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Baltimore Sun's 2019 Business and Civic Hall of Fame honoree: John B. Frisch

Baltimore Sun's 2019 Business and Civic Hall of Fame honoree: John B. Frisch
Miles & Stockbridge chairman and CEO John Frisch is a 2019 inductee into The Baltimore Sun's Business and Civic Hall of Fame. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

People would be lucky to have their spouses talk about them the way John B. Frisch does about Miles & Stockbridge. He landed a summer associate job with Miles & Stockbridge in 1982, after his second year at the University of Maryland School of Law. He’s still there, as chairman emeritus, every bit as smitten as he was 37 years ago.

“I fell in love with the people and culture almost instantly, and I continue to have a love affair with the firm,” he says. “It’s a group of folks who take their craft seriously and don’t take themselves or the firm too seriously. It’s a spirited, adventurous place.”

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But it is impossible to separate the culture and values at Miles & Stockbridge from Mr. Frisch’s legacy. What sets Mr. Frisch apart is not that he had a successful career in the law, though he did. It’s that he had a transformational career in leadership, and one that reverberates far beyond Miles & Stockbridge.

“He was always an excellent lawyer who distinguished himself right away,” says James R. Eyler, a former Miles & Stockbridge chairman and judge who retired from the Court of Special appeals. “But what really set him apart are his people skills, the intangibles.”

Mr. Frisch saw Miles & Stockbridge’s role as solving problems in a values-driven way, and he realized that if the firm’s attorneys were going to have meaningful, human interactions with their clients, they needed to have the same kinds of relationships with each other. He devoted enormous effort to developing the firm’s lawyers’ leadership abilities so that people would advance not just because of the number of hours they bill but because of their capacity to develop and execute a vision for their clients and the firm.

“He gets really juiced up and passionate about it,” says Nancy Greene, who took over as the firm’s chair after Mr. Frisch stepped aside last year. “He’s big into self-improvement, getting others to achieve their potential, more so than budgets and dollars. Budgets and dollars are always going to work themselves out.”

Promoting diversity is central to Mr. Frisch’s vision of leadership — not just for social justice reasons but because it promotes better, more thoughtful decision making. At Miles & Stockbridge, he instituted a version of the NFL’s “Rooney rule,” which requires that the firm interview at least one minority, woman or LGBTQ person for each opening. He brought unconscious bias training to the firm before most people had heard of the concept, and he has sought to make sure that women and minorities have a real voice in the firm’s leadership. Four of the firm’s nine board members are now women, and he says the improvement in the depth and quality of board discussions is palpable.

Mr. Frisch has been equally passionate about developing leaders in the broader community and in helping the city’s civic organizations to develop and carry out a vision for creating a better Baltimore. He worked with his own leadership coach when he became chairman at Miles & Stockbridge and studied at the Georgetown Institute for Transformational Leadership, and he has sought to spread that expertise to others. He’s vice chair of the board for the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Leadership program, and Executive Director David Sachs says his passion and talent in developing leaders has been a great benefit not just to the organization but to the region.

“His work on the board has always been very thoughtful and focused on how we as an organization can be helpful to advance civic leadership in Baltimore,” Mr. Sachs says. “Baltimore faces some tremendous challenges and wonderful opportunities, and we need [leaders] to be as effective as possible at mobilizing many, many different people around the region to be able to confront those challenges we face and harness the opportunities in front of us.”

He’s had a similar impact on the boards of two other big civic organizations, the Downtown Partnership and Visit Baltimore. He chaired the Downtown Partnership board in the midst of the Great Recession and helped lead it through a strategic planning process. The result was a transformation of open space downtown and a renewed focus on repurposing vacant properties for residential and entertainment uses, not just offices. Today, downtown is the fastest growing residential neighborhood in the city and one of the most diverse, says the organization’s executive director, Kirby Fowler. At Visit Baltimore, he led the recruitment of a new executive director, led the push for a tourism improvement district to fund efforts to market the city, and launched a strategic planning process that, among other things, resulted in a renewed focus on promoting Baltimore’s diverse neighborhoods, not just the Inner Harbor.

“One of John’s great attributes is the respect he has from other leaders in Baltimore City from both the public and private side,” Visit Baltimore Executive Director Al Hutchinson says. “People respect the work John has done. You see it in a lot of places, not just what he did at Miles & Stockbridge. He’s been concerned with improving the city.”

Mr. Frisch says when he stepped down as chairman, he had to make a choice about what to do next. He hadn’t been practicing law for many years, so he didn’t have a client base to come back to. Instead, he followed his passion and has opened his own leadership coaching business.

“I believe deeply that leadership really matters,” Mr. Frisch says. “Leadership is an extension of who you are. More effective leaders means more effective people, and Baltimore needs more effective and enlightened leadership throughout the region.”

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