Listening to his heart

Posted: 4/29/2010

From Chicago Lawyer
By Ina Silvergleid

Unlike most attorneys who choose to leave the law, Joel Africk's decision to walk away from a successful 20-year career as a litigator - most of it with Jenner & Block - was neither driven by boredom nor burnout.

For his part, Africk is quick to dispel such notions: "I didn't leave the practice of law because I was disillusioned or disenchanted. I considered myself to be a happy lawyer." Rather, he explained, "I felt that I wanted to be doing something in pursuit of a mission."

The decision by Africk, 54, to become president and CEO of the Respiratory Health Association of Greater Metropolitan Chicago (formerly known as the American Lung Association) in 2002, was galvanized by two funerals and the sage words of a law professor. But that's getting a little ahead of the story.

Like many in his generation, Africk, who is the oldest of three children, was first drawn to the practice of law by watching "Perry Mason." He admits, however, that being a lawyer was not his first career choice.

Africk first considered a career in finance, due to an early fascination with the stock market. But that was before he lost all his bar mitzvah money in the stock market.

"We invested my bar mitzvah money in Occidental Petroleum, which I think was the only petroleum company that lost money in the late '60s and early '70s," he said. After that, the 13-year-old decided that he'd rather "pick a profession where I had more control over my ultimate success than I might in the financial services world."

Though Africk does not credit his parents for his career path, his father's willingness to try out different things may have given him the courage and the vision to leave a successful career for something uncertain and less lucrative.

"Dad was always of the view that you should make sure what you were doing was what you wanted to be doing, that you enjoyed it," he said.

His father published a local newspaper in Elk Grove Village, where the family first lived, but "spent most of his active years in sales of one type or another."

For several years, his father had a take-out fried chicken restaurant in Niles called Crispy Crust, where Africk worked part time as a teenager, delivering chicken in a beige Ford Pinto.

Africk said his father was always looking for a "business opportunity that could continue to support his family."

There was, however, one constant: "My dad was always home at 5 o'clock." Even now, whenever Africk calls his father around 5, his father asks him if he's at home, which now includes three children, Jared, 18, Megan, 16, and Sarah, 12, and his wife, Julie, also an attorney.

As a freshman at Niles North High School, in Skokie, Africk joined the debate team and spent his weekends participating in debate tournaments.

Being on the debate team, he said, was "my life in high school."

Why the debate team? "I think it was my disposition," he said. "I enjoyed it. I don't know if it was the same gene that drew me to debate ultimately drew me to litigation, but it was good and I could do it."

Africk went on to attend and graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Although he had no particular interest in becoming an accountant, he took enough undergraduate accounting courses to sit for and pass the CPA exam before entering law school.

Litigating at Jenner

In 1978, Africk entered Harvard Law School. Following graduation, he returned to Chicago, where he clerked for federal district court Judge Bernard Decker. After his yearlong clerkship, Africk worked briefly for Bell, Boyd & Lloyd before joining Jenner in 1984, where he would remain for the next 17 years.

For all intents and purposes, working at Jenner was a good fit for Africk. Five years after joining the firm, he made partner. He tried about one case a year and was the firm's resident expert on damages.

He was the "hired gun" they called to cross-examine an opposing party's expert damages witness.

Barry Levenstam, a former Jenner colleague and current RHA board member, was an assignment partner when Africk arrived at the firm.

Levenstam recalled that Africk was always "looking for something exciting to do, something that involved getting into court, getting on his feet, because he was kind of an action guy."

Of his tenure at Jenner, Africk has only fond memories. "It was great," he said. "I feel lucky. I've had a neat and fun career. Things have happened that I never would have thought would happen."

Some of the highlights he recounted included: representing the Kennedy family in a real estate contract dispute ("You realize that you're talking to someone out of history" - referring to the time he prepared Sargent Shriver for his deposition), representing Mr. T, and being the first lawyer to use a new state evidentiary rule, which enabled him to present DNA evidence to show that his pro bono client could not have committed the crime for which he was serving time.

In 1989, shortly after making partner, a friend of Africk's asked him if he would be interested in joining the board of directors of the RHA, then known as the American Lung Association (ALA). His friend had recently become involved in the organization and knew how strongly Africk felt about cigarette smoking.

