How Taj Clayton Got Book-Smart and Street-Smart

The Fish & Richardson partner reflects on humble pie, hard work and comparisons to President Obama

Published in 2014 Texas Rising Stars Magazine

Q: Were you born in Dallas?

A: I’m from a small town outside of Philadelphia called Pottstown, Pennsylvania. It’s an industrial blue-collar town where my parents grew up, and I was there from birth until after my sophomore year in high school. It’s a small town, but it experiences some big-city problems: drug dealing and violence and crime. At the same time, it does still harbor some small-town values. There’s a great sense of community. But growing up in Pottstown, it can be a tough childhood for a lot of people. I got exposed to a lot of things that maybe some people are sheltered from. I grew up both book-smart and street-smart.

My parents were both glass-factory workers, and the plant where they were working when we were living in Pottstown got bought. My parents got laid off. There were some lean years where we really struggled until my dad got a new job. That’s when we moved to Millville, New Jersey, another small town. I spent two years there, and that’s where I graduated from high school.

We were by no means poor, but we were by no means wealthy, either. I understood the value of a hard day’s work, the value of a dollar. [When] my parents were out of work … [my dad] went around and started mowing lawns around town and took me along with him. I was 12 years old. We would have our lawn mower and rake and walk around town to make some extra money.

 

Q: Was it hard for you to have to leave Pottstown?

A: It was heart-wrenching. My dad delivered the news, and my first impulse was like, “Can I stay with my grandparents?” I had such good friends in Pottstown, and I was into sports and a bunch of organizations, but my parents were not splitting up the family. So they moved us to New Jersey, but I actually landed on my feet. I went to a public high school there and became class president by my senior year. I was captain of the basketball team, played football, ran track. They had this annual event, it’s like the biggest event in Millville, called The Mr. Millville Contest. It’s sort of like a pageant for [high school] guys, and I was Mr. Millville my senior year.

I think that move probably helped me in a lot of ways that I never anticipated. It gave me confidence. It doesn’t matter where I am, as long as I stay true to the principles my parents and my older sister instilled in me, I could be successful.

There was a guidance counselor there when I first got there. My dream since elementary school was to go to an Ivy League school, and she told me, before she even looked at my transcript, that it would be almost impossible to get into an Ivy League school. Then she left, and the new guidance counselor came in and was ultrasupportive and really encouraged me that I could get into an Ivy League school if I just stayed the course.

 

Q: After you graduated from high school, your parents moved to Dallas?

A: [My dad’s company] transferred him down to Dallas the summer between high school and college. I stayed in New Jersey that summer because my parents wanted to teach me the value of a college education, so they required me to work in a glass factory like they did, doing very strenuous manual labor and swing shifts.

There was a big heat wave that summer on the East Coast, and there was no air conditioning in the factory, and people were literally passing out. And my parents were like, you’re not going to take your education for granted, so understand that if you don’t do well, you may end up in one of these factories like we worked in.

 

Q: And did you go to an Ivy League school?

A: Harvard was like hitting the jackpot. Being from Pottstown, there was almost a presumption of incompetence. I remember playing [high school] basketball one time, and the opposing team was chanting, “We’re going to college, we’re going to college,” and [implying] that people from Pottstown can’t go to college.

But as soon as I set foot on Harvard, I felt like that presumption switched. You have an automatic presumption of credibility and competence and intelligence. To step into that vibrant, intellectual community with the world’s most brilliant minds both teaching you and sharing the classroom and the dining halls and dorm rooms with you, it was unreal.

I met my wife there. She was actually [planning] to go to either Stanford or Dartmouth, and she visited Harvard’s campus—this was sort of a favor, I think, to her mom—and when I saw her, it was like, no, you’ve got to come here. We hit it off. Long story short, she came to Harvard and we dated throughout, and then she worked at the National Basketball Association for three years. Then she went back to business school and became really passionate about education. Now she works at an education technology company called Amplify Education.

 

Q: How was your experience at Harvard different from the kids with more affluent backgrounds?

