Alex Shumate on Taking Care of Business
The Columbus lawyer puts public policy to work for his clients
Published in 2015 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
on December 3, 2014
Updated on December 4, 2014
When it comes to career philosophy, Alex Shumate credits a professor at the University of Akron School of Law: “I’ll always remember what he said: that the study of the law is the study of the systematic approach to problem-solving.”
Shumate follows that bit of advice from Emeritus Professor Donald M. Jenkins not only on weekdays but the weekend, too. Every Saturday when he hits the tennis courts, Shumate employs a systematic technique. “Mostly I’m a weekend warrior,” says the Columbus attorney, who practices government and administrative law at the recently merged firm Squire Patton Boggs. “I’m not as fast as I used to be, so you have to be smarter.”
“Alex is a lovely, understated, easygoing guy interpersonally,” says client Patricia R. Hatler, executive vice president and chief legal and governance officer for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. “And yet he is always putting the pieces together. Man, his wheels are always turning.”
His wheels turn in the boardrooms and headquarters of Ohio mega-corporations and institutions including Nationwide Mutual Insurance, Cleveland Clinic and L Brands. As his firm’s managing partner for North America, he coordinates 16 offices and is a resource for managing partners. He leads the firm’s legislative counseling practice in Ohio, and has run the Columbus office for more than two decades.
Since June, when his firm, Squire Sanders, combined with Washington, D.C.-based Patton Boggs, he has a wider pool of experts to help clients with business, regulatory and legislative matters. The firm’s reach now includes 1,500 lawyers with 44 offices in 21 countries.
Squire Sanders already had a well-respected public advocacy-legislative counseling practice. “Now we’re able to take that to the federal level in a much more meaningful way,” Shumate says. “It’s huge, because the clients that I’m the relationship attorney for are national and international clients.”
Shumate, 64, credits Squire Sanders with offering opportunities and resources to help him become an effective leader. In 2009, when he began a three-year term as the firm’s global managing partner, he became one of a handful of African-American attorneys to lead a firm with more than 700 lawyers. Squire Sanders’ commitment to diversity was among the reasons he joined the firm in 1988.
Hatler has known Shumate since 1999, when he was on the public board for Nationwide Financial Services. She says he excels at assembling the right team. “The firm has terrific expertise that he is able to bring to bear whenever it’s necessary, for whatever the issues,” Hatler says. “He has a very national and international perspective.”
Fred Nance, who leads the firm’s sports and entertainment group in the U.S., describes Shumate as “a consummate professional and a person to whom business leaders look for guidance and leadership. … Alex is one heck of a lawyer.”
Shumate is secretary of the Columbus Partnership, a CEO organization that drives growth; and on the board of the Ohio Business Roundtable. He sits on corporate boards for the J.M. Smucker Co. in Orrville, Ohio; and CyrusOne, a data-center technology company based in Carrollton, Texas. He recently was elected non-executive chairman of the board and lead independent director for CyrusOne.
“Those positions are very special,” Nance says. “Obviously, some of the most successful people in the region are on those boards. That they have confidence in Alex speaks volumes.”
Shumate was born in De Kalb, Mississippi, and grew up in Sandusky, Ohio. “I didn’t know separatism existed,” he says. His parents were part of the Great Migration of African-Americans who came north for job opportunities. Every summer the family went back to Mississippi to visit relatives. On one trip, he recalls, “We stopped at this gas station, and the restroom and the drinking fountain had a ‘whites only’ sign. And that is startling and shocking to a 10-year-old. It was a dramatic visual.”
This experience, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, made Shumate want to somehow make a difference. When a government course in high school ignited his interest in law, he figured out how.
Influenced by his parents, who believed education was the key to a good life, Shumate earned a degree in government and politics from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1972 and received a full scholarship to law school at the University of Akron. Both institutions have honored him as a distinguished alumnus.
Studying law, he says, helped him better understand the Civil Rights Act as a vehicle to change relationships between blacks and whites. His first job after receiving his J.D. in 1975 was as a civil rights trial lawyer with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
He worked for Attorney General William J. Brown. “We were talking one day about [whether] we could do something that would allow government to create business opportunities for African-Americans, as well as women.” In 1978, they created a task force headed by Shumate.
“It led to the passage of the Ohio Minority Business Development Act,” he says. “It’s still a good law today.” The legislation encouraged government hiring of minority-owned contractors.
Shumate went on to serve as chief counsel and deputy chief of staff to Gov. Richard Celeste from 1985 to 1988, before joining Squire Sanders’ public law practice.
Twenty-six years later, Shumate regularly makes the list of Columbus’ top 10 most powerful business and community leaders. His roles have included chairing Ohio State University board’s governance committee and serving on its presidential search committee, which chose Dr. Michael Drake, the first African-American to take the reins at OSU, to succeed E. Gordon Gee in 2014.
Shumate has been appointed to the OSU board by three governors, starting with Celeste in 1989. “He really saw the potential for Ohio State to become a truly world-renowned university,” says Shumate, adding that Bob Taft, who was governor from 1999 to 2007, shared that vision, as does Gov. John Kasich, who appointed Shumate to a term that lasts until 2020.
Which makes Shumate the longest-serving OSU board member in modern history. “That’s a strong indication of the quality of his service,” says Gee, who was president of Ohio State in the ’90s and again from 2007 to 2013.
“Alex is a calm, solid thinker,” says Gee. “He doesn’t overreact or underreact. He brings that quality to decisions. He’s a calming force. Universities are very anxious places. He brings them back to center.”
During his first term on OSU’s board, Shumate met Columbus billionaire Leslie H. Wexner, who became a mentor. “Alex has been a trusted friend and adviser for many years and I have grown from his insight and unique perspective both personally and professionally,” says Wexner, founder, chairman and CEO of L Brands, which includes Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works. “Alex really lives his values by giving back every day and truly leads by example. I have great admiration for his work ethic and wise counsel.”
As a trustee, Shumate has helped Ohio State raise its academic standards and become known on a national level for more than football. He’s proud that increasing numbers of class valedictorians choose to attend OSU, that ACT scores are high, and that there are significant numbers of Fulbright scholars in the student body and the faculty.
“There’s a focus, there’s a determination and a commitment to excellence,” he says. He attributes this to a partnership between the presidents, board of trustees, faculty and students.
Shumate and his wife, Reneé, live in the Columbus suburb of Gahanna. He has two sons from his previous marriage: John, 39, and Aaron, 28.
Every other Sunday, Shumate visits his mother, Annie Ruth Shumate, who still lives in Sandusky. “She’s always been my biggest supporter,” he says, adding that both parents instilled confidence, faith and purpose. In honor of his father, who died in 1987, Shumate established the John Wesley Shumate Scholarship for minority students at Ohio Wesleyan.
It’s a fitting tribute to both men. “Scholarships made it possible for me,” Shumate says. “That’s something that’s very meaningful.”