Lawrence S. DiCara is a partner at Nixon Peabody, where he practices real estate and administrative law. His new book, Turmoil and Transition in Boston: a Political Memoir from the Busing Era, details his rise in the City Council and Boston’s political scene, as well as his legal education. He is a former president and member of the Boston City Council and has served as a member of the Democratic State Committee for over 40 years. At the BBA, Larry has served as Treasurer and a member of its Council, as well as various other committees, and chairs its Legislative Steering Committee. Additionally, he is Chairman of the Audit Committee of the City of Boston and is active in many other civic and charitable endeavors. For over forty years, he has taught government at Massachusetts Boys State/Girls State. He is former President of the Boston Latin School Association, the Greater Boston Council, Boy Scouts of America and the Boston Theatre District Association; former Chairman of The Boston Municipal Research Bureau; former Chairman of A Better City; and a former Trustee of the University of Massachusetts.
1. In your book, you said you learned everything there is to know about leadership when you attended Boston Latin. Can you elaborate on the role of this education and the early leadership skills you learned there?
I learned a lot at Boston Latin School. I was a take-charge kind of guy and was involved with the debate team and declamation. I also learned to challenge authority. Authority does not always want to be challenged, I found!
But part of the greatest value of Boston Latin School was that a little bit of everybody goes to the school, from all different backgrounds, and that is the kind of training that goes far beyond books. For the right person, it’s the best education. I have known people who went to secondary schools where everybody was very similar to them, and when they got to college, it was a big shock. Some of the most important perspective I ever got came from my time at BLS.
I also faced some of my first leadership challenges at BLS. The year I ran for senior class President, there were five candidates, who were Italian, Greek, Irish, black, and Armenian…that’s a great reflection of the city.
2. Additionally, your book heavily stresses the supportive role your diverse network has played in your life. Why is a diverse network so important? How can a leader grow his or her network(s)?
Having a broad network has been a big part of my life. I was doing ‘facebook’ before there even was Facebook! I kept index cards with people’s information and later transferred that to an electronic database, which I update on a continual basis. At this point, I have thousands of contacts. I have worked at this a long time and there’s no great algorithm, although keeping with up with social media helps. But having this kind of network really helps other people too – you can put people in contact with each other, which can be useful for everybody involved.
In terms of advice, I would say that if you’re eating lunch at your desk every day, you’re not going to get the kind of exposure that will expand your network. I also encourage people, especially younger lawyers, to be active in the BBA. Going to the larger events is great and I always make sure to grab a seat, but the BBA’s Committee and Section meetings are where the work really gets done. Also, find things in your neighborhood to do – young lawyers often come to me asking what they can do in different areas of the city, and there’s always something to find.
Just make sure to do something, BBA or otherwise. As lawyers, we have a higher obligation. There is a phrase “a shroud has no pockets” – in other words, you can’t take it with you. David Pokross taught me that every lawyer should do a civic good deed every week, if not every day. I think sometimes there’s such an obsession with ‘the billable hour’ that attorneys are not encouraged to become good citizens as well, and changing that could then help to change the perception of lawyers. There’s a practical aspect, too: most of the business I’ve generated hasn’t necessarily come from direct hits or outreach, it’s happened through my connections. By being in circulation with so many people, I have helped myself, too.
3. What pitfalls must leaders avoid as they pursue new initiatives?
One of the greatest challenges and traps is time management. I say no to a lot of good causes because I feel that I cannot give a good effort. I have resigned from boards and limited myself to what has been the most important, like investing time in young people and areas where I feel I can make a difference. I have chaired the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and A Better City (ABC), and in those cases I truly believed my work was helping the organizations. The practice of law is grueling and there is always so much to be done, so not taking care of yourself and stretching yourself too thin can be a major pitfall.
4. What leadership lessons did you take away from your time as City Council President?
Above all, the most important thing one has is one’s word. In my book, I can be tough on Louise Day Hicks, but she never lied – her word was good. It’s important in politics and in life. There was a case where I had been lied to and made a presentation to the Board of Appeals based on the faulty information. Whenever I make a presentation in front of a Board– they assume I tell the truth, so it’s a huge problem not to have the right information.
One’s colleagues generally know if one’s word is good. It’s tragic that individual careers and whole firms have broken up because the trust factor disappears. After awhile, nobody takes them seriously anymore. If there’s any reason I’ve had success, it’s because I can call people, get through to them, and when I say my piece, it’s the truth.
5. Is there anything else about leadership we haven’t covered yet that you’d like to add?
I was raised to believe that everybody has dignity. I taught our daughters to value this as well and I am proud that they hold to it, even though the proper treatment of all individuals, no matter their role, is rarer than it should be. It’s critical for a leader to keep that in mind.
Along those lines, face-to-face interaction with all levels of staff is the best practice for all concerned, especially in a world where email is the most frequent way people – especially young people – try to establish contact. I tell them all the time to go to the Board of Appeal, the Licensing Board, and similar places in person if they’re having an issue, and chat with the staff there. I often hear later how welcome that gesture was. It can really help with professional development. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen often enough – I’ve noticed that the bigger the firm, the more likely it is that the first- through third-year associates have next to no contact with the outside world. I send our associates as Nixon Peabody out as often as possible so that they learn, build that network, and are not depending on me.