A: There was a job called dorm crew. Dorm crew was the best-paying job on campus during my tenure there, but it required you to clean bathrooms and sweep downstairs. So I ate my humble pie. It wasn’t fun to be at such a prestigious university and doing some of the cleaning, but it was part of my financial aid package. I definitely had to spend time earning my keep. 

It was tough. Some of my friends were definitely well-to-do and some of them were legacy, but at least among my group of friends, no one held that over anyone’s head. I felt like there was sort of this egalitarian ethos where your social standing wasn’t based on who your parents were, it was really based on how fun you were, how cool you were.

I wasn’t recruited to play varsity sports, but I did play JV basketball my freshman year, and then on a whim my senior year, I ran track for a couple of meets. I was very active in club basketball.

 

Q: Didn’t you serve as an intern at the NFL?

A: I had a friend whose father, he was a senior exec and ran the NFL’s management council. The fall after I graduated, September through December, I worked at the National Football League in their Management Council. It was an incredibly cool experience. They handle a lot of the labor/employment issues. They drafted the collective-bargaining agreement. Whether a player was signed, waived, et cetera, I would go through their contract, see what the financial terms were, enter that into this database, and it would show the impact that it had on the team’s salary cap. This was right after I graduated. I got married a year after college; I took three years off between college and law school.

 

Q: What did you do during those three years?

A: I wanted to get some real-world experience. I graduated in June 1999, and this was during the dot-com boom. One of my good friends started an Internet startup company. That summer he asked me—until I started with the NFL—to come out and help him start the company with some other guys. We went out to Silicon Valley and started a soccer e-commerce site, and I was VP of marketing for that summer. I did my internship with the NFL in the fall, and after I finished the internship, I went to work at the consulting firm of A.T. Kearney [in New York], where I’d worked the summer between junior and senior year of college. After three months, my firm mentor and my summer coordinator left for this exciting new startup opportunity called ICG Commerce, this e-procurement company. And they told me, Taj, this thing’s going to IPO in six months; you’ll be able to retire by the time you’re 25. That was the commercial landscape at the time.

Since all the guys who had drawn me to A.T. Kearney were leaving to go do that, I went with them. I worked there for 2 ½ years, and it was really an extraordinary experience. I got really early experience in client management, working with big companies like United Stationers and J. Crew as a 23-year-old.

 

Q: Then it was back to Harvard for law school.

A: My dad always told me growing up that if he’d gone to college, he probably would’ve become a lawyer. I knew it also sort of played to my strengths: writing and public speaking. Working at the NFL with a bunch of lawyers reintroduced the concept that maybe law school would be a possibility. After working for three years in New York and [also] looking at a lot of my historical heroes—John Adams, who was a great abolitionist; Abraham Lincoln; Thurgood Marshall; Charles Hamilton Houston—a lot of my heroes were lawyers. That played a part in it, too.

[So] my wife and I decided to go back to Cambridge. She went to the Harvard Business School; I went to Harvard Law School, and then my last year in law school, we had our first daughter. We quickly realized that we needed grandparent support.

 

Q: And that’s when you moved to Dallas?

A: In 2006. I [had been] a summer associate at Fish & Richardson after my first year in law school, which was the summer of 2004. Tom Melsheimer, who’s the managing principal here in the Dallas office, recommended very strongly that I consider a clerkship, and his reasoning was that one year clerking was equivalent to three to four years of practice. When you have someone of Tom Melsheimer’s skill and abilities making a recommendation, it usually behooves you to follow it. I clerked for Judge Mark Wolf, who was the chief judge of the [U.S. District Court for the] District of Massachusetts, after I graduated in 2005.

 

Q: And ever since then, you’ve worked for Fish?

A: Yes.

 

Q: Were you always interested in your practice area?

A: I was open-minded, but I knew business law was probably where I would be headed. As I got experience in the consulting world and the NFL, I think I was driven more toward business. It was just sort of the language that I spoke and where a lot of my classmates and peers had gone.

 

Q: Is there a case that stands out in your mind?

A: One of my very first cases. Deep Ellum Pictures was our client, and there were some individual clients. They were local filmmakers who made this documentary called TV Junkie. It was an incredible documentary that chronicled the life and addiction of this nationally prominent TV journalist named Rick Kirkham, who was on Inside Edition.

