the regime of Fran├žois "Papa Doc" Duvalier when he was 3. It included stints as a star basketball player at the University of Pennsylvania, as a D.C. public defender, as a partner at the boutique Washington law firm of Cacheris & Treanor, and as a deputy White House counsel during President Clinton's impeachment. Four years ago, Racine, now 47, became the managing partner of Venable LLP, making him one of the only blacks in the country to hold that position at a top law firm. At Venable, he oversees 1,200 employees and helps manage the law firm's relationship with Marriott, General Dynamics, Merck Pharmaceuticals and other big clients.

Why he's successful: "At every stage of my life, I have been surrounded by very talented and selfless people who have always provided me with challenging experiences," including his mother, Marie, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia, and his late father, Etzer, the mayor of the Haitian town of Croix-des-Bouquets before the family moved to the District. "I grew up playing sports and I always tried to be the person that others on the team could depend on, a good teammate." At Penn, he led his basketball team to an Ivy League championship in 1985. "I'm very competitive, so I'm driven to want to be part of a team that is focused on winning. That has meant discipline, preparation, hard work and hopefully, a sense of humor."

What obstacles he's had to overcome: "I have always had this fear of failure. I have wondered if I'm as talented as others against whom I was competing. I think that was where the angels came in. At every turn, there was someone...who encouraged me." At St. John's College High School in the District, where he transferred after attending Wilson Senior High School, "I was nervous if I could do the work others were doing. I had an English teacher, Mr. Dent, who read a book report that I submitted. He asked me to stay after school and told me it was an extraordinary report. That gave me confidence that I could handle the work, that I was as talented an anyone else."

First job: At 10, he delivered newspapers. "As a teenager, my sister got me my first real job working at Booeymonger, near Mazza Gallerie. It was a deli. I ... was a busboy, then a stock boy, then I was a slicer, until I sliced my finger. That is when I got out of the food services business."

Most fun job: "After graduating from college, I played in a pro league called the United States Basketball League and made enough money to pay for my first year of law school" at the University of Virginia. "I played for the Wildwood [N.J.] Aces," mixing it up against opponents that included Manute Bol and Spud Webb. "Our team would lose to their teams."

Toughest job: Serving as a deputy White House counsel from 1997 to 2000. "I was primarily responsible for working with the team of lawyers who coordinated the White House responses to any number of investigations, including Congressional investigations, independent counsel investigations and other inquires." Though he recused himself from parts of the impeachment proceedings because his former law partner, Plato Cacheris, was serving as Monica Lewinsky's attorney, "the initiation of investigation after investigation, regardless of how baseless the nature of the allegations, was tiring. After that experience...I decided that I needed to take a break from the practice of law." He spent nine months traveling in Europe and South Africa before becoming a partner at Venable in 2002.

Smartest move: "Accepting the offer from Jim Shea to become the managing partner at Venable. It has afforded me the opportunity to learn amazing things. I have always been the captain of my teams and doing this has taught me more about leadership than anything I ever did before. Leadership is all about focusing on people other than yourself and in this job you have to do that. The smartest thing I ever did was to be willing to take on positions of leadership."

Toughest moment at Venable: When the firm laid off 64 employees, including 16 lawyers, five paralegals and 45 support staff, last March. "That was one of the most difficult professional periods I've encountered because the firm's culture was such that layoffs were to be avoided at all costs ... It was a difficult experience because in addition to the lawyers, we laid off support staff. I know for a fact that some of the support staff were the primary earners for their families and that weighed on me heavily."

Biggest regret: "I often think about what the best use of my time is, and I wonder whether pursuing commercial interests is a good use of my time. I look up to people who have sacrificed for others and being in a private law firm doing well and all that wouldn't fit my definition of sacrifice ... My family is fundamentally about helping people, from my mother who is an educator to two of my uncles who are priests ... I do question the notion of being focused primarily on commercialism, instead of doing good works for people."

Source of inspiration: "I'm inspired by the numerous people who devote their lives and spend their time seeking to improve the lives of others. One of my friends always says he tries to give better than he gets. That's what I'd like to do, to give more than I get, and I get a lot."

What lies ahead: "As long as I'm practicing law at Venable, I want to continue to work with the lawyers here to grow this firm. When it comes time to leave the practice, I want to focus my energies on how I might best be of assistance in the rebuilding of Haiti ... I am still very much in touch with my relatives and friends in Haiti. I was there only two weeks before the earthquake." Employees at Venable donated $75,000 to earthquake relief and the firm's foundation matched $50,000.

Advice to the aspiring: "Surround yourself with talented and selfless people."


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  February 17, 2010; 10:30 AM ET  |  Category:  success stories Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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