From an early age, he disliked cigarette smoking. His father's cigarette habit - he smoked unfiltered Pall Malls - was a constant source of conflict between father and son, especially when they took family driving trips. Africk used to test his father's patience by rolling down his car window to avoid inhaling the smoke.

Africk accepted his friend's invitation to join the board. He would go on to serve on the board for more than 10 years before taking over. Under Africk's leadership, in 2007, the association severed its ties with the national ALA, hence its current name.

Tale of two eulogies

In January 1998, while still with Jenner, Africk and his wife celebrated the birth of their third child. A week later, he learned that an acquaintance had died from lung cancer at 38.

Her funeral, and that of a longtime ALA employee a month later, would lay the groundwork for Africk's eventual decision to leave the practice of law.

He vividly recalls how the young woman, who worked for a consulting firm, was remembered: "She was eulogized as being the Employee of the Month - beloved by customers, vendors, peers, superiors, blah, blah, blah, thanks for coming to the funeral. Bye-bye." That the woman was remembered for only job-related achievements was "very chilling" to Africk.

A month later, he attended the funeral of a retired senior-level ALA employee, a man in his 60s, who, Africk recalled, "always had time for a joke." In sharp contrast to the first funeral, Africk recalled how the former employee was eulogized.

"I sat in a church in Rogers Park and listened to stories about how he had tried to make life better for others," he said. After the second funeral, Africk called his wife and told her that he thought he might be interested in applying for the association's top position whenever the current president/CEO decided to step down. At the time, Africk was 42.

While he acknowledges that "you don't live your life for how you want to be eulogized, but hearing one's life summed up can certainly provoke some thought on your part."

Looking back, he firmly believes that "it was the juxtaposition of those two eulogies" that led him to his current position.

Decision to leave

Three years later, Africk got his chance to apply for the job when his predecessor announced his departure. Despite having thought about pursuing the position earlier, he initially wavered. He deliberated for more than a month before applying.

There were several factors Africk had to consider. Uppermost in his mind: Would leaving the firm jeopardize his family's financial security? Could he afford to send his three kids to college? What kind of work-life balance would he have? (He had struggled with this issue at Jenner.) Finally, would the position challenge him enough?

"I had practiced law for 20 years, and I found the practice to be interesting, engaging. I wanted to make sure that this new career would be just as interesting and engaging to me as the one I was considering leaving," he said.

During his deliberations, Africk said he was buoyed by a lecture once given by a law professor about career choices. He said his professor's words came to mind the day he learned the job was available.

"The thesis of the lecture was that we were going to have an opportunity, as graduates of Harvard Law School, to enjoy great riches, more money maybe than our parents ever made," Africk recalled.

But, the professor continued: "If a day came when our hearts or heads told us to do something else, that we [should] not be so comfortable in our lifestyle that we [would] be afraid to listen to our hearts and heads out of fear."

At one point during his deliberations, Africk met with Cheryl Heisler, who for more than 20 years has counseled attorneys considering a career change. Heisler likes to recount Africk's dueling eulogy story to her clients. "It drives home why people sometimes have to do something else [with their lives]. There's something larger out there."

In the end, he credits his professor's words with helping him make up his mind. And he made the difficult decision with his wife's support. "She recognized the importance of life balance as part of a professional's life," he said.

Africk took a pay cut equal to two-thirds his income with the firm.

That he was able to walk away from a career that by his own account was both fulfilling and challenging, with no regrets, might come as a surprise to some his former colleagues.

Senior partner and chairman emeritus Jerold S. Solovy worked on many big cases with Africk, who was a member of Solovy's trial team. Solovy tried to persuade Africk to remain at the firm by telling him that he would miss practicing law. In the end, Solovy relented and sent him off with his blessings. To this day, Solovy believes that Africk misses his former calling.

Although Africk walked away from his legal career, he said he continues to use the skills he developed as an attorney. He said that he once described it to someone this way: "Take every skill I learned as a trial lawyer, put it in a bag, shake it up and spill it out. It's the same skills but it's a different forum."

