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And The Winner Is ...

Move over, Meryl—Doneene Keemer Damon’s awards case is looking pretty good

Published in 2018 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine

In 1999, when Doneene Keemer Damon made partner at Richards Layton & Finger in Wilmington, Delaware, one particular back-slapping comment, repeated several times, confused her: “Congratulations on being the first!” 

    “I was going to myself, ‘The first? What is that supposed to mean?’” she remembers. It took a colleague to tell Damon that she was the first African-American lawyer to make partner at a major Delaware law firm. “It was a shock, in a good way, but it was also a disappointment,” say Damon, the firm’s executive vice president and vice chair of the corporate trust and agency services group. “I thought, ‘It’s 1999! How can that be?’”

Her latest accolade is the 2015 Jean Allard Glas Cutter Award, an ABA honor that goes to an exceptional woman business lawyer who has made significant contributions to the profession and the association’s business law section. This one, too, was a surprise. 

“You don’t know that you’re the one receiving it,” Damon says. “We were all sitting at the ABA’s spring luncheon, which is where it’s traditionally awarded, and I’m listening to the chairman of the business law section read about the individual named. I’m nodding along, getting ready to clap, and I’m like, ‘Wait. What? No!’ The more I listened, I realized he was talking about me.”

She says that this award stands out to her because of its scope. “It’s so meaningful to me because this is my work being recognized on a national level,” she says. “It’s the reach one’s work has had well beyond their community, and it honors women who have broken through barriers.”

The award, which sits among myriad others—like the National Diversity Council Leadership Excellence in the Law Award, the National Association of Professional Women’s VIP Women of the Year Award, the YWCA Trailblazer Awards—reminds her of the work to be done.

“That 1999 honor stoked in me a fire that solidified my desire to be a mentor to as many minority lawyers as I could,” she says. “Diversity is very important to us here. When we talk about diversity, we talk about it in the broadest sense of the word: gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic and LGBT. 

She counts the Thurgood Marshall Award, presented annually to a Delaware lawyer who has been a “dynamic and progressive leader,” as another honor that resonates. “I mean, to have your name be mentioned in the same breath as Thurgood Marshall’s … just thinking about the things he accomplished, what he stood for and the work that he did, it’s really incredible,” she says.   

Next summer, Damon adds another first: the first woman managing partner in firm history. 

“I think it’s going to be a challenge, but one of the things we’re most passionate about here is the actual practice of law, which is why the managing partner will serve for only three years,” she says. “The world around us is changing. The practice of law today compared to how I practiced when I started gives me an interest in drilling down in the changes in tech and what it’s going to mean for our firm: How will we serve our clients? I’m also very excited to focus on hiring: How do we get the best and brightest lawyers from across the country to Delaware, and how do we keep them here?”

The only challenge she foresees potentially coming down the pike as a disrupter: “Blockchain,” she says with a laugh. “Blockchain, blockchain, blockchain. I’ve never been a tech-focused person, but I hope to take somewhat of a leadership position in that space.”

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