Inside the boardroom
If there is one word to describe Alec Wightman ’75 it’s passionate.
From his successful business practice at BakerHostetler to his work with a wide range of nonprofits, Wightman puts hard work and dedication into practice to achieve the best possible outcome for his clients, the community, and the firm. Today he has combined his love of complex business deals and giving back by developing a niche practice of assisting public companies in evaluating board effectiveness.
“Let me put it in context. For 35 years, I was one of those guys who worked so hard I couldn’t see straight. It was both in the traditional practice of law and also doing law firm management, which I was heavily involved in for a long time,” he said. “Over the last few years, my career looks a lot different than it did for the first 35. Now I focus on helping public company boards with their self-evaluation processes. They fly me around the country to interview their directors—confidentially, anonymously—and then I report back as to what I’ve heard. And, I’m having more fun doing that than any human being should be allowed to have. These people actually pay me
to talk to the smartest, nicest, most successful people in the world. It’s a great little practice.”
When he’s not catching a plane to his next assignment, Wightman sits on a number of nonprofit boards, where he lends his experience and expertise to help them pursue their individual missions. Among those boards are The Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital Foundation; Otterbein University; and The Ohio State University Foundation. He also sits on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, which conducts the Rock Hall Inductions, and chairs the board of Cleveland Rock and Roll, Inc., which operates the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. He also serves as chair of the National Council of the Moritz College of Law.
Wightman’s philanthropic work is a relatively new pursuit. After stepping away from law firm management at BakerHosteleter in 2008, Wightman said he had time on his hands and felt a need to use that time in a meaningful way.
“The truth is when I was a really active business lawyer I didn’t do a lot of things in the community. About the only thing I did was with The James. I joined The James Foundation board more than 25 years ago and I’ve been heavily involved there ever since, including chairing it for four years,” he explained. “But, as the years went by, I increasingly felt the importance of giving back. And, one of the things that I’ve said to young lawyers around here for years is, when it comes to community activities, you have to spend your time doing things for which you have a passion. So, for example, I had been on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame board since 2004, but getting an opportunity to chair that organization and contribute in that way has also been really rewarding and fun.”
His first experience with work in the nonprofit sector was prompted by the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital Foundation’s need for a lawyer on its board. His predecessor was a partner at another local firm that merged with BakerHostetler. When that attorney was unable to continue with the work, the foundation reached out to the firm, and the task landed on Wightman’s desk.
“I went to that first meeting in a room filled with the political and economic leadership of Central Ohio, and me. It was quite an opportunity. I was in a room with people I had never met before. They also had contributed lots and lots of money to get the hospital built. The hospital wasn’t even open yet. And, I concluded since I couldn’t match that, I better devote my time. I took it very seriously and have been involved there at one level or another ever since,” he said.
That desire to help others is what initially drew Wightman to law school.
“I knew I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was in the eighth grade. I think it was an infatuation with politics and a sense that, at least at that point in time, a lot of the people who were involved in the political world had a legal background. As soon as I was exposed to politics working for the Euclid News Journal for a couple of summers when I was at Duke, I decided I wanted nothing to do with it,” he said with a laugh.
“But, when I hit the law office as a school year law clerk my second year in law school, it confirmed what I wanted to do. I loved the practice of law more than I did going to school to get the degree to enable me to do it.”
Staying connected with the world of music has long been important to Wightman. Walking into his office, at first glance, it looks much like how you would imagine a successful lawyer’s office in downtown Columbus might look. Sprawling views of the Columbus skyline, a large desk, and a table and chairs set off to the side for client meetings. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that music is a vital part of Wightman. Books on music history sit on a shelf near one of the corner windows and framed posters of shows he has produced line the walls.
“I have promoted national act singer/songwriter shows in Columbus since 1995. I rent a hall, hire a soundman, bring in an artist from Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, some place like that, and sell tickets off of an email list. I’ve never run an ad,” Wightman said.
Now that he chairs the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he connects with music legends in a different way, helping to further the organization’s mission to, “engage, teach and inspire through the power of rock and roll.”
In spite of his impressive resume and busy schedule, Wightman has also found time to remain connected to and to give back to Moritz and the greater university community. He has had an inside look into the workings of the university as a whole, and the important role it plays in the lives of its students, and faculty, the community, and the world.
“It is not lost on me that, but for my legal education, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do a lot of the things that I’ve been able to do in my life both professionally and personally. I really do think that giving back to a place that’s contributed to your life is important. That broader view of Ohio State has taught me how important the university is to this community, to our state, and I could argue nationally and even internationally. It’s a fabulous institution—whether it’s educating young students, or the research that’s done—it’s a big contributor to society,” he said.
Reflecting on his career, Wightman said what he en- joys most about his practice and philanthropic work are the relationships he has built with colleagues, clients, mentors, and mentees.
“I’ve enjoyed the intellectual stimulation, I’ve enjoyed the success in seeing a deal coming together, but what I’ve really enjoyed is getting to know, and in many instances becoming great friends with, the clients. In fact, I always had a line that I didn’t think it was such a good idea to make clients out of friends, but it’s really great making friends out of clients,” he said.
In fact building those professional relationships is one of the main pieces of advice he has for new graduates. Wightman said he often speaks to younger members of the rm about the importance of cultivating that attorney-client relationship.
“I had a mentor in the practice that had a cartoon under the glass on his desk of this obviously out-of-control lawyer, books and papers all around him, screaming, ‘how do they expect me to practice law when I keep getting interrupted by clients?’ But, the truth is, this is all about clients,” he said. “This isn’t an academic exercise, and so I do spend a lot of time in this setting talking to young lawyers about how to generate clients, how to serve clients, how to retain clients. To me, that was always the most fun part of the practice. The truth is without clients you don’t have anything to do.”