The value of going smoke-free

He gave the example of how, during the heated public debate over the smoke-free Chicago ordinance, his ability to harness a sundry list of facts and statistics enabled him to anticipate and successfully rebut the sometimes-disingenuous arguments made by the restaurant and alcoholic beverage associations about what was going to happen if the legislation passed.

Also during the campaign, Africk came up with a strategy to convey the value of going smoke-free. The strategy line he came up with: that the law would "save more lives than seat belts."

This comparison, according to Africk, had never been made before. For Africk, the strategy harkened back to his trial days when he looked for ways to get a jury to understand why someone's behavior was reasonable or adhered to a proper standard of care.

"I'm sure that my work in that campaign was more fully informed by the time I spent in court, whether in front of judges or juries, trying to connect with decision makers, using my skills as an advocate," he said.

Ed Smith, the 28th Ward alderman who sponsored the smoke-free Chicago ordinance, credits Africk and his organization (along with the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society) for securing approval of the ordinance. Smith believes that it would have taken him longer to secure the necessary votes to adopt the ordinance had he not had Africk's assistance.

"I tell you this," he said, "If I get on another project of this magnitude, I want Joel there."

In the short time he's served as president/ CEO, the association has grown, both in terms of its size and scope, thus enabling the RHA to expand its outreach efforts both locally and nationally.

Africk has accomplished this in part by increasing the association's local fundraising efforts.

According to board member Levenstam, Africk has significantly expanded the RHA's most popular fundraising event, "Hustle Up the Hancock." Last year, he added a new fundraising event, "Skyline Plunge!" which entails rappelling off the side of the Wit Hotel. Half-jokingly, Levenstam suggested they call the event "Hurtle off the Hancock" but Africk, known for having his own sense of humor, was "disinclined" to do so.

Taking on big projects

One of the first people Africk hired after taking over the association was Kara Kennedy. She was hired to be his development director.

Kennedy, now the executive director of Luminty, a Chicago-based nonprofit, described what it was like to work for Africk: "The status quo was not acceptable. He raised goals in each of the areas in order to be more relevant and to have a greater impact." Asked what she learned from Africk: "One of the biggest lessons that I learned is that if you don't take any risks you won't know what the possibilities are."

Dr. Bob Cohen, chairman of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Cook County Hospital, joined the RHA's board several years ago. He credits much of the association's recent success to Africk's leadership skills. "He's a good negotiator. He's got big vision. He takes on things that other people wouldn't think of tackling," Cohen said, referring to Africk's willingness to take on big projects and pursue large grants for lung cancer research.

During his tenure, Africk has overseen the development of several new health initiatives. One program he is particularly proud of is the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) initiative, launched in 2003. Previously, there were few resources (educational, social) available to people suffering from COPD, which includes such conditions as chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

The RHA hosts several annual events for the local COPD patient community. The big social event, attended by as many as 550 people, is a summer cruise event held on Lake Michigan. Aside from renting two boats, RHA arranges for oxygen tanks and medical personnel to be on board.

Africk says that he is reminded of the importance of this initiative to those with COPD when he sees the look on the "faces of people we touch how much this [the cruise] means to them."

As Africk sits in his modest office - the RHA owns a one-story building about a mile west of Greek Town - surrounded by a jumble of no smoking signs and assorted family photos of summers past, it is easy to forget that he once inhabited a spacious office on the 44th floor of the IBM building, overlooking Lake Michigan.

It has been years since Africk's felt the "adrenaline rush" he'd get when cross-examining an expert witness.

Those heady days have been replaced with other gratifying moments: He was present when the Chicago City Council voted 47-1 for adoption of the smoke-free ordinance and, then later, when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the state's smoke-free law (Africk has the pen to prove it).

Last summer, Africk looked on as President Obama signed into law the Tobacco Control Act during a Rose Garden ceremony. Africk, who got to know the president when he was a state senator, was close enough to exchange a few words with him. When the president turned to see Africk, he remarked to anyone within earshot that he had done his first deposition opposite Africk, an event he remembered well.

According to the president, Africk "sliced me up."

Asked again if he had any regrets about leaving the law, Africk mused: "Each profession has had moments of tremendous satisfaction for which I feel really lucky. So I can't say that I have any major regrets. We'll see when the college bills start coming in."

This fall, his son will be a freshman at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Original here.