How Dondi West Was Won
The Baltimore lawyer keeps his eyes on the frontiers of technology while helping fellow service members
Published in 2015 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine on December 12, 2014
When Dondi West hung a shingle on East Lombard Street in downtown Baltimore in December 2010, he worked a general practice while building his tech niche—which is what he’d set his sights on from the get-go. Having left the Navy in 2007, his social network was predominantly made up of service members, and a few came to him for help with family law matters and divorce cases. A light bulb went on over his head.
“I asked myself, ‘What can I provide to my clients?’” he says. “It’s the military experience. Knowing what military earnings statements look like; knowing the rules behind military retirements and how pensions are divided in divorce.”
That knowledge has paid off. In a recent case, West represented a soldier who suffers from PTSD after serving two tours in Iraq. The man hadn’t been allowed to see his children in over a year. “There was no evidence at all that he was an unfit parent,” he says. “In my opinion, it was brought up unfairly in this particular situation. We were able to go to court and get him the visitation and respect that he deserves as a serviceman.”
West’s ability to translate his military experience into a courtroom advantage impressed employment litigator Bruce Godfrey, who met West soon after the young attorney started his practice. “What impressed me most about him was his seriousness and maturity for being a relatively young man,” Godfrey says. “He’s acted like a professional from day one.”
While West’s disciplined and serious approach to practicing law turns heads, so does his appearance, which reveals just the right parts style and flash. He’s unafraid to don bright (and sometimes polka-dotted) socks or multicolored bow ties—always hand tied, never clipped on. “Every attorney should have something they do that’s fun and their signature,” he says. On the bow ties front: “I can do it in 10 seconds now, but at first I thought it was the most complex thing ever.”
What’s not complex for West is speaking his clients’ language. When his tech clients come into meetings and toss around sophisticated terms or obscure acronyms like RFID (radio-frequency identification), its important for West to be fluent. As a self-described lifelong tech nerd, he doesn’t mind getting up to speed on his own time. “Clients are really impressed when you’re using their language,“ he says. “Every tech company has their own type of language, and I try to learn that.”
It’s an important asset, considering he often comes in on the ground floor with his clients’ technology businesses. He guides tech startups through everything from contract negotiation and intellectual property law to transactions and e-commerce.
One current matter involves the amicable dissolution of a partnership between two men who started a technology company. “Because they started up something that grew beyond their wildest dreams, they never formalized [the ownership],” West says. He’s guiding the breakup while keeping the best interests of all parties in mind.
West also counsels his clients on how to protect themselves from data breaches—the sort that have damaged businesses like Target, Gmail and The Home Depot over the past year. If the unthinkable happens, West, leveraging the knowledge he has of cybersecurity issues and policy, is prepared to help them deal with the fallout, even if that means litigation.
That’s where the other part of his practice comes back into play. “A transactional attorney still needs to be prepared to go to court,” he says. “When we’re doing a business case and [the other side] says we can’t strike a deal and we need to go to court, well, I’m a family law attorney. I’m in the circuit court regularly litigating cases.”
While he isn’t afraid of the courtroom, he’s also not afraid to call in the troops if necessary.
“If you’re humble enough to ask for help when you need help as a young attorney, you can do ok. The Maryland Bar is very supportive. … None of what I’ve accomplished would have been possible without other attorneys coming and helping me,” West says. “It is scary out there, but being new is also a motivator. You hear all these horror stories, so for me, knowing that someone’s life is in your hands makes me over-prepare. It’s almost a fail-proof way to operate. That’s something I don’t ever want to lose as I gain more experience. I want to keep that tenacity.”