Rick Kirkham chronicled over 3,000 hours of video footage of himself from the time he was a teenager, aspiring to be this national television correspondent, to actually making it, showing him experimenting with drugs and then sort of devolving into a really hard addiction. Rick Kirkham’s ex-wife sued the production company, the producers, for breach of contract and for invasion of privacy on the allegations that she wasn’t paid money that was owed to her and they didn’t receive the proper permission to depict their children.

We took it to trial, where I sat second chair, and we won a take-nothing verdict. The jury found for us on every single count. It was an incredible victory for some really good filmmakers who had done nothing wrong.

As a former athlete, I always love competition. We won the state track championship when I was a sophomore in high school, and when you’ve put that name "Pottstown" on your chest and you represent others—and you win for your hometown or you win for a client—it makes it that much more gratifying. That was my first taste of victory on behalf of a client as a lawyer. I think the practice of law, when it’s done at its highest level, is a form of performance art.

 

Q: Who were your early mentors?

A: My parents and my older sister. Like I said, my parents were glass-factory workers who had four kids, and our house, our home, operated like clockwork. Despite doing backbreaking work in the glass factory, they made small miracles happen every day with having us up and ready for school, always on time, making sure that we had our homework done.

And just really, really, not only giving us good values, but living them by example. They had me in the airport before I took the plane to go to Harvard, and they sat me down and said, “We never went to college. We’ve done the best job we can, but from here on out you have to sort of figure some things out on your own. But you can always fall back on all the lessons we taught you.” That’s really sort of carried me.

 

Q: And professional mentors?

A: Tom Melsheimer has been incredible. He’s really taken a personal interest in my career to make sure I get staffed on good cases and get good experience. When I decided to run for Congress, outside my family he was one of the first people I told, and he didn’t blink an eye. He said, “I want to be the first person to make a donation, and also, I’d be honored if I could serve as treasurer.”

Professor Charles Ogletree at Harvard Law School has continued to be phenomenal as a mentor to me. He’s been a mentor to President Obama and Michelle and many folks who’ve graduated from law school. And Ron McCray, who’s co-owner of the Boston Celtics. … They’ve been so phenomenal. 

 

Q: So what was it like to run for Congress?

A: Unsuccessful, but it was a phenomenal experience and one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. There’s a great saying, “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” I got tired of sort of just sitting around and seeing the issues fester … and decided to step up. I really value standing up for people and being an advocate. A lot of the skills that I’ve developed as a lawyer I thought I could bring to bear as a congressman, where you’re being a champion for others.

 

Q: Any future political aspirations?

A: We’ve decided I’m not going to run in the short term. I gave it my all this go-around. If I do go for elected office, it will have to be after the kids are grown. But we’re both committed to being involved politically and community-wise.

 

Q: You and your wife have been strong supporters of President Obama.

A: When I was a student at Harvard Law School, I had really good relationships with a lot of professors, and they knew I was interested in politics. This was before Obama really hit the national scene, when he was still a state legislator, and they said, “Put this guy on your radar, Taj, he’s impressive, and he impresses the Harvard faculty,” which is really hard to do. When he announced for the presidency, my wife and I got involved immediately and started fundraising for him and served on his Texas finance committee. The first time my wife and I met him at an event, he was getting background on us, and he says, “What are you guys planning to do?” And my wife was like, “We want to turn Texas blue and we want to have an impact,” and he was like, “I’m going to hold you to that.”

 

Q: Your campaign drew a lot of attention, and even a comparison or two of yourself and your wife to the Obamas.

A: To have people compare me to someone I greatly admire like Obama, it’s flattering. For a congressional race in Texas to have an article featured in The New York Times and to be featured in Politico multiple times and The Huffington Post, to create that buzz about issues that are so important, it was flattering.

 

Q: What would you say is the most important lesson that you’ve learned in life?

A: One important lesson is that hard work trumps almost everything when you’re striving for success. It overcomes talent, it overcomes intelligence, it overcomes a lot of God-given attributes. Even more important is that time is so precious. You really don’t want to take a second with your loved ones for granted.

 

This interview has been condensed.

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